On the 11th of November 1965, the former colonial protectorate of Britain known as Rhodesia unilaterally declared independence from the United Kingdom.1 Ian Smith, the Prime Minister of this new and contested sovereign nation, was the first such leader of a former British possession to unilaterally declare independence from the empire since the American Declaration of Independence close to two centuries prior.2 Perhaps not so dissimilar as one may think, American and Rhodesian separatism were in large part pushed to imperial defection by a desire among certain circles of patrician elite to maintain, protect, and/or augment their existing privileges. Both can also be seen as party to perpetuating a cynically cavalier racial dominion over Africans and their kidnapped American progeny in the interests of white supremacy, though this is more often than not overlooked in the popular history of the American Revolution (needless to say this is not the case with the Civil War). There are very obvious historical reasons for this as unlike Rhodesia in 1965, the American defectors of the late 18th century were not troubled by the rather overwhelming problem of maintaining a form of minority rule over a massive and racially-disenfranchised majority on the very continent they had called home for millenia.3 Alongside this, colonialism as a concept and legitimate tool of statecraft was no longer in vogue even in the mother country of Britain itself; this, in fact, was one of the primary reasons Ian Smith felt compelled to sign the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in order to veer away from Britain's post-colonial framework for establishing genuine majority rule in the country.4 Wishing to preserve white minority rule as the Republic of South Africa was doing through the policy of apartheid, Smith and his rebel cabal represented the last hopes to maintain this vision, one on par with and undoubtedly deeply influenced by Cecil Rhodes, the man for whom the region of Rhodesia was named. It gained this namesake during the apex of British imperialism under Queen Victoria in 1895,5 and part and parcel to this imperial pride and fervour for wider domination, Rhodes wrote the following very telling words in his final will and testament of 1902: “The world is nearly all parcelled out, and what there is left of it is being divided up, conquered and colonised. To think of these stars that you see overhead at night, these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annex the planets if I could; I often think of that. It makes me sad to see them so clear and yet so far.”6 So who exactly was Cecil Rhodes and how much power and influence did he truly wield during his time in southern Africa? As well, what cursory effects did his legacy have throughout the period following his death and into the present era, and what can his story tell us about life in the Victorian age?
It would be impossible to claim Rhodes' ambitions as the exclusive or overpowering force behind the British colonial project on the southern half of the continent. As with all historical leviathans, his legend obfuscates much of the details of what he intended to accomplish as well as the key role his multifarious influences played in shaping his worldview and intentions. His myth is a great plume of smoke, and where there is smoke, there is fire. Although the smoke of his popular myth is an important subject which will be broached later in this writing, the discipline of historical analyses demands we investigate the fire and trace an accurately compelling sketch of all that from which Cecil Rhodes emerged to become such a controversial force to be reckoned with. One of his favourite books which he carried with him practically everywhere he went was the “Meditations” of the ancient Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Throughout his copy of the book, Rhodes avidly emphasized the passages most affecting to him through ubiquitous circling and underlining in such a way as to communicate the earnest intensity of his revelations. He called “Meditations” his “guide in life” and his “most precious possession.”7 Through an analysis of the 101 passages Rhodes particularly emphasized (and provided by Rotberg8) the gist of the relevant themes can be broadly grouped into four categories:
1: Death can come at any moment, thus one should live as if it were imminent;
2: Intellect and reason take precedence over emotions;
3: “Just acts are their own reward”; in other words, do what is seriously meaningful, and avoid engagement in all that is deemed frivolous;
4: Success in one's life and ventures is largely contingent on working well with others, staying open to compromise, cultivating and maintaining the ability to listen, and not being so prideful so as to become closed to changing one's mind.9
From this analytical distillation, we can see that Rhodes was driven largely by a humanistic set of values emanating from the Renaissance and its trend towards the venerated study of ancient authors. By and large, it is likely that Rhodes already had a sense of all he learned from Aurelius, but found a certain confirmation of his ambitious intentions better articulated in the words of another. However, “Meditations” was not the only work of literature Rhodes found himself enamoured with at the time. Written by William Winwood Reade and published in 1872, “The Martyrdom of Man” was a highly controversial secular work of 'universal' history which broadly supported political liberalism alongside a particular vision of social Darwinism.10 The section most contested by critics was one which attacked Christian dogmas at length, and it lead many to misinterpret Reade as an atheist when he had, in fact, believed in some sort of Creator, just not in the set image decided upon by the established religions of his day.11 In this sense, he viewed the Christianity of his time as committing conceptual idolatry, thus facilitating a general ignorance resulting in dangerous worldly consequences as all operated on the basis of a collective illusion within which ultimate 'truth' was thought to reside. Rhodes, though a more traditional Christian than Winwood Reade, was deeply influenced by Reade's book. It seemed to confirm much of his intuitions regarding organized religion, acknowledging that God does indeed exist, but that he is not interested in humans as individuals, nor did he create man in his image.12 By 1889, as he reached the apex of his power, Rhodes, according to his good friend and key guarantor of his will William Stead, “neatly reconciles the two opposing tectonic movements of the Victorian age, science and religion, by concluding that God was supervising the perfection of the species by a process of natural selection ... and [that] the struggle for existence [was] recognised as the favourite instruments of the Divine Ruler.'”13 From this base of humanistic imperial thought stems the paternalistic racism which Rhodes came to embody for many during his lifetime and long past his death.
