A long-running controversy at Oxford University over a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the British imperialist who is considered by many to be an architect of apartheid in South Africa, gained new momentum this week after more than 150 academics said they would refuse to teach students at the college where the monument sits.
The scholars sent a letter to the college stating that they would reject requests from Oriel College, one of the 39 autonomous units that make up the university, to provide tutorials to its students and to attend or speak at events sponsored by the College, among other measures.
The boycott is the latest high-profile protest in a complex bill taking place in Britain and several other European countries over their past in the colonial and slave trade. In museums, public spaces, and schools, a long-standing discourse is changing that claims that colonizing forces that brought “civilization” to African countries, with many critics arguing too little, to confront the past.
On Wednesday, some students from Magdalen College at Oxford University removed a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, the reigning monarch, arguing that the British monarchy represented colonial history.
The British government has largely resisted such calls, and a cabinet minister promised earlier this year to “save Britain’s statues from the waking militants.”
“What has stood for generations should be considered thoughtfully and not removed at a whim or at the urging of a hanging crowd,” Robert Jenrick, the minister, told The Telegraph.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, thousands of protesters gathered in Oxford last June to demand that the statue of Rhodes be taken down. Protesters across Britain also targeted monuments dedicated to Winston Churchill, and in Bristol, protesters toppled a statue of slave trader Edward Colson, whose profits played a major role in building the city. The statue, which was dumped in the city’s harbor, is now on display in a museum.
Cities like Bristol in England or Bordeaux and Nantes on France’s Atlantic coast have been forced to acknowledge that they flourished through slavery and forced labor among many. Belgium has sent its “deepest apology” to the Democratic Republic of Congo for the millions of deaths and devastating damage it caused during decades of colonization, and local authorities in the city of Antwerp removed a statue of King Leopold II, which was behind the colonization.
In Oxford, Oriel College has for years shaken the fate of the Rhodes statue, which is a prominent feature of the main building on one of Oxford’s main streets. While Oriel College’s governing body has said it supported the removal, the college announced last month that it would not remove the statue citing financial concerns, arguing that the operation “could run this year without certainty of outcome.”
Instead, it promised to raise money for scholarships aimed at students from South Africa and to set up an annual lecture on, among other initiatives, Rhodes’ heritage.
“We understand that this nuanced conclusion will be disappointing to some, but we are now focused on delivering practical actions aimed at improving outreach and the daily experience” of black students and ethnic minority students, the college’s provost, Neil Mendoza, told The Telegraph.
(In addition to acting as college provost, Mr. Mendoza sits in the House of Lords, the upper house of the British Parliament, as a Conservative lawmaker.)
Simukai Chigudu, associate professor of African studies at Oxford University and one of the academics who started the boycott, said Oriel College’s counter-offerings were inadequate.
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“For years, Oriel has been at odds with the statue,” said Dr. Chigudu. “They do not act in good faith, so we do not engage in good faith activities with them.”
Under Oxford University’s system of colleges, students attend lectures, seminars, and small group sessions known as tutorials, all created by the college to which they are affiliated. While professors are also affiliated with colleges, they can, if necessary, teach students from different colleges.
The boycott means that the 150 participating professors coming from other colleges at the university are not mentoring any of the 300 students from Oriel. They will also not attend any conferences or other events organized by the college.
(The boycott does not affect students from Oriel, as graduate students enroll in classes through their department of study – such as law or philosophy.)
A student representative at Oriel College did not respond to a request for comment.
Oriel College said in a statement Thursday that the academics’ decision not to participate in teaching activities with college students would have a “proportionate impact on our students and the wider academic community in Oriel, which we all have a duty to take care of.”
Rhodes ‘legacy was disputed at Oxford University even before his death: in 1899, 90 academics signed a petition against Rhodes’ visit to Oriel College to receive an honorary degree.
“I grew up in Oxford as a child, and I remember there were already some issues around the statue in the 1980s,” said Danny Dorling, professor of geography at the university and signer of the letter, who said the statue’s presence was a stain on the reputation of the university.
In 2015, students signed a petition and carried out a protest against the monument after the leadership of students at the University of Cape Town in South Africa who had successfully demanded that a similar statue of Rhodes be removed.
The “Rhodes Must Fall” movement at Oxford University has since organized several protests against the statue with renewed vigor over the past year.
Rhodes was born in Britain and studied at Oriel College in the late 19th century, before becoming Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in South Africa in 1890. Through his diamond company, De Beers, Rhodes annexed large parts of the country and settlers and soldiers, he led, killing thousands of civilians. Cinemas and critics of Rhodes have highlighted his racist views, saying his discriminatory policies against indigenous peoples paved the way for apartheid.
Rhodes died in 1902, and in his will today donated the equivalent of nearly 12 million pounds – about $ 17 million – to Oriel College.
Dozens of foreign students also study at Oxford University each year through the Rhodes Scholarship created through Mr. Rhodes’ will. Past recipients include Bill Clinton and former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Following the protests at Oxford last year, the governing body of Oriel College was given an independent commission to investigate the possibilities of the statue. It supported the removal of the statue as well as a plaque commemorating Rhodes on another street in Oxford.
In a 144-page report, the commission reminded the college of Rhodes’ past: his policy in the Cape “intensified racial segregation” and his actions were “responsible for extreme violence against African peoples”, according to a quoted professor.
“Does the college want to preserve such a central symbol of racial segregation at a time when society and institutions like Oxford University are working hard to deal with this legacy decisively?” William Beinart, Professor Emeritus of African Studies at Oxford University, wrote in the report.
Prof. Dorling, who signed this week’s letter, said the boycott was intended to show frustration over Oriel College’s passivity.
“You can not keep the statue of a racist on the highest plinth of a university building,” Professor Dorling said, adding that its removal was a matter of time.
“The question is how much – months, years, decades.”