Cecil John Rhodes, warts and all

Tim Crowe on the contradictory legacy of the notorious Imperialist and famous benefactor

Cecil John Rhodes was the sickly, poorly educated and otherwise unremarkable son of an English parson of meagre means. He knew from an early age that he was doomed to a short life and died at the age of 48. Relatively late in life, after supplementing his poor school education by attending Oxford University, like many contemporary Victorian English academics, politicians, men of the cloth, soldiers, scholars and capitalists, he became convinced that the expansion of the British Empire (including the recovery of the USA) was a global mission to be achieved, no matter the price.

In his own words: the English “are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.” He even advocated forming a secret society to further that mission. His ultimate goal for the Empire was transforming the colonies into a federation of states under local rule. To that end, despite his view that my ancestors, the Irish, were a “low class” race, he generously supported their cause for Home Rule because it fit in with his grand plan.

He came to South Africa in 1870 at the age of 17 in the hope that the climate might be kinder to his health. Initially he lived off a loan from his aunt. After a failed venture in Natal as a cotton farmer, he moved to Kimberley to become involved in the diamond mining boom.

Over the next 30 years: he amassed one of the world’s great fortunes, engineered (with the support of the British government) the conquest of millions of square kilometres of the continent (creating two colonies the bore his name), precipitated a war to undermine the independence of the Afrikaners (leading to the creation of the Union of South Africa), and laid the political/legal foundations of what culminated in the Apartheid regime. His ambition for an Africa be believed was “devoted to barbarism” was simple and avaricious: “it is our duty to take it”.

In his endeavours, he was steadfastly assisted first by his beloved private secretary (and sole beneficiary in one of his early wills) Neville Pickering (who died in his arms), and then by his lifelong friend Dr (Sir) Leander Starr Jameson, lionized in Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem "If—".  Jameson nursed Rhodes during his final illness and acted as one of his executors.

By nature and/or design Rhodes was a megalomaniac, imperialist, voracious capitalist/monopolist, unscrupulous businessman/politician/newspaper publisher, misogynist (homosexual?), white supremacist. Despite having an interest in their languages and cultures, he described black Africans as “despicable specimens of human beings”, who were nothing more than “extra employment”. In his own words: “I prefer land to niggers.”

No wonder Hitler described him as “the only Englishman who truly understood Anglo- Saxon ideals and destiny”. Rhodes bribed, out-manoeuvred or, if necessary, crushed anyone who opposed him. For his various nefarious nature and acts, he is generally hated by Afrikaners and, especially, by black Africans.

In stark contrast to his behaviour in life, when he died in 1902, he bequeathed his estate to the world. His home,Groote Schuur, became the official residence for the premier of the Cape Colony (and later for prime ministers and presidents of South Africa).

Other of his properties were developed to become Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens and the University of Cape Town. Thus, he delivered on his famous quote: “'Pure philanthropy is very well in its way but philanthropy plus five percent is a good deal better.”

But his arguably most significantly positive act was to leave US$10 million to create an educational trust. However, rather than to foster the development of a secret society of like-minded white supremacist, rapacious, Anglophile capitalists, he founded the Rhodes Scholarships Trust to support the first international education fellowships in the world.

Every year, 89 Rhodes Scholars from 32 countries are supported. The Rhodes Scholarships' aim is to educate international young leaders, who are committed to public service, at his beloved University of Oxford, consistently rated as one of the top-10 universities in the world.  According to his express wishes, successful applicants must exhibit anti-Rhodesean “qualities of truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for the protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship”.

More specifically, Rhodes Scholars were to strive at “promoting cross-cultural understanding and peace between nations.” By bringing a culturally diverse group of young people to undergo a common educational experience, he envisioned that these future leaders of the world's major powers would “prevent war and promote the best interests of humanity”.

Even more surprisingly, he specified that the scholarships be awarded without regard to race or religion. This is undeniably the deliverable on his most uncharacteristic quotation: "I could never accept the position that we should disqualify a human being on account of his colour." Finally, he instructed his Trustees to adapt his plans for the scholarships to “respond effectively to changing circumstances”.