It was the overtures of yet another author contemporary to his time that many historians mark as the key and timely inspiration to Cecil's ambitions to expand the British Empire. In a lecture at Oxford University which is now part of school's lore, famous literary critic John Ruskin implored his audience that “[t]here is a destiny now possible to us … We are still undegenerate in race; a race mingled of the best northern blood … We are not yet dissolute in temper … Will you youth of England make your country again a royal throne of kings? … This is what England must do or perish, she must found colonies as far and as fast as she is able.”14 Many previous tellings of Rhodes' life portray him as present at the lecture itself, though this has been proven to be untrue through later investigation. Instead, it seems he purchased or otherwise obtained a transcript published by the Clarendon Press not long following Ruskin's 1870 address.15 The influence this lecture exerted on Rhodes, however, is uncontested. This is evidenced in his own words when he writes that Ruskin's “lectures made a great impression on one [and] [o]ne of them which set out the privileges and opportunities of the young men in the Empire made a forceful entry into my mind.”16 It once again reinforced his grand ambitions and explicitly imbued them with a sense of innate racial superiority alongside an ethereal urgency to 'correct' the course of humanity as a whole under British tutelage. This struggle for global hegemonic survival, a macrocosm of the preferred 'instruments' of the Divine Ruler as Cecil believed, seemed to precipitate a zero-sum view of politics and the proverbial “Other” through the normalized magnifier of late Victorian melodrama.
This melodrama was, for all intents and purposes, the closest thing to the language of scientific objectivity accepted in public discourse at the time. The 'discipline' of history as we once understood it was a melodramatic focus on an event in light of Victorian morality and/or one actor's inflated heroics or villainy, qualifying it more as a way for British imperialism at the time to spawn and cultivate a mythology capable of perpetuating a dominantly coherent image and 'sensation' of the empire's powerful grandeur.17 Neil Hultgren, in his book “Melodramatic Imperial Writing: From the Sepoy Rebellion to Cecil Rhodes,” writes that ‘‘[t]hrough its vividness and ability to reimagine complexities via readily accessible binaries and concepts, melodrama made the British Empire appear unified and comprehensible. It was one of the central fictions through which another fiction—that of the British Empire—might be understood.’’18 This last sentence of Hultgren's quote (with italic emphasis added by the author of this paper) points to the importance of melodrama as one of the key socially constructive pillars which permitted the Union Jack to continue billowing listlessly in the wind across the disparate width and breadth of the globe. To perpetuate itself across a series of held territories and dominions whose aggregate non-British population was beyond any doubt the very vast majority, the empire had to make itself seem larger and more powerful than it actually was, a purpose which this melodrama more than sufficiently served during its time. Cecil Rhodes was no exception to this trend as he earnestly bought into this spirit of the day through his wild ambitions and penchant to glorify his own achievements, even if at times this was only in the framework of the 'selfless martyrdom' of his efforts on behalf of the British imperial project. In short, Rhodes had a tendency—instrumental in his role as the 'Colossus of Africa' and not unusual for his time—to self-mythologize. As his notoriety spread for better and for worse, this process of self-mythologizing would likely have become a recurring feedback loop as the melodramatic Victorian press breathlessly disseminated reports of his glorious achievements, reinforcing Rhodes own self-sense as someone who was now larger than life, perhaps even a 'prophet' of a secular religion of sorts coalescing around the colloquial church of British imperial dogmas. Perhaps one of the best ways to demonstrate Cecil's imperial melodrama is to point the reader back to his quote provided on page two at the end of the introductory paragraph, the last half in which he declares that “[t]o think of these stars that you see overhead at night, these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annex the planets if I could; I often think of that. It makes me sad to see them so clear and yet so far.”19 This statement was something that even many in the 19th century would have found pejoratively melodramatic, though as the legend of Cecil Rhodes continued to wildly inflate, the perceived preposterousness of this and his other similar statements by-and-large diminished as he was informally 'canonized' as a gloriously heroic example of British imperial virtue in the same league as characters like King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. However, Rhodes is unique in the longevity his mythologized idolatry has enjoyed, even up to and including the present day. Though its origins undoubtedly reside in the British imperialism of the late Victorian era, this longevity can largely be attributed to the fact that Rhodes was also the founder of the modern diamond industry.
