2019 - 2020 Modern Volume 13

Cecil Rhodes: A Story of Supremacy and Statues

By Sam Gilder

On Wednesday 17th June 2020, the governors of Oriel College at Oxford University voted to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes that sits above the town’s high street. A month later, on 15th July, the colonialist’s statue in Cape Town, South Africa was decapitated. What did Rhodes do in order to cause such a reaction in Cape Town? Meanwhile, how do his actions still carry prominence today? 

Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902) left England in 1870, hoping to recuperate from illness in the warm climate of South Africa. He worked on a cotton farm briefly, before being tempted by the lucrative diamond trade. His brother Herbert was based in Kimberley, and so in 1871, Rhodes moved from the Natal Colony to join his sibling in the Kimberley diamond fields. Rhodes left in 1873 to finish his studies at Oxford. He studied at Oriel College and was part of Vincent’s Club, the Bullingdon Club and the Masonic Lodge. According to historian George Walker, these secret societies gave Rhodes ‘opportunities to test his ideas among potentially influential peers without ever having to expose them to serious public scrutiny.’ He would continue to shift locations in the 1870s, returning to Kimberley in 1874 and then back to Oxford in 1876. He completed his BA and MA degrees together in 1881.  

The 1880s was the decade his influence began to grow, at the same time the ‘Scramble for Africa’ was taking place. European nations wanted any African territory they could get their hands on in the hope of extracting precious natural resources. Ideas of a ‘civilizing mission’ and manipulation of black African labour were central to European colonial ideas. For Rhodes, the ultimate goal was a transport route for the British empire straight through Africa. He stated: 

“If there be a God, I think what he would like me to do is to paint as much of the map of Africa British red as possible and to do what I can elsewhere to promote the unity and extend the influence of the English-speaking race”

Rhodes then founded the British South Africa Company (BSAC) in 1888, using the profit from diamond and gold extraction to further the ambitions of the empire. He formed the De Beers Company in the same year, which by the end of the 19th century controlled 90 percent of the world’s diamond market. 

In the late 19th century, Southern Africa was an amalgamation of British colonies, Boer settlements and Native African districts. 

King Lobengula of Matabeleland (modern-day Zimbabwe) was in the way of further British expansion in southern Africa, and so Rhodes worked on moving up out of the Cape Colony. Lobengula knew his fighters could not resist the British army and so accepted terms from the British in exchange for protection from the Boers (Dutch colonialists who settled in Southern Africa at the same time). Rhodes out-manoeuvred Lobengula, who gave mining rights to the BSAC. Rhodes’ influence had grown so strong that in 1889, he received a royal charter to impose any imperial or economic ambition in Matabeleland. 

As economic historian and Niall Ferguson puts it, ‘There were literally no limits to Rhodes’ ambitions.’ But Ferguson strongly views empire as an ‘engine of modernity’ and in no part of his book Empire does he mention Rhodes’ wrongdoings. 

He continued to expand British influence, creating Rhodesia from Matabeleland and Mashonaland (Modern-day Zimbabwe and Zambia). The only territory that lay unconquered was the Transvaal. 

Having mentioned Rhodes’ views on whites being superior, the question is how did he actually manifest this into policy that impacted black Africans? 

Following his success in forming Rhodesia, Rhodes was made Prime Minister of Cape Colony in 1890. His Glen Gray Act of 1894 set the blueprint for Apartheid in South Africa. If indigenous Africans were unable to pay their rent, their land could be given to white settlers. Alcohol serving canteens were banned in Native neighbourhoods and they would pay a tax in order to finance large-scale improvements in Glen Grey. It was an attempt to ‘civilize’ native Africans, which Marxist scholar Kenneth Wilburn argues was an attempt ‘to give them a form of land title and enable the capitalist state to gain access to their labour’. Moreover, that ‘Rhodes attempted to bring Africans into his imperial vision and thereby provide the foundation for the Cape’s wage labour force.’ The Glen Grey Act was the outline for the Natives Land Act of 1913, which stated natives were not allowed to buy lands from whites and vice versa, it lasted until 1991. 

As previously mentioned, the Transvaal district was the only area that stood in the way of Rhodes’ grand plans for Empire. In 1895, Leander Jameson under the direction of Rhodes attempted to invade and overthrow the Transvaal government of President Kruger. The invasion was a failure and marked the beginning of Rhodes’ downfall. Rhodes was forced to resign as Prime Minister of Cape Colony, losing his colossal influence. He died seven years later in Cape Town.

Out of the recent Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests across the world, a revision of figures who helped to facilitate racial divide is bound to occur. In and amongst this movement, toppling of statues, and general reconsideration of British history, now is a better time than any to discuss Cecil Rhodes. 

Many find the ‘Rhodes Trust’ scholarships, and the donations the colonialist gave to Oriel College somehow make up for his crimes in the name of British ambition. In an Oxford Union debate on Rhodes, historian Richard Drayton made it clear that the first black scholar did not enrol into Oxford until the 1970s, as Rhodes initially only opened up the scholarships to British or Afrikaner students. R.I Rothberg goes so far as to suggest ‘Rhodes had begun to think of how a scholarship scheme might justifiably prove a better method to accomplish his over-arching objectives and, it seems, more substantially to immortalise himself.’

In regard to Rhodes’ statue in Oxford, Will Hutton wrote in The Guardian ‘Rhodes cannot be expunged from the history of Oxford, Britain and South Africa.’ Removing the statue is not ‘expunging’ him from history but appreciating that as our understanding and perspective of empire continue to evolve, he should be removed from a pedestal.

The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol doesn’t end with the sculpture being drawn out of the river and placed out of reach. It shall be put in a local museum, for people to learn about who he was and how his influence runs deep in Bristol. This is far more beneficial than allowing someone that ran the transportation of 80 thousand enslaved Africans to be left standing above the street in a glorified form. The same goes for Rhodes. If we scrutinise the past now that we have access to wide source material, rather than just letting ‘history be history’, we can move further towards a fairer, global curriculum. 

Books have been written on Cecil Rhodes, and many more will follow. Here I think we enable readers to gauge more of an idea on a historical figure whose history and legacy is vacant in a large part of the British conscience. It is figures like Rhodes that we must start to learn more about if we are to create wide, long-lasting and meaningful revisions of Empire.