Above: South Africa in 1939
The debate about the statues of figures from South Africa’s past rumbles on in advance of the commencement of the new term at Oriel College, Oxford, where the memorial erected to Cecil Rhodes in 1911 is under threat from a group of students calling themselves “Rhodes Must Fall” after the group which succeeded in having his statue removed from the campus of Capetown University.
What continues to amaze me as a historian is that, however Rhodes’s role in the development of Southern Africa is assessed according to the historical record, these campaigners continue to repeat the banal distortion of this record in linking his name to the Apartheid state established by the National Party in 1948, forty-six years after his death. He was certainly an imperialist, and within that context a racist, but the idea that he was ‘an architect of apartheid’ is arrant and puerile anti-historical nonsense. Indeed, the Chancellor of Oxford University, Chris Patten, the last Governor of post-Imperial Hong Kong, has recently responded to the anti-Rhodes campaigners by accusing them of re-writing history, and has asserted that, therefore, the statues and plaques commemorating the ‘great’ man will not be coming down.
Imperial ‘Heroes’ and South African Exiles:
Almost thirty years ago, in 1987, I was asked to take part in a Theatre-in-Education Project in Birmingham, working with the Development Education Centre in the Selly Oak Colleges, which explored themes in the History of South Africa from the time of the Boer War to the 1980s, when we were campaigning for the release of Nelson Mandela and against the appeasers of the apartheid regime in Britain, including Mrs Thatcher. Certainly, Birmingham ‘hero’ Joseph Chamberlain featured in the play scripted by ‘the Big Brum Company’, and there may have been a passing reference to Cecil Rhodes, but the main focus was the treatment of black Africans by the Afrikaner supremacists from 1837 to the 1987. My role was to support the performance with preparatory materials in secondary schools throughout Birmingham. As an Anti-Apartheid campaigner for more than a decade, working with Peter Hain and Donald Woods, among many other South African exiles of all colours, I was keen to get involved in this project.
A pack was developed with the DEC in response to the needs of teachers of the 14-16 age range who wanted material which would help them to cover areas of history, geography, social studies and integrated humanities syllabuses relating to South Africa. The materials had previously been pioneered by teachers in West Yorkshire in the early eighties, who felt that this need could best be met by examining how the situation in South Africa had evolved by then to a point at which a clear, more dispassionate background was needed to the political, economic and social circumstances prevailing in the country at that time. They, and we, aimed to challenge the common misconceptions surrounding apartheid, while also stimulating pupils by providing possibilities for studies in depth on particular issues.
Broadly, the aims of the project were:
To encourage pupils to examine their attitudes to South Africa, not as somewhere ‘out there’ but in terms of a place which is very closely linked with their own experience of Britain.
To present information about South Africa which would allow pupils to decide for themselves what they feel about some of the issues relating to apartheid.
To challenge the many misconceptions regarding apartheid which we are presented with by the media, South African government etc.
To help pupils to understand what apartheid means to the people involved.
It was very important to these aims that pupils were encouraged to discuss how they felt about the issues being raised and that they are encouraged to develop a critical approach to the information which they received. We felt that the use of ‘evidence’ in this context was very helpful, as it allowed pupils to examine an issue from many different perspectives and also to realise that much of the information which they commonly encountered was heavily weighted according to the purpose for which it was designed.
White and Black Perspectives:
The history of South Africa had always been presented as a white person’s history up to this point, recorded by white people for white people, so that it gave a very one-sided view of events. It was our intention to present this view, alongside the other view, that of black people’s history, in an attempt to allow pupils to reach ‘informed’ conclusions. Unfortunately, because black history had not often been recorded, we had to reconstruct events through the eyes of fictitious characters and in the emotions portrayed by actors. These perspectives were, however, based on extensive and meticulous research. It also remained important to examine the attitudes of Afrikaners and other white groups in historical and contemporary contexts, in order that pupils might recognise the part which these groups had played in determining where South Africa was in the 1980s and how these were linked to many of the attitudes held by some white people in Britain at that time. Although the pack itself did not explore these links in detail, we found that pupils in multi-ethnic schools drew these links for themselves, while those in all-white schools needed support to tackle these issues, as indicated in the Swann Committee Report (1985). Above all, we guarded against labelling all white South Africans as bad and all black South Africans as good by focussing on the spectrum of opinions of all people as individuals rather than purely in terms of whether they were black and white. The pack began…
…in 1837, twenty-three years after the British took control of the Cape of South Africa, in order to hinder the French fleet in the area and to protect their own shipping routes to India and the Pacific. Dutch people had occupied the Cape from 1652 and now called themselves ‘Boers’. In 1833, the British had passed laws to end slavery throughout the British Empire, including South Africa. Some of the Boers, known as ‘Voortrekkers’ did not want to obey these laws, so they began a northward migration – ‘the Great Trek’ – to avoid them.
The trekkers attacked the southern tribes, killing many of them and taking their children as slaves. They also took cattle and built homesteads on the land. One of the leaders of the trekkers, Piet Retief, came into Natal to ask the Zulu chief, Dingaan for land, having already tricked Sekonyela out of his guns and horses. He moved his party of trekkers onto Dingaan’s land before he had agreed to lease it. Dingaan fought the trekkers, killing Retief and driving the trekkers away.
The Voortrekkers decided to take revenge against Dingaan. On 16 December 1837, a commando of five hundred of them set up an ambush for the Zulus on the banks of a river. They were led by Andries Pretorius, who gave his name to the later capital of South Africa, Pretoria. He was an experienced leader who had recently arrived in Natal from Cape Colony.
They grouped their wagons into a circle, known as a ‘laager’, surrounding their cattle and themselves. This provided them with protection so that they could fire their weapons from the spaces between the wagons. The Zulus were armed with short spears called ‘assegai’ and had only their shields to protect them.
The Voortrekkers were victorious, with only three of them wounded. Three thousand Zulus were killed. The Battle of Blood River, as it became known, was commemorated by the Boers in an annual service of thanksgiving known as the Day of the Covenant.
From this perspective, we can see that the first massacres of the indigenous black peoples of South Africa were not the work of the British, but of the Afrikaners. When the Great Trek finished, the Boers who had settled in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State were given some independence by the British. In the 1860s sugar cane plantations were set up in Natal and Indians were treated in the same way as the blacks, working for low wages in poor conditions. Since the Boers had been involved in a lot of hardship on the Great Trek and had worked hard to make a living in their new areas, they had developed a strong sense of togetherness. Due to their religious beliefs, which were Dutch Calvinist in origin, they thought that black people could never be Christian and so could never be regarded as equals. On the other hand, British missionaries taught that those black people who converted to Christianity deserved to be treated fairly, if not equally before God, and should certainly not be enslaved. The Afrikaners, however, saw themselves as a race apart and were starting to develop their own language, Afrikaans.
The Development of Afrikanerdom, 1868-1948:
For these reasons, when in 1868, gold and diamonds were found in the Transvaal and Orange Free State by black people, the Afrikaners tried to stop the British taking over these areas again. They fought the British in the Boer War of 1899-1902, which the British eventually won, though the Afrikaners retained a large amount of self-government. They made the blacks pay taxes and rents so that they would have to work for white bosses in order to earn money. Many went to work in the new gold and diamond mines. White landowners began to evict the blacks who rented ‘their’ land, thinking that they could make more money by farming it for themselves. In 1909 the Afrikaner government passed the Squatter Act, which meant that the blacks who rented land were forced to become labourers or leave. Those evicted were forced to live on reserves where poor land and diseases made it difficult to make a living.
