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Who was Cecil Rhodes? The figure behind the Oxford statue controversy

Students Call For Removal Of Cecil Rhodes Statue From Oriel College
The Cecil Rhodes statue stands above the door at Oxford University’s Oriel College (Picture: Getty)

At the Oriel College building of Oxford University stands the statue of Cecil Rhodes, and it has been a figure of controversy for many years.

Students at Oxford University have been calling for the statue to be removed since 2015, with renewed interest coming in the wake of the removal of Edward Colston during Black Lives Matter protests in Bristol.

Despite these calls for the Rhodes statue to be removed, the governing body of the University has stated that they have no plans to remove the statue, which has led to 150 lecturers going on strike over the decision.

But who was Cecil Rhodes, and what makes him such a controversial figure?

Here is everything you need to know…

Who was Cecil Rhodes?

Cecil John Rhodes in a black and white photograph.
Rhodes made his fortune from mining diamonds in South Africa (Picture: Getty)

Rhodes was a British mining magnate and politician who was born in 1853 and died in 1902.

He is considered to be one of the 19th century’s most ardent supporters of British Imperialism, who played a significant role in the development of Southern Africa during the late 1800s.

He moved to South Africa when he was 17, and initially began working with cotton before earning enough money to return to England in 1873 and purchase an education at Oriel College.

When he returned to South Africa, he took a keen interest in diamond mines, amassing a small fortune before founding the De Beers diamond mining firm in 1888.

A statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College in Oxford.
Rhodes donated money to Oxford in his will (Picture: Getty)

As a politician, Rhodes entered the Cape Parliament in 1881, and in 1890, he became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony until 1896.

During his time as Prime Minister, Rhodes used his political power to take away land from black Africans through the Glen Grey Act, while also tripling the wealth requirement for voting under the Franchise and Ballot Act, which effectively barred black people from taking part in elections.

After overseeing the formation of Rhodesia (which is now Zimbabwe and Zambia) during the early 1890s, he was forced to resign in 1896 after his involvement in the Jameson Raid, a failed attempt to inspire an uprising of British expatriate workers against Paul Kruger’s South African Republic (or Transvaal).

From there, his health declined rapidly, and he died in 1902 at the age of 48.

Why is Cecil Rhodes a controversial figure?

Students Call For Removal Of Cecil Rhodes Statue From Oriel College
Students have been campaigning to have the statue removed from Oxford for the last few years (Picture: Getty)

Rhodes is a figure of British colonialism, and his racist policies as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony make him a very controversial figure.

His legacy as both an imperialist and politician has come under some heavy scrutiny in recent years, with many believing he is not a figure who should be memorialised on University buildings.

The university has been accused of keeping the statue for financial reasons, following threats from wealthy donors to withdraw £100million in funding if it were to be removed.

Rhodes donated money to the college when he died in 1902 and gave his name to a prestigious scholarship programme funding overseas students, known as ‘Rhodes scholars’.

After the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign in 2016, Oriel College authorities said the ‘overwhelming’ response was that his figure should remain in place after some even launched a counter-campaign ‘History Must Stand’.

A college spokesman said the statue was ‘an important reminder of the complexity of history and of the legacies of colonialism still felt today’.

But those behind the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, in response to the most recent refusal to remove the statue, described the decision as ‘an act of institutional racism’.

It comes amid a decision to remove the Queen’s portrait at Magdalen College due to concerns over its ‘colonial links’.

Members of the Magdalen College Middle Common Room (MCR), which is made up of graduate students, voted to remove the picture from their common room.

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Richard Madeley slams Oxford students for their backlash to Queen picture

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