Oxford chancellor Chris Patten warns against rewriting history in Rhodes statue row

Students attack a statue of Cecil John Rhodes as it is removed from its position at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
Students attack a statue of Cecil John Rhodes as it is removed from its position at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (AFP) - The chancellor of Britain's Oxford University on Tuesday (Jan 12) warned that history cannot be rewritten to meet modern notions of what is acceptable, in an apparent rebuff to a student campaign to remove a statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes.

The student push to remove the statue from Oriel College has ignited a debate about Britain's colonial past and whether one of the country's most revered educational establishments should distance itself from that history.

Lord Chris Patten told a ceremony to appoint a new vice-chancellor that many of the university's greatest buildings were erected using the "proceeds of activities that would be rightly condemned today".

"Education is not indoctrination," he said according to media reports, in an apparent reference to the Rhodes campaign.

"Our history is not a blank page on which we can write our own version of what it should have been according to our contemporary views and prejudices."

The university was not immediately available to verify the comments.

Rhodes was a Victorian-era tycoon and politician who founded the De Beers diamond company, created Rhodesia - now Zimbabwe and Zambia - and is seen as a founding father of South Africa.

Revered by some and reviled by others as a racist, his legacy remains controversial 100 years after his death - including Oxford's Rhodes scholarship, which boasts many high-profile recipients.

The campaign to remove his statue was inspired by a popular movement to that forced the removal of a statue of the famous imperialist from the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

The Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford group aims to "decolonise the space, curriculum, and institutional memory" of the university, and says Rhodes is currently celebrated in an uncritical way.

The university has so far agreed to remove a plaque honouring him and to conduct a six-month "listening exercise" on whether to remove his statue.

One of the leaders of the campaign, Mr Ntokozo Qwabe, is himself a recipient of a Rhodes scholarship and has faced accusations of hypocrisy in the media and online.

In response, nearly 200 recipients of the scholarship sent a statement to Britain's Guardian newspaper on Tuesday saying the award does not "buy our silence".

"There is no clause that binds us to find 'the good' in Rhodes' character, nor to sanitise the imperialist, colonial agenda he propagated," they said.