Associate Professor at the University of Oxford
In thinking about the tensions present in the relationship between historical conflict, identity, and education one need look no further than our own institution, the University of Oxford. For among Oxford’s serene and timeless architecture are strewn tributes to the great men of the British Empire; Cecil John Rhodes, Christopher Codrington, and George Curzon among others. How are we to make sense of the forgotten histories of conquest, famine and dispossession that they left in their wake?
In 2015 a student movement gathering under the slogan Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) began asking inconvenient questions about Oxford’s imperial past. They wanted the removal of a statue erected in honour of the British imperialist, mining magnate and benefactor to Oriel College, Cecil John Rhodes. The statue, condemned by the movement as ‘an open glorification of the racist and bloody project of British colonialism’, soon became the centre of one of the most heated, controversial and frankly bizarre public debates about the complex relationships between history, racial injustice and the role of elite universities.
The public reaction to the movement was fierce and often racist. For example, Will Hutton (Principal of Hertford College) in an opinion piece for The Guardian (2015) saw fit to remind RMF that were it not for the legacies of the British Empire then South Africa would descend into ‘unaccountable despotism’. So thoroughgoing was Hutton’s Anglocentrism that for him political order in South Africa could only be understood as a legacy of empire. By contrast, RMF emphasised the trauma and alienation of racialised exploitation and oppression in the colonial encounter that live on unrecognised, unresolved and unchallenged today. The question of how these interconnected but different historical experiences should be marked at Oxford University became an oppositional
confrontation in which both sides accused each other of ‘whitewashing’ history according to their
own biases and preferences.
Ultimately the removal of the statue was thwarted by donors who threatened to withhold £100 million in gifts to Oriel College should the request of RMF be met. However the movement visibly
demonstrated how power and exclusion work at the university, especially in the domains of the
curriculum, the history of the institution, and the composition of the faculty. It was at its most
effective when it argued that the suffering they caused must be memorialised along with whatever
contributions they may have made to the fortune and global recognition of the university. And it was
at its most persuasive when it argued that statues exist in a social context shaped by the meanings and understandings applied to the events and people that they commemorate.
The statue may not have come down but calling for its removal was a profoundly effective strategy
for provoking a national debate about how British institutions teach and memorialise the country’s
imperial past and deal with racism in the present.