How Rhodes Rose and Why He Must Fall

Cecil Rhodes: The Man, the Statue, the Legacy

By Paula Larsson and Olivia Durand of Uncomfortable Oxford.

The debate about toppling statues is not a new one, and it did not begin with Cecil Rhodes. Yet the stone facade on the front of Oriel College has come to symbolize the on-going tensions between modern injustice and historical memory. Rhodes openly believed that the greatest race in the world were the British, and that it was the destiny of the British nation to rule over the lands and nations of non-white peoples. [1] This belief guided his actions as both a businessman and a politician in the Cape Colony, supplemented by a deep thirst for amassing wealth and a seemingly unlimited personal ego. This attitude was criticized in his own time, and even his obituary in the Guardian labelled him as an ‘unscrupulous’ man who put profit and personal gain above humanity. [2]

Who was Cecil Rhodes?

Illustration of Rhodes framed by a diamond, the product of his colonial schemes and his legacy. By Kati Lacey.
Illustration by Kati Lacey

Rhodes was born in Hertfordshire, England, and as a teenager moved to Southern Africa where he founded the De Beers Mining Company. Dubious treaties granted him vast territory in which to establish diamond mines. He enforced strict laws against his African workers which confined them to prison-like compounds for the duration of their contracts.

He became a millionaire before the age of 30, and eventually the prime minister of Cape Colony (1890-1896). In this role he enacted many policies restricting the rights of black Africans and is now considered the architect of Apartheid. Rhodes was also influential in passing laws that allowed for arrest and detainment without trial, which justified more land grabs from non-white citizens. [3]

Despite poor health and a weak disposition, Rhodes had a strong craving for advancement and power. This brought him to Oxford University, where he matriculated at Oriel College in 1873. Oxford would give him the connections and credibility he thirsted for, though it took him nearly ten years to graduate. An unremarkable student, he left little impression on his tutors. His health hindered his athletic ability and he was no great orator. Living in obscurity at Oxford, he realized that he would have to make his mark in another way. [4] This was when he settled on his imperial mission. In 1877, he wrote his most famous will, declaring:

“We are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings, what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence… What a dream, Africa is still lying ready for us, it is our duty to take it.” [5]

Take it he did. Rhodes made it a personal mission to annex as much territory as possible in the name of Anglo supremacy and he would go on to name that territory after himself – Rhodesia. His expansion was quick and brutal, including the first uses of the destructive Maxim gun on the continent, which tore through the bodies of resistant tribes with murderous ease. [6] The move to paint Africa red echoed Rhodes’ call to British parliament to “annex lands, not natives”: the local populations were of little concern, provided there could be more space for ‘Anglo-Saxons’ to inhabit. [7]

The famous image of his expansionist efforts ignores the human cost of his campaigns, instead depicting a re-imagined Rhodes Colossus grandly spreading the ‘Cape to Cairo’ telegraph, soon to be followed by a railway. To Rhodes, this was the culmination of Britain’s imperial mission on the African continent and a paramount example of modernization – to him, a true ‘humanitarian’ act.

Today, those who cling to the nostalgia of the colonial past as a representation of British patriotism see him as a hero of the English and a ‘man of his time’. This is a flagrant misremembering of how Rhodes was viewed in his own lifetime. He had a circle of supporters amongst the wealthy in power and his own entourage, but for many – in England and in Africa – Rhodes was a despised man. To say he was a ‘man of his time’ is to ignore the protesting voices of that time – especially the many thousands of Black Africans who experienced the consequences of his colonial mission.

