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Academics split over Rhodes ‘Retain and Explain’ plaque

Oriel College has been criticised this week for the new explanatory plaque for the controversial Cecil Rhodes statue. The plaque is aimed at “contextualising its relationship with Rhodes, in line with Historic England’s ‘retain and explain’ policy for contested monuments”. The sign describes him as “a committed British colonialist” who made his “fortune through exploitation of minerals, land and peoples of Southern Africa”. 

The plaque further details that “some of his activities led to great loss of life”.

As a businessman, Rhodes is controversial for buying out smaller mining companies for the monopoly and profit of his own mining company, De Beers, which became the largest firm in the region. As a politician, Rhodes was Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in the 1890s. Whilst not a slave-trader himself, Rhodes supported the apartheid measures in Southern Africa. 

The plaque acknowledges the criticism that Rhodes has attracted “in his day and ever since”. This criticism is ongoing with Oxford professors amongst some calling for Rhodes’ removal from Oxford’s High Street. 

Academics are split in their opinions of the statue and the question of its removal, with some arguing for the history of Rhodes to be clearly explained and others calling for the statue to be replaced with a new figure who aligns with Oxford’s attitude and ethos. In June 2021 more than 150 academics boycotted the college by refusing to teach students from Oriel if the statue still stands. 

Professor of Contemporary archaeology at the University of Oxford, Dan Hicks, criticised the new plaque, comparing it to a third monument to Rhodes, saying it’s installation was “arguably even more shameful for the college”. 

He added: “This small metal sign is an embarrassment and reveals the incoherence and futility of the ideology of ‘Retain and Explain’, a policy supported by the British Culture Minister.”

Image: Dan Hicks

Other academics have raised issues with “the lack of balance” as Cambridge Professor David Abulafia told the Telegraph. Professor Abulafia edits The History Reclaimed campaign, which attempts to challenge the ‘woke’ narrative of history instead strives to place historical figures in the attitudes of their time and try to understand them from the point of view of that cultural norm. 

British Empire historian Dr Zareer Masani said: “The plaque is a very negative way of presenting Rhodes…It does not present him as a balanced character” based in the time and values of the British Empire.  

A spokesperson from Oriel College told Cherwell the plaque “isn’t intended to give a comprehensive account of Rhodes and his actions during his lifetime, as that would be impossible to achieve on a single sign”. They also highlighted how the College is “currently undertaking [work] to support equality, diversity and inclusion within the College such as funding scholarships for Black or Mixed-Black UK graduate students, expanding outreach initiatives for those from backgrounds that are under-represented at Oxford, expanding our research strengths and developing a new EDI strategy”.

The statue on the front of Oriel is not the only one commemorating Rhodes outside the college. There is an original plaque on number 6 King Edward Street, Oxford, remembering that Rhodes lived at that address in 1881. The plaque has failed to be listed by Historic England leaving it vulnerable to removal. The organisation argued that this plaque was of “limited cultural and historic interest”.

The controversy surrounding the Rhodes statue in Oxford has been debated since November 2015 with the petition from the Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford’ movement. The ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign began with students at the university of cape town demanding the removal of the Rhodes statue on 9th May 2015. The demonstration was successful with the Rhodes statue being removed from the campus. The protest group, Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford, has highlighted to Oriel College that the statue “has served as a visual marker of the priorities of this institution”.

The statue gathered attention again in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement in June of 2020 with Oriel’s governing body stating they wished for the removal of the statue. Since, there has been a U-turn after the college faced “regulatory and financial challenges” and abandoned legal processes to remove it. This plaque has been added ‘without making alterations to the building or its frontage, which would require consent’ as the building has a Grade II* status.

This decision to ‘Retain and Explain’ the statue was supported by the then Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, who tweeted on 20th May 2021: “Sensible & balanced decision not to remove the Rhodes statue from Oriel College, Oxford – because we should learn from our past, rather than censoring history, and continue focusing on reducing inequality”.

Oriel shared this sentiment with a statement adding: “it is determined to focus its time and resources on delivering the report’s recommendations around the contextualisation of the college’s relationship with Rhodes.” They added that “the text was formulated in discussion with working groups within College, including Fellows, students, staff and alumni”.

Rhodes, an alumnus of Oriel, left £100,000 to the college in his will which translates to about £12.5 million in today’s economy. There is also a scholarship still used in his name supporting “exceptional students to study at the University of Oxford”.

Image: Howard Stanbury/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via flickr.com

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