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Cecil Rhodes: A Bad Man in Africa
The evil that men do lives after them - and rarely more miserably than in the case of Cecil Rhodes, who died 100 years ago this month
by Matthew Sweet
March 16, 2002
North of the Zambezi, they have long known about the suppression of free speech, about the bloody redistribution of land along racial lines, about politicians happy to employ armed and sometimes uniformed mobs to kill their opponents. They are practices imported to this region, along with the railways, by the British.
Unlike the African press, the Western media rarely invoke the name of Cecil John Rhodes: nearly a century after his death on 26 March 1902 his name is more associated with Oxford Scholarships than with murder. It's easier to focus on the region's more recent, less Anglo white supremacists: Ian Smith, for instance, who despite his Scottish background seems cut from the same stuff as those Afrikaner politicians who nurtured and maintained apartheid farther south.
But it was Rhodes who originated the racist "land grabs" to which Zimbabwe's current miseries can ultimately be traced. It was Rhodes, too, who in 1887 told the House of Assembly in Cape Town that "the native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise. We must adopt a system of despotism in our relations with the barbarians of South Africa". In less oratorical moments, he put it even more bluntly: "I prefer land to niggers."
For much of the century since his death, Rhodes has been revered as a national hero. Today, however, he is closer to a national embarrassment, about whom the less said the better. Yet there are plenty of memorials to him to be found. In Bishop's Stortford, his Hertfordshire birthplace, St Michael's Church displays a plaque. The town has a Rhodes arts centre, a Rhodes junior theatre group, and a small Rhodes Museum currently closed which houses a collection of African art objects. In Oxford, his statue adorns Oriel College, while Rhodes House, in which the Rhodes Trust is based, is packed with memorabilia. Even Kensington Gardens boasts a statue of a naked man on horseback based on the central feature of his memorial in Cape Town.
But his presence is more strongly felt and resented in the territories that once bore his name. Delegates at the Pan Africanist Congress in January argued that "the problems which were being blamed on [President Robert] Mugabe were created by British colonialism, whose agent Cecil Rhodes used armed force to acquire land for settlers". He is the reason why, during the campaign for the presidential election in Zimbabwe, Mugabe's Zanu-PF described its enemies white or black as "colonialists"; why, when Zimbabwe gained full independence in 1980, Rhodes's name was wiped from the world's maps.
The prosecution case is strong. Rhodes connived his way to wealth in a lawless frontier culture, then used that fortune to fund a private invasion of East Africa. He bought newspapers in order to shape and control public opinion. He brokered secret deals, issued bribes and used gangs of mercenaries to butcher his opponents, seizing close to a million square miles of territory from its inhabitants. Although he did this in the name of the British Empire, he was regarded with some suspicion in his home country, and when it suited him to work against Britain's imperial interests by slipping £10,000 to Parnell's Irish nationalists, for example he did so without scruple.
Rhodes was born in the summer of 1853, the fifth son of a parson who prided himself on never having preached a sermon longer than 10 minutes. A sickly, asthmatic teenager, he was sent to the improving climate of his brother's cotton plantation in Natal. The pair soon became involved in the rush to exploit South Africa's diamond and gold deposits and unlike many prospectors and speculators who wandered, dazed and luckless, around the continent, their claim proved fruitful.
When Rhodes began his studies at Oriel College, he returned to South Africa each vacation to attend to his mining interests which, by his mid-thirties, had made him, in today's terms, a billionaire. By 1891, he had amalgamated the De Beers mines under his control, giving him dominion over 90 per cent of the world's diamond output. He had also secured two other important positions; Prime Minister of the British Cape Colony, and president of the British South Africa Company, an organisation that was formed in the manner of the old East India companies to pursue expansionist adventures for which sponsoring governments did not have the stomach or the cash. The result of his endeavours produced new British annexations: Nyasaland (now Malawi), Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
Rhodes imprinted his personality on the region with monarchical energy: dams, railway engines, towns and anti-dandruff tonics were all named after him. But his expansionist zeal was not always matched at home in Britain. "Our burden is too great," Gladstone once grumbled. "We have too much, Mr Rhodes, to do. Apart from increasing our obligations in every part of the world, what advantage do you see to the English race in the acquisition of new territory?" Rhodes replied: "Great Britain is a very small island. Great Britain's position depends on her trade, and if we do not open up the dependencies of the world which are at present devoted to barbarism, we shall shut out the world's trade. It must be brought home to you that your trade is the world, and your life is the world, not England. That is why you must deal with these questions of expansion and retention of the world."
At around the same time, Henry John Heinz was outlining a comparable manifesto: "Our field," he pronounced, "is the world." By 1900, his 57 varieties were available in every continent. Global capitalism and imperial expansion developed in collaboration; shared aims, aspirations, patterns of influence. Today, most of the world's political empires have been dissolved and discredited, but the routes along which capital moves remain the same. After Rhodes came Nestlé, Coca-Cola, BP, McDonald's, Microsoft.
In 1896, Rhodes's name was linked with the Jameson Raid a disastrous (and illegal) attempt to annex Transvaal territory held by the Boers, and a principal cause of the South African War of 1899-1902. His reputation in Britain accrued a lasting tarnish. A defence of his character, published in 1897 and co-authored by the pseudonymous "Imperialist", offers an insight into the charges against him: "Bribery and corruption", "neglect of duty", "harshness to the natives" and the allegation that "that Mr Rhodes is utterly unscrupulous". His lifelong companion Dr Leander Starr Jameson a future premier of the Cape Colony and the leader of the ill-fated raid added a postscript insisting that some of Rhodes's best blacks were friends: "His favourite Sunday pastime was to go into the De Beers native compound, where he had built them a fine swimming bath, and throw in shillings for the natives to dive for. He knew enough of their languages to talk to them freely, and they looked up to him indeed, fairly worshipped the great white man."