In 1910 the British government brought the four states together in the Union of South Africa, but black people still had no say, so in 1912 they set up their own African National Congress (ANC) to fight for their rights. Despite this, the Land Act was passed in 1913, giving blacks the worst 7% of the land, even though they were three times the size of the white population. The black areas were called ‘Bantu’ areas and became even more overcrowded than before. There was little land for planting crops or grazing livestock, so it was impossible to make a living. As there was no work in the Bantu areas, the men had to travel hundreds of miles to work in the mines and factories, leaving their families on the reserves.
In 1918 black mine-workers went on strike for better pay, but the white mine owners called in the police to force them back to work. Meanwhile, Afrikaner workers had become worried that more jobs and better pay for the blacks would mean fewer jobs for them. They formed trade unions to prevent this. In 1927 the Black Administration Act was passed, providing for a separate system of administration for the black areas from the white areas. Blacks were not allowed to vote or join trade unions, and the men had to carry passes saying where they could and could not live and work. In compensation, the black areas were increased in proportion from 7% to 13%.
This was how South Africa continued to be run until 1939, as a country run by whites for whites. Both the Afrikaners and the British agreed that black people were there to work for them and were not to be involved in any decisions. So when Great Britain asked its ‘Dominions’, including South Africa, to help out in the Second World War, the blacks had no say in this. The United Party was split, with Prime Minister Hertzog arguing against becoming involved in the war against fascism. However, he was outvoted and forced to resign. The ANC gave its full support to Jan Smuts, the new Prime Minister, in his determination to involve South Africa in the war. For the time being, at least, the Afrikaner Nationalists had lost.
Both before and during the war, many blacks moved into the cities to find work, as it was impossible to make a living in the Bantu areas. The whites living in the cities didn’t want the blacks there, so they strengthened the pass laws. As a result of the poor wages and conditions which the blacks were forced to accept, there were numerous strikes in the 1940s. In 1946, fifty thousand black mine-workers were went on strike for better pay, but many were killed and injured when police came and used violence to break up the strike.
Then, in 1948, the Afrikaner National Party were voted into power, led by Dr Daniel Malan, with their policy of ‘apartheid’, a new word, but an old idea for Afrikaners. This meant separate development for blacks and whites. Only white people could vote in the election. The National Party did not want black people to enjoy the wealth of the country or have a part in its political life. Many whites supported this because they wanted to keep all the jobs, lands and wealth for themselves.
The National Apartheid State, 1948-61:
Almost immediately, the National Party set about building up apartheid by introducing strict laws. There were laws to separate white and black people in all areas of life: schools, work, hospitals, housing areas, and even marriage. From 1948, ‘Whites Only’ signs began to appear in many places: taxis, ambulances, buses, restaurants, hotels, parks and even beaches. In sport as well, white and black people could not play together. In 1950, the government classified everyone as ‘Black’, ‘Coloured’, ‘Asian’ or ‘White’ and restricted all black people to the small Bantu areas. Any black person who owned land in a white area could be forced off it and moved to a Bantu area. The government wanted to make sure that they had control over these remote areas, so they appointed ‘chiefs’ by offering high wages in return for making sure that people did not attempt to oppose apartheid.
However, whites still needed blacks to work for them in the cities, even though they didn’t want them to live there, so two years later they passed a law to set up ‘townships’ near cities where black people who worked in the cities had to live. These were run by white administration boards who had control over all the facilities and services in the townships.
Sophiatown was a pre-existing township only six kilometres west of the centre of Johannesburg. It was one of the few places where Africans had been able to buy homes and many had lived there for more than fifty years by 1953. Because it was close to the centre of the city, several families lived in each home, with as many as forty people getting their water from a single tap. It was surrounded by towns where white workers lived, and the government wanted to move these workers into Sophiatown. So, in 1953, the government started to force Africans out of their homes in Sophiatown to a new township twenty kilometres away, as part of their plan to control where Africans could live and work.
The ANC organised meetings in the town over many months, trying to prevent its destruction. Among those who spoke at these meetings was a young Nelson Mandela, until he was banned in September 1953 under one of the laws introduced in 1950. This law allowed any person from going to meetings, leaving town, belonging to political organisations, or meeting friends. Although Mandela was not accused of any crime, for two years he was forbidden to go to meetings or to leave Johannesburg. He was even prevented from going to his son’s birthday party. He was also forced to leave the ANC. He was therefore unable to go to the national meeting of the ANC in September 1953, so that another ANC member read his words for him. He told them:
There is no easy walk to freedom. Many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountain tops of our desires.
The pass laws were made even stricter so that women had to carry passes as well. A few years later, they passed laws which gave separate and unequal facilities to whites and blacks. Blacks were given the worst of everything in education, housing, health, jobs, transport etc. In 1953, the government had passed a law which separated the African school system from the white system in order to force African children to go to poorer schools.
Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, Minister of Native Affairs, said that the only place for Africans in South Africa was in some types of work. By this, he meant that Africans would only do mundane, badly paid work, so that they did not need to be educated in expensive schools. In 1954, Verwoerd made a speech in which he promised that:
When I have control of Native Education I will reform it so that the Natives will be taught from childhood to realise that equality with Europeans is not for them… People who believe in equality are not desirable teachers for Natives… When my department controls Native education it will know for what class of higher education a Native is fitted, and whether he will have a chance in life to use his knowledge… What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice. That is quite absurd.
In the 1950s, the government spent 44 pounds every year for each white student, 19 pounds for every Coloured and Asian student, and less than eight pounds for each African student.
At the beginning of 1955, four thousand police and soldiers arrived at Sophiatown and began to move people out and to destroy their homes. The ANC had failed to save the town, and it became obvious that the Afrikaner government would not be moved by the ANC’s non-violent protests. In 1956 twenty thousand women held a peaceful protest against the pass laws, but once again the police used violence to break up the demonstration. In 1958, Verwoerd became Prime Minister. He wanted greater racial segregation than ever before, and one of the first things he declared as Prime Minister was that all black Africans would be known as ‘Bantus’. In 1959, the Bantu areas were divided into ten groups called the ‘Bantustans’ or ‘Homelands’. People were told that they were citizens of a ‘homeland’ which often they had never seen before and which might be hundreds of miles from their real home. Millions of people were moved by force to these remote areas where they had no jobs, houses or land. There they had to live with their appointed ‘chiefs’. Using the passes, the government now had complete control over where every black person lived and worked.
In 1960, there was another peaceful protest against the pass laws, this time at Sharpeville, a small townships, about 55 kilometres south of Johannesburg. The Pan-African Congress (PAC), a new African organisation, had organised the protest. As part of this, a crowd of several thousand marched to the police station in Sharpeville, without their passes. The crowd waited quietly, but as the crowd grew larger, the police became more worried. Suddenly, they began to shoot at the crowd. People turned and tried to run away, but the police continued to shoot, killing 69 people and injuring many more. Protests came from all over the world, including the United Nations, the first time the UN had spoken out about what was happening in South Africa. The government declared a state of emergency and arrested 22,000 people. They banned the African National Congress (ANC) and several other anti-apartheid organisations. Mandela was taken to Pretoria Prison, with the other thirty already accused in the ‘Treason Trial’. At the trial, Mandela told the court that the ANC would continue to organise protests until the government said, “Let’s talk”. Then they would agree to talk. In March 1961, more than four years after the first arrests, the trial ended. ‘You are found not guilty,’ said the judge, ‘you may go.’ Outside the court the crowd danced and sang the national song of the ANC, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, ‘God bless Africa’, composed in 1897 in Xhosa, by a teacher in Johannesburg.
