Oxford mulls over removal of tribute to 'architect of apartheid'

LONDON • This year, students at the University of Cape Town successfully pushed for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the imperialist tycoon seen by many as an architect of apartheid. Oxford University, in the country of his birth, might be next.

A monument to Rhodes at Oxford's Oriel College has inspired a petition and protests, along with a vigorous discussion about whether Britain's colonial past should be judged by contemporary standards.

That has left officials at the school debating whether to remove the statue of an alumnus remembered by some as a ruthless colonialist, and by others as an educational benefactor.

Last Thursday, a former Australian prime minister, Mr Tony Abbott, entered the debate, arguing that removing the statue would be an act of "moral vanity". Like former US president Bill Clinton, Mr Abbott is one of about 8,000 Rhodes scholars who have studied at Oxford thanks to a programme set up with money left by the British colonialist, who died in 1902.

The campaign to remove monuments to Rhodes has already gained ground. Oriel College wants to take down a plaque to Rhodes on one of its properties, and it will spend six months considering the future of the statue. "Its wording is a political tribute, and the college believes its continuing display on Oriel property is inconsistent with our principles," it said.

Some British politicians have sought to depict the campaign as a demonstration of political correctness and an effort to erase history, a notion that supporters reject.

Instead, they argue that any commemoration of Rhodes sends out a hostile signal to some modern-day students.

Born in 1853, Rhodes 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.

Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was named after Rhodes, but he is perhaps best remembered for beginning racial segregation in southern Africa and for his belief in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 27, 2015, with the headline Oxford mulls over removal of tribute to 'architect of apartheid'. Subscribe