A report on Oriel College’s January 14 meeting on how to contextualise their statue of renowned imperialist Cecil Rhodes.
‘Buccaneer, loose cannon, privateer – see Walter Raleigh.’ So goes one account of Cecil Rhodes – but one perhaps uncomforting for Oriel College. Controversy around Rhodes’s achievements has simmered since his death (The Guardian’s 1902 obituary lambasted him as a ‘dragon efficient in tooth and claw’) – yet still there is little consensus on how to approach his legacy.
On Saturday, 14 January 2017, Oriel held a meeting on how to contextualise the College’s statue of Rhodes, around which debate has raged since May 2015. Teresa Morgan, Classics Professor at Oriel, opened the meeting by defining its parameters: the purpose was neither to discuss the presence of the statue or the King Edward Street plaque (both of which had been decided on), nor to attempt to come to a single ‘Oriel view’ of Rhodes. Rather, the aim was to explore ways of recognising the complexity of Rhodes’s legacy – adding nuance to a symbol that, for many, appears to indicate unqualified endorsement.
The meeting, therefore, was hardly a concession to RMFO’s demands. (RMFO has yet to respond to repeated attempts by The Poor Print to contact them.) All four guest speakers present could be classed as ‘pro-contextualisation’, and the event was exclusively for Oriel members. The resultant demographic of the room was uncomfortable: a nearly entirely white audience. Few members of the JCR chose to attend – perhaps oddly so, given the furious arguments that raged around RMFO in Open Meetings only a year prior.
Yet the discussion was nonetheless valuable. Oriel’s Dr Ian Forrest (Fellow in History) began by exploring Rhodes’s biography; his connection to Oriel; and the lack of awareness around Britain’s colonial legacy. Dr Gus Casely-Hayford, a cultural historian and broadcaster, spoke on the conflict between heritage and diversity: how can we celebrate the achievements of the past while at the same time looking at it critically?
Anna Eavis, Curatorial Director of English Heritage, spoke intriguingly on two cases with parallels to Oriel: Richmond Castle, Yorkshire; and Marble Hill, Twickenham, an eighteenth-century villa. In both cases, the heritage process is riddled with controversy. Richmond Castle, dating from the Norman Conquest, has cells in which the walls are scrawled with pencil graffiti: relics of conscientious objectors imprisoned there during the First World War. A recently-built commemorative garden for the objectors proved controversial with locals due to Richmond’s military history. Meanwhile, Marble Hill has vital importance to archaeological history as one of the earliest structural uses of mahogany. Yet English Heritage faces the challenge of preserving this site of immense beauty, while at the same time allowing space for the narrative of the Belizean slaves who it is thought must have harvested the villa’s mahogany under appalling conditions.
The last speaker on the panel was Judy Ling Wong CBE, President of the Black Environment Network, who spoke on how to effect a change in narrative. Arguing that you must ‘bring a wholeness of yourself to truly bring about a multicultural society’, Wong reminded the room of the ‘enormous opportunity’ that the College has. As a world-renowned institution, Oriel has a responsibility to lead the way.
Views in the room varied wildly as to how best to contextualise the statue. Many maintained that Oriel – as an academic establishment – could not appear to be imposing a single view of Rhodes; some argued that any form of contextualisation was inappropriate, being more suited to heritage sites. Others swung as far in the other direction, arguing that, in order to achieve neutrality, any response by Oriel would have to be as large, solid and permanent as the statue. Some warned against ‘over-privileging’ the name of Rhodes in Oriel’s history, as ultimately counterproductive to any contextualisation.
In practical terms, an array of suggestions was proposed: a clarifying plaque (perhaps supplemented online); a series of lectures/exhibitions; or indeed an artistic installation to visually compete with the statue, either on the High Street or in Third Quad. All are being considered by Oriel’s Rhodes Working Group; the Governing Body will likely adopt some combination of the above.
The Poor Print’s view is that a supposedly neutral consideration of Rhodes (whether on a plaque or online) would be wholly insufficient. While it is true that Oriel has a responsibility to encourage nuanced discourse, the college can neither be pigeonholed as a centre of academia nor as a heritage site. It is also, for many, a community and a home, and so any response must adequately address the fact that the statue has become a symbol of violent oppression to some in Oriel. Oriel has a duty to support those who study here – and if it fails to be a welcoming environment, it may find that the diversity of applicants falls off a cliff. The contextualisation of the statue must be as antiseptic to a wound: antiseptic is never neutral.
References and further reading
 Quoted by Dr Ian Forrest during the meeting.
The Guardian‘s 1902 obituary of Cecil Rhodes.
English Heritage sites on:
Dr Laurence Brown, ‘The Slavery Connections of Marble Hill House‘, a 2008 report commissioned by Historic England.
Originally published on 28/04/17 by The Poor Print.