Rhodes, after outmaneuvering market rivals in the area of Kimberley (situated in what is now the north-central region of the Republic of South Africa) in the midst of a diamond rush in the 1870s-80s, established DeBeers Consolidated Mines in 1888.20 In the decades immediately following Rhodes' death, DeBeers would go on to socially construct the modern cultural preference for diamond rings as the new orthodox necessity to be presented when proposing marriage.21 Remarkably, it was a way of controlling not only the supply side of the industry, but also its demand through manufacturing the perception that the combination of diamonds and marriage was a cultural necessity, and as such one could no longer adequately claim to have the latter without sacrificing to gift the former.22 Even the pithy maxim asserting “A Diamond Is Forever” originated from an assertive DeBeers public relations campaign in the late 1940s,23 though an investigation and assessment of Rhodes' company in the decades and century following his passing is a topic in itself best left to detailed treatment elsewhere as it is beyond the scope of this essay. Regardless, such a cursory look at this aspect of his immense legacy does indeed demonstrate his historical relevance as it pertains to understanding the global market and cultural context of the present day. As well, through all that has been said of Cecil Rhodes thus far there has been, save for the introductory paragraph, the conspicuous absence of any meaningful investigation and analysis of his Anglophilic white supremacy. This topic will be addressed in the following and final paragraph which will also double as the paper's conclusion, bringing us back full circle to the 1960s, the decade which saw the beginning of the end for the country bearing his namesake.
In the same final will and testament of 1902 in which he declared his melodramatic desire to 'annex the planets,' Rhodes also wrote that “I contend that we [the English] are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.”24 Buying wholesale into the racialization of empire—in part a result of the force his personal interpretation of Winwood Reade's social Darwinism had on him via “The Martyrdom of Man”—Rhodes began to speak of the native African population as a rightly disenfranchised subject peoples. In an 1887 address to the House of Assembly in Cape Town, Rhodes explicitly stated that “[t]he 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.”25 Under his auspices, the taking of land from native Africans using armed force became acceptably routine.26 The prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, established through funds authorized by his estate following his death, does curiously stipulate that no one can be denied a scholarship on the basis of race, ethnicity, or religion.27 Educational historian Marybeth Gasman asserts this was likely not in reference to the native black population, but rather the white Boers, with whom British settlers and their progeny had shared a long and mutually adversarial distrust. Eventually, however, even the Rhodes Scholarship went the way of Rhodesia and had to capitulate to the demography of the native majority. However, though it went the way of Rhodesia, it did not go away as Rhodesia did in 1980 when Robert Mugabe won power and re-branded the country as Zimbabwe. Instead, as time went on and policies of apartheid were repealed or overthrown across the southern half of the continent, the Rhodes Scholarship simply cancelled the criteria which had previously barred both women and black Africans from eligibility.28 Its imperial origins are still controversial among many, though just as Cecil Rhodes himself was a product of his time (eg.: a product of Victorian melodrama as his cultural modus operandi), so too was the Rhodes Scholarship. As history has sped forward, its context has evolved to become displaced and more just than it was at inception, just as we have all evolved to understand that what Cecil saw in the “Other” as embodied in the native Africans was, perhaps, less an accurate appraisal of another than it was a reflection of himself: an intensely driven megalomaniac who could—and does, in many contemporary African eyes—likewise qualify as a barbarian in his own terrible right, a self-confessed despot who could not be trusted to rule equitably.
PLEASE NOTE: THIS ESSAY WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR A POST-SECONDARY LEVEL CLASS ON VICTORIAN BRITAIN.
Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1906.
Bivona, Daniel. "Review: Melodramatic Imperial Writing: From The Sepoy Rebellion To Cecil Rhodes By Neil Hultgren". Nineteenth-Century Literature 70, no. 3 (2015): 405-409. doi:10.1525/ncl.2015.70.3.405.
Fleming, John V. "Winwood Reade And The Martyrdom Of Man". The Princeton Independent, 2003.
Friedman, Uri. "We Buy Engagement Rings Because A Diamond Company Wanted Us To". The Atlantic, February 13th, 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/02/how-an-ad-campaign-invented-the-diamond-engagement-ring/385376/.
Gasman, Marybeth. "Philip Ziegler. Legacy: Cecil Rhodes, The Rhodes Trust And Rhodes Scholarships.". History Of Education Quarterly 50, no. 02 (2010): 261-262. doi:10.1111/j.1748-5959.2010.00271.x.
