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Oxford and Empire: An “uncomfortable” history

Our University is stained by its imperial legacy, so why is 'decolonisation' seen as a dirty word?

Oxford life is tied to tradition. From reciting Latin at the start of formal hall to donning gowns for prelims and finals, our university’s history pervades our experience today. The darker side of our history thus also casts its long shadow over the present. In 2016, the Rhodes Must Fall movement spurred an international debate about certain statues in Oxford that honour those involved in some of the darkest aspects of the British Empire, leading Oriel College to promise to remove its own Cecil Rhodes monument in 2020. A year later, Magdalen College MCR members voted to remove a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, arguing it was a symbol of “recent colonial history”. The flares of fierce debate surrounding Oxford’s past connection with the Empire and its response to this connection have generally been short-lived, soon dampened by promises of new changes to curriculums and admissions processes, and quickly replaced by a general silence from the university on the topic of decolonisation.

Why is this silence the status quo?

Oxford University does not seem much inclined to dwell on its colonial past. This past is made more complicated by the collegiate system. All of Oxford’s forty-four colleges and PPHs have different ages and histories, and have long had different teaching methods, different alumni, different investments, and different leadership. As a result, the colleges have unique histories that often need to be addressed separately, and many have varying levels of ability or interest in doing so. In the Spring of 2016, Oxford launched the Oxford and Colonialism Project “in an effort to reflect on the University’s historic ties with Great Britain’s colonial past and the ways in which the University’s colonial legacies reflect on the present, and our vision of the University’s future.” Its website contains substantial information about the colonial histories of departments, faculties, and colleges. However, with very little effort put into advertising it, these histories and the project itself often do not make it into mainstream conversation, with most students not even knowing it exists.

Certain external groups are taking action to shine a light on Oxford’s colonial past. Uncomfortable Oxford, founded by DPhil students, leads fantastic tours around the university, seeking to generate discussions about racial inequality, gender and class discrimination, and the university’s Imperial legacy. They also attempt to foster systemic intervention in Oxford, pressing it to engage with its past. They told Cherwell: “The University of Oxford does not seem to have made any active or unified response to its colonial history and does not seem to engage as a whole with this topic – or indeed, legacies of colonialism in the form of fossil fuels investments or student representation. We have seen, however, substantial forms of engagement emanating from individual colleges, departments, or academics. These are attempts, within their own sphere, to recognise this history and find ways to address it, in the form of research, scholarships, and public engagement events (such as exhibitions). The decentralised nature of the University of Oxford allowed it to benefit greatly from colonialism in multiple ways, but this decentralisation is also one of the reasons for its lack of responsiveness.”

The spokesperson continued, “Recognising is a first and necessary step. However, it is also crucial that it be followed by representation through scholarship AND recruitment programs. Furthermore, given the university’s research-oriented goals, diversifying both the areas of research and the scholars and subjects in curriculums would also be some of the many appropriate courses of action to take.”

Matus Lazar, an alumnus who studied history at Oxford and a history YouTuber with over 185k subscribers, recently published a video about Oxford’s colonial history. While conducting secondary research for the video, he uncovered details about certain investments made by some Oxford colleges. In the footnotes of a seven-volume book set on the history of Oxford, mentions of some Oxford colleges’ connections to colonial enterprises and organisations were recorded. Lazar sat down with me to discuss this evidence of Oxford’s “uncomfortable history” and the legacy that this has left on the institution as a whole.

Although the collegiate and university’s financial records were inconsistent until the 1870s, they show that the university’s and many of its colleges’ wealth came from holdings and investments. During much of the last five centuries of British history, these investments often contributed to the economy of empire. Certain colleges have more traceable histories of investment into colonial corporations: for instance, Wadham and New College put money into the South Sea Company, which was granted a monopoly to supply African slaves to the islands in the “South Seas” and South America in 1713. Colleges also benefitted from funding for professorships and scholarships that was received from parliament, the monarchy, and prominent individuals. Such positions include the Boden Professor of Sanskrit, funded by Joseph Boden, a soldier of the East India Company, the Beit Professorship of Commonwealth History funded by Alfred Beit, a precious metals magnate in colonial Africa and the Oxford Forestry School funded by the Indian Colonial Government.

