By Pamela Roberts

A cursory glance at this image may elicit recognition of a 19th century music hall minstrel with striped trousers, a banjo in hand, and the title ‘Old King Cole’. But look more closely: the person in the image is wearing an academic gown and a mortarboard. Why? This is not a minstrel from the Moore & Burgess minstrels, a famous troupe in the 19th century who toured England and performed at Oxford Town Hall on October 20th 1898. This is an image of Christian Frederick Cole, the first Black African student at the University of Oxford. Cole was born in 1852 in Waterloo, Sierra Leone, the second son of Jacob Cole of Kissey. Cole enrolled at University College as a non-collegiate student in 1873 to read for an Honours degree in Classics. Cole’s presence at the university illustrates a narrative not traditionally associated with Black people in Britain.

Cole became a member of University College in 1877.  In 1879, he was made a member of the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple and called to the Bar in 1883. He was the first Black African to practise Law in an English Court in 1884. Cole made significant historical achievements, although it could be argued that he has was viewed as a curio. He was given the nickname ‘Old King Cole’ by his fellow students at Oxford and portrayed in a series of disparaging caricatures.

‘Great Guns of Oxford’ showing ‘Old King Cole’ wearing academic dress in front of The Mitre Hotel in High Street, Oxford, c. 1878.

My research about Cole has resulted from my work delivering Black heritage arts, media and educational projects that challenge the traditional narratives of history and heritage to illustrate a new or different perspective. Currently, I serve as the founder and director of Black Oxford Untold Stories, a project which celebrates the contributions and legacies of the University of Oxford’s Black Scholars from the turn of the 20th century to the present day.  Black Oxford Untold Stories was created after I was told ‘Black people did not go to Oxford University. You people only came here to drive the buses and work in the car factory’.  My research and efforts to raise the profile of pioneering Black scholars both through my work at Black Oxford and my book Black Oxford, The Untold Stories of Oxford University’s Black Scholars, resulted in the acquisition and unveiling of a plaque at University College to honour Christian Frederick Cole.

Plaque of Cole unveiled at University College Oxford.

Plaque of Cole unveiled at University College Oxford.

Last year, this image of Cole was widely used in the promotion of various media to illustrate the story.  I appended the caveat ‘This is the only image of Cole’ to any requests for an image of him. Every time I saw a press piece about the plaque with the image of Cole adjacent to it, I cringed. Then I started to wonder; why is this the only image?  Who produced it, and for what purpose?  I progressed from these questions and thought more broadly. I considered why Cole’s achievements were portrayed in the form of parody when his contemporaries were commemorated through portraits or statues. I was also interested in the broader issues of race and representation and how Cole’s image contributed to the reinforcement of stereotypes. Have have these stereotypes shaped unconscious biases and collective psyche of the university, past and present?

My initial thoughts, reflections and questions about Cole’s image developed into a detailed study. I delved through archives, photographic catalogues of cartoons, caricatures and 19-century portraits to acquaint myself of the imagery of the day and to try and locate a non-caricature image or a photograph of Cole.

On the 20th of October 2018,  one hundred and twenty years after Moore and Burgess’s minstrels performed at Oxford Town Hall, the basis of my research will aim to re-imagine Cole’s image. The Re-Imagining Cole symposium, in association with the Bodleian Libraries, takes place on Saturday 20th October at the Weston Library, Broad Street, Oxford, from 10.00am – 4.00pm. The symposium will examine the background, context and depictions of previously unseen caricatures of Cole, exploring why Cole and his historic achievements were only portrayed in the form of parodies. It will also examine the broader issues of race and representation in caricatures and portrait art. Finally, the symposium will pose the question should Cole’s image be re-imagined, if so, why?

The event will include art historians, artists and academics featuring Dr Temi Odumosu (Malmo University), Dr Robin Darwall-Smith (University College, University of Oxford), Robert Taylor (photographer of ‘Portraits of Achievement’), Kenneth Tharp CBE, (Director, Africa Centre), and Colin Harris (Superintendent of Bodleian Libraries Special Collections). The event has also been supported by the Art Fund and the Social History Society. Tickets can be booked now. 

Pamela Roberts is a creative producer, historian, author, playwright and Founder and Director of Black Oxford Untold Stories.