Gebrial, Dalia. "We Don't Want To Erase Cecil Rhodes From History. We Want Everyone To Know His Crimes". The Telegraph, December 22nd, 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/universityeducation/12064939/We-dont-want-to-erase-Cecil-Rhodes-from-history.-We-want-everyone-to-know-his-crimes.html.
Nyerere, Julius K. "Rhodesia In The Context Of Southern Africa". Foreign Affairs 44, no. 3 (1966): 373. doi:10.2307/20039174.
Reade, William W. The Martyrdom Of Man. 18th ed. New York: The Truth Seeker Co., 1910.
Rhodes, Cecil, and W. T Stead. The Last Will And Testament Of Cecil John Rhodes. London: "Review of Reviews" Office, 1902.
Riches, Christopher, and Jan Palmowski. "Zimbabwe". A Dictionary Of Contemporary World History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Rotberg, Robert I. "Did Cecil Rhodes Really Try To Control The World?". The Journal Of Imperial And Commonwealth History 42, no. 3 (2014): 551-567. doi:10.1080/03086534.2014.934000.
Walker, George. "‘So Much To Do’: Oxford And The Wills Of Cecil Rhodes". The Journal Of Imperial And Commonwealth History 44, no. 4 (2016): 697-716. doi:10.1080/03086534.2016.1211295.
"Who Can Apply?" Rhodes House: Home Of The Rhodes Scholarships, 2017. https://www.rhodeshouse.ox.ac.uk/scholarship/who-can-apply-for-a-rhodes-scholarship/.
1Julius K. Nyerere, "Rhodesia In The Context Of Southern Africa", Foreign Affairs 44, no. 3 (1966): 373, doi:10.2307/20039174.
5Christopher Riches and Jan Palmowski, "Zimbabwe", A Dictionary Of Contemporary World History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
6Cecil Rhodes and W. T Stead, The Last Will And Testament Of Cecil John Rhodes (London: "Review of Reviews" Office, 1902).
7George Walker, "‘So Much To Do’: Oxford And The Wills Of Cecil Rhodes", The Journal Of Imperial And Commonwealth History 44, no. 4 (2016): 697-716, doi:10.1080/03086534.2016.1211295, 708.
10William W. Reade, The Martyrdom Of Man, 18th ed. (New York: The Truth Seeker Co., 1910), vii.
11John V. Fleming, "Winwood Reade And The Martyrdom Of Man", The Princeton Independent, 2003.
12George Walker, "‘So Much To Do’: Oxford And The Wills Of Cecil Rhodes", The Journal Of Imperial And Commonwealth History 44, no. 4 (2016): 697-716, doi:10.1080/03086534.2016.1211295, 707.
17D. Bivona, "Review: Melodramatic Imperial Writing: From The Sepoy Rebellion To Cecil Rhodes By Neil Hultgren", Nineteenth-Century Literature 70, no. 3 (2015): 405-409, doi:10.1525/ncl.2015.70.3.405, p. 406.
18Ibid (italic emphasis in Hultgren quote added by the author of this paper).
19Cecil Rhodes and W. T Stead, The Last Will And Testament Of Cecil John Rhodes (London: "Review of Reviews" Office, 1902).
20Marybeth Gasman, "Philip Ziegler. Legacy: Cecil Rhodes, The Rhodes Trust And Rhodes Scholarships.", History Of Education Quarterly 50, no. 02 (2010): 261-262, doi:10.1111/j.1748-5959.2010.00271.x, p. 261.
21Uri Friedman, "We Buy Engagement Rings Because A Diamond Company Wanted Us To", The Atlantic, February 13th, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/02/how-an-ad-campaign-invented-the-diamond-engagement-ring/385376/.
24Cecil Rhodes and W. T Stead, The Last Will And Testament Of Cecil John Rhodes (London: "Review of Reviews" Office, 1902).
25Dalia Gebrial, "We Don't Want To Erase Cecil Rhodes From History. We Want Everyone To Know His Crimes", The Telegraph, December 22nd, 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/universityeducation/12064939/We-dont-want-to-erase-Cecil-Rhodes-from-history.-We-want-everyone-to-know-his-crimes.html.
27Marybeth Gasman, "Philip Ziegler. Legacy: Cecil Rhodes, The Rhodes Trust And Rhodes Scholarships.", History Of Education Quarterly 50, no. 02 (2010): 261-262, doi:10.1111/j.1748-5959.2010.00271.x, p. 262.
28"Who Can Apply?", Rhodes House: Home Of The Rhodes Scholarships, 2017, https://www.rhodeshouse.ox.ac.uk/scholarship/who-can-apply-for-a-rhodes-scholarship/.