by Joanna Engle
Cecil Rhodes, the man at the centre of public debate, was a colonial politician, businessman and ardent white supremacist. He grew up in Hertfordshire before he was sent to South Africa at the age of 17 to find a profession for himself. While there, his company De Beers gained near-complete domination of the world diamond market, with brief pauses in 1873 and 1876 for Rhodes to study at Oriel College, Oxford.
A keen imperialist, Rhodes entered politics in 1880 and became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in 1890. During his tenure, Rhodes oversaw the formation of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia) in the early 1890s, but was eventually forced to resign in 1896 after the failed Jameson Raid, an attempt to incite an uprising among British expats in Boer-controlled territory. Rhodes died in 1902 and is buried in Zimbabwe.
Rhodes was, and remains, a controversial figure because of his fervour for British imperialism and the belief of racial hierarchy that fuelled it. Brian Kwoba of RMF argues that Rhodes was responsible for ‘stealing land, massacring tens of thousands of black Africans, imposing a regime of unspeakable labour exploitation in the diamond mines and devising pro-apartheid policies’.While the term ‘apartheid’ was probably not used during Rhodes’s lifetime and was South African policy only from 1948 onward, it hardly seems contentious to acknowledge his oppressive policies that laid the groundwork for these later laws.
Rhodes remains divisive, however, to the lingering colonial pride that seeps through British society. Perhaps this is just a result of the lack of thorough education about the British empire, as it almost vanished from the curriculum in the 1960s after flawed attempts at decolonisation. Less forgiving, however, is the reality that Rhodes-sympathetic views are most likely a reflection of the racism that still thrives throughout the country.
It was during his time at Oxford that many of Rhodes’s colonial visions were reinforced. As the intellectual heart of the British Empire, it is unsurprising his time at Oxford influenced his worldview, with lectures such as John Ruskin’s ‘Imperial Duty’ remaining a favourite of Rhodes. His admiration for the Oxford system – ‘wherever you turn your eye … an Oxford man is at the top of the tree’ – inspired Rhodes to develop a scholarship scheme. The Rhodes Scholarship was founded in 1902 under the conditions of his will and funded by his legacy. The goal was to promote ‘young colonists’, and to continue the Oxford traditions of producing colonial world leaders and furthering British domination.
The Rhodes Scholarship was not open to women until 1977; meanwhile, obstructions to black South Africans gaining scholarships remained in place until 1991. (While Rhodes’s will states that ‘no student shall be qualified or disqualified for election to a Scholarship on account of his race or religious opinions’, scholarships were for a long time exclusively available to white-only private secondary schools.) Recently, the Redress Rhodes group was created by a group of Rhodes Scholars, to make ‘reparative justice a more central theme for Rhodes Scholars’.
Rhodes also left £100,000 to Oriel college in his will, which was used in 1911 to build the Rhodes Building, from where the infamous statue overlooks the High Street. The inscription under the statue reads ‘e Larga MUnIfICentIa CaeCILII rhoDes’ – ‘by means of the generous munificence of Cecil Rhodes’.
 There is a strong case that Rhodes believed in ‘white supremacy’ – defined as ‘the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society’ (Oxford Dictionaries) – through a number of things he is known to have written and said:
- ‘I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence… Why should we not form a secret society with but one object, the furtherance of the British Empire and the bringing of the whole world under British rule, for the recovery of the United States, for making the Anglo-Saxon race but one Empire?… Africa is still lying ready for us, it is our duty to take it. It is our duty to seize every opportunity of acquiring more territory and we should keep this one idea steadily before our eyes that more territory simply means more of the Anglo-Saxon race, more of the best the most human, most honorable race the world possesses…’ (Cecil Rhodes, ‘Confessions of Faith’ (1877) – an online copy can be found here.)
- ‘The native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise. We must adopt a system of despotism, such as works in India, in our relations with the barbarism of South Africa.’ (Magubane, Bernard M. (1996). The Making of a Racist State: British Imperialism and the Union of South Africa, 1875–1910. Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press. P. 108.)
- ‘At any rate, if the whites maintain their position as the supreme race, the day may come when we shall all be thankful that we have the natives in their proper place.’ (Rhodes’s Speech on the Second Rereading of the Glen Grey Act to the Cape House Parliament on July 30 1894, of which a transcript can be found here.)
 Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido state that: ‘Although it is frequently suggested that he was sent to Natal to cure his consumptive lungs, recent accounts have followed his early biographer Sir Lewis Michell, who remarks that ‘his father recognized that he was unfitted for a routine life in England, and resolved to ship him to one of the Colonies’ (Michell, 1.21). In later life Rhodes’s ill health was occasioned by a weak heart rather than weak lungs.’ (Entry on ‘Cecil Rhodes’ in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online on SOLO here.)
 The History of the University of Oxford: Volume VII: Nineteenth-Century Oxford, Part 2, ed. M. G. Brock and M. C. Curthoys. (Online here on SOLO.) Both Rhodes quotes can be found in the opening paragraphs of Chapter 29 (‘The Rhodes Scholars’), by E. T. Williams. Williams cites his source as: Eleanor Alexander, Primate Alexander, Archbishop of Armagh (1913), 259. Rhodes said this in 1893.
Full bibliography for the article
History on the Streets of Oxford (online project by Stephanie Jenkins compiling the history of the town): ‘Oxford Inscriptions: Cecil Rhodes statue on Rhodes Building‘.
The Rhodes House article on the group ‘Redress Rhodes‘.
Guardian feature: ‘Empire state of mind – why do so many people think colonialism was a good thing?‘ (20/01/16).
New York Times: ‘Oxford University Will Keep Statue of Cecil Rhodes‘ (Stephen Castle, 29/01/16).
The History of the University of Oxford: Volume VII: Nineteenth-Century Oxford, Part 2, ed. M. G. Brock and M. C. Curthoys. (Online here on SOLO.)
Entry on ‘Cecil Rhodes’ in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido, 2013. Online on SOLO.)
Magubane, Bernard M. (1996). The Making of a Racist State: British Imperialism and the Union of South Africa, 1875–1910. Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press.
Primary sources on Rhodes:
- Cecil Rhodes, ‘Confessions of Faith’ (1877) – an online copy can be found here.
- Rhodes’s Speech on the Second Rereading of the Glen Grey Act to the Cape House Parliament on July 30 1894, of which a transcript can be found here.
- BBC: ‘Why is Cecil Rhodes such a controversial figure?‘ (Justin Parkinson, 01/04/15.)
- Media Diversified: ‘University of Oxford: Still the intellectual heart of the British Empire?‘ (Natalya Din-Kariuki, 09/06/15).
- The Guardian: ‘Cecil Rhodes was a racist, but you can’t readily expunge him from history‘ (Will Hutton, 20/12/15).
- The Guardian: ‘Topple the Rhodes statue? Better to rebrand him a war criminal‘ (David Olusoga, 07/01/16).
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