The individuals and organisations providing this funding often had very strong links to slavery, imperial companies, and colonial economic exploitation. For instance, Edward Hyde, the first Earl of Clarendon, was involved in the conquest of Ireland, the procurement of plantations in Ireland, and the colonisation of South Carolina. Clarendon later became the University of Oxford’s chancellor and donated substantially to the university, hence the naming of the Clarendon building right across from the Bodleian Library. Although Oxford colleges are not believed to have owned slaves, as is the case with certain American universities like the University of Virginia, it is undeniable that they did benefit from the financial support of those who did.

This year, Stephen Fry attended the Oxford Union to debate whether artifacts obtained through imperial ventures should be returned to their original countries or ethnic groups. This is a particularly pertinent question at Oxford, which owns many old books and artifacts that have been acquired illegally or taken through imperial coercion. For example, the Totem pole in the Pitt Rivers museum was forcefully taken from the Haida people of Western Canada in the nineteenth century and sent to Oxford. This is why the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers Museums, which have close ties with the university, are currently being called on to repatriate some of their artifacts. The wider university’s possession of items with dubious histories should perhaps also be called into question.

However, the university did not only reap financial rewards from British colonialism; it also supplied the Empire with crucial manpower, producing many of the administrators and officers that would be sent across British territories. The role of Oxford alumni in British imperial ventures can be traced to the very beginnings of the Empire. In the 16th century, the country’s colonial ambitions were spearheaded by Oxford-educated men like Walter Raleigh, Thomas Roe, and Humphrey Gilbert. Raleigh went on to found Virginia, Roe led an expedition to Guiana, and Gilbert was a pioneer of the English colonial Empire in North America and the Plantations of Ireland. Professor Judith Brown has used matriculation records to show that 345 Balliol graduates went out to work in India as colonial administrators between 1853 and 1947, including 273 who found employment in the Indian Civil Service (ICS).

It is important to note that during the same period, 88 Indian students studied at Balliol. There are many historical people of colour whose entry to the university should be celebrated. Cornelia Sorabji, the first woman to practise law in India, is one such example. Another is Christian Cole, who matriculated as the first black student at Oxford in 1873, reading Classics, and graduated in 1876. To give due credit to the presence of students of colour in Oxford’s history would take many more articles.

Much of the rhetoric and ideology that bolstered Britain’s imperial campaign was consolidated by Oxford academics and circulated by the University Press. The historian Laurence Brockliss states that “It was considered to be Oxford’s primary function to take callow youths and turn them into intelligent, upright, and dedicated servants of a British civilising mission”, and, therefore, various course curriculums were tailored to train the next generation of imperial administrators. This led Oxford to serve as a production line for imperial actors. Indeed, the printing press on Walton St helped circulate white supremacist ideologies, and professors taught the ‘theory’ of eugenics, with the arts professor John Ruskin lecturing on how England “must found colonies as fast and as far as she is able, formed of her most energetic and worthiest men”. The Oxford history professor C. R. L. Fletcher wrote a book for primary school called A History of England, in which he stated that the descendants of African slaves in the Caribbean are “lazy, vicious and incapable of any serious improvement … and quite useless”, black South Africans are described as “fierce savages”, and the aboriginals of Australia are “nothing but a few miserable blacks”.

Due to the tradition underlying the structure and content of various subjects at Oxford, relics of the old imperial ideology live on in some of our degrees today. In history, for example, the course structure still mandates that all undergraduate history students study two papers on British history and two on European history across their three-year degree. Considering there are only six papers where the geographic location of study is relevant, this significantly restricts Oxford students’ ability to interrogate global history and explore cultures beyond the West.

This structure makes the subject anything but modern when compared to other British universities. Top universities like LSE, UCL, and Warwick have no requirements to study British history. Likewise, in 2022, Cambridge produced a “substantially new and significantly enhanced curriculum” with far less stringent geographic study requirements. 

