Cecil Rhodes, The Face of British Imperialism

On the front of the Rhodes Building at Oriel College, Oxford stands the statue of Cecil Rhodes, the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony (1890-1896). The figure was installed after Rhodes’ £100,000 gift to the university, his alma mater, upon his death. But, in recent years, the statue has received criticism from those who want to see it dismantled, much like another Rhodes statue was at Cape Town University in South Africa two years ago. The movement to remove monuments that commemorate British imperialism or extol the faces of those who perpetuated colonial ventures has since spread to other universities in South Africa and in the United Kingdom.

Understanding the negative backlash against the statue merits an investigation of Rhodes and his role in South Africa. His attraction to the colony aligned with those of Britain: preventing the expansion of other European powers. After a series of clashes with the Dutch, the British secured the Cape Colony through the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814. British immigration to the Cape increased in the decades that followed thereafter. At the same time, British governors of the Cape Colony embarked on missions to acquire more territory, notably under Sir Harry Smith in 1847 and Sir Henry Barkly in 1871. But it was the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley and gold in the Transvaal in 1884 that prompted even greater expansion into the African continent.

Cecil John Rhodes became a major figure of British interests in South Africa in the late-nineteenth century. Prior to entering politics, Rhodes had been a businessman. Beginning in 1871, Rhodes traveled throughout the Transvaal where he made his fortune in the mining industry. After a series of smaller acquisitions, he eventually founded and became the Chairman of De Beers Consolidated Mines, the leader in diamond exploration, mining, and manufacturing. (And by 1891, De Beers owned 90 percent of the world’s production of diamonds.) His desire for wealth also pushed him into politics, where he became a member of the Cape Parliament and eventual Prime Minister of the Cape Colony.

Over time, Rhodes began to merge his interests in both politics and business. He was responsible for founding the British South Africa Company, a chartered corporation with an active military and administrative privileges throughout Rhodesia, Botswana, Zambia, and South Africa. According to its charter, the company was entitled “all or any rights, interests, authorities, jurisdictions and powers of any kind or nature whatever, including powers necessary for the purposes of government and the preservation of public order.” The company also encouraged the immigration of white settlers to carry out the policies of Britain. In setting these mandates, Rhodes attempted to obtain more land for mining and industrial development by forcing the local Xhosa population to work for little pay. Through a “labour tax”, instituted through the Glen Grey Act of 1894, the system of work in the Eastern Cape province depended on government support of commercial farms and territorial acquisitions further inland.

The controversy that surrounds Rhodes is his presence at institutions of higher learning. As an ardent imperialist, he represents a part of history that many wish not to place on a pedestal. Historians have deemed him a racist and a British supremacist. But are those grounds for the removal of his statue? Such questions have been the focal point of the #RhodesMustFall movement. The protest began at the aforementioned Cape Town University in South Africa in March 2015 and has recently appeared at Oxford. Opinions on the Rhodes’ statue at Oriel College range from those who are against its removal to others who find his presence extremely alarming. Furthermore, such debates shed light on statues, buildings, and monuments at other universities. Yale University renamed one of its residential colleges, the former Calhoun College, due to protests from dissenters. And at Queen Mary University of London, a foundation stone for King Leopold II was “quietly removed” from campus.

In January 2016, Oriel College released a statement concerning the Rhodes question. The administration declared that the statue will remain on campus, as well as try “to provide a clear historical context to explain why it is there.” The one-page statement highlights the complexity of historical memorialization and how such “legacies of colonialism” are still existent in many aspects of society. Regarding historical figures as a product of their time, rather simply by the standards of societal norms today, is the path the College has chosen. And, through this statement, the College has also indirectly posed a question on if the presence of the statue represents unwavering praise and approval, or rather historical remembrance and the remnants of a postcolonial empire?

In seeking to answer these questions, the university has begun processes for mandating “compulsory non-White and non-European history modules” in future academic terms. Topics range from the history of modern Japan to the civil rights movement in the US. The change at Oxford will likely have a ripple effect to other schools, which could be forced to broaden their curricula as well. A more insightful investigation will be made once such modules are created. But, until next academic term, the #RhodesMustFall movement at Oxford seems to have accomplished one thing with certainty: fostering dialogue on historical memorialization and facilitating the creation of modules on nontraditional topics for students.

Image Credit: Oxford History

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