The Myth Behind “Rhodes Must Fall”

By Marie Kawthar Daouda


Nelson Mandela himself urged against cancelling memorials to Imperialist figures




CECIL RHODES was already a controversial figure in his time. Mark Twain, Olive Schreiner, and other anti-capitalists and socialists had already directed harsh, and at times caricatural, words against him. In 2020, after the death of George Floyd, between a pandemic and a heatwave, Black Lives Matter rekindled the embers of the Rhodes Must Fall movement in Oxford and in South Africa.

The tale of how Rhodes’s statue ended up among other statuary honouring Oriel’s benefactors is a story of gratitude. On June 21, 1899, Rhodes, then in his mid-forties, came back to Oriel to receive an honorary doctorate from the University. In the speech he gave, he alluded to the violence of his own campaigns, saying:

In those past times there have been not a few men who have done good service to the State, but some of whose actions have partaken of the violence of their age, which are hard to justify in a more peaceful and law-abiding age. It is among those men that my own life and actions must be weighed and measured; and I trust to the justice of my countrymen[1]

That same evening, he was seated at the High Table of Oriel college and heard about his alma mater’s financial difficulties.[2] £100 000 were needed to put the college back into financial stability. Rhodes died about three years after that dinner. His will, written on the 1st of July 1899 — ten days after the dinner — granted £100 000 to the college, to improve the fellows’ daily life, repair the buildings, and make up the College’s deficit. In Clause 12, Rhodes directs, under the subheading of Counsel to the childlike Dons” as follows: And finally as the college authorities live secluded from the world and so are like children as to commercial matters I would advise them to consult my Trustees as to the investment of these various funds […].”[3] 


£40 000 of Rhodes’s generous donation were meant for the construction of a new building on the High Street, which was designed by Basil Champneys and completed in 1911. Rhodes’ statue stands on the outer facade of that building. Both facades, the one on the High Street and the one on Oriel’s St Mary’s Quad, bear sculptures chosen by Provost Lancelot Shadwell and commissioned from H.A. Pegram. Among the statues commissioned are the Blessed Virgin Mary, King-Emperors Edward VII and George V, Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal William Allen, Fellow of Oriel and Principal of St Mary’s Hall, and Cardinal Newman. The figure of Rhodes holding his hat, as he would have stood a hundred years ago far below on the High Street, is oddly modern and down-to-earth among cardinals of days gone by and kings in coronation garments.

The collection of statues seems to provide a comprehensive view of Oriel and Oxford’s history. The presence of Newman is all the more significant given that a proposal to erect a statue of the Catholic convert in the city centre had recently provoked howls of outrage. William Allen is problematic too, as he assisted Philip II of Spain in his planned invasion of England. While the presence of Catholics in Oxford was still a contentious issue, and bearing in mind that Rhodes himself was in favour of Irish Home Rule, these choices can be read as gestures of reconciliation between Anglicans and Catholics, at the dawn of a new century. In our own time, the crowd’s animosity has crystallized itself around that figure that must have represented, a hundred years ago, a transition into modernity for Oriel College.


THE RHODES SCHOLARSHIP and Rhodes House are much more visible symbols of Rhodes’s presence and influence on Oxford. The Rhodes scholarship was meant to be inclusive: No student shall be qualified or disqualified for election to a Scholarship on account of his race or religious opinions,” states Rhodes in his will. This clause was debated by his trustees when Alan LeRoy Locke, the first black Rhodes Scholar, was elected. Locke himself understood and valued Rhodes’s ideal. In 1910, The Daily Mail criticized Rhodes Scholars for not mingling with British students. Alain LeRoy Locke replied in an essay entitled “The Rhodes scholar question”[4]: 