Education remained at the forefront of the fight against apartheid, and in 1976 another protest erupted in another township, Soweto, when a government circular sent to black schools sought to change the medium of instruction from English to Afrikaans for all subjects except General Science and practical subjects such as woodwork, needlework and art. The attack by the Afrikaner apartheid state on the English language turned the ‘imperial’ language into the symbolic language of liberation and equality. What followed also served as proof to the world of the immorality of the apartheid state, though it took another fifteen years for it to be brought to an end by a combination of internal and external pressure. Just three years later, we were stood on a picket line outside the headquarters of the Welsh Rugby Union in Cardiff, protesting against the visit of the so-called ‘multi-racial’ South African Barbarians. It was difficult to believe that two years after the beating to death of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko (Donald Woods had just published his smuggled biography), there was this widespread pretence that it was possible to play normal sporting matches with a country whose whole society was abnormal. If south Wales could welcome such a flagrant flouting of UN sanctions, Mrs Thatcher would have no difficulty in propping up the apartheid regime. Neither did she.
In Conclusion: Imperialism and Apartheid
Whatever our view of British imperialism in southern Africa in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and although it was far from innocent in its treatment of the Africans and Afrikaners under its rule, there is clearly only a very tangential ideological link, if any, to the state which was brought into being in 1948. Though the descendants of British settlers may have acquiesced in the creation of a racist state for their own selfish reasons, it is also impossible to ignore the role of British missionaries, over generations, in helping to establish schools for native Africans and providing the English language education which eventually enabled them to find their voices as well as their feet. Throughout the period from 1837 to 1960, it was the determination of the Afrikaners to assert their racial predominance, supported by a heretical version of Calvinism, which established the ideology of apartheid at the centre of South African government, and kept it as the controlling concept of that state for over four decades.
Margaret Holmes (1986), A History of South Africa. Leeds: Development Education Centre.
Rowena Akinyemi (2008), Nelson Mandela. Oxford English: Oxford University Press. Read the rest of this entry »
Introducing the Issues:
On 28th December (2015), The Daily Telegraph reported that the student leading a campaign to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from an Oxford college has turned his fire on the university itself, accusing it of spreading “injustice” around the world by educating future leaders with a “skewed” and “Eurocentric” mindset.
Ntokozo Qwabe and the Cecil Rhodes statue on Oriel College in Oxford
South African Ntokozo Qwabe, himself a beneficiary of a Rhodes scholarship, claimed that students at Oxford endure “systemic racism, patriarchy and other oppressions” on a daily basis. The 24-year-old also said that the university’s admissions and staff recruitment systems “perpetrate exclusion” and suggested that even Oxford’s architecture is laid out in a “racist and violent” way. And he accused the British media of treating him and his supporters like “terrorists” for challenging the establishment.
His comments came in a lengthy posting on Facebook in response to reaction to his remarks likening the French Tricolor to the Nazi swastika or the hammer and sickle under Stalin as a “symbol of violence, terror and genocide for many”. He said he had suffered a media “onslaught” as a result. Mr Qwabe shot to prominence earlier this month after Oriel College agreed to remove a plaque under a statue of the colonial era mining magnate and politician and consider talking down the statue itself. It followed protests by Mr Qwabe’s “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign group, which takes its inspiration from a movement in South Africa which has succeeded in having statues of Rhodes removed.
The campaigners say the statue at Oriel College glorifies a figure seen as one of the architects of South African apartheid and is therefore “offensive and violent” to students. But others have argued that taking the statue down would amount to purging the past to conform to contemporary political demands.
This rather strange, if not bizarre, set of circumstances, reminds many in Eastern Europe of the controversies of the late nineties and ‘noughties’ when the statues and commemorobilia of the Soviet Era were systematically removed, including war memorials. Many of the statues of Lenin and other Soviet leaders were removed to a theme park near Budapest in the case of Hungary. More controversially, perhaps, street names were changes, often against the wishes of residents, in order to expunge any memory of the collaboration of Hungarians in the forty-year occupation.
More recently, there have been further controversies about what, who and how to commemorate the previous dark period in Hungarian history which led to the Nazi occupation of 1944-45 and the Holocaust and Hungarian Fascist regime. The erection of a statue of the Regent of Hungary from 1920 to 1944, Miklós Horthy, caused a furore, since many associated his regime as anti-Semitic, passing anti-Jewish Laws from the early twenties to the 1940s, facilitating the deportation of Hungary’s Jews from rural towns and villages, and then collaborating with the Nazis in the occupation of his own country, only belatedly heeding advice to leave the Axis and seek an armistice with the Allies. Was he, perhaps like János Kadar after him, a saviour or a traitor?
The Hungarian government also became unpopular with the current Jewish community in Budapest by commissioning a national memorial to ‘all the victims of the German occupation’, symbolised by a rampant eagle, rather than recognising the events of 1944-45 as a Hungarian Holocaust, Hungarian in origin, willingly participated in by Hungarian politicians, armed services and police. In some provincial towns, local figures who collaborated in these events, whether actively or passively, have had their previous contributions recognised in the commissioning and raising of statues, most recently in Szekesfehérvár, not without provoking both local and national outrage.
The who, what, why and how of acts of commemoration will, of necessity, change from generation to generation. As the events of the two World Wars become more remote from current generations, the annual Acts of Remembrance in the UK are bound to focus on more recent wars and their victims, whether fallen or surviving. Commemoration is about the needs of current communities for remembrance, not about an agreed, detailed version of the past. It is about the gathering together of diverse individual experiences into a collective memory. Just as two people’s memories of the same family members and events can be diverse, so collective memory is also heterogeneous.
However, to be true nations, we must be true to our common heritages, and that means that we must have regard to the historical bedrock from which we sculpt, both actually and metaphorically, the memorials we leave for future generations. We carve them in stone because they are supposed to represent lasting truth, not some contemporary fad. The same applies to their removal as to their erection. In deciding what and who to commemorate, politicians need to consult other craftsmen before they commission architects and artists. These metaphorical craftsmen, the historians, will no doubt have their own principles and perspectives, but they are also charged with testing all the available sources of evidence, before producing a synthesis about the legacy of past people(s) and events.
This coming year will be marked by a number of commemorations, including controversial ones such as the Battle of the Somme and the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin. As a second-year undergraduate I can remember reading about this latter event in some detail. Soon after submitting my essay, I met an Irish republican, and tried to apologise to him for the legacy of bitterness which originated from these events. Somewhat older and better studied than me at the time, he pointed out that I could not take responsibility for what the British Empire had done three or even two generations before. All either of us could do was to deal with the legacy as we both perceived it in our own lifetimes.
My experience of that legacy had begun with a visit to Nelson’s other column, in Dublin in the mid-sixties, shortly before it was blown up by the Official IRA. A warning was given in that case, so only the monument suffered. More recently, it had culminated in the blowing-up of two pubs in the centre of Birmingham in November 1974. This was by the Provisional IRA, and no warning was given. Twenty-one people were killed, and many more suffered life-changing injuries. Most of them were teenagers; many, like me, aged seventeen. In fact, I could easily have been one of them, had I left the Bull-Ring Centre burger-bar minutes later than I did. Those responsible have never been held to account; instead six Irishmen were falsely imprisoned for more than fifteen years, compounding the confusion felt by the general victims, the people of Birmingham, including its well-integrated Irish community. The point is that, in wanting to apologise, I was doing what many with emotional connections to current or past events do, confusing history with legacy. I desperately wanted to help set things straight. Much later, as part of a Birmingham-Belfast Education for Mutual Understanding Project, I had the opportunity to do so. Reconciliation became possible, but it was not history which absolved us. Nor did it condemn us; that is not its role.
Similarly, some time ago, one of my students asked to do her special study on the Amritsar Massacre. One of her reasons for this was that she first wanted to come to terms with the family legacy that General Dyer, the officer commanding the British troops that day in 1919, was a relative. She was able to write a fascinating prologue on this before providing a well-researched, dispassionate account and interpretation of the events surrounding that day. Her present-day family are Quakers pacifists.
