Putting Rhodes in His Place

Putting Rhodes in His Place

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.’[1] 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

[1] 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.

Rhodes Must Fall: A Timeline

Rhodes Must Fall: A Timeline

Originally published by The Poor Print on 28/04/2017.


 

09/03/15: Chumani Maxwele, a student of political science at the University of Cape Town (UCT), picks up a bucket of human faeces on the kerbside at the town of Khayelitsha and brings it back to UCT. He throws it into the face of a bronze statue of Cecil Rhodes that has stood prominently on the university’s rugby fields since 1934, shouting ‘Where are our heroes and ancestors?’.

12/03/15: More than a thousand students gather on the stairs of Jammie Plaza, the focal point of the UCT Upper Campus, to discuss the statue and Rhodes’s role in colonising Africa. After the meeting, protesters return to cover the statue in white and red sheets. The RMF Facebook page posts its first post.

15/03/15: The statue of Rhodes is once again covered by protestors, this time in black bin-bags. RMF begins a week of daily sit-ins at the statue.

16/03/15: Several academics, the president of the Student Representative Council and ‘half the audience’ walk out of a seminar discussing the statue of Cecil Rhodes after demanding a date for removal of the statue. (See here and here.)

19/03/15: Two Oxford students, Annie Teriba and Bi Kwo, organise a ‘Solidarity Action’ in support of RMF UCT on the High Street in Oxford.

20/03/15: Students march on the UCT administrative building, the Bremner building, demanding a date for the removal of the statue. They begin an occupation of the building which lasts several weeks, supported by a collection of students, academics and members of the public, who supply the protesters with food. They ‘rename’ the building ‘Azania House’ (an older term which refers to parts of South-East Africa without  the colonialist associations of ‘South Africa’).

25/03/15: Rhodes Must Fall publishes a mission statement on their Facebook page, calling for an ‘end to institutionalised racism and patriarchy at UCT’.

27/03/15 : UCT’s Senate, a 345-member body that decides on academic matters and has representatives from all academic departments, votes to remove the statue.

09/04/15: The Rhodes statue is removed following further disruptive campaigns from RMF.

12/04/15: The occupation of the Bremner Building ends after UCT serves the students an eviction letter. (See here, here, here and here for further details.)

28/05/15: Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford (RMFO) stages a protest at an Oxford Union debate on the motion ‘This House believes Britain owes reparations to her former colonies,’ which is carried by 185 to 56 votes. The Oxford Union later comes under fire from RMFO for serving a cocktail called the ‘Colonial Comeback,’ accompanied in adverts by a picture of black hands in chains, after the event.

01/06/15: The Oxford Union Governing Body passes a unanimous motion to acknowledge that the Union is institutionally racist.

17/10/15: RMFO stages a ‘matriculaction’ protest, in which students wore red while matriculating.

06/11/15: RMFO protests outside Oriel College, presenting a petition to demand that Oriel’s statute of Rhodes be taken down. (See here and here for Cherwell coverage.)

17/12/15: Oriel releases a statement responding to RMFO’s demands, announcing a six-month ‘listening exercise’ on the statue will commence from February 2016. It also states that the college intends to submit an application to Oxford City Council to remove a tributary plaque to Rhodes on No. 6 King Edward Street, an Oriel-owned property. A copy of Oriel’s statement can be found in full hereCherwell’s coverage can be found here.

18/12/15: The Telegraph reports that a ‘senior source’ at Historic England believes that removing Oriel’s statue would require ‘a very strong justification that goes beyond moral arguments’ due to the High Street building’s Grade II* listed status. (Historic England is the public body that is responsible for preserving the UK’s historic buildings. The legal requirements were later expanded upon by The Times.)

25/12/15: Australia ex-Prime Minister Tony Abbott (a former Rhodes scholar) wades into the debate on Oriel’s statue. A day later, South Africa ex-President F. W. de Klerk also intervenes. RMFO write open letters to both in the following days, which can be found here (to Tony Abbott) and here (to F. W. de Klerk).

File:Chris Patten -2008-10-31-.jpg
Lord Patten, Chancellor of the University of Oxford. Photographer: James Luanxin Li.

