Like it or not, Rhodes is part of UK history

The push to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College at Oxford University has ignited a debate about Britain's colonial past.
The push to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College at Oxford University has ignited a debate about Britain's colonial past.PHOTO: REUTERS

Oxford chancellor's remarks come as students seek to remove statue

LONDON • The chancellor of Britain's Oxford University has warned that history should not 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.

Mr Chris Patten told a ceremony to appoint a new vice-chancellor on Tuesday 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 legacy of Cecil Rhodes

  • One of the most committed imperialists of the 19th century, Cecil Rhodes still provokes strong feelings today.

    •Born in 1853, he attended Oriel College in the 1870s before founding the De Beers diamond empire in South Africa, where he rose to be premier of the then Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896.

    •His detractors see him as the ultimate representation of colonialism and he is, perhaps, best remembered for beginning racial segregation in southern Africa. His government restricted the rights of black Africans by raising the financial qualifications for voting.

    •He believed in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race and wanted to create an international movement to extend British territory.

    •Scholarships allowing students from outside Britain to study at Oxford still bear his name. Previous Singaporean awardees include former national swimmers Desmond Koh, Tan Thuan Heng and Thum Ping Tjin and former Anglo Chinese School (Independent) principal Ong Teck Chin.

The university was not immediately available to verify the comments.

Revered by some and reviled by others as a racist, 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.

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 movement 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 says Rhodes is 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".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 14, 2016, with the headline 'Like it or not, Rhodes is part of UK history'. Print Edition | Subscribe