Anti-Rhodes sentiment in England peaked in 1895, when he backed the disastrous Jameson Raid into the neighboring Afrikaner Republic of Transvaal. The battle cost the British forces, and Rhodes, dearly. Facing public outcry, he was forced to resign as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony and step down from his place as director of the British South Africa Company. His reputation went from that of an ‘unscrupulous’ businessman, to that of the man who unleashed an “unbroken sequence of evil” with every decision. [8] Even at Oxford he had a number of opponents. In 1899, when the University conferred an honorary degree on him, amidst the fierce protests of students and fellows, a petition circulated that was signed by both proctors. [9]

Rhodes’ Legacy

Illustration of the Rhodes statue in Oxford by Kati Lacey.
Illustration by Kati Lacey

He wasn’t a notable scholar and was despised by many towards the end of his life. So why is there a statue (and a plaque, and many portraits, and other symbols) of Rhodes in Oxford? As historian Richard Symons noted: “no one has more memorials in Oxford than Cecil Rhodes.” [10] The answer, unsurprisingly, is money. When Rhodes died in 1902, he left a large endowment to Oriel College – £100,000 (approximately £10 million today). This funded the Rhodes building on High Street. He also left an enormous sum to fund the Rhodes scholarship program – for white men from the colonies to come to Oxford, to instill “in their minds the advantages to the colonies as well as to the United Kingdom of the retention of the unity of the Empire.” [11] The scholars were not to be ‘bookworms’ who ‘swot’ over Latin and Greek – despite Rhodes’ affection for these classical models. [12] Rather, ‘qualities of manhood’ and ‘success in manly outdoor sports’ were encouraged. In Rhodes’ opinion, this was needed in order to “get the best man for the World’s fight.” The Rhodes scholarship is one of the most lasting achievements of Cecil Rhodes’ ultimate will – confirming the place of the University of Oxford as a nexus connecting men in power. Although now open to all races and genders, originally the scholarship was intended solely for white, able-bodied men. Indeed, at his death, one newspaper described Rhodes as the “builder of an Empire, and hater of women.” [13]

Then what about his public memorialization in Oxford and elsewhere? The values of a single man cannot speak for the objective experience of the multitude of people who were caught, whether they wanted it or not – in the process of imperial expansion. The Rhodes statue(s) provides a narrow view of history, a history that takes those in power as representatives of the history of humankind as a whole.

This article is a combination of two longer reads first published on

Read the originals here:
“Where we are going, we don’t need Rhodes”, by Paula Larsson
“Rhodes is not a Colossus”, by Olivia Durand

Cecil Rhodes’ Statue and Legacy: A Student’s Perspective

File:Oriel College Rhodes Building.JPG - Wikimedia Commons
Oriel College (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

By Alvin Boateng, an undergraduate at Oriel College, Oxford

The African and Caribbean peoples once endured centuries of torment and affliction at the hands of western imperialists and colonisers. The trade and exploitation of Africa, its land and its natural resources paved the way for marked increases in the economic prosperity of the Englishman at the expense of the people of Africa. This tale of depravity saw millions of Africans involuntarily shipped across the globe, some dying en route and thrown to sharks, whilst those who survived the crossing forced to labour on plantations and lay the foundations for the great cities we know today. All the while, colonialists and imperialists exploited virgin Africa in a relentless quest for political and economic control, leaving destruction and ruin in their wake. Cecil Rhodes was a famed imperialist. A former Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, he spent his earlier years in the diamond industry. In 1890, during his tenure as Prime Minister, Rhodes ensured the passage of several Acts of Parliament seeking to rid modern-day Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa of their natives in order to enable industrial development. Through deceitful and duplicitous gambits, Rhodes duped both the Ndebele People and the British Government in order to earn millions through the exploitation of the southern continent. Today, we are gripped by an uncompromising dilemma regarding the Rhodes Legacy; whether, due to his history, his statue should fall.

