Who was Cecil Rhodes? Why councillors and protestors are calling on statue of imperialist at Oxford University’s Oriel College to be removed

The toppling of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol has sparked a debate on the presence of controversial figures across the UK

Cecil Rhodes was an ardent supporter of British imperialism, annexing much of southern Africa in the late 19th century (Getty Images)
Cecil Rhodes was an ardent supporter of British imperialism, annexing much of southern Africa in the late 19th century (Getty Images)

Protesters in Oxford are calling for the removal of a statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes from Oxford University’s Oriel College.

The reignited calls come after a crowd of demonstrators supporting the Black Lives Matter movement toppled and dumped a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into the River Avon. As statue of slave owner Robert Milligan was also removed from West India Quay on Tuesday.

Twenty-six councillors are among those calling for the disposal of the Rhodes effigy, with Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman Layla Moran, who is MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, stating: "The statues of white supremacists and slave merchants should not still be standing in our cities. That's why the statue of Cecil Rhodes must come down.”

The ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ Oxford campaign group, alongside other student groups, argue that the university has "failed to address its institutional racism" and the impact on students and the city.

An open letter from campaigners to the university's vice-chancellor says the institution has only made "inconsequential inroads" into tackling the material legacy of imperialism, adding it "is not enough".

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Who was Cecil Rhodes?

Cecil Rhodes was a British politician and mining magnate with an unflinching belief in British imperialism. He held the view that whites were a superior race and has been labelled an “architect of apartheid”.

In the late 19th century he was responsible for the expansion of the British Empire in southern Africa and the De Beers diamond company which he helped found still plays a prominent role in the precious stone market.

Zimbabwe and Zambia were both once named after him, due to his role in annexing them, taking the names Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia respectively.

The peak of his career as a politician saw him become the Prime Minister of Cape Colony (part of modern-day South Africa)

He channelled much of his energy into the creation of a Cairo to Cape Town railway which would secure Britain’s domination over trade on the African continent.

Why is he controversial?

In southern Africa Cecil Rhodes is reviled by many who regard him as the ultimate embodiment of colonialism.

Critics of Rhodes, of which there are many, say that he was a racist and hateful figure, who paved the way for Apartheid in South Africa and is a contributing cause to inequality and unrest on the continent today.

Rhodes’ obsession with British exceptionalism was married to his absurd belief of Anglo-Saxon supremacy, once saying: "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 harboured the fantasy of a British Empire which ruled the entire world, plotting the creation of a secret society which would see this come to fruition.

During his role as Prime minister of Cape Colony he effectively denied the right of Black Africans by implementing a financial requirement for voting.

He was also partly responsible for the Jameson Raid, a failed attack on Afrikaner territory which led to the second Boer War, a bloody conflict with a death toll of thousands.

The great wealth that he accumulated over his life has seen the naming of educational institutions and scholarships after him, with several statues dedicated to him scattered across southern Africa and in Britain.

Detractors claim that the presence of memorials and tributes to Rhodes provide fuel to claims of whites being a superior race.