A college at the University of Oxford has installed a plaque next to a statue of the mining magnate and politician Cecil Rhodes, describing him as “committed British colonialist” who exploited the “peoples of southern Africa”.
The explanatory panel about the former prime minister of the Cape Colony has been placed outside Oriel College, where he had studied and left £100,000 – about £12.5m in today’s money – through his will in 1902.
The Oxford statue was the target of the Rhodes Must Fall protest movement, which originated in Cape Town and argues Rhodes is a symbol of colonialism and the violence that accompanies it.
The broader row over statues of controversial historical figures has become emblematic of the so-called culture wars in both the UK and the US with monuments to figures such as the slave trader Edward Colston and the Confederate general Robert E Lee being subject to similar heated debate.
The University of Oxford angered campaigners in May for backtracking on its previous decision to remove the statue and ignore the views of an independent commission.
The explanatory plaque describes Rhodes as a “committed British colonialist” who “obtained his fortune through exploitation of minerals, land and peoples of southern Africa. Some of his activities led to great loss of life and attracted criticism in his day and ever since”.
It adds: “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.”
The Daily Telegraph spoke to two academics who expressed concerns about the content of the plaque.
David Abulafia, emeritus professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge and member of the History Reclaimed campaign, told the newspaper the sign should be “balanced and measured”, adding: “It should look at the whole of Rhodes’ career, explaining properly who he was and what he was trying to do. One needs to explain where he stands in the context of the attitudes of his day.
“He believed he was bringing benefits to Africa. We might now argue that he did more harm than good but one has to understand what his intentions were. He is portrayed here as some sort of devil incarnate.”
Dr Zareer Masani, a historian specialising in the British empire, said: “We are pressing for a balanced plaque to be put up, possibly with fairly minimal information but presenting both his flaws and his virtues.”
A commission was set up in June 2020 after the governing body of Oriel voted in favour of removing the statue. The commission was asked to look into the issue after a statue of Edward Colston was torn down in Bristol at the height of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests in the UK.
A majority of the commission’s members supported the expressed wish of the governing body to remove the statue.
However, in May the college said it would not move the statue, stating that its removal would be subject to difficult legal and planning processes.