How to start the story of a statue is always a problem. While the world moves, a stone sculpted figure sits at the center of attention in a school, a hallway, a park, a museum. There’s something strange about the all-seeing carved-out eyes of statues. You look into it and you see nothing. But it looks at you, strangely at first, then with intent, forcing you to read the description attached.
At the steps of the University of Cape Town in South Africa and the High Street facade of Oriel College, Oxford, UK, is the statue of Cecil Rhodes. What appears at first to be the statue of just a man begins to unravel itself as the statue of a man who was an imperialist, who was brutal and wicked in his annexation and destruction of lands while being the poster child for Eurocentrism.
Many have argued that these statues be pulled down. Others have kicked against such a proposal. The statues stand in the place of heritage for some, and for others, it stands as a reminder of oppression.
But this is just a statue. Who was the man Cecil Rhodes?
Who Was Cecil Rhodes?
Cecil John Rhodes was born on July 5th, 1853 in Bishops Stortford, England. He was the fifth son of Francis William Rhodes and his second wife, Louisa Peacock. Rhodes had eleven siblings: nine brothers and two sisters, all of whom attended the Stortford Grammar School.
Cecil had asthma as a child, and his family assumed that a warm, dry climate would help him. In 1870, he was sent to South Africa to live with his older brother Herbert. Cecil would assist in managing his brother’s cotton plantation in the Umkomaas valley in Natal. Together, the brothers also made an investment in the freshly opened Kimberley diamond fields a year later. Cecil used the £3,000 Pounds his aunt had lent him to invest in the new diamond venture.
In 1873, Rhodes left the diamond fields to his partner, Charles D. Rudd, and sailed back to England to complete his studies. He was admitted into Oriel College Oxford but he only stayed for one semester before returning to South Africa to further his businesses. He returned to Oxford for his second semester in 1876, eventually graduating in 1881.
While in Oxford, having been influenced by John Ruskin’s inaugural lecture in Oxford, Rhodes began his trumpeting of the idea of a world led by British men, who will spread the spirit of the Englishman to all corners of the globe. He proposed a secret society to carry out his purpose, writing:
“Why should we not form a secret society with but one object the furtherance of the British Empire and the bringing of the whole uncivilised world under British rule for the recovery of the United States for the making the Anglo-Saxon race but one Empire.”
It was from this idea of a secret society that Rhodes shaped his vision for South Africa. He decided that it was only right that British dominion reigned supreme over African hinterlands as he led the way.
Rhodes, The Imperialist
The most sacred principle that guided most of Cecil Rhodes actions throughout his life was his strong belief that the Englishman was the greatest human specimen to walk the earth. He believed in the superiority of the white race and the greatness of the British Empire. To him, it was a God-given duty to expand the Empire.
At the youthful age of 24, he shared this idea with his peers in a small house in Kimberly. He told them:
“The object of which I intend to devote my life is the defence and extension of the British Empire. I think that object a worthy one because the British Empire stands for the protection of all the inhabitants of a country in life, liberty, property, fair play and happiness and it is the greatest platform the world has ever seen for these purposes and for human enjoyment.”
As he travelled the rich territories of Transvaal and Bechuanaland, Rhodes saw his vision come to pass. The vast stretch of land and mineral resources seemed to perfect his vision. His vision was British dominion “from the Cape to Cairo”. Rhodes stated this imperial goal in Confession of Faith, published in 1877. He noted in that confession his hate towards the people he wanted to rule over. He said:
“I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimen of human being, what an alteration there would be in them if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence…if there be a God, I think that what he would like me to do is paint as much of the map of Africa British Red as possible…”
He entered the Parliament of Cape Colony in 1881 and stressed the policy of containing the northward expansion of the Transvaal Republic. In 1885, Great Britain established a protectorate over Bechuanaland, due largely to Rhodes’ persuasion.
Despite knowledge of his vision in British society, Rhodes was widely successful. His callousness and depravity in achieving his goals was feared among his contemporaries. Many of his fellows saw him as a man of original ideas who sought to go after his great vision for the African continent, many also derided him and were shocked by his actions and that of his British South Africa Company. Olive Schreiner, one of those opposed to Rhodes dispositions, wrote in a letter in 1897:
“We fight Rhodes because he means so much of oppression, injustice, & moral degradation to South Africa; – but if he passed away tomorrow there still remains the terrible fact that something in our society has formed the matrix which has fed, nourished, built up such a man!”