Chronicling Cecil Rhodes and his Empire:
So, what is the legacy of Cecil Rhodes and why has it provoked such controversy both in South Africa and the UK? To understand this, we first need to examine the chronicle of events surrounding his life, and then put this in the context of South Africa’s later history in the twentieth century, asking the questions, in what sense can he be described as a ‘racist’ and to what extent can he be seen as one of the key architects of the ‘apartheid’ state?:
Born in 1854, the son of a clergyman from Bishop’s Stortford, Rhodes had emigrated to South Africa at the age of seventeen before going to Oxford. He was at once a business genius and imperial visionary. It was not enough for Rhodes to make a fortune from the vast De Beers diamond mines at Kimberley. He aspired to be more than a money-maker. He dreamt of becoming an empire builder.
Cecil Rhodes became the wealthy chairman of the Kimberley diamond-mines, following the annexation of Griqualand West by the British Government in 1871 at the request of the Griqua chief. The extension of the Cape Colony across the Orange River checked the westward expansion of the Boer Orange Free State.
Though his public image was that of a lone colossus bestriding Africa, as in the cartoon above, Rhodes could not have won his near-monopoly over South African diamond production without the assistance of his friends in the City of London; in particular, the Rothschild bank, at that time the biggest concentration of financial capital in the world.
When Rhodes had arrived at the Kimberley diamond fields there had been more than a hundred small companies working the four major ‘pipes’, flooding the market with diamonds and driving one another out of business. In 1882 a Rothschild agent visited Kimberley and recommended large-scale amalgamation; within four years the number of companies was down to three. A year later, the bank financed the merger of Rhodes’s De Beers Company with the Compagnie Francaise, followed by the final crucial fusion with the bigger Kimberley Central Company.
Now there was just one company: De Beers. Rhodes did not own the company, since Rothschild was the largest shareholder, and by 1899 the Rothschilds’ stake was twice that of Rhodes. When Rhodes needed financial backing for a new scheme in October 1888, he turned to Rothschild, who by then had become the first Jew to enter the House of Lords.
The proposition that Rhodes wanted Rothschild to consider was the concession he had just secured from the Matabele chief, Lobengula, to develop ‘simply endless’ gold fields that Rhodes believed existed beyond the Limpopo River. The terms of his letter made it clear that his intentions towards the chief were anything but friendly. The Matabele king, he wrote, was
the only block to Central Africa, as once we have his territory, the rest is easy, as the rest is simply a village system with a separate headman, all independent of each other… the key is Matabele Land, with its gold, the reports as to which are not based solely on hearsay… Fancy, this Gold Field which was purchasable, at about £150,000 two years ago, is now selling for over ten million.
Bechuanaland (modern-day Botswana) was in a key position in South Africa, as it lay on the direct route to the rich Zambesi valley, which Rhodes wanted to control. He had used his influence with the home Government to secure a protectorate over the territory in 1884, fearing that the Germans in south-west Africa would intervene and block British expansion northward. He now dreamed of a united Africa under British rule, extending northwards from the Cape, with a Cape-to-Cairo railway across British territories.
When Rhodes joined forces with the existing Bechuanaland Company to create a new Central Search Association for Matabeleland, the banker Rothschild was a major shareholder, and increased his involvement when this became the United Concessions Company in 1890. He was also among the founders of the British South Africa Company, acting as the Company’s unpaid financial adviser.
Rhodes established the British South Africa Company in 1889, and was granted the right by charter to develop the resources of the country now bearing his name – Rhodesia.
Rhodes became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in 1890. Like many of his contemporaries, he was inspired by a sense of Great Britain’s mission to extend a civilising influence throughout its Empire, known as ‘the White Man’s Burden’, as most clearly expressed in Kipling’s poem. He saw his own part in this as extending British influence in South Africa, aiming to create a South African Federation out of the British and Afrikaaner colonies.
The first step towards this was to consolidate his control over Matabeleland. When Lobengula realised he had been hoodwinked into signing over much more than mere mineral rights, he resolved to take Rhodes on. Determined to dispose of the chief once and for all, Rhodes responded by ending an invasion force – the Chartered Companies’ Volunteers – numbering seven hundred. By African standards, the Matabele had a powerful and well-organised army, numbering in the region of three thousand. But Rhodes’s men brought with them devastating Maxim guns which could fire five hundred rounds a minute, fifty times faster than the fastest rifle available.
Maxim testing his gun…
Above: Hiram Maxim with his gun, c. 1880.
The Maxim gun had been invented by an American, Hiram Maxim, who had an underground workshop in Hatton Garden, London. As soon as he had his prototype ready for the British market, he invited several members of the Royal Family and the British aristocracy to give the weapon a trial. Among those who accepted were the Duke of Cambridge, the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Duke of Devonshire and the Duke of Kent. The first of these, who was then Commander-in-Chief, felt ‘confident they will, ere long, be used generally in all armies’. When the Maxim Gun Company was established in 1884, Lord Rothschild was on its board. In 1888 his bank financed the £1.9 million merger of the Company with the Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company.
The Battle of Shangani River in 1893 was among the earliest uses of the Maxim in battle. One eyewitness recorded what happened:
The Matabele never got nearer than 100 yards led by the Nubuzu regiment, the king’s body-guard who came on yelling like fiends and rushing on to certain death, for the Maxims far exceeded all expectations and mowed them down literally like grass. I never saw anything like these Maxim guns, nor dreamed that such things could be: for the belts and cartridges were run through them as fast as a man could load and fire. Every man in the laager owes his life under Providence to the Maxim gun. The natives told the king that they did not fear us for our rifles, but they could not kill the beast that went pooh! pooh! by which they meant the Maxim.
To the Matabele it seemed that ‘the white man came… with… guns that spat bullets as the heavens sometimes spit hail, and who were the naked Matabele to stand up against these guns?’ Around 1,500 Matabele warriors were wiped out. Just four of the seven hundred invaders died. The Times reported that the Matabele
put our victory down to witchcraft, allowing that the Maxim was a pure work of an evil spirit. They have named it”S’cockacocka”, owing to the peculiar noise it makes when in action.
The conquered territory was renamed Rhodesia, since he had masterminded the operation. However, it could not have succeeded without the financial might of Rothschilds. One member of the family noted with satisfaction the connection between ‘a sharp action having taken place with the Matabeles’ and ‘a little spurt in the shares’ of Rhodes’s British South Africa Company.
The official Matabeleland souvenir, published on the fortieth anniversary of the one-sided conflict, long after Rhodes’s death, opened with his ‘tribute’ to the men who had conquered the Matabele ‘savages’. The ‘highlight’ is the following hymn, originally written as a Liberal satire on the expedition, which Rhodes’s men adopted as their anthem:
Onward Chartered Soldiers, on to heathen lands,
Prayer books in your pockets, rifles in your hands.
Take the glorious tidings where trade can be done,
Spread the peaceful gospel – with a Maxim gun..
Rhodes’s ambitions brought him into conflict with the Boers whose leader, Paul Kruger, resented his policy of expansion which meant the encircling of Boer territory. The Boers were farmers, but the discovery of gold in the Witswatersrand in 1886 and the rapid development of the mines by British settlers led to the outnumbering of the Boer population by the Uitlanders in the Transvaal. Kruger adopted a hostile policy towards them, denying them all political rights and taxing them heavily. Moreover, monopolies granted to Europeans and heavy railway rates hampered the expansion of the mining industry.
