Tuesday 22 July 2008

Cecil Rhodes- Hero or Villain?

Over time, history gets to judge. Though those judgements change.
History has recorded a verdict on Julius Caesar.
History has recorded a verdict on Genghis Khan.

But for figures in our recent past, the question mark sometimes remains. As I argued in the post I did some time back on Eamonn De Valera, sometimes one suspects, in time, history will change its judgement.

Cecil Rhodes is another such enigma.

Cecil Rhodes. Two words which sum up every single stereotype associated with the British Empire.
Cecil Rhodes, racist, nouveau riche, the white man who spoke with forked tongue.
Cecil Rhodes the man who carried in his head a blueprint for a world painted pink.

Even his time did not quite know how to judge him. And we look slightly askance at him, symbol of everything we try to forget once wrapped itself in the Union Jack.

But one day, will we hold him up again as a visionary? A man ahead of his time, who, constrained by the ideals of his day, strove towards a world his contemporaries had not even thought of?

I wonder.

Let's take a look at this unusual man.

Rhodes had energy and vision. That cannot be doubted. But he was in fact, always a sickly individual. The common image of him, 'The Colossus Rhodes', wearing safari gear and armed with repeating rifle, belie the reality.

Rhodes was a classical Oxford scholar, who would doubtless have gone into a fairly donnish career had his elder brother not died leaving him a stake in the newly discovered Kimberley Diamond mines.
Rhodes headed for the mines intending to sort out the estate and return home.

He never did.
Instead, he became the richest diamond magnate in South Africa.
Then, he went into politics.
He became Prime Minister of what was then the self-governing British colony of the Cape of Good Hope.
And he used this position to further part of his dream.

At this point, the scramble for Africa was beginning. The European powers were busy in conference rooms drawing lines across maps and allocating parts of Africa as yet unexplored to eachother, unbeknownst to the people actually living there.

And at both ends of the continent, at Cape Town and at Cairo, the British were established.
To Rhodes, it was simple. A railway between the two was needed, and to do that, everything in between needed to be pink.

It is often said that, unlike other Empires, the British Empire was founded largely by accident, a by-product of trade. In a sense this is true. As a general rule, the British governments only annexed territory when they absolutely had to. In other words, when their citizens forced them to.
A high proportion of British colonies began life as the ventures of private companies.

Nigeria began as the the Royal Niger Company, driven by Sir George Goldie, Kenya as the Imperial British East Africa Company, driven by Sir Frederick Lugard.

These men were the Tiny Rowlands and Mohammed al Fayeds of their day.

But Rhodes went a step further. Failing to get the British Government to take in an interest in his railway scheme- and the territorial annexation necessary, he decided to pay for it out of his own pocket. He founded the British South Africa Company, with himself as Chief executive, and from his position as Cape Premier, privately financed the annexation of the land to the north of the Boer republics. The land that was for almost a century, to bear his name.


This was the peak of his prowess.
Rhodes, hero of the Empire.

However, his career ended in a certain disgrace.
The Boer republics, to the north of the Cape, but to the South of Rhodesia were a perpetual thorn in his side. But there was a very good excuse to remove that thorn. In the Cape, anyone could vote, as long as they could read. In practice this meant that most voters were white, but the pretence of a colourblind franchise remained.

In the Boer republics, only Afrikaaners could vote. And in one of them, the largest, the Transvaal republic, English speakers- the Uitlanders- who had come to work the Johannesburg mines, accounted for almost half the white population.
Quite obviously, the Afrikaaners didn't feel like allowing them to vote, because then Afrikaaner hegemony was in trouble.

Rhodes attempted an invasion unsupported by the British government, though in reality the truth is, had things panned out better, they would have been only to ready to grant the all-conquering hero of the southern hemisphere a peerage.

As it is, this sorry event, the Jameson raid, ended in failure and was the end of Rhodes career.

And then, it passed to history to judge this man.

What can we say?
A Jingoist. A racist. Not averse to being two faced. Ruthless. Certainly NOT the image of the English gentleman. If you want the image of the brash colonialist pointing his rifle at a terrified villager, Rhodes is your man.
And as a man who made Apartheid possible, Rhodes too, plays a part. In a bid to make possible the integration of the Boer republics withing the British Empire, Rhodes was only too happy to sell the long established rights of native Africans in the Cape, to pacify the racist views that formed the majority opinion amongst the Afrikaaner population.