To expect semi-diplomatic qualifications and to expect international results from university scholarships is to expect and demand a great deal; but this was the imperative hope of Cecil Rhodes. Public opinion expects and demands of the Rhodes scholar what the founder hoped would be the final result and influence of his institution. It calls upon young men, training to become representative, to play the role of diplomats; and expects young students, engaged primarily in the task of educating themselves, to confront national bias, eradicate national prejudice, and educate nations to mutual good will and understanding. Whereas the Rhodes idea, in its original and deeper intentions, was that the Rhodes scholar should play this part and exert this influence in his own country and as a result of his training and experience as a Rhodes scholar.[5]


Have times gone so much worse that in 2016, Ntokozo Qwabe, himself a South African Rhodes Scholar and co-founder of Rhodes Must Fall (RMF), could not tolerate a representation of Rhodes? Qwabe qualified Rhodes as a “racist, genocidal maniac.” This might explain the forged quotation that appeared in the Rhodes Must Fall manifesto: “I prefer land to n*****s […] the natives are like children. They are just emerging from barbarism […] one should kill as many n*****s as possible.” (The asterisks are in the RMF leaflet.) But Rhodes never said this. This sentence came from former Rhodes scholar Adekeye Adebajo’s review of Paul Maylam’s The Cult of Rhodes (2006) but the sentence does not exist in Maylam’s book. As early as January 2016, an article by Madeline Briggs, published in The Poor Print, Oriel’s student journal, disclosed the forgery behind these sentences. Briggs writes:

Although the source for the quotation is not cited in the petition, with a little digging one can find it in the form above, complete with ellipses, in a book review by Adekeye Adebajo of Paul Maylam’s ‘The Cult of Rhodes’ (Times Literary Review, 2006). Adebajo, himself a former Rhodes scholar, subscribes fully to Maylam’s disparaging treatment of Rhodes. Reached for comment, he repeated that the quote is directly from Maylam, and confirmed the attribution to Rhodes. […] The single sentence quoted by RMF does not exist in Maylam’s book.[6]


As Nigel Biggar stated in February 2016, the sentence “is made up from three different quotations drawn from three different sources. The first has been lifted from an 1897 novel by Olive Schreiner: it’s fiction. The second has been misleadingly torn from its proper context. And the third […] is a mixture of distortion and fabrication.”[7] Indeed, the only plausible source would be a letter from Arthur Weston Jarvis to his mother, written on the 17th of June 1896. It is reported speech, and even if it were accurate, the whole quotation would still be an unreliable jigsaw puzzle - not something Rhodes had said. The sentence is therefore a patchwork based on a partial book review of a partial quotation. It has been removed of the RMF 2.0 manifesto — but has often popped up on social media, perpetuating the image of Rhodes as the sole perpetrator of violence on African soil.


"It is condescending and very white-centered to think that Africa’s problematic past only revolves around European imperialism."


The forged quotation, however, enabled RMF to create a solid following by copycat activism. It moved from South Africa to Oxford, putting a disproportionate highlight on the statue of Rhodes. In an astonishingly anachronistic statement, black Rhodes scholars protesting against Rhodes’s statue claimed that the money cannot buy their silence. They did not receive Rhodes’ money to express or contain their opinions, but because they have been recognised as promising young academics and valued as such, regardless of their skin colour, in accordance with Rhodes’ design. Rhodes Scholars in the Oxford of 2010 claim to be victims, putting their pain in the direct lineage of the Ndebele and Matabele tribes who suffered from Rhodes’s campaigns. However, when Rhodes died, these tribes in fact honoured him with mourning rites and songs that recognized him as king and father, chanting “My father is dead.”


HOW, THEN, CAN anti-Rhodes feelings be explained in 2020 and 2021? The death of George Floyd and the indignation it awoke on social media seemed to strengthen the idea of systemic racism. A lot can alas be ascribed to the sort of thinking promoted by some academics. Floyd was the timely sacrificial lamb illustrating institutional racism, which Camara Phyllis Jones defines as “differential access to the goods, services, and opportunities of society by race,”[8] such a difference being so deeply-rooted in the structures that differential treatment is at once inevitable, and also linked only to race. This approach puts too much focus on racial oppositions as experienced in the United States and takes attention away from other experiences of cultural diversity.