The Jameson Raid (1896) was a plot engineered by Dr Jameson, administrator of Rhodesia, and supported by Rhodes, to use the Uitlanders to overthrow the Boer Government of the Transvaal. Its failure led to Rhodes’ resignation and discredited the British Government in the eyes of the world, uniting both Boer states against Britain.
The Wars in…
The Uitlanders of the Transvaal continued to agitate for improved conditions and petitioned the British government to intervene on their behalf. Negotiations failed to reach a compromise, due to the obstinacy of Kruger on the one hand and the uncompromising imperialism of Joseph Chamberlain, on the other. The Boers declared war in 1899. The Boer War came to an end in 1902, after Roberts and Kitchener finally wore down the resistance of the Boers, partly through the use of concentration camps for the women and children of the irregular fighters. The Boer republics were annexed, but the Boers were to continue to rule themselves and their farmers were compensated for war damage.
During the Second Boer War Rhodes went to Kimberley at the onset of the siege, in a calculated move to raise the political stakes on the government to dedicate resources to the defence of the city. The military felt he was more of a liability than an asset and found him intolerable. Rhodes insisted that the military should adopt his plans and ideas instead of following their orders. Despite the differences, Rhodes’ company was instrumental in the defence of the city, providing water, refrigeration facilities, constructing fortifications, manufacturing an armoured train, shells and a one-off gun named Long Cecil.
Rhodes used his position and influence to lobby the British government to relieve the siege of Kimberley, claiming in the press that the situation in the city was desperate. The military wanted to assemble a large force to take the Boer cities of Bloemfontein and Pretoria, but they were compelled to change their plans and send three separate smaller forces to relieve the sieges of Kimberley, Mafeking and Ladysmith.
Funeral of Rhodes in Adderley St, Cape Town on 3 April 1902
Although Rhodes remained a leading figure in the politics of southern Africa, especially during the Second Boer War, he had been dogged by ill-health throughout his relatively short life. From age 40 his heart condition returned with increasing severity until his death from heart failure in 1902, aged 48, at his seaside cottage in Muizenberg.
The Union of South Africa came about in 1909, and included the two British colonies, the Cape and Natal, and the two Boer republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State. A constitution was drafted and accepted by the British Parliament which agreed, among other matters, a common policy towards the native African populations.
As PM of Cape Colony
The Jameson Raid
Churchill’s Adventures in South Africa
Of course, many others were attracted by a sense of imperial adventure to South Africa. Among them was the young Winston Churchill, who had already spent time in India with the Queen’s Own Hussars, before arriving on a ‘new’ continent as a journalist-adventurer.
Above: Churchill as chief Boer War correspondent on The Morning Post,
South Africa, 1899
Extracts from Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain: 1776-2000; The Fate of Empire. London: BBC Worldwide.
In South Africa fame and fortune went together. Randolph (Churchill) had invested in Rand mining shares, which had appreciated by at least fifty times their original face value – a small fortune that, unhappily for Jennie and Winston, was largely consumed by the late Lord’s equally substantial debts. But Churchill also shared the indignation of the colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, and the empire builder Cecil Rhodes that the might of the British Empire was being held to ransom by the obstinacy of a bunch of Dutch farmers who dictated what political rights British settlers might and might not enjoy in the Transvaal. Mostly, however, the Boer War was another opportunity for the kind of military-literary adventure that Winston had made his trademark… he resigned his commission in the Hussars and was made chief war correspondent for ‘The Morning Post’. He sailed with the commander-in-chief of the expedition, Sir Redvers Buller; managed to be taken prisoner while defending an armoured train against Boer attack; escaped from a military gaol at Pretoria…, hid in a coal wagon and then walked hundreds of miles to freedom; and finally returned to active duty with the South African Light Horse in time to be at the relief of Ladysmith. The escapades were almost too fabulous to be true, and they turned Churchill from a purveyor of ripping yarns on the frontier into a genuine, nationally known war hero. Writing about his Boer War and lecturing with lantern slides in Britain, Canada and America… put £10,000 into his bank account.
Must Rhodes Fall in Oxford?
A prominent statue of Rhodes on the main campus of the University of Cape Town was vandalized with human excrement in March 2015, giving rise to a student-led campaign called “#RhodesMustFall” which drew attention to what the activists considered the lack of systemic racial transformation in South African institutions after apartheid. The university’s management took the statue down for relocation on 9 April 2015.
A statue of Rhodes adorns the frontage of Oriel College, Oxford. In 2015, a group of students demanded the removal of his statue, stating that it “symbolise[d] racism and colonialism”. Certainly, the statue dominates the High Street. Rhodes was an Oriel alumnus and left the College £100,000 in his will, though he stipulated that his trustees should enquire closely into how it was spent since ‘the college authorities live secluded from the world and so are like children in commercial matters’. Appropriately, like the young Winston Churchill, he looks like a man who has just come in from a walk on the dusty veldt. The inscription is a ‘chronogram’: concealed within the message is the date of the building’s erection in Roman numerals. It is 1911, but takes some unravelling.
There is also a plaque to Rhodes in King Edward Street (pictured above) marking where Rhodes lived as a student in 1881, and commemorating his ‘great services rendered… to his country’. Many imperial animals, including lions and elephants, also occupy important positions on Oxford’s buildings. The loftiest of these are, of course, the birds, including an eagle and a pelican, the latter being the target for a bottle thrown by an angry scholar, John Keble. Perhaps the most unusual and impressive of these statues is the Zimbabwe bird on the roof of Rhodes House (below).
This is a copy of one of eight soapstone effigies of birds found during the excavation of the ancient Shona city of Zimbabwe in the 1880s, the only representations of animals found in any archaeological site in sub-Saharan Africa. Rhodes is known to have bought one in 1889. Of course, by logical extension, both the plaque and the bird would be additional candidates for the iconoclasm suggested for Rhodes’s statue, the former for its celebration of the man as a national hero, and the latter, in addition to its association with the house named in his honour, due to Zimbabwe’s more recent fall from grace within the Commonwealth.
Quotations from Rhodes:
“To think of these stars that you see overhead at night, these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annexe the planets if I could; I often think of that. It makes me sad to see them so clear and yet so far.”
“Pure philanthropy is very well in its way but philanthropy plus five percent is a good deal better.”
“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… If there be a God, I think that what he would like me to do is paint as much of the map of Africa British Red as possible…” (as an undergraduate in Oxford)
“Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life.”
“Equal Rights for all Civilized Men South of the Zambesi.”
“I could never accept the position that we should disqualify a human being on account of his colour.”
“To be born English is to win first prize in the lottery of life.”
“Take Constitution Jesuits if obtainable and insert English Empire for Roman Catholic Religion” (outlining the original conception of the Rhodes Scholarships to Lord Rothschild, 1888).
Secondary Sources and Interpretations:
A Simple School Text Narrative of The British Empire in Africa:
The map shows the extent of the European empires at the end of the nineteenth century. European influence… extended considerably… between 1870 and 1900 when a scramble for overseas possessions in Africa, Asia and elsewhere took place.
The largest of the European empires in 1900 was the British Empire. This occupied about one quarter of the world’s land surface and included between one quarter and one fifth of the world’s population.
It included two types of colony. Canada, Australia and New Zealand, together with the South African states of Cape Colony and Natal, were self-governing colonies which meant that they controlled their own internal affairs. They were also colonies of settlement, for throughout the nineteenth century European settlers, most of them British, were attracted to these sparsely populated lands.
… Britain came to feel that it was her duty to lead the native peoples along the path of progress. As Joseph Chamberlain, who was Colonial Secretary between 1895 and 1903, put it: ‘We feel now that our rule over these territories can only be justified if we can show that it adds to the happiness and prosperity of the people…’ . Rudyard Kipling stressed the same idea, that possessing an empire involved obligations to the peoples ruled:
Take up the White Man’s burden –
Send forth the best ye breed –
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need….
