Who Was Cecil Rhodes?

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Who Was Cecil Rhodes?

Look him up quickly—before his history and legacy are rewritten or erased.

The attack that culminated in his demise occurred on what was otherwise a serene and beautiful March morning. The warmth of the African sunrise radiated across the city skyline that lay in his view from his favorite armchair on the campus grounds of the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

With one hand holding a piece of paper and the other supporting his chin, he sat in his contemplative posture. This was his daily routine, but on March 9, things would change—violently. Unbeknownst to him, an apparently malcontented university student charged toward him and flung a bucket of human excrement over him, right in the face!

The unfortunate victim was British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes—in the form of a bronze statue. The attacker, however, was an actual human being—Chumani Maxwele. His attack incensed further protests against Rhodes. Dubbed #RhodesMustFall, the demonstrations called on university officials to remove the statue of the man whose estate became the campus of the University of Cape Town in 1928—some 26 years after his death in 1902.

While the university administration deliberated on how to react and respond to this abrupt crisis, the protesters covered Rhodes in black plastic sheets.

South Africa’s firebrand politician Julius Malema urged his supporters to join the protests, declaring that if the university refused to remove Rhodes, “the masses must crush that statue.”

On March 27, the university senate voted to remove Rhodes’s statue. Two days later, the university made arrangements to cover the statue with wooden boards until it could be removed. On April 9, Rhodes’s statue was removed amid the cheer of hundreds of people in a euphoric crowd. Some in the crowd even flogged the bronze structure. Their rallying cry morphed into #RhodesHasFallen.

Who then was Cecil Rhodes, and what wrong did he commit to warrant such vicious attacks on his statue over a century after his death? Emotional, anti-Rhodes protesters are quick to declare that Rhodes was a ruthless British colonialist who came to Africa to oppress its natives and plunder its gold and diamonds.

His legacy, they say, should be obliterated.

While the protesters may be right about a few aspects about Rhodes, their emotions, prejudices, unfair evaluations and skewed facts deny them an extremely vital perspective on the significance of the British Empire.

In the introduction to his book Empire: the Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, Niall Ferguson wrote: “The difficulty with the achievements of empire is that they are much more likely to be taken for granted than the sins of empire.”

Ferguson does not claim that the British Empire was perfect and without blemish—because it wasn’t. He acknowledged:

The empire was never so altruistic. In the 18th century the British were indeed as zealous in the acquisition and exploitation of slaves as they were subsequently zealous in trying to stamp slavery out; and for much longer they practiced forms of racial discrimination and segregation that we today consider abhorrent. When imperial authority was challenged [in India, Jamaica or South Africa], the British response was brutal.

“Yet,” Ferguson added, “the fact remains that no organization in history has done more to promote free movement of goods, capital and labor than the British Empire in the 19th and early-20th centuries. And no organization has done more to impose Western norms of law, order and governance around the world.”

Niall Ferguson’s comments about the British Empire can also be applied to the man who helped to establish the British Empire in Africa—Cecil Rhodes.

Rhodes was born in Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, England, in 1853. At age 17, his father sent him to join his elder brother in South Africa primarily because his poor health necessitated a change in climate.

When he was 18, he joined the diamond rush at the Kimberley mines, and with the financing of NM Rothschild and Sons Ltd., he eventually bought all the competing mining operations there. He founded the De Beers mining company and established a monopoly in the diamond market.

He also joined politics, and by 1890, at age 37, he became the prime minister of Britain’s Cape Colony in South Africa.

As Niall Ferguson explained, “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 moneymaker. He dreamt of becoming an empire-builder.”

Rhodes used his wealth and political influence to expand north into the land that became Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). His ultimate goal was to reach the northernmost tip of Africa in Egypt by acquiring colonies for the British Empire and linking them via an imperial railway and electrical telegraph line from Cape to Cairo.

In his expeditions in Africa, Rhodes helped end the Islamic slave trade in Central Africa.

In what would become Rhodesia, Rhodes and his Pioneer Column successfully negotiated mining concessions with one of the local leaders, King Lobengula. Later, Lobengula’s men violated some of the terms of those agreements and attacked other tribes working with the future Rhodesians. Rhodes’s men, led by Gen. Allan Wilson, helped stop the tribal warfare by attacking Lobengula’s soldiers. Wilson’s soldiers—known by historians as the Shangani Patrol—were outnumbered, ambushed then slaughtered by Lobengula’s army. But the bravery these Rhodes-inspired men displayed earned them enduring respect from the very soldiers who killed them.

Rhodes became “as integral a participant in southern African and British imperial history as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln are in their respective eras in United States’ history,” according to historian Richard McFarlane. Rhodes brought considerable prosperity to those regions he influenced.

Rhodes made provisions in his will to establish the international Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University.

His will also requested that his bones be buried at his favorite spot at Matopos Hill in modern-day Zimbabwe. Back then, local tribal leaders attended his burial service to honor him for his positive influence. After Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain in 1980, some government officials determined to exhume Rhodes’s grave and erase all memory of him, but local tribal leaders protested out of their respect for Rhodes.

Evidently Rhodes made some friends, even as he also made some enemies. Like the British Empire, he wasn’t perfect. He employed some methods that some historians describe as brutal. Perhaps the most controversial comment he made—which almost all historians and critics mention—was, “I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for the human race.”

Rhodes’s detractors are often eloquent when they articulate his flaws. But they are generally mute about his achievements: how he was instrumental in making South Africa far better off than other nations in Africa, and other nations in the world, for that matter. And all the while, Rhodes’s enemies are further charging South Africa with a racial atmosphere that could lead to “the racial civil war we averted [at independence] in 1994,” as University of Cape Town Prof. Xolela Mangcu observed earlier this month.

The difficulty of the achievements of Cecil Rhodes—to borrow Niall Ferguson’s words—is that they are much more likely to be taken for granted than the sins of Cecil Rhodes.

Again, the same is true for the British Empire for which Cecil Rhodes dedicated his efforts.

The United States and Britain in Prophecy tells the story of how and why the Anglo-American world attained its wealth and global dominance—prosperity that, in one form or another, has benefited much of the world. This story is so important that you cannot afford to be distracted from it by the human flaws and imperfections that bedevil that empire or its peoples. To understand, please request your free copy of The United States and Britain in Prophecy.