The Racist Behind The Rhodes Scholarship Sparks Controversy At Oxford

CREDIT: Arnaud Malon via Wikimedia Commons

A bird's eye view of Oxford's Oriel College, to which Cecil Rhodes donated part of his fortune.

Students at Oxford University are calling for a statue of the colonialist politician Cecil Rhodes to be removed. The movement is inspired by a similar one in South Africa which led to the removal of a stature of Rhodes removed from the University of Cape Town in April.

“This statue is an open glorification of the racist and bloody project of British colonialism,” reads a petition to have statue of Rhodes removed from its place outside of Oxford’s Oriel College.

Rhodes was an alum of Oriel and donated a large endowment to the college through his will. Much of his wealth was accrued through his colonialist exploits in Africa as an architect of Apartheid in South Africa and the founding chairman of the De Beers diamond company. Rhodes acquired contemporary Zimbabwe as a British Protectorate, which was formerly called Rhodesia in his honor.

“I prefer land to n******,” Rhodes infamously said. “[T]he natives are like children. They are just emerging from barbarism…one should kill as many n****** as possible.”

The petition against the statue cites Rhodes’ damning proclamations along with his “murderous colonial project,” as evidence that his beliefs ran counter to Oxford’s commitment to inclusivity, diversity, and dignity for its students.

Jack Kellam, a political theory student at Oxford, put the point this way on Twitter:

Chancellor George Patton, the Chancellor of Oxford and a former governor of Hong Kong, took issue with the students’ attempts to rid their campus of the colonialist figure.

In an interview with BBC Radio, he said that those who cannot show a “generosity of spirit” towards Rhodes “should think about being educated elsewhere.”

“One of the points of a university, which is not to tolerate intolerance, to engage in free enquiry is being denied,” Patton said. “People have to face up to facts and history which they don’t like and talk about them and debate them.”

He added that Rhodes’ views on race and colonialism were similar to those held by many of his contemporaries, including Winston Churchill.

“Our cities are built with the proceeds of activities, the slave trade and so on, which today would be regarded as completely unacceptable,” Patton said. “The statue, which a lot of people wouldn’t have noticed had it not been for this campaign, the building on which the statue was put on was built with Rhodes money. So do you knock the building down? Do you go around Oxford and Cambridge and elsewhere? What do you about other colleges which may have been founded by a guy who killed three of his wives? What do you do about our history?”

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More than 8,000 students have received Rhodes Scholarships – including many from former British colonies in Africa and Asia who led movements for independence and equal rights.

Nearly 100 such students signed a letter saying that they accepted the financial support through the Rhodes Scholarship, even if they didn’t support Rhodes himself.

“There is no hypocrisy in being a recipient of a Rhodes scholarship and being publicly critical of Cecil Rhodes and his legacy – a legacy that continues to alienate, silence, exclude and dehumanize in unacceptable ways,” they wrote in a statement sent to the Guardian.

The students among them who hailed from post-colonial states added that they took the scholarship as a form of reparation for the wrongs committed against their forebears by British colonialists such as Rhodes.

In its own statement, Oriel College said that it will launch a six-month “listening exercise” to collect the views of staff, students, alumni, and others about the statue, along with a series of lectures examining racial equality and colonial history.

College officials also affirmed that they do not share Rhodes’ “values or condone his racist views or actions.”

Oxford University was accused of racial bias in 2013 after a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that it accepted twice as many white students as students of color who had the same grades. Students from non-white backgrounds expressed their feelings of alienation at the university in 2014 through a photo campaign called, “I, too, am Oxford.”