In the first place, however, the Empire existed for the benefit of trade, as it had done in the eighteenth century… In 1885 Britain’s exports to the Empire were valued at £26 million; in 1905 this figure was £113 million. Referring to Britain’s new African territories, Lord Salisbury, who was Prime Minister for the greater part of the period 1885-1902, said: ‘It is our business in all these new countries to make smooth the paths for British commerce, British enterprise, the application of British capital, at a time when … other outlets for the commercial energies of our race are being gradually closed…’.
The acquisition of vast new territories… was accompanied at home by mounting public interest in and enthusiasm for the Empire. These feelings reached their climax in 1897 during the celebrations held to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (pictured below).
Above: Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, London 1899
Extracts from Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A short history of British Imperialism. Harlow: Longman
The encirclement of the Transvaal was completed at the end of the decade, when the diamond millionaire Cecil Rhodes (who always had British colonial interests more at heart than the British Colonial Office) formed a commercial company to occupy Matabeleland and Mashonaland to the north. The idea was that the company should take over the administration of the country in return for its profits. There was opposition to this scheme from humanitarians, worried by the implications of a situation whereby native Africans were governed by their exploiters. But for a parsimonious government it was a tempting bargain. The profits to be got from the country were as yet merely notional, whereas the expense of governing them was predictable. So the company got its royal charter in October 1889. In this way Rhodesia was born, and for the British government another potential counterbalance to Afrikanerdom secured at almost no expense.
… one constant factor in British policy… was that British interests in South Africa be secured as cheaply as possible. As much as in mid-century, national interest had to be balanced against national economy; and ways could generally be found of reconciling the two. This was one of the purposes of the federation policy, and of the constant efforts of British governments to persuade the colonists themselves to assume responsibility for new territories annexed. It was also a reason why Rhodes’ offer was so eagerly accepted in 1889. One result of this, however, was a kind of paradox: that in order to maintain cheaply a general British supremacy over southern Africa, Britain was tending to lose her particular authority there – her authority over the white colonists’ conduct of their domestic affairs, including, of course, their ‘native policies’. As yet the concept of British imperial trusteeship for native races was not quite dead, and the humanitarian lobby in Britain won some minor victories, where it did not cost much in money or local goodwill. Where larger interests were at stake, however – agreement with the Boers at the London Convention, containment of the Boers by Rhodes in 1889 – trusteeship could make little headway. Slowly Whitehall’s powers were devolved upon the men on the spot, to secure their co-operation and spread the burden. Consequently, as the area of the British empire in southern Africa expanded, so its real effective control there diminished. (pp 99-101)
Because of the many thousands of Britons and British organisations which had established themselves in far-off places, long before governments feared to tread there, it was seldom difficult for governments, if they wanted to, to find people to delegate to… in southern Africa the government of the Cape. Elsewhere a favourite instrument of vicarious colonial administration in the 1880s was the chartered company, like Rhodes’s in South Africa. The disadvantages of the giving commercial companies licence to rule colonial territories were that they discouraged free competition; and that their exploitative functions might not always be compatible with their subjects’ welfare – although current economic orthodoxy tended to assume that profits arising from exploitation did filter down. The great advantage of the chartered company was that it disburdened the British taxpayer of the cost of colonial administration. The Liberal and avowedly anti-imperialist Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir William Harcourt was reported in 1892 to have said that ‘even jingoism is tolerable when it is done “on the cheap”.’… (104-5)
For men like Chamberlain, Rosebery, Curzon, Milner, Rhodes, their imperialism was a serious matter: in a very literal sense a matter of life and death. It was a question of fitting Britain for survival, preparing her, as Lord Rosebery put it, ‘for the keen race of nations’. Consequently, it would involve quite drastic changes in Britain as well as abroad: all agreed, or said they did, that a true imperialism began at home. ‘An Empire such as hours’, wrote Rosebery to The Times in 1900, ‘requires as its first condition an Imperial Race – a race vigorous and industrious and intrepid. Health of mind and body exalt a nation in the competition of the universe. The survival of the fittest is an absolute truth in the condition of the modern world.(129-130)
Of course some people would not be fully satisfied until the whole world was British. Only when there were no foreigners would Britain be entirely secure from foreigners. This was the ultimate in imperialist paranoia. Cecil Rhodes as a young man envisaged Britain taking over and settling
the entire Continent of Africa, the Holy Land, the valley of the Euphrates, the Islands of Cyprus and Candia, the whole of South America, the islands of the Pacific not heretofore possessed by Great Britain, the whole of the Malay Archipelago, the seabord of China and Japan;
The whole process to be completed by ‘the ultimate recovery of the United States of America as an integral part of the British Empire’; and this, he concluded, would ‘render wars impossible’. This was clearly over-ambitious; but it was a common desire of imperialists to want to make existing colonies secure by surrounding them with more… there were many who saw Egypt’s frontier stretching as far as Uganda, and South Africa’s boundary way beyond the Zambesi. There were supposed to be other reasons why it was so imperative, in the interests of national survival, to take more colonies. The most common one was the economic one: an old familiar argument for imperialism, but given a new urgency… by the prevailing climate of fear. Cecil Rhodes… put it sensationally, as if the survival of the capitalist system depended on it:
In order to save the forty million inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide for the goods produced by them in the factories and mines. The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.
… Ideas like these were widespread amongst self-styled ‘imperialists’ in the 1890s… Fundamentally they believed in their own abilities: were confident that they had it in them to run a great empire – that they were, if they organised themselves properly, fit to rule a quarter of mankind. ‘We happen to be’, said Cecil Rhodes, ‘the best people in the world, with the highest ideals of decency and justice and liberty and peace, and the more of the world we inhabit, the better for humanity’. Many others doubtless shared his patriotic self-esteem, but it was not common to voice it so crudely, and it was in any event not necessary to the imperialist’s case to believe that his ‘race’ was overall and absolutely superior to others. What late Victorian imperialists did like to claim was that they were better at the practical and pragmatic science of managing the affairs of other people. In this they fancied themselves greatly. ‘I believe,’ said Joseph Chamberlain in 1895, ‘that the British race is the greatest of governing races that the world has ever seen’ (131-5).
The association of capitalism with imperialism … was commonplace: but nowhere in the late nineteenth century British Empire… was the association quite so close or so blatant as in South Africa in the 1890s. In South Africa the tissue of industrial capitalism, grafted late, had taken hold firmly in the 1880s and spread phenomenally thereafter; by the mid-nineties, for those who believed capitalism should be kept in its place and that place was outside politics, it was clearly out of control. The cause of this was the domination of the South African industrial scene by Cecil Rhodes, a man whose conception of financial and political power would not admit of any necessary demarcation between them: who believed that what was good for his Consolidated Gold Fields was good for South Africa, and would bury political power to achieve that good. Rhodes was the reason why South African capitalism in the 1890s became a force on the side of British imperialism… Of the handful of big European capitalism scrapping for riches amongst the gold reefs of the independent Transvaal… only a tiny minority believed that their interests would be furthered by an extension of British rule there; most of them… were happy digging for gold under the auspices of the relatively ordered, if not very friendly, government of the Afrikaners… Rhodes was exceptional partly because his financial interests were spread over more of southern Africa than theirs, and partly because he had very special imperial visions of his own; his capitalism was imperialistic… The consequence was that, in the imperial history of Southern Africa in the 1890s, the forces of industrial and financial capitalism played a more prominent role than they would have done otherwise.
