Oriel, Cecil Rhodes and Me

I ‘went up’ to Oriel College, Oxford, in October 1983. I had been to state school – and Oriel was something of a culture shock. There were ‘normal’ people there, but there were also a lot of people who didn’t seem normal at all. They appeared very much at home in the quads of Oriel and in dinner jackets and gowns. And they very quickly joined in with the ‘traditions’ of the college, including something called ‘pegging out’, where a student would be derobed (stripped) and pinned to the lawn with croquet hoops. They also tended to row – a lot. Many people in Oriel were very good at rowing. Oriel was an all-male bastion when I arrived, but an announcement was soon made that it would go mixed. This finally happened in our third year. ‘They’ – the strange people – were outraged at this decision, and took part in an unusual form of political protest on one occasion which involved the throwing down of gowns in front of high table.

I had never really heard of Cecil Rhodes before going to Oriel. But I found out about him soon enough. One of my first essay assignments involved going to the Rhodes Library, an amazing building decked out in luscious carved wood. In Oriel’s dining hall there was a large portrait of Rhodes above high table, and then there was the statue with his foot peeking over the ledge, on the front of the college, looking out to the rest of the world. Rhodes was everywhere. But nobody talked about him, or even vaguely questioned what he was doing in all these places. We were soon told about the subversive earring which had been painted on the ear in Rhodes’s portrait (it was still there a few years ago) – a wry comment by some student prankster no doubt – and a reference to the fact that Rhodes is often seen as gay by historians and others. The College tolerated the earring, as supposedly they must have known about it.

In my third year, a small group of us began to take on the strange public school crowd. We set up a women’s committee to welcome the new arrivals, got the JCR annex renamed as the Nelson Mandela room (I’m told that the apartheid regime crumbled when it heard the news) and put together a satirical little magazine called the Oriel Wirker. I wrote an article in that little paper calling for the removal of Cecil Rhodes’s portrait from the dining hall in the college. My arguments were – I seem to remember – that he was a hyper-imperialist whose vast wealth had basically been stolen from the people of Africa. I even did some research. I had two amazing tutors in Oxford (Gavin Williams and Stanley Trapido) who taught me African politics. They were an inspiration. The piece fell on deaf ears. So I decided to take things further. I put in a motion to the Junior Common Room – the student body in the college. I still remember the humiliating defeat that evening and the key argument of my opponents – that if Rhodes was an ‘Oriel man’, he ‘must have been a good chap’.

But was Rhodes really a ‘good Oriel man’? In the Oriel Record (2014), a publication I always read from cover to cover, the true story of Rhodes’s relationship with Oriel is laid out by Brian Escott Cox.[1] Rhodes – who was already rich thanks to Kimberley diamonds – was ‘admitted’ to Oriel at the age of 20 in 1873. Rhodes was ‘most unusually’ given ‘permission to live out of college’ and, in fact, ‘never at any time lived in college’. But after one term as a ‘student’, he returned to Africa. He did not turn up in Oxford again until 1876. By the time he returned, Rhodes was ‘well on his way to becoming one of the richest men in the world’. He would stay for seven terms, but, for Cox ‘he was not a good college man, in fact he was not a college man at all (and) he never lived nor dined in college.’ He was also ‘a member of the Bullingdon Club’. Rhodes left £100,000 (a lot of money in those days, some say the equivalent of £36 million today) to Oriel in his will. Some of that money was used to build the famous statue.

Now a much more serious campaign has brought #Rhodesmustfall Rhodes into the public eye, with demonstrations, articles and the highly intelligent use of social media. The movement began in Cape Town, where a fairly hideous statue of Rhodes was eventually removed, before moving to Oxford. The proponents of the campaign (which is by no means only about the statue itself) are intelligent, savvy and angry. They highlight issues linked to Britain’s colonial past, and the lack of discussion about this past.

But the Rhodesmustfall has campaign has led to howls of outrage from the establishment, and in particular from a whole host of eminent historians. Some of these arguments are simply ridiculous, such as those which compare this student-led movement to Isil (or Isis or whatever we want to call it). Others trot out the boring charge of ‘political correctness gone mad’. For this, I refer you to Stewart Lee and his work.

Others are more serious. Michael Howard, a distinguished professor of history, called the campaign an ‘attempt to rewrite the history of the college and the university’. This is a strange argument for a historian to make. For years, there has been no discussion whatsoever of Rhodes and his legacy. This campaign has re-opened debates, including those about the history and legacy of imperialism. It has re-energised the importance of history and historical debate, which was previously moribund. Moreover, there is nothing permanent about a statue, or a monument. History tells us that statues are continually being removed, or damaged, or changed, or simply forgotten. What is so special about a not-very-interesting statue of a very rich colonialist who had a country named after him (a country which is no longer named after him)? When fascism fell in July 1943, Italians took to the streets to tear down statues of Mussolini and symbols of fascism. They did so with joy. It was a sign of political change. They weren’t stopped by an eminent historian telling them they were ‘rewriting history’.

A second argument is even weirder. We are told that it is folly to judge the past with the values of the present. But why is this the case? The past is always judged with the values of the present. This is different – very different – from seeing the past in context (which is also what historians do, all the time). If we didn’t judge the past with the values of the present, we would still think black people were inferior beings, or gay people mentally ill, or imperialism ‘the white man’s burden’. What was acceptable in the 19th century is often no longer acceptable today. Of course we should judge Rhodes with the values of today. That is the whole point. The statue should come down, and the sooner the better. But the debate should go on.




[1] Brian Escott Cox, Cecil Rhodes – Provost Clark and Harriet Butler, Oriel Record, 2014, pp. 36-42.