Cecil Rhodes and British expansionism

Cecil John Rhodes

Cecil John Rhodes.

This is the first of a series about Rhodesia.

“I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better off it is for the human race.”*—Cecil Rhodes

It was an especially bald statement of the aims of British imperialism. But Rhodes was by no means the only man to express such ideas. The difference lay in the preference by most to clothe the idea in poetic or idealistic language that was in fact felt quite sincerely. Belief in the Empire was a  faith that provided a quasi-religious feeling of purpose and sense of meaning in life.

Listen for instance to the words of John Ruskin delivered in 1870 as part of his inaugural lecture as Slade Professor of Art at Oxford University. The noted art critic and cultural observer said: “There is a destiny now possible to us—the highest ever set before a nation to be accepted or refused…. [W]ill you, youths of England, make your country a royal throne of kings; a sceptered isle for all the world a source of light, a centre of peace.”**

John Ruskin in 1863.

John Ruskin in 1863 .

He went on to speak of an ethical choice between two styles of rule: “There are the two oriflammes  [banners carrying inspiring symbols]; which shall we plant on the farthest islands,—the one that floats in heavenly fire, or that hangs heavy with the foul tissue of terrestrial gold?”

Rhodes is said to have owned a longhand copy of Ruskin’s speech—though the words about the “foul tissue of terrestrial gold” seem not to have made an impression. The lecture was delivered not long before the 18-year-old Rhodes sailed to South Africa to stay with his brother for reasons of ill health. It would have been hard for anyone to imagine that the frail, awkward young man could ever come to possess untold riches founded in diamonds and gold. By chance he arrived in Kimberley just as his brother staked a claim on Colesberg Kopje—an unpromising-looking hill soon to yield immense fortunes in diamonds. And brother Herbert had no particular talent for business. But Cecil had the ambition, the ruthlessness, and the gift for strategizing that were to win him such great success.

Prospectors on Colesberg Kopje.

Prospectors on Colesberg Kopje.

For eight years he would shuttle between South Africa and Oxford, where he continued unenthusiastic studies at Oxford’s Oriel College and finally obtained his degree in Latin and Ancient History. While away from Kimberley, he was writing to mine managers about details of the water table and questions of production efficiency at the diamond operations.

He was unprepossessing in his manner, speaking with hesitation in a squeaky voice, but at the same time he had what he called “big ideas.” As Thomas Pakenham described it in The Scramble for Africa, he could swing between “extravagant or contradictory”  ideas, and yet “South Africa hungered for leadership and many people began to look on Rhodes as their man of destiny.”#

Early on—in 1872—he wrote a will that left the fortune he hadn’t quite made yet (but confidently expected) to the secretary of state for the colonies, stating that it should be used for the Empire’s expansion. In 1877 he made a second will specifying that his forthcoming fortune should be used to form “a Secret Society, the true aim and object whereof shall be the extension of British rule throughout the world… and especially the occupation by British settlers of the entire Continent of Africa, the Holy Land, the valley of the Euphrates, the Islands of Cyprus and Candia, the whole of South America, the islands of the Pacific not heretofore possessed by Great Britain, the whole of the Malay Archipelago, the seaboard of China and Japan, the ultimate recovery of the United States of America as an integral part of the British Empire, the consolidation of the whole Empire, and finally the foundation of so great a power as to hereafter render wars impossible and promote the best interests of humanity.”##

This remarkable and preposterous document did not become public until after his death. Surely the reaction would have been bewildered laughter.

In 1881 Rhodes was elected to parliament of the Cape Colony as a member for Barkley West, near Kimberley in the colony’s northeastern corner. He began working toward expansion to the north, into what would become the Bechuanaland Protectorate. He saw this as a “Suez Canal” opening up British trade with the interior.

Southern Africa, 1885.

Southern Africa, 1885 (click for zoom).

In 1886 the gold rush started on the Witwatersrand, and of course Rhodes got in on that right away. His political power increased, and he became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony.

In his geographical scheming, Rhodes was constantly dealing with the inconvenient neighbors—the Boers of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, who always looked likely to make a territorial grab. Also worrying were the Germans, latecomers to the Africa scramble, who in 1884 took up possession of what was to be called German South West Africa (now Namibia). On the other side stood Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique), which lay just beyond the eastern Transvaal border.