Did anyone buy this stuff? After Rhodes's fatal heart attack on 26 March 1902, the death notices were ambivalent. News editors across the world cleared their pages for obituaries and reports of public grief in South Africa, but few wholehearted endorsements of his career emanated from London. "He has done more than any single contemporary to place before the imagination of his countrymen a clear conception of the Imperial destinies of our race," conceded The Times, "[but] we wish we could forget the other matters associated with his name." Empire-builders such as Rhodes, the paper said, attracted as much opprobrium as praise: "On the one hand they are enthusiastically admired, on the other they are stones of stumbling, they provoke a degree of repugnance, sometimes of hatred, in exact proportion to the size of their achievements." Jameson and "Imperialist", it seems, had not succeeded in rehabilitating their mentor.
But the story of Rhodes's posthumous reputation is just as complex and contentious as that of his life and career. And curiously, his sexuality was one of the main battlegrounds. In 1911, Rhodes's former private secretary Philip Jourdan wrote a biography of his late employer in order to counter "the most unjust libels with reference to his private life [which] were being disseminated throughout the length and breadth of the country". Despite the aggressive romantic attentions of a Polish adventuress and forger named Princess Catherine Radziwill, Rhodes was indifferent to women and gained a reputation for misogyny. His most intense relationships were with men his private secretary Neville Pickering, who died in his arms; Jameson, whom he met at the diamond mines in Kimberley where, the doctor recalled, "we shared a quiet little bachelor establishment"; and Johnny Grimmer, of whom Jourdan (defeating the purpose of his memoir) said: "He liked Johnny to be near him... The two had many little quarrels. On one occasion for a couple of days they hardly exchanged a word. They were not unlike two schoolboys."
Rhodes's excuse for remaining single was the one used today by members of boy bands: "I know everybody asks why I do not marry. I cannot get married. I have too much work on my hands." Instead, he accumulated a shifting entourage of young men, known as "Rhodes's lambs". It's probable that these relationships were more homosocial than homosexual, but that didn't stop the gossips or biographical theoreticians. In 1946, Stuart Collete suggested Rhodes was "one of those who, passing beyond the ordinary heterosexuality of the common man, that the French call l'homme moyen sensual, was beyond bisexuality, beyond homosexuality and was literally asexual beyond sex. It appears to have had no literal meaning to him except as a human weakness that he understood he could exploit in others". The same biographer wove these comments into an analysis of Rhodes's appeal to another set of posthumous acolytes: the Nazis.
As the 20th century moved on, Rhodes's memory became increasingly attractive to extreme (and eventually moderate) right-wing opinion. Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918) hailed him as "the first precursor of a Western type of Caesar in our Germanic world, the spirits of Alaric and Theodoric will come again there is a first hint of them in Cecil Rhodes".
It's easy to see why Spengler, and later Hitler, were fans. Asked by Jameson how long he would endure in memory, Rhodes replied: "I give myself four thousand years." To the journalist WT Stead he said: "I would annex the planets, if I could. I often think of that." When, in 1877, he first made his will, he urged his executors to use his fortune to establish a secret society that would aim to redden every area of the planet. He envisioned a world in which British settlers would occupy Africa, the Middle East, South America, the Pacific and Malay islands, China and Japan, before restoring America to colonial rule and founding an imperial world government. "He was deeply impressed," Jameson recalled, "with a belief in the ultimate destiny of the Anglo-Saxon race. He dwelt repeatedly on the fact that their great want was new territory fit for the overflow population to settle in permanently, and thus provide markets for the wares of the old country the workshop of the world." It was a dream of mercantile Lebensraum for the English: an empire of entrepreneurs, occupying African territories in order to fill them with Sheffield cutlery, Tate & Lyle's Golden Syrup and Uncle Joe's Mint Balls.
But it was Rhodes's Alma Mater that did most to brighten his prestige. In 1899, Oxford University, an institution with a long and continuing history of accepting money from morally dubious millionaires, agreed to administer a more cuddly and less clandestine version of the "Imperial Carbonari" of the 1877 will: the Rhodes Scholars. In 1903, the first names were selected. A group of men fitted for "manly outdoor sports", who would display "qualities of manhood, truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for the protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship" men such asBill Clinton, the CIA director Stansfield Turner, the first Secretary General of the Commonwealth Sir Arnold Smith, and the Nato Supreme Commander Bernard Rogers.
By 1936, ML Andrews was praising Rhodes's "vision of world peace, to be brought about by the domination of the English-speaking nations". In the same year the Gaumont-British film company produced the hagiographic movie, Rhodes of Africa. Two years later, the little Rhodes Museum was founded in Bishop's Stortford. When it reopens next year, children will, for a fiver, be able to sign up as one of "Rhodes's Little Rhinos".
A 1956 children's book, Peter Gibbs's The True Book About Cecil Rhodes one of a series that also profiled Marie Curie, Captain Scott and Joan of Arc is the best example of how, in the mid-20th century, Rhodes was reclaimed as a national hero. More unalloyed in its enthusiasm for Rhodes than any comparable 19th-century text, it makes for queasy reading. Especially, perhaps, if you were voting in Zimbabwe last weekend. Southern Rhodesia, it reports, is now "tamed and civilised and cultivated, and many thousands of white people have settled there, and made it their home. Today there are beautiful modern towns; homes, gardens, parks, towering blocks of offices and flats; factories, railways and airports. It is a new and thriving country of the British Commonwealth, where but recently only savages and wild animals dwelt. And it started from the dreams of one young Englishman Cecil Rhodes".
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