For me, and no doubt a significant number of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic students in Oxford, the Rhodes Statue is problematic. Whilst Rhodes had tremendous vision for Africa and her infrastructure, this vision was predicated upon the notion that the African was a second-rate individual. The fierce determination of the native Black population and their deep connection to their motherland rendered them an encumbrance to Rhodes, a hindrance to his imperialist plans. Rhodes ideologized a stereotype of the lazy and unintelligent Black individual who needed to be displaced and “stimulated to labour.” Like many other imperialists, Rhodes sought to engender tropes of white supremacy into the grain of global society, ensuring Black people were perceived as subservient to their White contemporaries. These tropes are alive in the mechanics of British society today, evidenced by systemic and institutionalised racism and the normalisation of white supremacy in modern culture. Today, racist statues are just one way in which society creates a hierarchical history, denying Black people the opportunity to have their damaging past acknowledged and understood.

Oriel College boasts a tall and imposing figure of Cecil Rhodes on its eponymous and prominent High Street façade, as well as plaques glorifying his benevolence to the city and to the university. He casts an imperious gaze over Oxford, his statue a representation of his virtue and his values. Without contextualisation, the statue symbolises, and to a great extent venerates, the corrupt morals Rhodes upheld. Coterminous with Oxford’s difficult relationship with its colonial history, and its unwillingness to come to terms with the experience of BAME students regarding elitism and lack of representation, the statue only further strengthens sentiments of unwelcomeness amongst these students across the university. The Rhodes legacy ought to enable the understanding of the modern-day ramifications of our complex colonial past rather than damagingly suppress it. The Rhodes Must Fall and Black Lives Matter movements, therefore, are more than bouts of ‘self-recrimination’ or ‘wetness,’ as our Prime Minister may characterise them. They are about recognising and appreciating the voices of Black History that have gone unheard for centuries. The University, Fellows and Students alike must accept this.

The difficulty with the debate over Rhodes, however, lies in the false dichotomy we have created through our desire to categorise the past into good and evil. History is not binary; it is an intricate subject comprised of infinite grey areas. The issues encapsulated by the Rhodes Statue and Legacy are not solved by removing statues or changing names, but rather by acknowledging the foundations of the university, and to a great extent, the country, around us and educating ourselves on the nonchalance induced by our current representation of history. To merely take down the statue or rename the building would only scratch the surface; a much fuller enquiry and schedule of action is necessary in order to enact meaningful change.

The Rhodes Statue could, and should in my opinion, be replaced by Alain Leroy Locke, the first Black Rhodes Scholar as testament both to the benevolence of his will, and more importantly, the reformation of his views. Such a statue, central to the College, University and City would be a concrete symbol of our appreciation of the compromising past behind us, and our determination to create an inclusive future ahead of us.

Alain LeRoy Locke: the first Black Rhodes Scholar to 'benefit' from Rhodes' legacy.
Alain LeRoy Locke: the first Black Rhodes Scholar. (Painting by Betsy Graves Reyneau.) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

References for Cecil Rhodes: The Man, the Statue, the Legacy:

[1] Cecil John Rhodes, ‘Confession of Faith’, 2 June 1877

[2] “Death of Mr. Cecil Rhodes,” The Guardian (27 March 1902).

[3] Robert I. Rotberg (1988) The Founder: Cecil Rhodes and the Pursuit of Power. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

[4] George Walker, “‘So Much to Do’: Oxford and the Wills of Cecil Rhodes,” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 44, no. 4 (2016): pp. 697-716.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Our New South African War,” The Speaker 8 (Oct 7, 1893): pp. 369-370.

[7] Robert Rotberg, The Founder, 1988, 151.

[8] “Death of Mr. Cecil Rhodes,” The Guardian (27 March 1902).

[9] “Oxford Degrees,” Glasgow Herald (22 Jun 1899): p. 7 and The Leeds Mercury (19 Jun 1899): p. 4.

[10] Symonds, Richard. Oxford and Empire : The Last Lost Cause? Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

[11] Rotberg, Robert I., and Miles F. Shore. The Founder, 1988, 669

[12] Rhodes, Cecil, and W. T. Stead. The Last Will and Testament of Cecil John Rhodes

[13] “The Enigma in the Life of Cecil Rhodes,” The Province (June 14, 1902): p. 4.

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