Some notes on Cecil Rhodes

Cecil Rhodes was a member of the Cape Parliament representing the constituency of Barkly West from 1881 until his death in 1902. He was Prime Minister of Cape Colony from 1890-1896.  In 1895 Queen Victoria appointed him to be one her formal advisers as a member of Her Privy Council. In 1890 he founded what became the country of Rhodesia. He was a supporter of the Liberal Party in the UK.

In recent years, and particularly following the terrible killing in 2020 of a black criminal at the hands of American police which reinvigorated the Black Lives Matter movement, there has been a renewed campaign to denigrate the reputation of Cecil Rhodes.

In 2023 Prof. Nigel Biggar* published his much acclaimed book Colonialism – A Moral Reckoning which includes references to Cecil Rhodes and much besides. In spring 2023 I attended a talk at Pusey House in Oxford at which Prof Biggar, who is the Distinguished Scholar in Residence, also answered questions. I was highly impressed and bought a copy of his book which covers, in much detail, far more than the short extracts I have shown below. I would thoroughly recommend the book to all my readers – currently £20, or £12.99 paperback.

I cite below (in italics) some extracts from this book to illustrate the false quotes and attributions to which Rhodes stands accused and to help set the record straight.  As I stated in 2018 on my main Rhodes page, like all human beings, he was not without blemish and I make no claim that he was. But he was a man of his time, the Victorian era, which was very different to the 21st century and, in particular, was an era of plain speaking. Notwithstanding this, as far as I am aware, and although the term was in very common usage at the time, there is no documentary evidence that Rhodes used the term n—er when referring to black Africans.

The black Africans whom Rhodes encountered in the latter part of the 1800s were then, in a developmental sense, probably not dissimilar to the ancient, iron-age, Britons who confronted Caesar in 55BC prior to the 400 years of Roman colonisation of Britain. The unavoidable fact is that, unlike today, in the 19th century the differences between the world’s, then, advanced populations and those still living in the iron age were very obvious.

 

The case against Rhodes is that he was South Africa’s equivalent of Hitler and the supporting evidence is encapsulated in this damning quotation: ‘I prefer land to n—ers … the natives are like children. They are just emerging from barbarism … one should kill as many n—ers as possible’ However, initial research discovered that the Rhodes Must Fall campaigners had lifted this quotation verbatim from a book review by Adekeye Adebajo, a former Rhodes Scholar who is now director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg. Further digging revealed that the ‘quotation’ was, in fact, made up from three different elements drawn from three different sources.  The first had been lifted from a novel. The other two had been misleadingly torn out of their proper contexts. And part of the third appears to have been made up.

There is no doubt that the real Rhodes was a moral mixture, but he was no Hitler. Far from being racist, he showed consistent sympathy for individual black Africans throughout his life. And in an 1894 speech he made plain his view: ‘ I do not believe that they are different from ourselves.’  Nor did he attempt genocide against the southern African Ndebele people in 1896 – as might be suggested by the fact that the Ndebele tended his grave from 1902 for decades. And he had nothing at all to do with General Kitchener’s ‘concentration camps’ during the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, which themselves had nothing morally in common with Auschwitz. Moreover, Rhodes did support a franchise in Cape Colony that gave black Africans the vote on the same terms as whites; he helped to finance a black African newspaper; and he established his famous scholarship scheme, which was explicitly colour-blind and whose first black (American) beneficiary was selected within five years of his death.

However, none of these historical details seemed to matter to the student activists baying for Rhodes’ downfall, or to the professional academics who supported them. Since I published my view of Rhodes – complete with evidence and argument – in March 2016, no one has offered any critical response at all.  Notwithstanding that, when the Rhodes Must Fall campaign revived four years later in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, the same old false allegations revived with it, utterly unchastened. Thus, in the Guardian newspaper, an Oxford doctoral student (and former editor of the Oxford University Commonwealth Law Journal) was still slandering Rhodes as a ‘génocidaire’ in June 2020.

This unscrupulous indifference to historical truth indicates that the controversy over empire is not really a controversy about history at all. It is about the present, not the past.

In a parliamentary speech given in 1894, [Rhodes] declared: ‘Now, I say the natives are children. They are just emerging from barbarism. They have human minds … we ought to do something for the minds and the brains that the Almighty has given them. I do not believe that they are different from ourselves.’  Because he believed in the possibility of African cultural development, Rhodes never sought to overturn the liberal, colour-blind franchise that existed in Cape Colony since 1853, and which had given rise to a small black electorate. And when in 1899 the Cape government proposed legislation that would have disenfranchised most native people, Rhodes protested, arguing that he had ‘always differentiated between raw barbarians and the civilized natives’ and that the vote should be extended to Africans under the principle of ‘equal rights to every civilised man south of the Zambezi’. The previous year, when asked to clarify what he meant by ‘civilised man’, he had added ‘a man, white or black … who had sufficient education to write his name, has some property, or works. In fact, is not a loafer.’

Rhodes’ view echoed that of J.S. Mill, the great patriarch of Victorian liberalism, who, during the American Civil War, proved himself one of the most uncompromising and outspoken critics of slavery in the American south. Nevertheless, in the opening chapter of his classic 1859 treatise On Liberty, Mill wrote: ‘Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury … Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.’  However patronising and uncompromising that sounds, it did not condemn barbarians as naturally barbaric; it affirmed the possibility of their change, improvement, civilisation.

 

The above extracts give some examples of how Rhodes has been unfairly treated by many in the 21st century. But, I cannot copy the whole of Prof. Biggar’s book!  And I would earnestly recommend that you read it for yourself.

 

 

Prof Biggar photo

* Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor Emeritus of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford, where he directs the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics and Public Life.  He holds a BA in Modern History from Oxford University and an MA and Ph.D. in Christian Theology and Ethics from the University of Chicago. Before assuming his current post, he occupied chairs at the University of Leeds and Trinity College Dublin. He was appointed CBE in the 2021 Queen’s Birthday Honours List.