Rhodes was a master of Realpolitik and never let anything stand in his way. He achieved a lot, and he did much of it by ruthlessness and sheer strength of personality.

His arrogance was astounding. When he heard that his actions were being criticised by the Westminster parliament his reply was 'Yes, but how many of THEM have a country named after them?'
And yet, in a sense, wasn't that perhaps a fair response? How many of us ever have countries named after us in our lifetime?

He was brutal, especially in war. It is said that at one battle during the conquest of Rhodesia he personally dispatched fifty natives.

When we look at all that was negative about the 'Empah', doesn't Rhodes tick every box?

But here's the point. You have to understand what drove Rhodes. Because you see, he isn't that simple.

Rhodes once said 'To be born an Englishman is to have won first prize in the lottery of life.'
Now before you file that away as another racist comment by a fanatical jingoist, let's just consider.

At that time, if anyone was going to build a railway from the cape of Good Hope to Cairo, there is one characteristic that was essential, above all others.

Being English.

Rhodes was stating fact. At that point in world history, being born in England gave you advantages you just didn't have if born into an identical station elsewhere. In a way, a child born in an English slum at that point in history, had a greater chance of changing the world than a child born son to a chief in Africa.

Rhodes believed in the Empire BECAUSE Rhodes believed in progress. Rhodes believed that the world really would get better the pinker it got, because only the full might of the world's richest, most industrialised power and the benefits of the system that had created that power, truly could change the world for the better.

And his vision of Empire was not quite that you'd expect to see in such a jingoist. The British government distrusted him, because they saw him as too much on the side of the Boers. He was also a public supporter of Irish Nationalism, supporting the campaign to give Ireland its own parliament within the British Empire.

Because Rhodes believed in, and advocated, a Federal empire. Rhodes believed one day, that there should be an Imperial parliament, much like the European parliament, in which all parts of the Empire was represented equally according to population. Admittedly, this didn't mean that native Africans would be getting a huge say. Rhodes believed that the native question would solve itself due to white immigration into South Africa. Rhodes believed that by today, South Africa AND Rhodesia, would have white majorities.
But leaving that aside, it was a democratic vision. The Empire would be somewhat like the EU, only it would instead cover the area we now call the Commonwealth.

But his will says more. He left money for the setting up of what is now the Rhodean scholarship. But he also left instructions- which weren't followed- for the setting up of a society with a clear set of aims.

To gain British control over those portions of the world not under its direct control, but where there were enough British interests to make a takeover feasible, specifically, South America and the Holy Land.
And to find a way to federate the US back into this Imperial federation.

Such an Empire truly would include half the population of the world.

And what would happen next?
Well, in time, Rhodes guessed the difference between the two halves of the world would become apparent.
The rest of the world, over time, would come into the fold of their own free will.

The whole world painted pink...

But is this truly the dream of a megalomaniac?

Do the English, in this vision, have any supremacy over the other peoples of the globe?
No, it's a democratic one. Sure, the capital of this world federation would doubtless have been London, but what are we REALLY looking at here?

Federal world government.
Federal DEMOCRATIC world government.

But instead of a UN secretary general, the King of England.

Rhodes saw the British Empire as being the force for progress. The civilisation being forced on the natives of Africa was the dark beginnings in his mind to a truly enlightened world, a world of peace, a world of never ending progress.

A world with railways that spanned continents.

The dreams so many of us have today, the aims society works towards- or some of us do, they were the aims of Rhodes too. The fact that he espoused them, whilst waving the Union Jack to achieve them, sometimes blinds us to this.
But at heart, he was an internationalist, a progressive and a radical.

When one day we truly do have democracy across the globe, when all states truly are members of a disarmed, peaceful, global federation, when all parts of the global infrastructure serve the people of that region, when the world is no longer composed of contrasting continents, when we truly can say the whole world is one, we may remember, that idea was the hope of Cecil Rhodes.

So perhaps the only thing that makes us uncomfortable is that it was the Union Jack he waved while trying to do it.


Anonymous said...

Not being pessimistic here but there will never be true democracy across the globe.

Anonymous said...

Now here is a thought.

Who exactly was it that taught you to feel uncomfortable about the Union Jack and things done under it's waving banner?

Anonymous said...

Yes a great post Mr I. I still think the idea of world government is mad though...

Anonymous said...


I don't believe in democracy, and I don't believe in world government.

Anonymous said...

Nunyaa- Yes you are, and why not? :)

I believe there can and will be.

