by Hannes Wessels
Reading the second part of Duncan Clarke’s voluminous but quite fascinating study of Cecil Rhodes as the baying mobs of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement compel a cowering College of Governors at Oxford’s Oriel College to remove the man’s statue is a saddening experience; a reminder of the folly that follows stupidity and wilful disregard of the truth.
Clarke deals with Rhodes’ early life later in the book. His first voyage to Durban as a teenager alone on the sailboat Eudora, a wooden vessel, which took seventy-two days. He arrived in Natal on 1 September 1870 with a little money and went to work on his brother Herbert’s farm in the Umkomaas Valley before heading west in a cart with oxen, some boxes of biscuits, tea, sugar and basic provisions. On a slow journey that took over a month, with a pony and a solitary native for a companion he carried a few digger’s tools.
On the diamond fields he joined brother Herbert who had three small claims and started climbing the ladder to fame (infamy for many today) and fortune. Ever hungry for knowledge he mixed business with study and over eight long years, with intermittent sojourns, from October 1873 to December 1881, he managed to acquire a degree at Oriel Oxford. He loved his time on the sea as it gave him the opportunity to devour books on history both ancient and modern.
What was interesting for me, in the light of what happened later, was reading about the barely disguised disdain shown him by the English grandees who thought he lacked refinement but were also quick to take advantage of his largesse and sing his praises when the good times rolled only to shun him when they didn’t. Just as Ian Smith would infuriate the English ‘establishment’ later by not being sufficiently in awe of ‘Britishness’ and the pomp and protocol that went with it, Rhodes also let it be known he was far happier in his new home in southern Africa than he was in the company of pompous bores.
While the Brits were happy to snub him they were quite happy to sit back and watch as he used all his own resources to stop Kruger’s Boers moving north of the Limpopo; block the Portuguese in their quest to link their colonies in the east and west and snatch a huge tract of the hinterland and keep Leopold’s Belgians well north of the Zambezi.
Ironically, as we now hear the slew of invective hurled at the man’s memory we are constantly reminded of Rhodes alleged genocidal tendencies. This, like most of the current discourse, flies in the face of the facts. Clarke explains at length how, following the suppression of the Matabele Rebellion in 1896 and the atrocities visited upon the white settlers by them, Rhodes argued strenuously for moderation and forgiveness. Opposed to this view was a vengeful General Frederick Carrington who sought to crush the rebels and humiliate them into total submission. Rhodes prevailed however and went to work looking for a peaceful solution which offered the vanquished an opportunity to surrender with dignity and join the Europeans in a joint exercise in nation-building.
In this difficult process I was intrigued to read about the invaluable contribution made by little known ‘Jan’ Grootboom. Of mixed blood but uncertain provenance he was variously described as Fingo/Zulu/Xhosa or Sotho and came to the country before Rhodes as a wagon driver for the missionary CD Helm. Thereafter he fought alongside Colonel Baden-Powell and FC Selous in the Matabele War of 1893, exhibiting great courage and earning the respect of all. (Humorous to note he referred to Baden-Powell as ‘Baking Powder’.)
While Rhodes was eventually successful in negotiating a Détente with the Indunas the writer makes it clear he probably would not have been, without the dogged and utterly loyal Grootboom at his side. Because he knew far better than Rhodes, the mores, minds and protocols of the Matabele and it was this wisdom that proved so invaluable to his principal. Without his service it is quite likely the 1896 rebellion would have resumed and the history of the country significantly altered.
While reading of how hard Rhodes worked and the enormous risks he took, we are also reminded of how little he actually spent on himself while constantly looking to how he could use his wealth to leave a legacy that would benefit future generations of all races. In this endeavour the country now known as Zimbabwe became an obsession on which he spent vast amounts of his own and his shareholders’ money in a bid to build a modern nation-state in southern Africa based on a belief in the equality of all people and a franchise based, not on race, but on merit.
The last part of the book contains a well researched and very readable account of the life and times of Frederick Selous who the writer suggests “….embodied a mythic stereotype which was held in high esteem by Rhodesians, who from the earliest days to the end were of many varied provenances, types, characters, skills and dispositions. Something innate in this make-up coalesced to shape and reflect Rhodesian culture as it was later forged and continued to manifest into the future.” Selous, the writer tells us, was seen by Rhodes as the quintessential Rhodesian and possibly ‘The First Rhodesian’.
Interesting, in the light of what is happening today in the vilification of this extraordinary man to read the following remarks made before and after his death:
Rhodes was … ‘a very remarkable man’, Queen Victoria in The Letters of Queen Victoria, 1931
‘Our grandsons will say of us with envy: “How lucky they were! They were contemporaries of the great Cecil Rhodes!” Lord Salisbury, 1899
Rhodes ‘is an Archangel with wings to half the world, Satan with a tail to the other half.’ Mark Twain in Following the Equator, Vol II, 1889
‘The death of Cecil Rhodes, which occurred on March 13, new style 26, has brought to his grave one of the most outstanding figures of modern Great Britain.’ Russian Embassy, London, 1902
‘I wish I could have met Rhodes … he was a very great figure. He did much that was very good and his death had been a tragedy.’ Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt, in a Letter to Earl Grey, 7 April 1902
‘Nelson Mandela, posed beside the portrait of Rhodes, said, “Cecil, now you and I are going to work together.” The Mandela-Rhodes Foundation was born’. Charles Moore, 16 April 2019, Telegraph.co.uk
‘Rhodes remains one of the great men of history’, Illustrated London News, May 1980
‘The desire to have Rhodes removed from history springs from a tyrannical political correctness that denies that Rhodes did anything good, and that any celebration of his memory can be justified. But the truth is that there was a lot of good about Rhodes, and that he is a man worth remembering. He may not have been a saint, but … he is certainly not worthy of damnation.’ Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith, 29 December 2015
‘I lunched and dined with Frankie at Groote Schuur and much admired your beautiful house. I am sorry not to have seen you in South Africa, but the Boers interfered with most peoples’ arrangements.’ Letter from Winston S Churchill, 12 July 1900, to Cecil Rhodes.
‘My father was tolerant … and could easily have worked with Cecil Rhodes; in many ways they were quite similar … The idea of uniting them at World’s View is not that the memory of one should dominate. Although when the sun is in a certain position my father’s statue would of course quite naturally cast his shadow on Rhodes’s grave.’ Joshua Nkomo’s son Michael Sibangilizwe Nkomo, May 2019
Watching the toppling of Rhodes’ statue at Oxford I am reminded of a similar happening in my homeland when the country became known as Zimbabwe. It was a symbolic but signal event that set the country on a sad course to self destruct under tyrannical rule. I can only wonder if England has decided to follow the same track?
Anyone serious about wanting to know the facts about this remarkable man should read this excellent account.