Rhodes, The Stateman
After receiving support from English-speaking white and non-white voters, as well as a handful of Afrikaner-bonds to whom he had promised shares in the British South Africa Company, Rhodes became Prime Minister of the Cape colony in July 1890. One of Rhodes’ most well-known and controversial acts as Prime Minister of South Africa was the enactment of the Glen Grey Act, which is often regarded as the model for the Apartheid government to come.
On July 27, 1894, Rhodes delivered a rousing, arrogance-filled speech to the Parliament of Cape Town that lasted more than 100 minutes. The speech introduced a Bill that was meant to bring order to the overcrowded eastern Cape district of Glen Grey, but in his typical fashion Rhodes had turned this routine administrative task into something far bigger, the formulation of what he described as a ‘Native Bill for Africa’. The Bill proposed total subjugation of the African population and promoted the idea that the black population in the Cape Town region and beyond be considered as children who were not equal to the white population.
Rhodes opened his speech on the Glen Grey Act with the following words:
“There is, I think, a general feeling that the natives are a distinct source of trouble and loss to the country. Now, I take a different view. When I see the labour troubles that are occurring in the United States, and when I see the troubles that are going to occur with the English people in their own country on the social question and the labour question, I feel rather glad that the labour question here is connected with the native question.”
He then made clear his solution to the “native problem”,
‘The proposition that I would wish to put to the House is this, that I do not feel that the fact of our having to live with the natives in this country is a reason for serious anxiety. In fact, I think the natives should be a source of great assistance to most of us. At any rate, if the whites maintain their position as the supreme race, the day may come when we shall all be thankful that we have the natives with us in their proper position…”
The brutality of Rhodes is further seen as the speech continues:
“What I would like in regard to a native area is that there should be no white men in its midst. I hold that the natives should be apart from white men, and not mixed up with them… The Government looks upon them as living in a native reserve, and desires to make the transfer and alienation of land as simple as possible… We fail utterly when we put natives on an equality with ourselves. If we deal with them differently and say, ” Yes, these people have their own ideas,” and so on, then we are all right ; but when once we depart from that position and put them on an equality with ourselves, we may give the matter up… As to the question of voting, we say that the natives are in a sense citizens, but not altogether citizens, they are still children….’”
The Glen Grey Act was designed to force Africans into the labor market by restricting African access to land and land ownership rights, preventing them from becoming owners of the means of production, and by imposing a ten-shilling labor tax on all Africans who could not prove that they had been in ‘bona fide’ wage employment for at least three months in a year. Thousands more Africans would be forced into the migrant labor market as a result of this land scarcity combined with a tax on those who do not engage in wage labour.
The English-speaking members of the Cape Parliament were adamantly opposed to the Glen Grey Act, but Rhodes, with his formidable personality, was able to drive it through Parliament, and Rhodes’ Glen Grey Act became law in August 1984. Many consider the Glen Grey Act, which established the migrant labor system, formalized the ‘native reserves,’ and withdrew the franchise from practically all Africans, to be the foundation for the twentieth-century Apartheid system in South Africa.
Rhodes And The Second Boer War
Rhodes sponsored the raid led by Dr. Leander Starr Jameson, the Administrator in Rhodesia of the Chartered Company The raid was meant to incite an uitlanders (African name for foreigners) rebellion in Johannesburg. The strategy was to incite the Dutch to revolt against Boer authority, prompting British intervention. The plan was thwarted when Transvaal government forces surrounded and apprehended Jameson’s men before they could reach Johannesburg.
The attack was a complete failure, and Cecil John Rhodes was judged guilty of gross breaches of duty as Prime Minister and Administrator of the British South Africa Company by the British House of Commons. Rhodes was forced to resign from his position as Cape Colony’s Prime Minister. Colonel Frank Rhodes, his older brother, was imprisoned in Transvaal for high treason. The attack sparked the Second Matebele War and the Second Boer War.
Following his forced resignation, Rhodes focused on developing the areas known as “Zambesia,” named after the Zambezi River. After Cecil Rhodes, the name was officially changed to “Rhodesia” in May 1895. A new constitution allowing democratic majority rule was enacted over 100 years later in 1979, and “Rhodesia” became “Zimbabwe” in 1980.
After the Anglo-Boer war that broke out in October 1899, Rhodes rushed to Kimberley to organize the defense of the town. However, his health was worsened by the siege, and after traveling to Europe he returned to the Cape in February 1902. He died on March 26th, 1902 at Muizenberg in the Cape Colony (now Cape Town).
He left £6 million (about $960 million USD in today’s dollars), most of which went to Oxford University to establish the Rhodes scholarships to provide places at Oxford for students from the United States, the British colonies, and Germany.
“At best his conception of civilisation was empirical, if not vulgar,” The Guardian noted in its obituary of Rhodes, “and in course of time most other ideals had for him to be subordinated to that of keeping up dividends.”