Moggs- Well, it's kind of what is caught up in it. It's hard to separate the flag from the image of white supremacy, monarchy, Unionism and jingoism.
Because essentially, that's part- though certainly not the whole part- of what it represents.

Mutley- Well, not if its federal democratic one. Long term it makes sense. These days the world is too small for nation states to have a place.

JK Baltzersen- Which, under a democracy, is your prerogative. :)

Anonymous said...

No I am not Crushed, I see that as there are so many differences in this world and human nature being what it is, not all will agree.
To me it is idealistic to think that there will be a true democracy world wide. Be nice if there was but life goes on as it does now regardless. :-)

Anonymous said...

(1) If you have a ruling monarch, would that really constitute a democracy? Especially if other people are deliberately excluded?

(2) The question of hero or villain might be a misleading one, for in its dichotomous nature it doesn't leave much in terms of consequences. While Rhodes believed in progress (whatever that means), would those living in Africa view it as such? Why wouldn't their opinions matter?

And the consequences have been devastating to many. Whatever good might of come from this, the people paying the stiffest price weren't really the people who were profitting the most.

(3) As far as what may or may not be racist in this context, it might be secondary to how we consider the nature of entitlement.

(4) With respect to how we consider someone a villain, we often rely on stereotypes that depict the antagonist as rotten to the core, having little or no redeeming characteristics. Problem is, everyone who has caused evil believed that they were acting on behalf of some greater good, and will always find things to support this opinion. The Nazis thought they were purifying Europe. Indigenous American genecide was condoned on the pretense of saving the souls of pagan savages by civilizing them.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear Crushed! You have a nasty case of politician-itis. Take a cure quick;-) before it is too late.

You answered a question I didn't ask, one you made up, not the one I asked ;-)

Anonymous said...

Great post here. I think I know what Moggs Tigerpaw is on about. Why should we feel shame about our countrie's flag? PC and the multiculturists ideals try to make us so. We shouldn't be.
I was sat here wondering how many nations within the Anglosphere have been at war with each other in the past 150 years or so?
And how many nations outside the Anglosphere have been at war and/or started war with others?
The answers are quite revealing.

Anonymous said...

Nunyaa- I believe it will come, but not under the present economic system.

I don't think life as now WILL carry on regardless.
Ternty years tops, the Capitalist system.

X-dell- One of the reasons monarchy survived here was probably because, unlike other European monarchies, it has for all practical purpose been a cunningly disguised republic since 1688. One nineteenth century constitutional expert called it a republic with a hereditary president.

Certainly last century, it was probably- unlike now- the free-est place in the world.

I think its one of those cases that isn't clear cut. I think when when looks at a lot of these characters, there single mindedness has effectively driven thenm to just plough for their aims, roughshod through the lives of others. No historical change comes without suffering.

I think Africa is still paying the price for colonialism today. But on the other hand, we have to accept that ONE day, globalisation would happen, its a necessary part of human development. It's naive to think that once Steamships and Airoplanes come into the equation that a global society wouldn't emerge.
That's perhaps the context I try to see it in. How the players saw it in relation to long term interests of all.

Perhaps history will judge him much the same way it judges Roman Generals.

Moggs- If you question was why I get uncomfortable with Jingoism, well, because a lot of what was done in its name has kind of an uncomfortable feel to it, and whilist some of the more negative ovetones of Imperialism linger on in current thinking- notably neo-con thought, it remains difficult to apply objective analysis to its legacy.

I wouldn't go so far as to call it a symbol of Fascism, but it certainly isn't a symbol of enlightened progress. Not any more.

Ginro- Yes and no. I'd agree, I think the legacy of the British Empire was positive on the whole, I've done several posts on it.
But so was the Roman, and I have no intention of wearing T-shirts with SPQR qritten on them.

I think the global society that we have and most of its BETTER ideals- but also some of its less savoury have their origibn in the society that emerged in these islands after the turbulent 17th century.

But the Union Jack? its not the flag of a country- it never was, it was adopted when the Empire emerged- in fact even the concept of Britishness, is an Imperial one.

But the Empire is gone. And its decayed shell is the Union, and the Union Jack.

Anonymous said...

For goodness sake crushed!! The question was the actual question!!

The sort that might make you think about how concepts are snuck in under your radar, so you never think to question them.

Who taught you that or how did you learn it? By implication why? What agenda did they have?

Not saying it is right or wrong, but you question the prevailing received wisdom about CR. Maybe take yet another step back? At least so you know where you are coming from.

Like checking the foundations of a house...