Oriel and Rhodes

I spent six years at Oriel College, Oxford. I learned a lot of physics, from some exceptional tutors and an exceptional tutorial partner. I also had a lot of fun, made a lot of very good friends (one of whom I am married to) and was educated in life in ways I could not have anticipated before I went to University. What I didn’t learn was anything about Cecil Rhodes.

That’s despite the presence of the now famous statue, and the fact that some of said friends lived in the Rhodes Building. So much for the educational value of monuments.

There’s a statement from Oriel on the current Black Lives Matter demonstrations here. A key phrase is

As a college, we continue to debate and discuss the issues raised by the presence on our site of examples of contested heritage relating to Cecil Rhodes.

As an alumnus of the college (an Orielensis, as we are called), here’s my contribution to that debate. Please remove the statue and rename the building.

We should not hide the fact that, more than 500 years after its foundation, Oriel received massive cash injection from an English supremacist who was also an Orielensis. Nor should we hide the fact that for more than 100 years he was honoured with a statue on the High Street (though  to be honest so high  up you can happily ignore it, at least if you are a white kid from Manchester). But one rich benefactor should not define the college of Walter Raleigh, Cardinal Newman, Jeff Forshaw and Rachel Riley.

Rumour has it that relatively recently, the leadership of the college were minded to remove the statue, but other rich alumni donors, supported by the governing body, disagreed.  If that’s true they are doing the college a great disservice; and by college I mean not just the abstract institution, but also the diversity of students and staff who give it life and worth.

I am not advocating an ongoing moral audit of all monuments. Nobody is perfect (even if, like Newman, they are a saint). But the British Empire, and Rhodes’ role in it and in Africa, is no historical detail from the distant past. Many of its legacies are with us today, and not just statues. It would be great if we lived in the future, where these historical remnants were part of the background of a society in which all had equal opportunity and no one suffered prejudice or danger because of their race. We obviously don’t live in the future. We live now, and we should make our choices appropriately.

Black lives matter. They should have mattered more to Cecil Rhodes.

About Jon Butterworth

UCL Physics prof, works on LHC, writes (books, Cosmic Shambles and elsewhere). Citizen of England, UK, Europe & Nowhere, apparently.
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