Rhodes’s influence in South African affairs was partly the outcome of his wealth and the use he made of it, partly the result of the favour shown to him by British government ministers for reasons of their own. The two things were connected, of course: Rhodes used his wealth to cultivate ministers’ favour, and ministers favoured him partly because of the power he wielded through his wealth… Rhodes’s power had been built up in the Kimberley diamond fields, which he came to monopolise in 1888, and the gold reefs of the Witwatersrand, which he could never control absolutely, but which he shared with two or three other great magnates in the 1890s. With the wealth from these two gigantic concerns, and with winning ways with all kinds of men which none of his rivals could begin to compete with, he established for himself a predominant position in South African politics. In 1890 he became Prime Minister of Cape Colony at the head of a party which had preached and practised co-operation between the white races, and which practised, though it did not preach so loudly, co-operation too between politics and capital: of his dual role as company director and premier, ‘I concluded’, he wrote, ‘that one position could be worked with the other, and each to the benefit of all’. …in England he had the admiration of the Queen, the backing of Lord Rothschild… and the support of at least two influential journalists… This kind of influence was of great assistance to him when… in 1889 (he) secured from the Liberal government a charter to carve a whole country in his own commercial image… In the early 1890s his company took possession of its inheritance, swindled and shot the Matabele and Mashonaoples who lived there into a sullen subservience, and dug for the promised gold: but failed to find it. It was when the prospect of big dividends… receded in ‘Zambesia’ that he turned his full attention, and the powers – legal and illegal – that his wealth gave him, towards making the Transvaal British.
Rhodes always insisted that he valued riches not for their own sake but for the power they gave him to help extend and consolidate the British empire: which grand ambition, he held, justified any use he might make of those riches – ‘you must judge of my conduct by the objects that I had in view’. …It followed for Rhodes that, for southern Africa to be secured for the British Empire, the Transvaal must become part of it; and he believed he had the means to help this on. …When the Rand’s gold had first been discovered the Cape had reaped some profit from it by transporting it to the sea. By 1894, however, the Transvaal could export and import goods without touching British territory at all, by means of a new, independent railway just completed to Delagoa Bay in Portuguese East Africa. …There were rumours too Paul Kruger, the Transvaal president, was planning a republican takeover of the whole of South Africa… And from 1894 there were more solid reports of German involvement in the Transvaal, with the Transvaal’s encouragement, which gave the situation a more sinister outlook still. Ministers in London were worried, but not worried enough yet… to take overtly aggressive action against the Transvaal… Rhodes, however, had more urgency, fewer scruples, and the power to make an African war almost on his own.
Rhodes’s decision to use his considerable powers to incite revolution in the Transvaal, to abet it when it came, and to use it to force the Republicans into some kind of compliant union with the British colonies, arose from his conviction that a rebellion was going to break out in the Transvaal anyway, and that it had better be turned into a British imperial direction by him than into another direction, less favourable to the British, by others. For years there had been unrest amongst the largely foreign mining community on the land, the ‘Uitlanders’, who were daily subjected to innumerable aggravations and disabilities by a dominant people they regarded as rude and inferior, and who regarded them, with rather more justice, as a threat to their whole national way of life… During 1894-95 there was talk of armed rebellion on the Rand: wild talk, as it turned out, from the ordinary Uitlanders, but more serious from some of the big capitalists, who took measures – like gun-running – actively to promote it. Rhodes’s involvement in this plotting would ensure that the revolution, if it came and succeeded, would be to the advantage of the empire.
It also led the British government to be dragged into the affair: not necessarily because it approved of Rhodes’s cloak-and-dagger ways of solving its South African problem, but it was because it was coming to accept his diagnosis of that problem, and because his power and prestige in South Africa made him the readiest means to hand, if not the best, towards a solution… Rhodes was the agent she was given to work through, and Rhodes had ideas of his own… Before the autumn of 1895 he had secured the co-operation he needed from the British government to put his plot into effect: troops, a friendly High Commissioner, and a strip of land on the western border of the Transvaal he could start an invasion from. Joseph Chamberlain at the Colonial Office… played along with Rhodes… His connivance in Rhodes’s schemes rested on the assumption.. made on the best authority, that an Uitlander rebellion would take place… In that event intervention by Britain, or by a British colonial in Britain’s name, could be presented as a response to a situation generated independently of her, made in order legitimately to safeguard her nationals in the Transvaal. What ruined things for the government was that the Uitlanders never rebelled, yet the intervention took place regardless. On 29 December 1895 Dr Leander Starr Jameson rode into the Transvaal at the head of a band of 500 mounted troops and carrying a Union Jack, to aid a rebellion which never happened. He was easily stopped. The results of this fiasco were disastrous for everyone except the Boers… Chamberlain tried to cover the traces of imperial involvement, but could not… To all intents and purposes Britain was implicated in a squalid conspiracy against a foreign state… The result of the Jameson Raid was the complete opposite of what had been intended. Instead of weakening Kruger it strengthened him; instead of persuading him to compromise it made him more intransigent…
The lesson of the Jameson Raid for the British government was that it could no longer pursue its policies in South Africa on the coat-tails of capitalists.Rhodes and the government had done a great deal for each other in the past, and Chamberlain was convinced that Rhodes could do something for him still in the future – but in the north, where his buccaneering methods were likely to be more successful against black Africans than against white Afrikaners, and less likely to arouse strong feelings at home or diplomatic repercussions abroad. …Before he had raided the Transvaal Dr Jameson had been Rhodes’s viceroy in Zambesia; in this capacity he had managed to provoke the Matabele, and even their neighbours the Mashona… to seething unrest… they both rebelled, reasserted their old sovereignties, and put ‘Rhodesia’ – and the value of Chartered Company shares – in very real danger. Rhodes had to restore the authority of the Company or his whole world would have collapsed: and this he did during the course of 1896 in one of the bloodiest and most ferocious of southern Africa’s ‘punitive’ wars, capped – when it was clear the Africans were not going to be tamed by force alone – by a remarkable exercise by Rhodes in peaceful persuasion. In the north, therefore, Rhodes was left to repair his own breaches; but in the south he was, for the time being, a spent force, too discredited to be of use… The British government had perforce to disown him, and to secure its South African salvation by its own efforts – as it should have done all along.
Britain was stalemated. She could neither persuade the Transvaal to join the empire nor force her into it… The stalemate was broken slowly, in 1897-99… Chamberlain nursed public opinion in Britain on to his side in a series of speeches calculated to make it hostile to Kruger.And in south Africa he got what he needed most: a handle to turn his policy by, to fill the gap left by Rhodes’s departure. The ‘South African League was formed in 1896 to rally imperialist opinion in the two British colonies and the Transvaal… its policies were Rhodes’s, and in April 1899 Rhodes himself returned from the political wilderness to become its president. This time, however, it was not Rhodes who would take the initiatives. That duty lay firmly with… Chamberlain and his new High Commissioner, Alfred Milner…
Milner was move positively for war. A self-declared ‘British Race Patriot’, he could not conceive of the Afrikaners of the Cape being loyal to the empire while there remained an independent nation of their ‘race’ to the north to divert their loyalties…(168-176)
Cases came to light around the turn of the century of the most shocking abuses of trust by exploitative concerns. One was Cecil Rhodes’s conduct in Zambesia in the 1890s. But the worst was the Congo Free State, entrusted to King Leopold of the Belgians by the Berlin Conference in 1884, where the most horrific tales of systematic massacre and mutilation in the search for profits were revealed to the European public in the 1900s, and provoked widespread agitation which eventually led to Leopold’s surrender of his Congolese kingdom to the Belgian parliament in 1909. Rhodes and Leopold together made Liberals highly distrustful of capitalists in the tropics, and especially of capitalist monopolies with title over vast expanses of territory, which were the cause of the worst abuses. (223)
1919 was a year for dreams to come true; another one which did was Cecil Rhodes’s ‘Cape to Cairo’ scheme, when Britain took Tanganyika from Germany and so completed that chain too… further down the Union of South Africa took over the administration of South-West Africa. (248-9)
Extracts from Niall Ferguson (2003), Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. London: Penguin Books.
