The Odyssey
Base Camp
Trek Connect
Time Machine
Multimedia and Special Guests

Monica Dispatch

Cecil Rhodes: Lowdown Thief or Hero for the Nation?

Click image
for larger view
Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902)
Do you ever wonder why names of places seem to change? If you look at this part of the world on maps before 1980, you'll see Northern Rhodesia, which is present-day Zambia, and Southern Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe. I knew about Rhodesia, but I didn't know that the "Rhodes" in Rhodesia is the same "Rhodes" as in the Rhodes Scholarships (the one that President Bill Clinton of the US received), and the same "Rhodes" as the statue in the Company Gardens in Cape Town, South Africa. The statue points north, back to England, exhorting the early colonialists to build, conquer, and colonize everywhere from Cape Town to Cairo.

Who is this Rhodes? Cecil John Rhodes was born in England on July 5, 1853. A sickly child, he was sent to South Africa for the warmer climate. Before the age of 25, Rhodes was a millionaire, having struck it rich in South Africa's Kimberley diamond mines. The modern De Beers diamond company, whose ads you'll see in any glossy magazine, is the result of one of his lucrative (many would say 'unfair') contracts with local farmers, gaining land rights and access to the diamond-crusted soil.

The following is part of a famous lecture given at Oxford that had a great influence on Rhodes. It very clearly argued that the English were of a superior race and needed to take over as much of the world as possible.

"We are still undegenerate in race; a race mingled with the best northern blood... Will you youths of England make your country again a royal throne of Kings, a sceptred isle...? This is what England must either do or perish; she must found colonies as fast and as far as she is able, formed of her most energetic and worthiest men; seizing every piece of fruitful waste ground she can set her foot on, and there teaching these her colonists that their chief virtue is to bear fidelity to their country, and that their first aim is to be to advance the power of England by land and sea..."

He studied at Oriel College, Oxford, from 1873 to 1881, and then dedicated his life to furthering colonial interests in southern Africa. One of his goals was to build a railway from Cape Town to Cairo, Egypt. The remnants of those tracks and trains are still in use today. This past week, Kavitha and I headed northwest from Bulawayo to visit Victoria Falls on a train. With a south-north railway in place, he believed the British could eventually "civilize" the entire African continent, and reap the material benefits of agriculture, trade, and minerals.

Active in local politics, by 1881 Rhodes was elected to the Cape Parliament, and by 1890 became Prime Minister. During this time, he actively pursued enterprises north of the Limpopo River, in what is now Zimbabwe. In 1888, Rhodes met with Lobengula, Ndebele leader and son of Mzilikazi. With a translator deliberately explaining hazy and incorrect details, Rhodes got Lobengula to agree to the Rudd Concession, which permitted British mining and colonization of lands between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers. In the same agreement, all Boer (the Afrikaners migrating up from South Africa) activity was prohibited. In exchange, the British would pay Lobengula 100 pounds a month, as well as 1,000 rifles, 10,000 rounds of ammunition, and a riverboat. Lobengula hoped that this agreement would cut down on other Europeans entering his land.

Map of Rhodesia
Unfortunately, the opposite occurred. In 1889, Rhodes formed the British South Africa Company, and the race was on. From 1890 onwards, Rhodes and his BSAC continued northwards, making their own laws and installing their own government. The "Pioneer Column," an army of five hundred led by Rhodes, marched north into Mashonaland, taking over Fort Victoria (present-day Masvingo), establishing Fort Salisbury (present-day Harare), and setting their sights for more.

In 1901, Rhodes suggested founding a museum in Bulawayo. This idea grew into the Bulawayo Museum of Natural History, where an exhibit devotes itself to mementos and relics of Rhodes' life. In the center of the room, a sculpture of a seated Rhodes, looking pensive, faces a neighboring bust of Lobengula. Lining the walls are certificates from his school days, silver, snuffboxes, and pieces of his writing. Of particular interest is the clause in his will outlining the requirements for the Rhodes Scholarships, ideals that he believed the very best students should have:

"My desire being that the students who shall be elected to the Scholarships shall not be merely bookworms I direct that in the election of a student to a scholarship regard shall be had to (i) his literary and scholastic attainments, (ii) his fondness of, and success in, manly outdoor sports such as cricket, football and the like, (iii) his qualities of manhood, truth, courage, devotion or duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship and (iv) his exhibition during school days of moral force of character and of instincts to lead and to take an interest in his schoolmates for those latter attributes will be likely in afterlife to guide him to esteem the performance of public duties as his highest aim."

Lobengula was very wise in dealing with Rhodes and the Company and did his best not to provoke them. At one point, however, in 1893, Lobengula sent warriors down to Masvingo to attack people from another tribe, the Shona, who were causing trouble for the Ndebele and the British. The warriors were instructed not to kill any white people, but they did steal a lot and were pretty brutal in their treatment of the Shona. Well, that did it for Rhodes and the Company.

They attacked the Ndebele and though they were only 1,100 to the 18,000 Ndebele, their superior arms gave them a big advantage. At one point, Lobengula decided to flee with the whole tribe, burning Old Bulawayo to the ground behind him. It was no use, however, as he died of smallpox shortly thereafter and the Ndebele eventually succumbed to British firepower.

By 1895, white settlers had appropriated much of the plateau for farming, and the country was now known as "Rhodesia." The BSAC continued to control Rhodesia, putting colonial European interests and property ahead of Ndebele and Shona liberties.

Click image for larger view
Pushing pebbles at Matopos National Park.
His always-weak health finally giving way, Rhodes died of heart failure at the age of 49, in Cape Town in 1902. He had expressed a desire to be buried on top of a flat mountain near his estates (at present-day Zimbabwe's Matopos National Park), unaware that this place is sacred ground to the Ndebele, who call it Malindidzimu, or "Dwelling place of Benevolent Spirits." Rhodes wanted his burial ground to be called "View of the World," for the incredible panorama of the Matopos rocks, boulders, and scrubland that stretches as far as the eye can see.

Click image
for larger view
Rhodes' grave at View of the World.
Rhodes got his wish. His body was carried to View of the World, where he was buried a month after his death. At the funeral procession, the Ndebele requested that there be no gun salute, so as not to disturb the spirits who were resting at Malindidzimu, and instead gave him honor with Hayate, a respectful, silent tribute--the only time that honor had been given to a European.

At the Bulawayo Museum, an earlier copy of his will hangs on a far wall. A plaque above explains that Rhodes was a perfect example of someone who, in a short lifetime, accomplished many works. The plaque also points to one phrase as the essence of what Rhodes wanted to accomplish in Rhodesia. Stating a goal that Cecil John Rhodes would follow throughout his life, it reads: "to render myself useful to my country."

I'll leave you to decide for yourself if his deeds were for the good of humankind, to its detriment, or both.


Team - The Mark of the Pioneer Column
Kavitha - Fables of the Falls
Kevin - The Creature Within
Monica - Tall Tales from the Train

Meet Monica | Monica's Archive

Base Camp | Trek Connect
Time Machine | Multimedia and Special Guests

Home | Search | Teacher Zone | Odyssey Info

Meet Monica