Of Cecil Rhodes… Who Or What was He?

Guest Article

Vandalised bust of Cecil Rhodes in Cape  Town
 Vandalised bust of Cecil Rhodes in Cape Town. Photograph: Nic Bothma/EPA

Perhaps the problem with discussions over Cecil John Rhodes is that people do not really understand who and what Rhodes was. They think he was another of those racist 19th-century colonialists now being judged for his racist views.

This is not so.

Rhodes was not simply the patronising racist in the mould of Kipling, carving out the white mans burden with his diamond miner’s pickaxe in place of Kipling’s pen. He was a man of appalling greed and reckless disregard for human life who became vastly rich.

And at the heart of his ability to become rich was his willingness to steal and kill or at least have killed. He also dug the foundations of apartheid, the effects of which still wreck southern Africa. As prime minister of the cape colony, he passed laws which deprived nearly all of the non-white population of the vote and other laws which allowed him to take their land.

In 1893 when Rhodes, already vastly wealthy from diamond mines where native people worked like slaves, turned his attention to the lands of the Matabele. The army of the British South Africa Company, a private company owned and founded by Rhodes, killed 10,000 Matabele as they seized what would later become Rhodesia. He took it believing it to be rich in Gold.

A few years later when the Matabele rose up against Rhodes he killed 50,000 more of their people in order to keep that land. It was this reckless and overwhelming personal greed and lust for power that marked Rhodes out from the likes of Kipling and Baden Powell.

Rhodes was an appalling racist he once said for example “The native is to be treated as a child and denied franchise.”

But it is wrong-headed in my view to work backwards imposing our moral values on a previous time. But throughout history people who sacrificed to the lives of others to their own greed have been condemned. To criticise Rhodes for killing tens of thousands so he could take their land and the gold and diamonds it contains is not to impose our moral standards on anther time. It is to apply universal historical standards.

And this is exactly what Rhodes did.

This fact did not escape notice at the time. His contemporary Mark Twain a man who was himself an eager imperialist said of him “he wants the earth and wants it for his own” “He raids and robs and slays and enslaves the Matabele” and finally “when his time comes I shall buy a piece of the rope for a keepsake.”

His honorary doctorate awarded in 1899 provoked outrage and when he died a newspaper said of him “His exclusive preoccupation with material considerations had led him terribly wrong”.

Cecil John Rhodes Statue Oriel College Oxford

I don’t buy the argument that a statue of Rhodes above the entrance of one of great institutions of learning is necessary to help us reflect on his misdeeds. In part because we do not lack monuments to greed, but more because if I want to reflect on Rhodes there is no need for me to stare up at him or walk beneath his feet as he would have me do. I don’t even need to travel to the graves of those he killed in Africa.

In 1895, in a cack-handed and doomed attempt to seize control of the Transvaal and its gold, Rhodes attempted to initiate a coup against the government of the Republic of South Africa. The action which became known as the Jameson raid was an embarrassing failure but it did help provoke the second Boer war in which 70,000 people died, Rhodes actively provoked that war right up until it started. Among the 26,000 British military dead was young man of this village who is memorialised with a fountain by the village hall.

If I need to reflect on Rhodes’ crimes, his cruelty, his ruthlessness and his greed. I can just walk round the corner to memorial of a young man who in all probability died of dysentry, literally shitting himself to death for Rhode’s greed and ambition.

Postscript – If I know and care a little more than most people about Cecil Rhodes it is in part because my Dad was born in Rhodesia and in part because my own life is some interwoven with empire – Rhodesian born Father, half Canadian mother, boarding school in India.

I remember well watching a drama series about Rhodes with my dad in the 1990s and him turning to his brother in horror and asking “was it really like this“. They had been taught Rhode’s the hero at school, a flawed man of great achievements, the truth shocked him collectively we need to follow my dad’s journey with reference to many of the ‘great figures’ of colonialism and confront some horrifying truths.

Twitter Thread originally tweeted by Matt Cross (@wildforest_matt)

A plaque erected at Oriel College image by @Profdanhicks

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