by Gemma Webb
Cecil Rhodes was born and raised in England during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 - 1901) when the British Empire was at its height. He was a product of this imperial environment and it coloured most of what he achieved, both good and bad. Beginning his career in the Kimberley diamond mine in 1871, Rhodes became one of the forefathers of the South African mining industry before casting his gaze further afield to agriculture. Rhodes entered politics in 1880, and was Prime Minister of the Cape Colony within a decade. He died in 1902 having irrevocably changed both South Africa’s political and industrial landscapes.
The historiography of Cecil Rhodes can be evenly divided into two camps: chauvinistic approval or utter vilification. His story is living proof that history is written by the victors: these two camps almost exclusively represent pre- and post-1993 literature. As the apartheid regime in South Africa collapsed, the image of Rhodes as the founding father of South African society went with it. History began to focus on the questionable means with which he brought about this society, branding him a ‘racist mass murderer’ who connived his way to wealth and influence in a lawless frontier culture.
For many, Rhodes became a symbol of the institutional racism of South Africa. 2015’s #RhodesMustFall campaign brought this sentiment to the global stage. Students at the University of Cape Town demanded the removal of Rhodes’ statue, believing that this would initiate the fall of ‘white supremacy and privilege’ in both their university and their nation. The statue was removed a month after protests began, and the media coverage of the event encouraged students around the world to demand the removal of Rhodes’ statue from their own universities. In May 2015, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, approved plans to begin the process of changing its name so as to shed its affiliation with the colonial behemoth.
Whilst I don't object to the removal of these symbols of black oppression, I would argue that Cecil Rhodes was unfairly scapegoated as such a symbol. A distinction must be made between racism and extreme ethnocentrism, i.e. the belief in the superiority of one’s ethnic group. I would argue that Rhodes falls into the latter category: it wasn’t that he believed blacks were inferior, rather that he believed that anyone who wasn't British was inferior. Or, to quote Rhodes himself, if you are an ‘Englishman, [you] have subsequently won first prize in the lottery of life’. Many historians analyse Rhodes’ actions out of context to give the illusion of racism. For example, the Glen Grey Act, which radically reduced the voting franchise of black Africans and pushed native tribes from their land to make way for industrial development, is infamous whereas the Jameson raid, Rhodes’ catastrophic failure to overthrow the white Afrikaner government of the Transvaal, is often glossed over.
Much of Rhodes’ global legacy is also often omitted from the record. South Africa, despite its questionable political history, has one of the largest economies in Africa, and maintains significant continental influence. One could argue that this is the legacy of colonial influence in the state, in which Rhodes plays a large role. It could also be argued that many eminent political figures owe a certain debt to Rhodes as recipients of the famous Rhodes scholarship, awarding students the opportunity to study at Rhodes’ alma mater, Oxford University.
Moreover, even if one disregards all of these arguments, the fundamental issue remains: can we really judge 19th century actions with a 21st century lens? To a certain extent, Rhodes was merely a product of his time. Jim Crow Laws were enforcing racial segregation in the southern United States; the newly formed Federation of Australia was imposing White Australia policies; and the Dreyfus Affair was inciting anti-semitism in France. After a brief pause following the abolition of slavery, racism was once more rife in western European imperial states. One could argue that their colonies were merely following suit. In conclusion, therefore, whilst I wouldn’t go as far as to call him a hero, Rhodes’ cannot be branded a villain unless one is willing to similarly brand the rest of 19th century society.