20 September 2022
Would the Rhodes Scholars
of 20 years ago challenge
the Rhodes Statue in Oxford?
Twenty years ago, immediately after leaving the staff of The Irish Times, I was invited to co-chair one of the workshops at the Halki International Seminar organised by the Athens-based think-tank Eliamep on the island of Halki off the coast of Rhodes.
The Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy is an independent, non-governmental, non-profit think-tank, established in 1988.
The participants in the Halki programme in September 2002 included academics, journalists, politicians and policy makers, and we were hosted in a charming small hotel on the small island 10 km off the west coast of Rhodes.
During a free afternoon in the programme, I volunteered to take a small, select but mixed international group to Rhodes for a walking tour of the old town, to visit the surviving mosques and synagogue, to meet some business owners and shopkeepers of Turkish descent.
It was an exercise in ‘political ecumenism’ and a celebration of cultural diversity. At the time I felt I knew Rhodes well, having spent time there both working as a journalist and on family holidays.
For the rest of the seminar on Halki, the participants in that afternoon ‘field trip’ joked about ourselves as the ‘Rhodes Scholars’ among Eliamep’s students and panellists.
Walking around Oxford this month, I wondered, 20 years to the date, whether any of us would be happy referring to ourselves today as ‘Rhodes Scholars.’
For some years now, the statue of Cecil Rhodes statue overlooking the High Street in Oxford has been the subject of a number of protests, with calls for its removal. It has become a focus for public debate on racism and the legacy of colonialism.
Oriel College has placed a small notice below his statue on the Rhodes Building, explaining that his statue is controversial and that the college is addressing this.
Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902) was a student at Oriel College intermittently between 1873 and 1881. When he died, he left most of his estate to establish the Rhodes Trust to fund scholarships for the Rhodes Scholars – students from Germany, the US, and the then British colonies.
He left £100,000 to Oriel College, of which £40,000 was designated for building a new building to replace houses along the High Street side of the college. The New Building, as it was initially known, was built in 1909-1911. Its design incorporated a set of statues commissioned from Henry Alfred Pegram, which included one of Cecil Rhodes.
However, Rhodes’s activities made him controversial as a benefactor. He arrived in southern Africa in 1871 at the age of 17 and was based there for the rest of his life. He quickly made himself a fortune through diamond mining; and he went on to establish himself politically, entering the Cape Parliament in 1881 and becoming Prime Minster of the Cape Colony in 1890.
The conduct of these activities and their impact on black Africans have attracted much criticism, both at the time and since.
The Rhodes Building forms the north range of Saint Mary’s (or ‘the Third’) Quadrangle at Oriel College. It was built to house undergraduates and Fellows of the college. It was built in 1909-1911 to the designs of Basil Champneys (1842-1935) in a bold Jacobethan style.
The Rhodes Building fills the whole stretch of the High between Magpie Lane and Oriel Street, and seven houses had to be demolished to make room for it.
The new building was not universally regarded as an enhancement to the street. In his memoirs in 1927, WE Sherwood wrote that Oriel had ‘broken out into the High, … destroying a most picturesque group of old houses in so doing, and, to put it gently, hardly compensating us for their removal.’
James Morris wrote in Oxford (1965): ‘If you are very old indeed, you are probably still fuming about the façade built in the High Street by Oriel College in 1909, which most of us scarcely notice nowadays, but used to be thought an absolute outrage.’
In all, there are seven life-size statues including Rhodes on the building, all sculpted in Portland stone by Henry Alfred Pegram. King Edward VII and King George V were chosen because one had died and the other had come to the throne in the year the building was being erected. The other four are former heads of the college: Cardinal William Allen (1532-1594), Walter Hart or Lyhert (Provost, 1435-1446), John Hales (Provost, 1446-1449) and Henry Sampson (Provost, 1449-1476).
The Rhodes Building remains largely unaltered, except for modifications to the south-east wing in 1981, and today it provides both student and office accommodation.
The campaign to remove the statue of Rhodes was taken up again by ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ in June 2020, in conjunction with Black Lives Matter (BLM), following the death of George Floyd in the US.
The Governing Body of Oriel College voted on 17 June 2020 to launch an independent Commission of Inquiry into the key issues surrounding both the Rhodes statue and a plaque on King Edward Street and to appoint the Master of St Cross College, Carole Souter, as the Chair for the Commission. In May 2021 that commission recommended the removal of the statue.
Meanwhile, a notice below Pegram’s statue of Rhodes declares:
‘This building was constructed by Oriel College in 1910-11 with money left in the will of Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902), a former student of the college. The college commissioned a series of statues to front the building which includes Rhodes at the top.
‘Rhodes, a committed British colonialist, obtained his fortune through the exploitation of minerals, lands, and peoples of southern Africa. Some of his activities led to great loss of life and attracted criticism in his day and ever since.
‘In recent years, the statue has become a focus for public debate on racism and the legacy of colonialism. In June 2020, Oriel College declared its wish to remove the statue but is not doing so following legal and regulatory advice.’