13/01/16: Chris Patten (Baron Patten of Barnes and Chancellor of Oxford University) attacks RMFO in an interview on Radio 4’s Today problem. He argues that RMFO should show more of a ‘generosity of spirit’ towards Rhodes and other aspects of history, or ‘think about being educated elsewhere’. (See here for an article, or here for the original interview.)

14/01/16: A Cherwell survey of 967 students (nearly 5% of the student body) finds that 54% of students are in favour of the statue of remaining, compared to 37% who think the statue should go. Among BME students, however, 48% thought the statue should fall whereas 45% thought it should remain.

18/01/16: A YouGov survey of 1,733 adults across the UK finds that 59% believe the statue of Rhodes should not be taken down. (11% say that it should, while 29% say they don’t know.) The same poll finds that pluralities believe that the British Empire was a good thing (43%) and that Britain’s history of colonialism is something to be proud of (44%).

19/01/16: The Oxford Union votes 245 to 212 in favour of removing the statue.

22/01/16: University College JCR votes to petition University College to rename their ‘Rhodes Computer Room’ – see here and here. (The room was not, in fact, named after Rhodes himself, but instead named after a group of Rhodes scholars. Univ JCR was aware of this at the time of the vote. The college later rejected the students’ calls.)

26/01/16: St Anne’s College MCR votes to ‘unequivocally support the aims and goals of Rhodes Must Fall movement in Oxford’. Just a day later, St Anne’s College JCR votes against a motion calling for a public announcement of JCR opposition to the removal of the Rhodes statue.

28/01/16: Oriel announces that the statue and plaque will remain, saying that ‘the previously announced listening exercise [a six-month consultation announced on 17/12/15] will focus on how best to place the statue and plaque in a clear historical context’.

29/01/16: The Telegraph runs an article alleging that Oriel’s decision not to remove the statue was largely prompted by ‘threats’ (Telegraph wording) from donors to withdraw substantial donations, including a £100m legacy. Members of Oriel’s Governing Body have since stated repeatedly in communications with students and elsewhere that they were unaware of the £100m legacy when making the decision. They have also stated that communications with alumni were not the prime motivation for the early conclusion of the listening exercise, and that there has been no substantial impact on finances as a result of the protests or the college’s actions.

03/02/16: Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) votes in favour of an emergency motion criticising Oriel’s ‘failure to follow through on commitments made to students which primarily affect those in already marginalised and oppressed groups’. Oriel JCR and St Peter’s JCR had also voted in favour of similar motions in the days preceding the OUSU meeting.

09/03/16: RMFO members lead a ‘mass march for decolonisation’ through Oxford to highlight various features of Oxford that they see as glorifying Oxford’s colonial legacy.

03/06/16: RMFO members disrupt a meeting on contextualising the Rhodes statue that was intended only for Oriel members.

20/06/16: Oluwafemi Nylander of RMFO stands shirtless and in chains outside All Souls College, Oxford, protesting the name of All Souls’s Codrington Library and a statue of former fellow Christopher Codrington within the library.[1] 

30/06/16: RMFO members protest shirtless outside Oriel on an Oxford open day.

02/12/16: RMFO returns to Oriel to stage another protest a year after Oriel’s original announcement of their ‘listening exercise’.

14/01/17: Oriel holds two internal meetings to discuss the appropriate means of contextualising the Rhodes statue: one for Oriel alumni and one for current College members and staff (see The Poor Print’s report here for the latter).

10/11/17: All Souls College announces that it will launch an annual scholarship scheme, funding the studies of one graduate a year from Caribbean countries. It also announces a five-year grant of £100,000 will be given to Codrington College, St John, Barbados.[1] See here and here for news reports.

20/12/17: All Souls College announces it will install a ‘memorial tablet’ outside its Codrington Library with the text: ‘In memory of those who worked in slavery on the Codrington Plantations in the West Indies’.


Footnote

[1] Upon his death in 1710, Christopher Codrington made an endowment of £10,000 (worth millions of pounds in today’s money) to All Souls College. The money was to be used for the construction of a new library, which eventually resulted in the Codrington Library. Codrington’s fortune came from Barbadian sugar plantations worked by slaves.


This timeline is intended only to cover the iconography-related campaigns of the Rhodes Must Fall groups in Cape Town and Oxford. Other aspects of both Rhodes Must Fall groups are not discussed in this timeline; neither are their campaigns that do not relate to issues around iconography.

