Oxford college installs plaque calling Cecil Rhodes a 'committed colonialist'

Show caption The installation of the new plaque comes after the University of Oxford sparked anger over its refusal to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes outside Oriel College. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian
University of Oxford

Explanatory panel beside statue states that a mining magnate exploited the "peoples of Southern Africa".

A plaque was placed by an Oxford college next to Cecil Rhodes' statue. It describes him as a "committed British colonialist", who exploited "peoples in southern Africa".

The explanatory panel about the former prime minister of the Cape Colony has been placed outside Oriel College, where he studied and left PS100,000 - about PS12.5m in today's money - through his will in 1902.

The Oxford statue was the target of the Rhodes Must Fall protest movement, which originated in Cape Town and argues Rhodes is a symbol of colonialism and the violence that accompanies it.

The wider controversy over statues that depict controversial historical figures has become emblematic in the so-called Culture Wars in the UK and USA. Monuments to figures such the slave trader Edward Colston, and Confederate General Robert E Lee have been subject to heated debate.

In May, campaigners were upset by the University of Oxford's decision to reverse its original decision to remove a statue. It also ignored the opinions of an independent commission.

The explanation plaque states that Rhodes was a British colonialist committed to exploitation of the minerals, land and peoples south Africa. Some of his actions were fatally flawed and have drawn criticism at the time and throughout history.

A plaque calling Cecil Rhodes a 'committed colonialist'. A plaque describing Cecil Rhodes, a 'committed colonialist'. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

The statement adds that the statue is now a focal point for public debate about racism and colonialism's legacy. Oriel College, however, declared in June 2020 that it wanted to remove this statue. However Oriel College is not doing this after receiving legal and regulatory advise.

The Daily Telegraph spoke to two academics who expressed concerns about the content of the plaque. David Abulafia emeritus Cambridge professor of Mediterranean History and member of History Reclaimed said that the plaque needed to be "balanced, measured" and added: "It should look across Rhodes’ entire career, explaining who he was and his intentions. It is important to show where he stands within the context of current attitudes.

He believed he was bringing Africa benefit. We might now argue that he did more harm than good but one has to understand what his intentions were. This is his portrayal as a devil-incarnate.

Dr Zareer Massani, a British Empire historian, stated: "We are pressing to have a balanced plaque put up. We may need very minimal information but will present both his faults as well his virtues."

After Oriel's ruling body had voted for the removal of the statue, a commission of experts was formed in June 2020. After Edward Colston's statue was torn from Bristol, during the heights of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests in Britain, the Commission was asked to investigate the issue.

The expressed wish of governing bodies to remove the statue was supported by the majority members of this commission.

However, the college declared in May that it would not move statue. It stated that the removal of the statue would require planning and legal assistance.

On Monday afternoon, Oxfordians were uncomfortable talking about the statue, plaque and issues surrounding it. Many of the people who commented would not reveal their names and would not be photographed. Many expressed concern about the possibility of being repercussions from the media and even the university authorities if they were to be linked with their opinions.

A 42-year-old woman from Milton Keynes, who said she worked in education, said she felt it was right that the statue had not been simply removed, but said the plaque "doesn't say enough".

"We can't take down absolutely everything that connects us to colonialism," said the woman, who asked to be referred to as Rosie. "Are we going to take all the banking system down, all the things that made this country?" She said the plaque needed to go further to connect the imperialism of Britain's past with the country's wealth and power today.

Rosie's friend remarked that it was "an excuse". "These statements do not challenge preconceived notions and prejudices. It is shocking that an educational institution does not provide education. These problems will never be solved if we don't accept the fact that some people are exceptional.

The plaque, which was signed by Oliver (18-year-old Danish woman), seemed to attempt to reach a compromise. "But the middleground is more about working around certain people's egos... it [the sentence] feels almost like something I would find in a GCSE textbook."

A young man passed by and said, "I don't think it is too much." He was responding to academic complaints about the plaque's infamy of Rhodes. He replied, "It might not be enough. If you don't want [the statue] every morning, you won't want it to bother you."

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