Cecil Rhodes was a pillaging plunderer


Being myself a former Rhodes scholar at Oxford University and given the furore by students calling for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the front of the University of Cape Town (UCT), I was rather startled to read the views of Max Price, UCT’s Vice-Chancellor, on the arch-imperialist in the Sunday Independent (“The Student Statue Protest Is Significant, But the Greater Debate Around this is What Really Matters”, Max Price Tells Michael Morris, 22 March 2015). Price seemed to be unwittingly acting like a pyromaniac fireman.

Although he conceded that Rhodes’s “values and his ruthlessness, and his willingness to take the view that imperial ends were justified by any means, were appalling”, Price made the extraordinary statement: “I do believe there’s a risk of simplifying Rhodes….it’s important to examine why he came to be viewed as a great man. He achieved an enormous amount by the time he died….a businessman, diplomat and Prime Minister of the Cape, a military strategist, and a philanthropist very committed to education and in all these things he was successful.”

Let us examine each of Price’s claims in turn. First, the idea of Rhodes as a diplomat is patently absurd, unless one views “diplomacy” as flowing out of the barrel of a maxim gun. Rhodes seized, administered, and populated African land with white settlers. His genocidal “scorched earth” campaigns killed tens of thousands of people. He dispossessed black people of their ancestral lands in modern-day Zimbabwe and Zambia through armed conquest, stealing 3.5 million square miles of black real estate in one of the most ignominious “land-grabs” in modern history.

By 1890, Mashonaland had been seized, while farming claims had been staked out in Matabeleland by 1896. Rhodes’s British South Africa Company gave itself the right to half of the loot, with the rest being shared out among the assorted motley crew of his settlers, freebooters, mercenaries, and adventurers. The huge herds of Ndebele cattle were divided between these armed thugs and the British South Africa Company. Rhodes’s band of mercenaries raped, enslaved, and stole the land of the Shona in greedy pursuit of mineral wealth.

Perhaps the diplomacy which Price is referring to is Rhodes’s use of agents to negotiate a concession with Matabele King, Lobengula, who believed that he was only ceding limited mining rights, but ended up losing his entire country. Or perhaps he is referring to Rhodes’s “negotiation” of a treacherous and dishonest accord in which the Ndebele and Shona were allowed to return to their land over which all rights had been revoked? This is, surely, duplicity rather than diplomacy. Killing thousands of people with superior technology was not – in contradiction of Price’s second claim – the actions of a great military strategist, but those of a pillaging plunderer. 

Price’s third claim was that Rhodes was a great businessman. The imperialist, however, used his economic wealth (he controlled 90 percent of the world’s diamonds) to buy political power, and used political power to protect and extend his wealth. He used shares and land to buy off politicians in Britain and South Africa, including members of the Afrikaner Bond. In cornering the diamond industry in Kimberley, he ruthlessly crushed many of the smaller businesses, and tricked many of his opponents. He manipulated the stock exchange and bought off people with company shares, outright bribes, and job offers.

He had speculative shares in a shell diamond company in the early 1880s. He bought off rival entrepreneurs, politicians, and journalists to further his expansionist aims. He misled investors and the British government into believing that his British South Africa Company owned the 1888 Ruud Concession in order to secure a royal charter.

Price’s fourth claim was to praise Rhodes as prime minister of the Cape colony. However, the imperialist used his rule between 1890 and 1895 to lay the foundations for apartheid, and his premiership ended in disgrace when Leander Jameson’s ill-conceived raid of gold-rich Transvaal failed in 1895, helping to trigger the Anglo-Boer war four years later. Even before apartheid was passed into law in 1948, Rhodes was its forerunner, helping to disenfranchise black people through introducing new property and educational criteria in the Cape colony. He forcibly removed blacks to native reserves through the 1894 Glen Grey Act, which presaged apartheid’s notorious Bantustan policies by half a century. Rhodes further pushed the Cape parliament to introduce hut and labour taxes on blacks to force them into the cash economy; packed over 11,000 black miners into inhumane, dog-patrolled, wire-protected barracks; and supported draconian labour laws (including the legal flogging of “disobedient” black labourers through the notorious “strop bill”) that facilitated the continued supply of human fodder to his mines, and impoverished the black population. As premier of Cape colony, Rhodes also introduced social segregation for non-whites in schools, hospitals, theatres, prisons, sports, and public transport; forced blacks to carry passes (a precursor of apartheid’s “dumb pass”); and removed thousands of members of these groups from the colony’s electoral rolls. As he infamously put it: “I prefer land to niggers . . . the natives are like children. They are just emerging from barbarism [and] one should kill as many niggers as possible.”

Price’s fifth claim was that Rhodes was a great philanthropist. Aside from the difficulty of being generous with stolen booty, it is important to note that, though 7,688 Rhodes scholars have studied at Oxford University since 1903, the scholarship scheme excluded women until 1976 and had clearly been designed for a “heaven’s breed” of largely Anglo-Saxon white males.

The Rhodes trustees themselves today remain mainly white men, while most of the scholarships still go disproportionately to white Americans, Canadians, Australians, and South Africans. Contrary to Price’s statement that Rhodes did not graduate from Oxford, the imperialist – not reputed to have been a particularly good student or a potential Rhodes scholar! – took eight years to achieve a “gentleman’s pass” in law from Oxford. The South African scholarships – from which Price himself benefitted – have been particularly controversial, since they have effectively served as a form of white “affirmative action” for over a century, disproportionately going to schools that did not admit blacks or girls until the 1980s. Only four of the first 80 scholars were black.

One must also unequivocally reject Price’s argument that “We are all, really, products of our time.” Many of Rhodes’s contemporaries criticised him, including writer Olive Schreiner, a friend who later wrote a devastating critique of his ruthless imperial methods in her 1897 novella, Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland. There were, after all, abolitionists who condemned slavery even when its practice was widely accepted. Finally, Price makes the astonishing claim that Rhodes was “in many respects…self-made, though he had the empire behind him.” This is surely a contradictory and confused statement. The British government, in fact, granted Rhodes a royal charter to annex territory in Southern Africa. Rhodes was allowed by “Her Majesty’s government” to dispossess the indigenous inhabitants, and offer British soldiers land-ownership in return for their military conquest. This is surely not the sort of record that the Vice-Chancellor of UCT should be defending.

* Dr Adekeye Adebajo is Executive Director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town.

April 2015
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