Rhodes Must Fall, The South African Saga
In 2015, a protest movement began in the University Of Cape Town against a statue that commemorates Cecil Rhodes. Those who wanted the statue removed contended that Rhodes was the ultimate representation of colonialism. They called the movement Rhodes Must Fall.
The bronze statue of Cecil Rhodes in a seated position was sculpted by Marion Walgate (née Mason), wife of architect Charles Walgate. M. Solomon was involved in the design and construction of the University of Cape Town’s new buildings. It was first unveiled to the public in 1934.
As reported by The Guardian, the Rhodes Must Fall movement began on March 9th, 2015, after Chumanu Maxwele hurled a bucket of feces at the bronze statue of Cecil Rhodes. South Africa’s once-quiet University soon began to roar. For five weeks, thousands of students marched in protest against the statue, tagging it with graffiti, covering it in bin bags, and singing solidarity and anti-apartheid songs.
Protesters disrupted a University of Cape Town’s Council meeting held to debate the removal of the statue on April 8, 2015, and blocked members of the Council from leaving. Protestors chanted “One Settler, One Bullet,” a rallying cry during apartheid, both at the meeting and the next day during the dismantling of the statue, according to a statement released by UCT Vice-Chancellor Max Price.
In March 2015, the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment at the University of Cape Town ran a poll on whether or not the statue should be moved. Out of 2700 students, 1100 students voted. 60% were against the removal of the statue, 38% were in favor and the remaining 2% abstained. However, the poll did not measure strength of opinion. A consensus in the Senate found that many who are against removal did not feel strongly about the issue
What began as a protest against a statue soon began a wave of calls for the decolonization of South Africa’s educational institutions and the lack of racial transformation at the University.
The protest soon spread to other universities across South Africa. Stellenbosch University, Rhodes University, and the University of Pretoria all participated in the protest.
“It is that statue that continues to inspire [white people] to think that they are a superior race,” Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, an anti-imperial organisation, said at the time, “and it is through collapsing of these types of symbols that the white minority will begin to appreciate that there’s nothing superior about them.”
A month after protests and countless debates around the removal of the statue, the statue was finally removed on April 9th, 2015. Thus ended the life of a statue that had been standing for 81 years, representing economic prosperity for some, and economic and physical subjugation for others.
The Struggle With Heritage And Conscience
While the South African protests raged on, students at Oxford University began calling for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes at the Oriel College.
However, Oriel was different. Considering the college was founded in 1324, it’s a historical artifact, a compounding of geological strata. There are centuries of history that can be seen when you walk into the institution. The products of Oriel are well known (including Walter Raleigh, Cecil Rhodes, Christopher Hibbert, Jim Cooper), hence the status of a museum-like institution.
The legacy of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University is substantial. The Rhodes Scholarship allows about 100 students each year to study at the university under the scholarship. It’s regarded as one of the most prestigious scholarships in the world, with former recipients including former U.S. President Bill Clinton; Nobel Prize winner Howard Florey; Olympic medalist Bill Bradley; and James William Fulbright. To take down Rhodes’s statue was to tumble an entire institution.
But as protests continued, on January 19th 2016, students at the Oxford Union (a private student debating society, without official endorsement or links to the University of Oxford) voted 245 to 212 in favor of removing the statue of Rhodes.
Ultimately, on January 29th, 2016, it was announced that the statue would remain, after “furious donors threatened to withdraw gifts and bequests worth more than £100 million” if it was removed.
This felt like a slap in the face for many. A former beneficiary of the Rhodes Scholarship, Ntoko Qwabe, accused Oxford University of propping up the existence of systemic racism by leaving the statue standing. British media quickly turned on Qwabe, calling him ungrateful.
One of the most vocal supporters of keeping the statue was Oxford’s Vice-chancellor Chris Patten, who told students that they should embrace the freedom of expression that an education at Oxford entails or “think about being educated elsewhere.”
Another supporter was Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard who made a similar argument, urging Britains “to look history in the eye and reflect on our awkward relationship to it, and what we are actually beneficiaries of, not simply to Photoshop the nasty bits out.”
She continued to say that history isn’t won by displacing effigies. She claimed:
“The battle isn’t won by taking the statue away and pretending those people didn’t exist. It’s won by empowering those students to look up at Rhodes and friends with a cheery and self-confident sense of unbatterability.”
After Oxford refused to remove the statue, the agitation gradually died down. Then, in June 2020, the issue came back into focus during the George Floyd Protests in the United States.