And then there were the Africans.  Rhodes was especially concerned with those who resided north of the Limpopo and south of the Zambezi—in the lands known as Mashonaland and Matabeleland. Gold had been mined in Mashonaland in centuries past, and in 1867 a prospector named Carl Mauch had found auriferous quartz there in the region of ancient ruins known as Zimbabwes. He claimed the quartz was extraordinarily rich in its gold. It seemed essential to Rhodes to win control of this territory. But for the time being, it was ruled by a man called King Lobengula.

Next: Lobengula and the concession hunters.

The Big Hole of Kimberley with the present-day city.

The Big Hole of Kimberley with the present-day city.

* From an undated document quoted in Arthur Keppel-Jones, Rhodes and Rhodesia.  Kingston and Montreal: McGill – Queens University Press, 1983. This is an excellent and very detailed book.

**Quoted in Keppel-Jones.

# Thomas Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa. New York: Perennial, 2003. Another excellent book.

##  Quoted in Keppel-Jones.

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About Jenny

I am an off-trail hiker, a student of history, and author of "Transvaal Citizen," "Murder at the Jumpoff," and "The Twelve Streams of LeConte."
This entry was posted in African History, British History, History, South African History and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Cecil Rhodes and British expansionism

  1. Pat H. says:

    My gosh, that photograph of the “Big Hole” is frightening!

  2. Wow — we certainly share a lot of common interests.
    The creation and development of Rhodesia was certainly one of the most blatantly buccaneering acts of the Victorian era, but I confess I am utterly infatuated with the place and the story, sordid as it often is. It is as fascinating a frontier epic as anything that happened in the states. That epic continued right up through the 1970s and now has descended into a profound tragedy. A breadbasket turned into a basket-case. Mugabe and his cronies should be consigned to the lowest circle of hell. (Sorry for the tangential rant, but for some reason this place i have never been gets me stirred up).
    Anywhooo…

    You might enjoy “Rhodes” (http://frontierpartisans.com/2363/frontier-partisan-cinema-rhodes/). BBC miniseries is quite good and worth the Youtube watching.

    One of the chapters of my Frontier Partisans book will be on Frederick Russell Burnham, an American scout who hero-worshipped Rhodes and enlisted in his service in the 1893 and 1896 Matabele Wars.

    The big hole at Kimberly is scary — but Butte, Montana, might be considered neck and neck.

    • Jenny says:

      I thought of Butte. I’ve been there—my brother lives in Bozeman. Then I realized there must be other such places around the world that I don’t know about. Thanks for your comment about Rhodes and the link to your piece and the BBC miniseries. I will definitely take a look at the miniseries. Rhodes is one of those fascinating people who combines traits that we think are worthy or at least impressive with some not-so-wonderful aspects.

  3. Brian Reed says:

    ‘though the words about the “foul tissue of terrestrial gold” seem not to have made an impression’ Hahaha.

    There is a wild description of the Big Hole in “The Covenant” by James Michener (vague memories of which constitute my knowledge of South African history) before Rhodes gained control. The pit was divided into hundreds of tiny square claims. Since claimants dug furiously at different rates, a miner digging slower than his neighbors would find himself trying to work on top of a perilous 50 foot pillar.

    • Jenny says:

      This is a little off-topic but your description of primitive mining conditions made me think of this. If you ever have a chance to see the photographs of Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Selgado, as captured in his book “Workers,” please avail yourself of that. There are sequences of Sicilian fisherman and Indian coal miners, but the sequence that hits us right upside the head is his photos of Brazilian gold miners in a deep pit—the Sierra Pelada opereation—in incredible conditions of abject misery as they climb up the slopes in this slippery, torturous pit.

  4. Sebastiao Selgado: Powerful stuff. That’s art that can make revolutionaries.

    Wilbur Smith’s “Men of Men” also offers a fine description of mining in the Big Hole. And a rather lurid depiction of Rhodes. It’s a potboiler, but a good one, that covers the conquest of Rhodesia.

  5. Pingback: Rhodes, Russia and the “Islamic State” | threeman.org

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