To date, the result of all this is 7 688 Rhodes Scholars representing the full spectrum of human ‘race’, gender and sexual orientation. Some of the most noteworthy Rhodes Scholars are: 

Alain L. Locke (1907) First black scholar - gay writerphilosopher, educator - "Dean” of the Harlem Renaissance

Jan H. Hofmeyr (1910) South African educationalist and liberal politician who anticipated an end to racial discrimination

Edwin Hubble (1910) Astronomer of Hubble Telescope fame

Norman W. Manley (1914) First Premier of Jamaica, one of Jamaica’s seven National Heroes 

John Marshall Harlan (1920) U.S. Supreme Court Justice

Howard Walter Florey (1921) Nobel prize winner in physiology for discovering penicillin

John Carew Eccles (1925) 1963 Nobel prize winner in physiology 

William Fulbright (1925) US senator and originator of the Fulbright Fellowship programme. To date, more than 250 000 individuals have received Fulbright grants.

Carl Albert (1931) Speaker of U.S. House of Representatives 

Dean Rusk (1931) U.S. Secretary of State 

Bram Fischer (1931) Anti-apartheid activist and lawyer

Jack De Wet (1935) Theoretical physicist, greatest of the University of Cape Town’s Deans of Science

Sir Richard Luyt (1935) Soldier, statesman, Vice Chancellor – University of Cape Town

Byron White (1938) U.S. Supreme Court Justice 

William Jay Smith (1947) US poet laureate

Bob Hawke (1953) Prime Minister of Australia

Kris Kristofferson (1958) US singer, song writer, actor

David Woods (1963) Vice Chancellor Rhodes University

Wasim Sajjad (1964) President of Pakistan 

Bill Bradley (1965) Hall of Fame basketball star, U.S. Senator and presidential candidate

General Wesley Clark (1966) Commander of NATO forces 

Bill Clinton (1968) 42nd President of the United States

Strobe Talbott (1968) US Deputy Secretary of State, president of the Brookings Institution

Edwin Cameron (1976) South African Supreme Court Justice, gay rights and HIV/AIDS activist

Max Price (1980) Vice-Chancellor, University of Cape Town

 His daughter is a current Rhodes Scholar.

David Kirk (1985) All Black Rugby Captain 

Naomi Wolf (1985) Author of the international best seller The Beauty Myth

Neel Mukherjee  (1992) Booker Award nominee

Maxine Williams (1992) Global Head of Biodiversity Network Silicon Valley

Siddhartha Mukherjee (1993) 2011 Pulitzer Prize Winner non-fiction

Rachel Maddow (1995) Lesbian American television host, political commentator, and author

Annette Salmeen (1997) American gold medallist 1996 Olympic Games

Roxanne Joyal (2001) and Marc Kielburger (2000) Founded the Free the Children International Charity

Eusebius McKaiser (2003) South African public intellectual

Cheikh M'bengue (2006) Caribbean studies expert

Yusuf Randera-Rees (2007) Founded Awethu Project in South Africa - aims to incubate 500 entrepreneurs from under-resourced backgrounds 

Nhlanhla Dlamini (2008) South Africa

Kingwa Kamencu (2009) Presidental candidate, Kenya

Aubrey Kalungia (2010) Zambia

In 2003, to mark the centenary of the Rhodes Scholarships and to continue the historic commitment of the Rhodes Trust to Africa and specifically to non-racial leadership development for Africa, the Rhodes Trust joined in the creation of The Mandela Rhodes Foundation. It provides scholarships for African students, chosen on criteria very similar to those for the Rhodes Scholarships, to undertake postgraduate study in South Africa. This was done with the explicit support of Nelson Mandela:

“…We see The Mandela Rhodes Foundation as a significant initiative within that broader framework of South Africans taking responsibility for the transformation of their society, so grievously skewed by a history of colonialism and apartheid. We shall once more take hands across historical divides that others may deem unbridgeable.”

The Rhodes Scholarship Trust has also inspired the creation of other similar awards: the Harkness Fellowship and Kennedy Scholarship for British nationals, the Marshall Scholarship for Americans, and the international Schwarzman Scholarship. In 2013, the Rhodes Trust’s first Second Century Founder, John McCall MacBain, together with his wife Marcy McCall MacBain, in recognition of the achievements of Rhodes Scholars, donated £75 million to support Rhodes Scholarships.

In the end, had been no Rhodes, today’s world would be profoundly different.

Emeritus Professor Tim Crowe