The reignited calls came after a crowd of demonstrators supporting the Black Lives Matter movement toppled and dumped a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into the River Avon. Another statue of slave owner, Robert Milligan, was also removed from West India Quay.
Two large Rhodes Must Fall protests occurred outside Oriel College, on High Street in central Oxford to call for the removal of the Rhodes statue from the Oriel building. The first protest occurred on June 9th, 2020 and was attended by over 1,000 people. The second protest occurred on June 16th and was a march from Cowley, a nearby suburb of Oxford, through to the Oriel College building on High Street and onto the University of Oxford Museum of Natural History.
On June 17th, 2020, the Oriel College Governing Body convened and voted to have the Cecil Rhodes statue removed from their building, along with the King Edward Street Plaque.
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, a founding member of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, said at the time of the announcement:
“I hope that the commission that Oriel institutes won’t just focus on how to critically contextualise the statue but will focus on ways that Oriel itself can become much more representative and in fact can offer scholarships and educational opportunities in the places where Rhodes’s crimes were committed.”
However, despite the continued controversy, the statue wasn’t removed. The university announced its decision to keep the statue in May, 2021 citing time frame and cost as considerable obstacles to the removal of the statue.
In June 2021, around 150 Oxford University academics refused to teach in protest of this change of heart.
The lecturers behind the boycott said in a statement: “Faced with Oriel’s stubborn attachment to a statue that glorifies colonialism and the wealth it produced for the college, we feel we have no choice but to withdraw all discretionary work and goodwill collaborations.”
Why Rhodes Must Fall
Despite continued unrest, it appears that Oxford University is determined to keep the Rhodes statue.
It’s generally agreed that statues are a representation of cultural and historical monuments and people and what a society embodies. Who a society considers worthy of being looked up to is kept in the public eyes for the society to admire. A statue dedicated to Cecil Rhodes, a man who embodied a form of vicious racism, depravity, subjugation, and inhuman imperial horrors points to the moral conscience of the British society.
Critics against the removal of the statue have argued that Rhodes was “a man of his time.” But this is untrue. Rhodes represents what Britain means during his time and now. Rhodes’ vision of the world was a world where a white man was superior above all, a world where the black native was to be trampled upon. A closer look at modern society encapsulates Rhodes’s vision: a world where unequal access to wealth, education, and opportunity defines the West and the rest of the world. Military interventions, election manipulations, and government destabilization are tools employed by the West in countries to keep them down. If Rhodes were alive, he would be smiling.
In addition, there were contemporaries of Rhodes who criticized him. Mark Twain, a man who was himself an eager imperialist, said of Rhodes, “he wants the earth and wants it for his own. He raids and robs and slays and enslaves the Matabele…when his time comes I shall buy a piece of the rope for a keepsake.”
When Rhodes was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1899, it provoked outrage. When Rhodes died in 1902, The Guardian’s editorial offered a dim view of his legacy. History, the editorial argued, will judge that Rhodes “did more than any Englishman of his time to lower the reputation […] and compromise the future of the empire.” Rhodes evidently faced strong moral rebuke for his colonial exploits during his time, suggesting that we cannot exonerate his legacy even if viewed from the lens of British morality of that time.
To ask that Rhodes’s statue be removed doesn’t mean that we are imposing modern standards on him, it just means that no one should be glorified for causing the death of over 10,000 people even if they did it 500 years ago.
Apologists have also argued that removing the Rhodes statue will be tantamount to erasing history. But removing Rhodes isn’t tantamount to the erasure of history, it would only help highlight that Rhodes’s legacy is unacceptable. The continued display of his statue translates to glorification.
Georgia removed the statue of Joseph Stalin in 2010. The removal of Stalin’s statue didn’t mean that Stalin’s history had been erased. That suddenly, people will suffer from dementia when asked about the history of a man who brought suffering to the world. No one keeps Hitler’s statue, why is Rhodes different?
Maybe British society is so immersed in institutional racism that it can’t shed itself off its “glorious” past. The British Empire expanded its reach across the world by racism, subjugation, mass imprisonment, hunger, and point blank extermination of native populations. There’s no pretending that many are still proud of this history.
In a 2016 YouGov survey about the removal of Rhodes’s Statue, 59% of British people said it should not be taken down, and 44% went so far as to say, “we should be proud of British colonialism.”
The status of Oxford University as an institution of higher learning in the world suggests that if presented with an opportunity or a new way of thinking about the history it’s a product or beneficiary of, it will try to rectify. But if Rhodes Must Fall fails to achieve its aims and the Cecil Rhodes’ statue isn’t removed, it implies that Oxford and British society refuse to reckon with its imperial past; a signal that Cecil Rhodes is what Britain was then, and is now.