Rhodes: Ruthless imperialist

Most historians (myself among them) nowadays find little to admire in the historical figure of Cecil Rhodes. His name has come to the fore during three recent centenaries (the centenary of his death in 2002; the Rhodes Scholarships, 2003; and Rhodes University, 2004). And there has been a flurry of recent interest in the pages of the Mail & Guardian, prompted by Adekeye Adebajo’s article “A most unsavoury rehabilitation” (July 21).

How might one remember Rhodes today? The claim of one M&G letter-writer (July 28) that it is “elementary fact” to judge historical figures by the norms and values of their time is more elementary error. The norms of Rhodes’s time were not absolute or monolithic, but highly contested. Rhodes’s imperialism may have earned him popularity in Victorian England, but it also aroused bitter hatred among his victims in Southern Africa. Ultimately, historical figures are judged according to the perspective of the beholder.

Yes, Rhodes was once revered by admiring biographers as a visionary idealist, resourceful entrepreneur, canny politician and generous benefactor. In recent decades he has been seen—correctly, in my view—as a crude racist and ruthless imperialist who rode roughshod over the rights of Africans as a political opportunist, callous exploiter and supreme egotist.

Even some of his defenders and apologists came to concede that Rhodes could be unscrupulous, underhand and manipulative in his business dealings. He saw Africans not as people, but as units of labour. During his tenure as Cape premier in the 1890s he laid some of the foundations for 20th-century segregation and apartheid by instituting measures that coerced Africans into the labour market and restricted their political rights.

Rhodes can be likened to a warlord. Early in 1890 he hatched an abortive plot to kidnap the Ndebele king, Lobengula. He proceeded the same year to establish a white settlement in Mashonaland without any authorisation from local rulers. He then tried, unsuccessfully, to seize the port of Beira from the Portuguese in an armed raid. In 1893 he gave the go-ahead for the illegitimate invasion and conquest of Matabeleland, on the pretext of a fabricated border incident. He sponsored the 1895-96 Jameson Raid—an attempted, unsuccessful putsch against the Transvaal Boer republic. Rhodes was ever ready to use violence to secure his political goals.

Did Rhodes have redeeming characteristics? One can point to his warm relationship with his close companion, Neville Pickering. When Pickering was dying in Kimberley Rhodes hurried back to his bedside, abandoning the Rand gold rush and thereby failing to secure some superior gold claims—a rare occasion when he sacrificed a business opportunity for a human cause. For Rhodes’s admirers, though, this relationship with Pickering has been a cause for consternation, opening up the possibility that Rhodes was gay—a possibility that did not accord at all with the image of the masculine, heroic empire-builder.

I can fully understand Adebajo’s perplexed ambivalence on being awarded a Rhodes scholarship (July 21). I also commend him as an example to all existing and future Rhodes scholars as somebody who took full advantage of the award while at the same time reflecting critically on the life of his benefactor.

Paul Maylam is professor of history at Rhodes University and author of The Cult of Rhodes (David Philip)

Put that statue in context

Thank you to Adebajo for his excellent article on the legacy of Cecil John Rhodes in contemporary South Africa. I have been so surprised to find the legacy of Rhodes to be so little contested and to see the many monuments to him still standing so unproblematically in a nation where a great liberation movement has been voted so overwhelmingly into power.

During my visits to the University of Cape Town I confronted every day the statue of Rhodes at the entrance to the upper campus and it always caused me to halt and wonder why it was still there and what should be done.

I have a proposal. Leave it there, but build around it a portrayal of all classes and races of the Cape colony of his time, a representation of all the toil, theft and repression over which he presided. As to the rest, contextualise them too, or else topple them and send them to a museum of imperialism.

It would also be great to see Rhodes University vote again on its name and to find that Mandela has reconsidered his position on the Mandela Rhodes Foundation.

I was hesitant to write this, being a foreigner ... but then so was Cecil John Rhodes.—Helena Sheehan, Dublin

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