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Who was Cecil Rhodes?

statue of cecil rhodes uct

Last month, students from Cape Town University campaigned for the eviction from campus of a statue of British 19th century imperialist Cecil Rhodes. The sculpture is regarded by many as a physical embodiment of white minority rule and inequality in South Africa.

The protest, which began on Twitter at #RhodesMustFall, reached its pinnacle when a group of students threw a bucket of shit at the statue. Grim. Calls for Rhodes’ actual remains to be returned to Britain followed too. In the end, the statue was voted out by an overwhelming majority of the student body. Who was he, and why is this such an emotional debate?

Born in 1853 at the peak of British colonial expansionism, Cecil Rhodes made his fortune in the diamond mines of South Africa. Originally providing help to remove water from flooded mines, he eventually created a monopoly on the diamond trade, and set up the De Beers Consolidated Mines Company in 1888. Ever so ambitious, he used his wealth to achieve political influence and the premiership of the Cape Colony two years later. Once in power, he passed laws to benefit industry owners, such as the Glen Grey Act which effectively took land from the local population to make way for miners.

Discontented by the pace of British colonisation, he created another company, The British South Africa Company, to acquire land more quickly and privatise it. Through it he tricked, bribed and bullied his way into more land. By the end, Rhodes had countries named after him in Northern and Southern Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe and Zambia), and stole over 8.8 million square km of African territory. Needless to say, he became one of world’s richest men.

boer war troops
Troops from the Second Boer War

Rhodes’ most famous episodes came when he backed the unsuccessful 1895 Jameson Raid, which aimed to overthrow Afrikaner president Paul Kruger in the Transvaal Republic. Rhodes grew frustrated at Kruger’s uncooperative policies towards mine-owners, and wished to establish a friendlier government. The mission was a complete flop, sort of like a 19th century African version of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. The greedy scheme forced Rhodes to resign as Prime Minister, and provoked the Second Boer War, during which thousands lost their lives.

Rhodes was a typical Victorian imperialist, who explored the world for personal gain and help Britain expand her empire in the process. Like many of his kind he had grand, slightly grotesque aspirations. He dreamed to build a railway system which would cut across the whole of Africa, linking Cairo to Cape Town. A pious man, he saw the ‘English race’ as God’s chosen instrument in carrying out divine deeds. Talk of a recipe for bloodshed.

More crucially, he was the archetype of 19th century racism and social darwinist ideas, and saw imperialism as natural evidence for European racial superiority over the rest. He once said of the British: ‘We are the first race in the world, and the more of the world we inhabit the better for the human race‘. Those ideas would find a big fan some decades later, as Hitler described him as the only Englishman who truly understood Anglo-Saxon ideals and destiny. Not the most credible support in the eyes of contemporary observers..

colossus of cecil rhodes
The modern Colossus of Rhodes joining Cairo to Cape Town

In a country where racial inequality remains a current issue, one can understand why the symbolic representation of such ideology generates animosity. Rhodes is a highly controversial figure, in the image of British imperial history as a whole. Racist, violent and exploitative, he was core to the establishment of what became the Apartheid. Although he once wrote that colour was no determinant factor – a progressive claim for his time – the legal changes he instrumented with regards to voting and land ownership were undeniably racist legislation in practice.

On the other hand, he helped build modern physical and political infrastructures in territories which were then primitive. Today, his name is also known because of the Rhodes Scholarships he created through his final will, and which allows students from around the world to come and study at Oxford University every year. The most notorious of those scholars is former US President Bill Clinton.

Ironically, this same will also funded the establishment of the UCT, where his statue has now been removed. On the whole, Rhodes’ legacy should not be celebrated. As Britain’s most prominent, hardcore and successful imperialist, he clearly sits on the wrong side of history. Whether this means he should be expelled from it is a separate matter altogether.

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