Why a New Plaque Next to Oxford’s Cecil Rhodes Statue Is So Controversial

Statue of Rhodes on side of college building
Rhodes left Oxford’s Oriel College around $17 million in today’s money. FlickrDelusions via Flickr under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The University of Oxford’s Oriel College has installed a plaque identifying 19th-century politician and diamond-mining magnate Cecil Rhodes as a “committed British colonialist.” Placed beside a much-debated statue of Rhodes, the plaque immediately came under fire from both advocates of removing the sculpture and their opponents. 

Oxford city councilor Shaista Aziz, who was a member of the college’s Independent Commission of Inquiry into the statue, calls the plaque “amateurish” and “woefully inadequate,” reports Indya Clayton for the Oxford Mail. Aziz adds that the sign does “nothing to address the legacy of Cecil Rhodes, a loud, proud white supremacist, colonialist and slave owner and a deeply controversial figure of his time.”

The new plaque notes that the building where the statue stands was constructed with money bequeathed by Rhodes in his will. Upon his death in 1902, Rhodes, a former Oriel student, left the college the equivalent of about $17 million in today’s dollars.

Why a New Plaque Next to Oxford's Cecil Rhodes Statue Is So Controversial
The plaque states that Rhodes “obtained his fortune through exploitation of minerals, land, and peoples of southern Africa.” Dan Hicks via Twitter

Per the sign, Rhodes “obtained his fortune through exploitation of minerals, land, and peoples of southern Africa.” Though the college “declared its wish to remove the statue” following widespread protests against systemic racism last year, it opted not to do so in accordance with “legal and regulatory advice.” A line at the bottom of the plaque directs readers to a website featuring additional context about the statue and Rhodes himself.

Cambridge historian David Abulafia tells the Telegraph’s Camilla Turner that the sign “lacks balance.”

“He believed he was bringing benefits to Africa,” Abulafia says. “We might now argue that he did more harm than good, but one has to understand what his intentions were. He is portrayed here as some sort of devil incarnate.”

For more than a year, the Oxford statue has been a target of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, which began as a series of student-led protests in South Africa in 2015, as Justin Parkinson reported for BBC News at the time. Linking Rhodes’ legacy to continuing inequity in wealth and opportunities in the country, protesters successfully campaigned for the removal of a prominent statue of Rhodes at the University of Cape Town.

Founder of the De Beers diamond company, Rhodes served as prime minister of Britain’s Cape Colony, in what’s now South Africa, from 1890 to 1896. In addition to profiting enormously from the region’s mineral wealth, Rhodes advocated for monumental expansion of the British Empire, including bringing the United States back under British control. He sought to create a “red line” on the map of Africa, with everything from Cairo to Cape Town belonging to Britain.

“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,” Rhodes once said.

Last year, in the midst of global activism following the police killing of George Floyd, activists in Oxford demanded the removal of Rhode’s likeness. Protesters around the world also toppled statues of other figures linked to slavery and colonialism, including Confederate generals and enslavers. In Bristol, an English city west of Oxford, a crowd dumped a statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston into a nearby harbor.

A majority of the independent commission’s members supported removing Oriel’s Rhodes statue. But the college decided in May that it would not do so, citing the difficult legal and planning process involved, per Jamie Grierson and Damien Gayle of the Guardian. According to the Oxford Mail, the new plaque is a temporary measure that will eventually be replaced with a permanent response to the controversy.

In January, United Kingdom officials announced a new “retain and explain” policy that keeps controversial historical statues in place with added context. This week, the City of London Corporation announced that memorials to William Beckford and John Cass, politicians with ties to the transatlantic slave trade, would remain standing alongside new explanatory texts, reports Taylor Dafoe for Artnet News.

“It enables us to acknowledge and address the legacy of our past with openness and honesty,” says Doug Barrow, chair of a subcommittee that considered the Beckford and Cass statues, in a statement. “Not to try and erase history but to place it in its proper context.”

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