OXFORD, England (Reuters) – More than 1,000 protesters converged on a college at Oxford University on Tuesday, chanting “take it down” and “shame on you” to demand the removal of a statue of 19th century British colonialist Cecil Rhodes.
A wave of anti-racism protests sweeping across the United States and Europe has reignited a debate about monuments glorifying Britain’s imperialist past, which many people see as offensive in today’s multi-ethnic society.
Dramatic images on Sunday of protesters in the port city of Bristol tearing down a statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston and throwing it into the harbour inspired campaigners in Oxford to seize the moment.
“Rhodes represents such a violent legacy of colonialism, imperialism, slavery, particularly in southern Africa,” said protester Morategi Kale, a South African graduate student at Oxford. “The beginning is to take down a statue that celebrates that.”
Many academics and public figures oppose the removal of such monuments, arguing they merely reflect history and should be used as points of discussion.
But demonstrators said the statue of Rhodes should no longer have pride of place on the facade of Oriel College, which overlooks Oxford’s High Street.
“I think what he did should be in the museum, but not on an institution of higher education. It’s just the wrong place,” said Butch Smith, a chef, who had brought his young daughter to the protest.
Jeevan Ravindran, a student, said the statue showed the university was failing to engage with issues faced by students from ethnic minority backgrounds.
“For black and brown students to have to walk around this university and see these symbols of slavery and colonisation is frankly quite abhorrent,” she said.
A previous student campaign in 2015, modelled on the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement in South Africa that led Cape Town University to remove its statue of Rhodes that year, failed to convince Oriel to follow suit.
In a statement ahead of Tuesday’s demonstration, the college said it abhorred racism.
“We understand that we are, and we want to be, a part of the public conversation about the relationship between the study of history, public commemoration, social justice and educational equality,” it said.
“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.”
A mining magnate, Rhodes was a central figure in Britain’s colonial project in southern Africa, giving his name to Rhodesia, present-day Zimbabwe, and founding the De Beers diamond empire.
He made his fortune from the exploitation of African miners, secured power through bloody imperial wars and paved the way to apartheid with his beliefs and measures on racial segregation.
A student at Oriel in his youth, Rhodes left the college money when he died and also endowed the Rhodes Scholarships, which have allowed more than 8,000 students from countries around the world to study at Oxford over the past century.
The demonstration was peaceful, and there was no attempt to remove the statue, which stands in a niche high up on a building whose construction was partly funded by Rhodes.
(This story corrects name spelling in paragraph 8, changes “he” to “she” in paragraph 9)
(Additional reporting by Eddie Keogh and Gerry Mey, writing by Estelle Shirbon in London; editing by Stephen Addison)