Iconography-related campaigns and campaigning groups from elsewhere are discussed in another article in this Special Report, ‘Iconography Campaigns: A Global Perspective’. The relationship between these campaigns and the broader ‘safe space’ movement is discussed in the article, ‘Safe Spaces and Student Protest’.

References for this feature are included in-line, and are also included in the report’s Complete Bibliography. The Complete Bibliography also links to copies on the Poor Print server of many primary sources linked to in this Timeline.

All links operational at time of publication. The Poor Print takes no responsibility for the accuracy of content on other sites, but every effort has been made to find reputable sources.

This Timeline has had multiple revisions and updates since first publication online. Last update: 23/01/18.

Rhodes Must Fall & ‘safe spaces’

Rhodes Must Fall & ‘safe spaces’

Oriel College, Oxford, was once more in lock-down on March 9th. Outside in Oriel Square, members of Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford (RMFO) protested for the second time against the statue of Cecil Rhodes, a Victorian imperialist in South Africa, that stands in the centre of Oriel’s façade on the High Street. RMFO argues that there is a ‘violence‘ to students of African background in having to walk past the statue. Yet the campaign to remove the statue is part of a much wider student movement to transform universities into ‘safe spaces’ where all feel welcome.

Critics of safe spaces argue that the concept fundamentally conflicts with a culture of free speech in universities. They point to cases such as the Oxford University Student Union’s (OUSU’s) banning of No Offence, a new student magazine focusing on controversial (mainly right-wing) opinion, from the fresher’s fair in October. OUSU expressed concerns that the material would be offensive to a majority of students; when the editor of the magazine distributed copies outside the fresher’s fair anyway, OUSU called the police.

Lord Patten, the chancellor of Oxford University, has condemned the Rhodes protesters for similarly failing to ‘engage in free inquiry and debate’ and attempting to wipe out history. RMFO argue instead that, far from attempting to erase the past, they have brought the legacy of Rhodes into the spotlight and ‘inaugurated’ a university-wide debate surrounding iconography and other racial issues.

Yet concerns remain that modern students often appear intolerant to viewpoints other than their own. RMFO has consistently painted Oriel College as uncommitted to racial equality, ‘outrageous, dishonest, and cynical’. This comes in spite of statements by the college supporting their right to protest, and a range of proposed measures such as diversity training, a commitment to new scholarships for Africans and a series of lectures on race, equality and colonialism.

Other symptoms are evident of a growing antipathy among students  towards freedom of speech. Across Britain, so-called ‘no-platforming’, whereby students attempt to prevent those with unsavoury opinions from speaking, is on the rise. In September, Warwick University’s student union banned anti-sharia activist Maryam Namazie from speaking for fears that she could ‘incite hatred’. Even veteran campaigners once thought of as liberal crusaders have sometimes unexpectedly come under fire. At Cardiff University, 3,000 people signed a petition to prevent second-wave feminist Germaine Greer from giving a lecture due to her alleged intolerance towards transgender people. (The lecture was eventually held on November 18th with a considerable police presence after the university assured Greer that her safety would be protected.) After defending Greer’s right to speak, gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was also condemned. Fran Cowling, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) representative within the National Union of Students, refused to share a platform at a planned event with Tatchell, whom she decried as racist and ‘transphobic’.

The self-righteousness of the young is not only directed towards individuals perceived as stirring up hatred, but also to larger social groups. It can be seen in a recent rise in antisemitism among Britain’s youth: a result of the Israel/Palestine conflict and a common conflation of Israel and Judaism. In February, the co-chairman of Oxford University Labour Club (OULC) resigned, complaining in his resignation letter that a ‘large proportion of both OULC and the Student Left in Oxford more generally have some kind of a problem with Jews’.

Growing intolerance among students appears to challenge the widely-disseminated idea that Britain’s younger generation is its most liberal yet. Despite an acceptance of minorities such as the LGBT community or those of different ethnicities, there are still many attacked by the new consensus. Divergence from the mainstream viewpoint is quickly vilified; there is often little willingness to debate, and little openness towards differing opinions. The integration of previously persecuted groups into the mainstream does little to change the fact that those who were once so attacked by social conservatives have become the young social conservatives of today. Intolerance is not dead yet – the targets have simply changed.