Critical Race Theory’s offspring, anti-racism, as advocated by Ibram Kendi, fixes itself on the irreparable damage that slavery has inflicted on black people. Previously segregationist countries bear the burden of racial inequities in a way that has no common point with the United Kingdom’s history — to which one could add the history of the Second British Empire (including Canada). Moreover, to decide that an entire society is irreparably racist can only result in blurring the borders between unintentional harm and actual racism. By implicating every white person in systemic racism, anti-racism perpetuates a feeling of victimhood and inferiority among members of ethnical minorities, enforcing the narrative that a black person will never succeed. Anti-racism builds a wall between the ones who will succeed because of their white privilege and who must atone for it, and their timeless victims, who can never fully thrive but can only be acknowledged as a collateral damage of Western history. That is an approach that can only make race relations forever worse, not better.

When visiting Westminster Abbey, Nelson Mandela, who probably knew more about the evils of racism and segregation than a 21st Century Rhodes Scholar, saw the Rhodes and Lord Milner memorials, both on Henry VII’s Lady chapel. Mandela said: 

These memorials must never be removed, They must stay here as reminders of the past and its ills, so that we do not repeat the same mistakes. Let any other South African memorials be put here beside them. You cannot undo the past, you can only transform it. If one must feel scandalised by traces of the past, the solution is not in their destruction but in resilience and in the creation of something new.[9]


A frequently-heard analogy in the Rhodes debate is that one might just as well advocate the preservation of Nazi symbols in situ after Hitler’s fall. To compare Hitler and the Third Reich to Rhodes and the Victorian empire is thoroughly disrespectful. Not because the Holocaust should stand as a gold standard of human suffering, but precisely because each experience of pain, collective or individual, is unique and deserves its own narrative. However, when it comes to architectural heritage, one should not lose the sense of perspective. Ntokozo Qwabe is entitled to discard Mandela’s position, saying that “Mandela is not the god of black people” and that his own lived experience is just as valid as Mandela’s; but one of them shows the over-reactivity of a self-centered generation, while the other expresses a magnanimity and dignity that are lost on the victimhood culture.

The history of Africa and of Africans cannot be limited to the colonial and post-colonial past, for what are the colonial centuries in comparison with the millennia of war and peace-making, of piracy and slave-trading, of empires risen and fallen on the African continent long before Rhodes ever happened to be born? It is condescending and very white-centered to think that Africa’s problematic past only revolves around European imperialism. The late king of Morocco, Hassan II, used to call such an attitude “third-worldism.” While claiming to speak up for the oppressed, many academics, albeit well-intentioned, forget that, as T.S. Eliot wrote, “time is unredeemable.” Putting Rhodes’ statue in a museum would deprive the building of its meaning. One cannot edit out a statue from a building through some sort of historical photoshopping. What academics can do, however, is to show an example of balance, and an aptitude to put opinions aside when addressing the past.


Dr. Marie Kawthar Daouda, a lecturer at Oriel College, teaches French language and literature at Oxford University.



  1. Basil Williams, Cecil Rhodes, London: 1921, p. 313.
  2. Jeremy Catto ed., Oriel College: A History. Oxford: OUP, 2013, pp. 438-9.
  3. Lewis Michell, The Life of the Right Honorable Cecil John Rhodes, Vol. 2., Edward Arnold, London, 1910, p. 316.
  4. Reprinted in The American Oxonian, Spring 2007, XCIV, n°2, pp. 232-236. The editors note : The Rhodes Scholar Question” was transcribed by Jack Zoeller from an undated handwritten document in the Alain Locke Papers at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center of Howard University. Reprinted by kind permission.
  5. The American Oxonian, vol. cit. p. 232-233.
  8. Jones, "Confronting Institutionalized Racism". Phylon. 50 (1/2): 7–22. 2002, pp. 9–10.
  9. Chris Chivers, Cape Times, 31 March 2015.


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  • Riki on

    What a fantastic article. Could it be possible that Dr Marie is the Goddess of Common Sense?

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