Fall of Bristol's Colston statue revives Rhodes campaign in Oxford

Rhodes Must Fall rally planned at Oriel College four years after officials said statue would stay

The dramatic toppling of a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston at a Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol has reignited the campaign to remove a statue of the Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University.

The Rhodes Must Fall campaign has called for a demonstration on Tuesday outside Oriel College, where a likeness of the controversial 19th-century figure – who supported apartheid-style measures in southern Africa – is mounted on the wall.

In 2016, hundreds of Oxford students campaigned for the removal of the Rhodes statue and for the university curriculum to be changed to reflect diversity of thought beyond the western canon.

The statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford
The statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford. Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA

The university said the statue would stay, with modifications that “draw attention to this history [and] do justice to the complexity of the debate”. It had been warned of the possibility that it would lose about £100m in gifts should the statue be taken down, but it insisted financial implications were not the primary motive behind its decision.

The demonstrations died down as the students involved graduated and moved away.

One former student who was involved with the original campaign and still lives in Oxford said: “Everyone was watching Edward Colston being torn down and thrown into the sea yesterday and it reignited the feeling that this might be our time.”

At Sunday’s Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol, demonstrators attached a rope to the Grade II-listed statue on Colston Avenue and pulled it to the ground as onlookers cheered. They rolled it down the street and pushed it into Bristol Harbour.

“What happened in Bristol is the catalyst for this protest,” said Femi Nylander, an organiser for Rhodes Must Fall. “We’re seeing a global surge against anti-blackness which has allowed us to rejuvenate that debate. It’s what we saw with Colston – it was Black Lives Matter who took down that statue of a slave owner. We’re reaffirming our demands to Oxford that they should themselves take this down as a matter of principle and matter of urgency.”

The protest in Oxford is planned to take place at 5pm on Tuesday in front of the Rhodes statue. Organisers said it would be peaceful and physical distancing would be observed. A list of Rhodes Must Fall’s demands, which include addressing underrepresentation and lack of welfare provision for black and minority ethnic students and staff, will be read out.

The former student, who wished to remain anonymous, said the campaign was about more than just the statue. “It was more about dealing with the icons of injustice and using that to question beyond critical elevation of a history that’s reliant on the widespread suffering of others. It was always about allowing us to make the past visible rather than erasing it.”

Local MP Layla Moran said: “The statues of white supremacists and slave merchants should not still be standing in our cities. That’s why the statue of Cecil Rhodes must come down.”

The Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon said she was not endorsing vigilante action, but urged Oriel College “to think about what message this statue sends in 2020, and to remove it”.

Thames Valley Police said in a statement that they support the public’s right to peaceful protest and are working constructively with organisers to protect those rights. “We are committed to facilitating a peaceful protest and the right to freedom of expression, whilst also keeping the community safe. The police force urge the public to follow the restrictions set out by the government to prevent the spread of Covid-19.”

Oxford University has been contacted for comment.


Aamna Mohdin

The GuardianTramp

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