When you think of Classics at Oxford, the image that may come to you is likely Boris Johnson. Or maybe not Boris Johnson, but someone Boris-esque. They went to Eton, or maybe Winchester, they’ve been studying Latin since they could talk, and they visit their ‘chalet’ in the French Alps every winter. They’re white and upper-class and male. The perfect image of Oxford. And even though you can’t see my face in this article, the Nigerian-ness of my name should be a dead giveaway that I do not fit into that stereotype. I am a Black, state-school-educated woman, and that is why Christian Cole is such an important part of Black British History in Oxford.
Christian Cole was born in Sierra Leone, which at the time was a British colony, in West Africa in 1852. Cole was the grandson of a slave and was educated at Fourah Bay College in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He enrolled in Oxford in 1873 as a non-collegiate student, until he was made a member of University College in 1877. His fellow students included the notable imperialist, and racist, Cecil Rhodes (guess which of the two later received several six foot statues, and which one got a measly plaque? Oxford really needs to fix that.) Cole remained a member of University College until 1880. His presence made him the centre of attention, which included many press cartoons depicting him with racial stereotypes, which was not made any easier going to university with the Cecil Rhodes as well (sorry, I simply can’t get over that). His experience most likely prompted his anti-racist writings:
“Ye white men of England
Oh tell, tell, I pray,
If the curse of your land,
Is not, day after day,
To increase your possessions
With reckless delight,
To subdue many nations,
And show them your might.”
(From ‘Reflections on the Zulu War, By a Negro’, BA., of University College, Oxford.)
Cole went on to become the first Black African to practice law in the English courts after being accepted by the Inner Temple in 1883. His career was unfortunately short-lived as he died in 1885 at the age of 33 from smallpox.
Though Cole’s life was short, his legacy is almost infinite. Writing this, 137 years after his death, as another Black classicist at Oxford, I am compelled to look back at what inspired me to do this degree, here, at Oxford of all places.
My earliest inspiration from a Black classicist is when I met Andi Marsh at UNIQ Summer School. Going to UNIQ I was a nervous wreck; I was violently aware that it was likely that I would be the only Black person in the Classics course. After all, I had never met another Black person studying the Iliad or Latin. But that day on the 29th of July, I met Andi, a rising 3rd-year Classics student at Oxford. My disbelief at meeting a Classics student who looked like me quickly turned into excitement – it became so much easier to picture myself in the exact same position as Christian Cole and Andi Marsh.
Andi is also the founder of the Christian Cole Society; she tells me she founded the society as “an antidote to Classics as it existed before, Classics as a subject known for its elitism and whiteness”. She goes on to say that “I wanted to really confront that and challenge that and make Classics something that is inclusive of our stories as Black people, and other ethnic minorities…Christian Cole Society is about inclusion in a subject that has a real history of exclusion.” Andi’s words have never rung truer – a couple of months after I met her at UNIQ, Boris Johnson, the Golden Boy of Oxford Classics, was elected Prime Minister. Suddenly, the image of Classics, the legacy of Christian Cole, became less and less relevant to those who represented Classics in mainstream media. On Christian Cole, Andi tells me the reason he was so important to her that she named her society after him. “The mere fact that he is only now getting recognition for the way that he literally paved the way for so many Black classicists after him… I am proud that we were able to name our society after him…We are his legacy as Black classicists.”
As pathetic as it might sound, Andi’s words brought tears to my eyes. She almost single-handedly revived the legacy of Christian Cole, a history that the University didn’t try to protect as much as they protect Rhodes’ statue. Being a Black Classicist is a tough journey, but as much as an inspiration as Christian Cole was to Andi, she was to me, and I can only hope to continue that legacy the same way she did for me.
Image Credit: Andi Marsh on the left and Deborah Ogunnoiki on the right.