In a tight, non-binding vote, students at the University of Oxford have voted to remove the controversial statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College.
The move comes after months of campaigning by the anti-colonialism movement Rhodes Must Fall, who see him as a white supremacist who profited from colonialism.
Oriel College is currently considering the fate of the statue but has removed the plaque to Rhodes, replacing it with a sign that reads “In acknowledging the historical fact of Rhodes’ bequest, the college does not in any way condone or glorify his views or actions”.
Responding to the controversy, Louise Richardson, Vice Chancellor of the university, told The Financial Times : “The whole discussion is a distraction from the much bigger issues. But what’s positive about this whole Rhodes Must Fall movement is that it’s drawing attention to our history”.
She continued, “we need to confront our history, we can’t pretend it didn’t happen”.
However, the university’s chancellor, Lord Chris Patten has responded more strongly against The Rhodes Must Fall campaign.
In an interview with BBC Radio 4, he said: “If people at a university are not prepared to demonstrate the sort of generosity of spirit which Nelson Mandela showed towards Rhodes and towards history, then maybe they should think about being educated elsewhere”.
He also made reference to similar campaigns at other universities, saying: “that focus on Rhodes is unfortunate but it’s an example of what’s happening in American campuses and British campuses. One of the points of a university – which is not to tolerate intolerance, to engage in free inquiry and debate – is being denied. If you want universities like that you go to China where they are not allowed to talk about western values, which I regard as global values. No, it’s not the way a university should operate.”
Responding to Lord Patten’s comments, Daisy Chandley, an organiser of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, said: “we are demanding debate and free speech, not trying to quiet it. We are not asking for history to be censored, but rather for people to realise that a statue – just like colonialism itself – is not history; it is something very much in the present tense”.
Many have taken to Twitter to comment on the issue.
@UmaarKazmi wrote in a tweet: “Really don’t understand this Cecil Rhodes debate. If you can tear down statues of Stalin, Hitler and Saddam, then #RhodesMustFall too”.
However, @Pads45N disagreed, tweeting: “You won’t be surprised to find out that I think #RhodesMustFall are a bunch of cry babies who aren’t mature enough for university.”
The controversy comes months after the release of a report finding that many BME students at the university had, at some point in their studies, felt uncomfortable as a result of their racial or ethnic identity. The report called for a ‘cultural shift’ to create a more supportive network for ethnic minority students.
Tadiwa Madenga, a student from Zimbabwe, told the BBC that she is part of the first generation of her family to be born free, saying: “to me when I see this statue, it’s not a far away memory. We lived in places where we’ve seen the consequences and it still deeply affects us, this kind of memory of British imperialism.”
Ntokozo Qwabe, another student at the university, agreed with Madenga, telling BBC Trending: “Lord Patten talks about being open minded but he is unwilling to be open minded about engaging with the ways that Oxford might be institutionally racist. Instead he is implying that we must leave if we don’t agree with Western understanding of history and there is nothing open minded about that.”
However, not all students agree with the Rhodes Must Fall stance on Oriel’s campus. Dena Latif, a Sudanese student studying in Oriel College told the BBC: “You can take down all the statues and portraits you want and there will still be the same racial imbalance that there is today. Cecil Rhodes did go to this college, he did contribute a lot of money, we can’t pretend he wasn’t here”.
Another student, a third year undergraduate at the university , agreed. She told The Student: “I don’t […] see the point in tearing down the statue. That doesn’t achieve the movement’s aim, it would be an act of trying to erase him from history.
“I don’t believe that bringing the statue down will achieve anything effective. If we applied the same arguments to all statues, i.e. tear down the ones of white male racists, a lot of statues would have to go. Churchill is responsible for something known as the Bengal famine which killed millions of people. Don’t get me wrong I hate the fact that Oxford is associated with this man [Rhodes], and full heartedly believe that more needs to be done about portraying him in a less biased manner”.
Image credit: Flickr: flowcomm