Ian Archer and Lucy Wooding, the current heads of Undergraduate history at Oxford (check titles), told Cherwell that “many of us tend to avoid the term ‘decolonising’ in relation to the [history] curriculum because of its contested interpretation, but as a Faculty, we are absolutely committed to diversifying our offering… Our Race Equality Action Group is committed to curricular changes which will promote the study of the Global South and introduce students to a range of historical approaches beyond those dominant in the European historical tradition. Race has been introduced as one of the categories studied in the first-year Approaches to History course; other reading lists have been reviewed to incorporate more diverse perspectives. We have introduced Arabic classes for beginners with a view to facilitating an Arabic pathway through the degree programme. We have also made appointments in black history, welcomed the first woman as Regius Professor of History, and have instituted the first professorship of Women’s History, alongside the introduction of the Masters programme in Gender, Women’s and Queer History. We are looking forward to forthcoming appointments in the history of sexualities, and environmental history, so we are quite confident that our degree is far from archaic.”

Whilst changes to the structures of our university, from the physical fabric of its buildings to the contents of its courses, may be under review, it is obvious that this review is not only important, but pressingly relevant.

Overall, it seems that the legacy of Oxford’s colonial history is so nuanced and multifaceted that identifying the various areas that need to be addressed, let alone addressing them, is going to be a long process and one that requires significant investment in time and funding from the university. Matus Lazar argues that little progress has been made in this regard because “most people either don’t care that much, or the monetary aspect scares them away”. That is to say, the decolonisation debate is generally either seen as a low-priority issue when compared to other questions faced by colleges, such as admission ratios and making money to fund their current cohort, and members of college administrations are frightened by the potential consequences on donations if they take drastic action to address their colonial past. That is ultimately the reason for the university’s silence on this issue and why many professors tend to avoid the word ‘decolonising’ in relation to the curriculum.

Indeed, Lazar believes that the monetary aspect is far more important to the actions taken by the university than any ideological incentive: as opposed to some genuine desire to protect relics of the imperial past, such as the Rhodes statue or the names of buildings, colleges and the university are prevented from acting due to a fear of the financial repercussions. In fact, according to The Guardian, Oriel’s reluctance to remove the Rhodes statue was spiked when “donors apparently threatened to withdraw millions of pounds in contributions or legacies if it did so”. The backlash against the college’s initial decision to remove the statue included a call by former Brexit Party MEP, Ben Habib, to return Rhodes’ endowment to his family and Daniel Hannan, a Conservative MEP who studies at Oriel, reportedly withdrawing his regular donation to Oriel and tweeting that “the first black student won a scholarship 5 years after [Rhodes’] death. Why would anyone give to an institution that treats its benefactors this way?”

In the eyes of Lazar, this debate in Oxford around finances, reparations, decolonisation, and Oxford’s past Imperial connections is ultimately a matter of ‘memory vs history’. Many people in Britain have a positive memory of the Empire, and any attack on its legacy is seen as an attack on this positive memory. Lazar states that “in the end, this entire thing is just an extension of the whole memory vs history battle about the Empire that is happening in the whole of Britain. After all, this wouldn’t be happening in Oxford if it wasn’t a contentious topic in the rest of the country.” From the statue of Edward Colston being thrown into the harbour to the statue of Churchill being tagged by graffiti reading ‘racist’, the battle of how we in the present remember the imperial past is very much ongoing. Whilst the university easily addresses the emotional element of colonialism, with apologies being issued and projects like Oxford and Colonialism being created as a forum for discussion, the university tries to remain silent on any more significant changes. Lazar argues that as long as there will be financial repercussions for thoroughly addressing the university’s imperial legacy, no significant changes will occur, and these financial repercussions will not disappear until the positive memory of the Empire, which still persists in British society, is not resolved.

Ultimately, the questions surrounding Oxford’s imperial history and how to confront it are only beginning to be adequately addressed and will certainly be the centre of controversy for many more years. However, one thing is clear: the university, including its students, needs to ensure that the conversation does not lapse into silence.

Image credit: Wang Sum Luk

Motacilla / CC BY-SA 3.0

David Iliff / CC BY-SA 3.0

British South Africa Company / Public Domain

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