Contextualisation of the Rhodes Legacy

  • A black and white image of the front of Oriel's High Street building, with a statue of Cecil Rhodes
    Historical image of Oriel's High Street facade, upon which the Rhodes statue sits

Background

Since 2015, the Rhodes statue overlooking the High Street has been the subject of a number of protests, with calls for its removal. It has become a focus for public debate on racism and the legacy of colonialism. Here we explain more about why the statue is controversial and how the College is addressing this.

Rhodes: A Controversial Benefactor

Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902) was a student at Oriel College intermittently between 1873-81. When he died, he left most of his estate to establish the Rhodes Trust to fund scholarships for students from Germany, the USA, and the then British colonies. A sum of £100,000 (slightly less than two percent of his estate) was left to Oriel, of which £40,000 was designated for the construction of a new building to replace houses along the High Street side of the college. The New Building, as it was initially known, was erected in 1909-11. Its design incorporated a set of statues commissioned from Henry Alfred Pegram, which included one of Rhodes himself.

However, Rhodes’s activities made him controversial as a benefactor. He arrived in southern Africa in 1871 at the age of 17 and was based there for the rest of his life. He quickly made himself a fortune through diamond mining; and he went on to establish himself politically, entering the Cape Parliament in 1881 and becoming Prime Minster of Cape Colony in 1890. The conduct of these activities and their impact on black Africans have attracted much criticism, both at the time and since.

Professor William Beinart, emeritus professor of African Studies at St Anthony’s College, Oxford, researched Rhodes’s most controversial activities from the 1890s, and his work can be found here. See also a response to Professor Beinart’s analysis here.

The College’s Response

In June 2020, Oriel College’s Governing Body voted in favour of removing the Rhodes memorials. However, the High Street Building and its statue are Grade II* listed, the plaque in King Edward Street is in a conservation area, and there would be significant challenges to overcome in order to gain permission to remove them. To inform the decision it had taken, the Governing Body voted to set up an Independent Commission of Inquiry to look into the Rhodes legacy and to consider the actions available to it in relation to this legacy. The Commission's website has now been archived and is available here: https://wayback.archive-it.org/org-467/20210601071310/https://www.oriel-....

In April 2021, the Commission submitted its Report. It was clear from the Report that individual members of the Commission sympathised with the Governing Body's wish to relocate the Rhodes statue. At the same time, the commission as a whole recognised the challenges of and obstacles to removal of the statue:

  • the process would be protracted and time-consuming;
  • it would be highly costly to take through to completion;
  • and there is a very strong likelihood that the process would fail in the end.

The Secretary of State at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) would have the power to call in and deny any application to remove the statue. 

Both Secretaries of State at MHCLG and at DCMS (the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) had made clear statements of intention over contested heritage. In a letter to DCMS Arms Lengths Bodies in September 2020, the Culture Secretary had spelled out the expectations of the government in relation to contested heritage:

‘As set out in your Management Agreements, I would expect Arm’s Length Bodies’ approach to issues of contested heritage to be consistent with the Government’s position. Further, as publicly funded bodies, you should not be taking actions motivated by activism or politics. The significant support that you receive from the taxpayer is an acknowledgement of the important cultural role you play for the entire country. It is imperative that you continue to act impartially, in line with your publicly funded status, and not in a way that brings this into question. This is especially important as we enter a challenging Comprehensive Spending Review, in which all government spending will rightly be scrutinised.’

The letter was copied to the Charity Commission, to which the college, as a charity itself, is answerable, and to Historic England, who would have a hand in overseeing any planning application submitted by the college in relation to the Rhodes memorials. The full letter can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/letter-from-culture-secretary...

The Commission’s Report prompted the Governing Body to reiterate its desire to remove the Rhodes memorials. The Governing Body of the College, as charity trustees and following the receipt of regulatory and legal advice, took the decision to utilise funds to focus on the contextualisation of the statue in the immediate term, rather than pursue a course of action that was almost certain to result in failure. The Commission’s Report was clear that steps would need to be taken to contextualise the memorials whether the decision was made to remove them or not. Contextualisation was always going to be the immediate course of action, and it is the one in which the college is currently engaged.

In addition to its advice specifically relating to the Rhodes memorials, the Commission’s Report recommended a range of other actions that could help mitigate the enduring presence of Rhodes’s legacy within the college. The college is fully engaged in enacting these recommendations.

In May 2021, the Governing Body agreed to:

  • Establish a task force to oversee implementation of the Report’s recommendations
  • Commission a virtual exhibition to contextualise Rhodes’s legacy
  • Contextualise Rhodes’s legacy and memorials
  • Create the office of Tutor for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI)
  • Develop a strategic plan for improving educational EDI
  • Fundraise for scholarships for students from Southern Africa
  • Arrange an annual lecture on a topic related to the Rhodes legacy, race, or colonialism
  • Institute an annual student prize for work on a topic related to Rhodes legacy, race, or colonialism
  • Provide additional training for all staff in race awareness
  • Introduce further outreach initiatives targeted at BME student recruitment

Funds equivalent to that remaining in the Rhodes legacy have been set aside to resource these initiatives.

Ongoing Work on Contextualisation

Oriel is working at present on contextualising the Rhodes memorials that it hosts and its relationship to Rhodes’s legacy. Information signs have been placed beneath the monuments (the statue on the High Street and the plaque on King Edward Street) and they, together with this webpage, are part of a temporary contextualisation. A more comprehensive and permanent response will follow in due course.

Equality and diversity are at the heart of the college’s ethos and academic mission as an educational institution. The college intends to take a leading role in opposing inequality, intolerance and injustice.