Oxford head resists 'rewriting history' over Rhodes statue

Wed Jan 13, 2016 8:33am EST
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By Estelle Shirbon

LONDON (Reuters) - The chancellor of Oxford University has warned against rewriting history in his first public comments on a student campaign to remove a statue of 19th century colonialist Cecil Rhodes from one of the university's colleges.

Inspired by protests at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, which led to its statue of Rhodes being removed last April, the "Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford" campaign says the statue at Oriel College celebrates a brutal racist.

The dispute is one of a growing number of university controversies over issues of history and identity, often pitting freedom of speech arguments against demands for symbols deemed offensive by some students to be removed.

In the United States, southern campuses have been rocked by arguments over the confederate flag, while at Yale a row erupted when an academic pushed back against suggestions that students should self-censor Halloween costumes to avoid causing offense.

Chris Patten, Oxford's chancellor, spoke against removing the Rhodes statue in a speech widely reported on Wednesday.

"Our history is not a blank page on which we can write our own version of what it should have been, according to our contemporary views and prejudices," he said.

A fervent imperialist and 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.

A student at Oriel in his youth, Rhodes left the college money when he died, which helped fund the construction of the building where his statue stands in a niche on the facade.   Continued...

The statue of Cecil Rhodes is seen on the facade of Oriel College in Oxford, southern England, in this file photograph dated December 30, 2015. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh