Amid the Black Lives Matter movement, the ethics of colonial iconography in the UK has become yet another controversial topic. The toppling 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol has urged the public to consider the 'commemoration' of these remnants of Britain’s past.
Oxford University is not immune from scrutiny in this context. A protest earlier this week targeted the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford. Etched into stone below his figure, the words ‘magnificent benefactor’ show a common perception of Rhodes, who is the namesake of the prestigious postgraduate scholarship.
Rhodes, a former mining magnate, amassed his fortune through the systematic exploitation of South African miners. For many, Rhodes is emblematic of British imperialism - he is a figure who should be condemned, not celebrated. Although the Rhodes statue may be Oxford’s most well-known colonialist connection, it is not the only one. The library of All Souls’ College is named after Christopher Codrington - whose fortune stemmed from extensive slave labour on Caribbean sugar plantations.
As a Black student at Oxford, I can acknowledge the University’s efforts to examine the involvement of colonialism in its history - for example, through the ‘St John’s and the Colonial Past’ project. However, I fear that their response is limited to performative actions.
I don't believe that removing such statues is ‘erasing history’. Of course, everyone should be informed of the history of colonialism in the context of Oxford and the UK as a whole. Education is key. The names of Rhodes, Codrington, and the like should not be confined to innocuous libraries and statues - they should be displayed in museums where their actions can be fully comprehended and criticised.