So close was Rhodes’s relationship with the Rothschilds that he even entrusted the execution of his will to Lord Rothschild, specifying that his estate should be used to fund an imperialist equivalent of the Jesuit order – the original intention of the Rhodes Scholarships. This would be ‘a society of the elect for the good of the Empire’… Rothschild in turn assured ; ‘Our first and foremost wish in connection with South African matters is that you should remain at the head of affairs in that Colony and that you should be able to carry out that great Imperial policy which has been the dream of your life.’
The creation of his own personal country and his own imperialist holy order were indeed merely components of a much bigger Rhodesian ‘Imperial policy’. On a huge table-sized map of Africa (which can still be seen in Kimberley today) Rhodes drew a pencil line stretching from Cape Town to Cairo. This was to be the ultimate imperial railway. From the Cape it would run northwards like some huge metal spine through Bechuanaland… Rhodesia… Nyasaland… then on past the Great Lakes to Khartoum and finally up the Nile to its final destination in Egypt.
By this means, Rhodes envisaged bringing the whole African continent under British domination… There were literally no limits to Rhodes’s ambitions.
At one level, wars like the one waged against the Matabele were private battles planned in private clubs like the Kimberley Club, that stuffy bastion of capitalist conviviality of which Rhodes himself was among the founders. Matabeleland had become part of the Empire at no cost to the British taxpayer since the entire campaign had been fought by mercenaries employed by Rhodes and paid for by the shareholders in the British South African and De Beers companies. If it turned out that Matabeleland had no gold, then they would be the losers. In effect, the process of colonization had been privatised, a return to the early days of empire when monopoly trading companies had pioneered British rule from Canada to Calcutta. Rhodes was indeed consciously learning from history. British rule in India had begun with the East India Company; now British rule in Africa would be founded on his business interests. In one letter to Rothschild he even referred to De Beers as ‘another East India Company’. (227-8)
By the beginning of the new century, the carve-up was complete. The British had all but realized Rhodes’s vision of unbroken possession from the Cape to Cairo:their African empire stretched northwards from the Cape Colony through Natal, Bechuanaland (Botswana), Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), and Nyasaland (Malawi); and southwards from Egypt, through the Sudan, Uganda and East Africa (Kenya). German East Africa was the only missing link in Rhodes’s intended chain… the lion’s share belonged to Britain. (239-40)
To Rhodes, Chamberlain and Milner, the Boer’s independence remained intolerable. As usual, British calculations were both strategic and economic… the Cape remained a military base of ‘immense importance for England’ (Chamberlain) for the simple reason that the (Suez) Canal might be vulnerable to closure in a major European war. It remained, in the Colonial Secretary’s view, ‘the cornerstone of the whole British colonial system’. At the same time, it was hardly without significance that the Boer republics had turned out to be sitting on the biggest gold seams in the world. By 1900 the Rand was producing a quarter of the world’s gold supply and had absorbed more than £114 million of mainly British capital. Having been an impoverished backwater, the Transvaal suddenly seemed set to become the economic centre of gravity in southern Africa. But the Boers saw no reason why they should share power with the tens of thousands of British immigrants, the ‘Uitlanders’, who had swarmed into their country to pan for gold. Nor did they approve of the (somewhat) more liberal way the British treated the black population of Cape Colony. In the eyes of their president Paul Kruger, the Boers’ strictly Calvinist way of life was simply incompatible with British rule… Ever since 1895, when Rhodes’s crony Dr Leander Starr Jameson had led his abortive ‘raid’ into the Transvaal, it had been obvious that a showdown was imminent.
Not only was imperialism immoral, argued the critics. According to the Radicals, it was also a rip-off: paid for by British taxpayers, fought for by British soldiers, but benefiting only a tiny elite of fat-cat millionaires, the likes of Rhodes and Rothschild. That was the thrust of J. A. Hobson’s profoundly influential ‘Imperialism: A Study’, published in 1902. ‘Every great political act’ argued Hobson,
‘must receive the sanction and the practical aid of this little group of financial kings… They have the largest definite stake in the business of Imperialism, and the amplest means of forcing their will upon the policy of nations… Finance is the governor of the imperial engine, directing the energy and determining the work.’
H. N. Brailsford took Hobson’s argument further in his ‘The War of Steel and Gold: A Study of the Armed Peace’, (written in 1910, but not published until 1914). ‘In the heroic age,’ Brailsford wrote,
‘Helen’s was the face that launched a thousand ships. In our golden age the face wears more often the shrewd features of a some Hebrew financier. To defend the interests of Lord Rothschild and his fellow bondholders, Egypt was first occupied and then practically annexed by Great Britain… The extremest case of all is, perhaps, our own South African War.’
Was it not obvious that the war had been fought to ensure that the gold mines of the Transvaal remained securely in the hands of their capitalist owners? Was not Rhodes merely, in the words of the Radical MP Henry Labouchere, an ‘Empire jerry-builder who had always been a mere vulgar promoter masquerading as a patriot, and the figurehead of a gang of astute Hebrew financiers with whom he divides the profits?’
Like those modern conspiracy theories which explain every war in terms of the control of oil reserves, the Radical critique of imperialism was an over-simplification (Hobson and Brailsford little knew what a liability Rhodes had been during the siege of Kimberley.) And like those other modern theories that attribute sinister power to certain financial institutions, some anti-imperialism conveyed more than a hint of anti-Semitism. (283-4)
Conclusion: The ‘Crux’ of the Issue
In this last comment by Niall Ferguson we reach the crux of the issue. Certainly, Rhodes was a colonialist and imperialist, as were most leading figures of his day, not just within the British Empire, but within all the European empires. In Africa, as noted here, the French were equally aggressive in their pursuit of land and resources, and the Belgians and subsequently the Italians also used what, even within the terms of this ‘scramble’ were excessive means against the native African populations. That is not to justify the actions that Rhodes was involved in, but just to place them in a broader context. It also needs to be noticed that his while his strategy for developing Rhodesia was a classical colonialist one, through the control of trading companies, his involvement in the Transvaal and later in the relief of Kimberley was concerned with achieving British supremacy over a white race, the Boers and that, if anything, his attitudes towards the original natives were far more liberal than those of the Afrikaners, certainly than those of Kruger. There is also evidence that, as a business man, he retained a practical antipathy for everyday racial discrimination. On this question, he should not be judged by today’s standards, but as living at a time when theories of racial hierarchy and paternalism were dominant throughout Britain and Europe. These theories are certainly evident in the architecture of Oxford, Bristol, Liverpool, London, Birmingham, Edinburgh and other cities which grew rapidly in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. If every surviving reminder of slavers, colonialists and imperialists were to be torn down, the cityscapes of Britain would look radically different, and greatly impoverished. More importantly, much of modern human history has been about the replacement of one great ‘construct’ with another, whether in economics, politics, or art and architecture. As Niall Ferguson has pointed out, the liberal imperialism of the late Victorian period was criticised by Radicals who revealed themselves as overtly anti-Semitic. The new empires of fascists and communists which characterised the 1930s and 1940s were far more universally destructive than the old ones, yet we do not seek to remove every trace of them. Finally, far from being an ‘architect of apartheid’, there is a fundamental ‘disconnect’ between the imperialism of Rhodes and his contemporaries in Africa and the post-1948 racist regimes in Southern Africa. They drew their inspiration from a heretical view of sectarian Calvinism which was very far removed from the Victorian paternalism of ‘the white man’s burden’ to which Rhodes subscribed.