Oriel College angers academics with plaque depicting Cecil Rhodes as the ‘devil incarnate’

Oriel College has come under fire for erecting a plaque outside its main facade which portrays Cecil Rhodes as the “devil incarnate”, academics have claimed.

The Oxford University college has put up a new explanatory panel about the British imperialist which is visible to passers-by as they walk along the pavement.

But it has been accused of pandering to the Rhodes Must Fall movement by portraying Rhodes in an overly negative light.

The plaque describes Rhodes as a “committed British colonialist” who “obtained his fortune through exploitation of minerals, land and peoples of southern Africa. Some of his activities led to great loss of life and attracted criticism in his day and ever since.”

It adds: “In recent years, the statue has become a focus for public debate on racism and the legacy of colonialism. In June 2020, Oriel College declared its wish to remove the statue but is not doing so following legal and regulatory advice.”

The wording has sparked a backlash among a group of academics who intend to write to Lord Mendoza, Oriel’s Provost, to express their concerns.

“I think the fundamental point is the lack of balance,” said David Abulafia, emeritus professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge, who believes the current sign serves to “distort” history.

“I am not trying to defend Rhodes’s career right across the board. This is a man who was a great benefactor of Oxford University and who – it may seem strange to us – actually thought he was bringing benefits to the people who fell under his control.

Demonstrators hold placards during a protest arranged by the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in July 2020

Credit: Adrian Dennis/AFP

“The notice is only concerned with linking him to racist and imperialist policies. This is clearly a reaction to the Rhodes Must Fall campaign and it’s simply not how you do it.”

Prof Abulafia said that the sign should be “balanced and measured”, adding: “It should look at the whole of Rhodes’s career, explaining properly who he was and what he was trying to do. One needs to explain where he stands in the context of the attitudes of his day.

“He believed he was bringing benefits to Africa. We might now argue that he did more harm than good, but one has to understand what his intentions were. He is portrayed here as some sort of devil incarnate.”

Students began campaigning for the Rhodes statue to be taken down in 2015, but the toppling of a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, at the height of last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations, reignited the “Rhodes Must Fall” protests.

Rhodes, a British imperialist who founded Rhodesia and served as prime minister of the Cape Colony in the 1890s, donated a huge sum to Oriel in his will. He was not a slave trader but supported apartheid-style measures in southern Africa.

In 2020, Oriel’s governing body said it was their “wish” to remove the statue and it established an independent commission to examine the key issues surrounding it.

‘It can say he is controversial, but there are two sides to it’

Earlier this year, the commission concluded its inquiry saying it backed the college’s original wish to remove the statue. But Oriel’s governing body decided it should stay for the time being on the basis that it would take too long and cost too much to remove it.

Prof Abulafia and other academics from the History Reclaimed campaign – which seeks to challenge the “woke” narrative of the past – hope Oriel College will review the plaque’s wording.

Dr Zareer Masani, a historian specialising in the British Empire and editorial committee member of History Reclaimed, said: “I think the concern among our group, and several members have voiced this, is that the plaque is a very negative way of presenting Rhodes to anyone who might not know about him. It does not present him as a rounded character.”

He added: “We are pressing for a balanced plaque to be put up, possibly with fairly minimal information but presenting both his flaws and his virtues. It can say he is controversial, but there are two sides to it.”

Earlier this year, more than 150 Oxford dons mounted a boycott of Oriel College and refused to teach its students in protest at its decision to keep the Cecil Rhodes statue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *