Issue 238: 2020 06 18: Rhodes Must Fall?

18 June 2020

Rhodes must Fall?

by Philip Throp

“Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life”   (Cecil Rhodes to Lord Grey)

Cecil Rhodes, born in 1853 at Bishops Stortford.  A sickly child, he was sent by his parents at age 17 to South Africa for health reasons.  He got involved in the South African diamond trade, a business that developed quickly, and Rhodes formed his own company, a company that under his (part) ownership was to become the hugely wealthy De Beers Mining.

At the age of 20, having already accumulated wealth, Rhodes was admitted to Oriel College, Oxford, after his application was rejected by University College.  Although the fifth oldest Oxford college, Oriel has until relatively recent times been thought of as one of the lesser colleges in terms of academic achievement, a college that was more a leader in rowing and rugby competitions.  In 1873 the Provost of Oriel had complained with sadness “All the colleges send me their failures”.  It would be 1881 before Rhodes graduated but this was not so much due to lack of intellectual prowess as to frequent interruptions, to return to South Africa to attend to business matters.

By 1880, at the age of 27 he had already entered the Cape Colony Parliament and a decade later became Prime Minister of the Colony. In the same year, a monopoly of the world’s diamond supply and pricing was obtained by a partnership with a London-based diamond syndicate.

Just as he had rationalised diamond mining by buying up small independent producers in Kimberley, North Cape, Rhodes now turned his attention to buying up disease-hit vineyards in South Cape, and turning them to fruit production and export.

Driven by his conviction of the superiority of the English system and way of life, “The more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race”, Cape Colony Prime Minister Rhodes now oversaw the formation of Rhodesia, the country named after him, (now Zimbabwe) in the early 1890s.  The quest for expansion then led him to challenge the authority of Paul Kruger’s South African Republic (Transvaal).  The folly and failure of the Jameson Raid on Transvaal, in which he was complicit, meant that he was forced to resign as Cape Colony PM in 1896, and his political career never recovered.  He went too far, literally.  His childhood poor health returned, he now had a heart condition and died in 1902 in South Africa at the age of just 49.

And paradoxically, it is with the death of Rhodes that the story of Oxford Rhodes really begins!

At dinner in Oriel College in 1899 on the evening of his investiture with an honorary doctorate of law at Oxford University’s Sheldonian Theatre in 1899, Rhodes heard of Oriel’s poor financial situation (I feel certain they made sure he did!), and he agreed to leave £100,000 (about £8M in today’s money) to the college in his will.  £40,000 of this was for the construction of a new building (quadrangle), extending Oriel forwards onto a High Street frontage, so that it now faced right across the road to the University Church of St Mary, whose Vicar in 1346 provided the endowment and ongoing church living for the formation of Oriel.  Completed in 1911, this is the High Street frontage of the college which houses (centrally, but among other statues) the controversial statue of its benefactor Rhodes, so that it was now facing the church of its original founder.

The remainder of Rhodes immense fortune was bequeathed to a Trust, “The Rhodes Trust” (he died unmarried and without children). The Trust funds were to be used for an international post-graduate research scholarship programme. It is the world’s first and still perhaps most prestigious international scholarship programme.

First awarded in 1903, the scholarships were available to students from English or former English colonies and dominions (which included the USA).  The object is “to produce quality leadership marked by public-spiritedness and good character, so as to render war impossible” It is said that candidates, already graduates, are expected to have demonstrated a commitment to public service in their countries.  Another way of interpreting the list is to see it as being for scholars from countries where English was the spoken language.  Only male students were eligible, the first awards to women were not until 1977, in keeping with the years when women were being admitted to the former men-only colleges at Oxford for the first time.

The first African-American Rhodes scholar was Alain Leroy Locke in  1907, the fourh year of the scholarships.  The philosophical architect of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, Locke is not a well-known name in the UK but Martin Luther King Jr referenced him in 1968, “We’re going to let our children know that the only philosophers that lived were not just Plato and Aristotle, but W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke came through the universe.”

Rhodes’ surprising inclusion of Germany in the available scholarships list, is said to be because in Rhodes’ time, all German primary schools and upwards taught English as a second language (presumably because of the family links between Queen Victoria and the German ruling royal family).

The numbers of students supported by the programme has mostly been over 80 new students each year, some 40 of which were designated with fixed numbers allocated for each named US state.  One of the named states is Arkansas (two scholarships annually); Bill Clinton has famously said that he was only admitted to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar because he was the second-best of only two candidates for Arkansas’ two scholarships that year.  In recent years the Trustees had widened the geographical scope to Emirates and to China, and in 2018 it became completely open, including, for the first time, British graduates.

The scholarships are normally for research projects lasting 2-3 years, often related to social sciences subjects.  They include all fees, travelling with trips home in the long summer vacation, and accommodation expenses.  I calculate these costs at about £35K per annum per scholar.  Multiply by say 85 students, gives an annual cost to the Trust, excluding administration, of £3M.  What sort of a capital wealth sum is needed to produce over £3M per annum? No surprise then that in 2013 a £75M donation was made by Canada’s McCall Macbain Foundation to top up the fund and increase its geographical and social reach.  John MacBain is an ex-Rhodes scholar from Canada, the owner of one of the world’s largest classified advertising empires.

Some famous Rhodes scholars are Edwin Hubble, Norman Manley (Jamaica), Dean Rusk, Adam von Trott (the man who later got nearest to assassinating Hitler), Bob Hawke, later Australian Prime Minister, Guinness Book world record-holder for drinking a yard of ale (Turf Tavern, Oxford).  Most-celebrated is probably the association between Australian Rhodes scholar Howard Florey and Dr Ernst Chain, who came to Oxford as a result of a different Oxford scholarship programme, the “Refugee Scholars” recruited in the 1930’s on a trip around Germany by Lord Beveridge in his Rolls-Royce offering scholarships to Nazi-threatened German academics.

Florey and Chain collaborated in the university’s Pathology Lab, furthering Fleming’s abandoned theoretical research of penicillin into the area of practical application,  producing the first doses of penicillin culture, (grown on mould on bedpans), and overseeing its first use in 1941 on a stricken policeman in Oxford Infirmary.  Penicillin saved thousands of lives in the second half of WW2, and of course millions afterwards.  It may be that without Rhodes scholarships, the Australian Florey would not have been in Oxford and we would not have penicillin.

Apart from the front quadrangle of Oriel College, the other “Rhodes” building in Oxford is Rhodes House, a building of interesting visual aspect, completed by the Rhodes Trust in 1928 out of the Rhodes legacy.  It is just outside the main medieval colleges area, close to the Victorian Natural History Museum, and at the corner of the area forming the heart of the University’s science buildings, on the same road as the buildings where penicillin was developed.  The purpose of the building was to house the administration of the Scholarship Trust, but also to house the University Library’s burgeoning collection of books on the British Empire and colonial America, and as a venue for lectures by the world’s leaders and thinkers.  One such was Albert Einstein, who in 1931 was persuaded by the Rhodes Trust to give a series of three weekly lectures at Rhodes House, explaining his theories and beliefs.  The lectures were delivered in German as Einstein had little English, so he resorted to mathematical formulae on a blackboard for each lecture.  After the first lecture an Oxford don resolved to try to preserve these blackboards, the first had already been wiped, the second and third were preserved for the Oxford Museum of History of Science, where one of the two was accidentally wiped in the store, but the one remaining blackboard remains on permanent display and is one of their star exhibits.  The building is also now used as a social gathering place/cultural exchange for the upwards of 250 Rhodes scholars from many different countries who are in Oxford at any one time.  From the sublime to the ………., a Rhodes Trust social occasion was the venue for one of the first gigs by an early 1970’s rock band Ugly Rumours, formed by undergraduates of the (almost) nearest college St John’s, and fronted by their singer and lead  guitarist, one Anthony Blair.  Blair did not pursue his destiny in popular music much further, later to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom instead.

The architecture of Rhodes House has been described as a mix of an African kraal and an English manor house (reflecting the two sides of Rhodes character??).  The front entrance building is a circular space topped by a cupola.  It is often thought that this circular space looks like a mausoleum to contain Rhodes earthly remains, but they are not here.

Atop the cupola is the stone-carved effigy of the Zimbabwe bird, now the national emblem of Zimbabwe.

In his latter-day sickness Rhodes developed an acute sense of his mortality, and became fascinated with the cultural beliefs of the ancient and still extant Rhodesian tribe, the Matobo (Shona) people.  The original stone-carved birds, unique to the ruined 11th century city of Great Zimbabwe, were originally installed on walls and monoliths within the ancient city.  The tribe believed that the bird represented a messenger between the living members of the tribe and the souls of their departed ancestors.  As a non-member of the tribe, Rhodes could not be buried on their ancestral lands, and is instead buried in a position overlooking the tribal lands.

A strange inheritance for the man who in life believed so firmly in English cultural superiority, but in death seems to espouse the culture of one of the tribes he believed so inferior.

Rhodes founded a university in Cape Town.  Though students of this century successfully pressed for the removal of Rhodes’ statue, the university still bears his name. In 2003 the centenary of the inauguration of the Rhodes scholarships, at a ceremony in Cape Town, Nelson Mandela inaugurated the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship programme,  administered by the Rhodes Trust in Oxford to provide university tuition, leadership development and other support for a cohort of young African change-makers.  In his speech Mandela welcomed the “ghost” of Rhodes, and concluded that the Rhodes statue was better left in place to provoke a conversation about Rhodes’ conduct and legacy.

In 2016 there was student unrest proposing the removal of the statue outside Oriel on the High Street.  The university authorities managed to resist this.  Now, with the death of George Floyd, and Britain again wanting to demonstrate its regret of its history of slave-trading and racial oppression, “Rhodes must Fall” demonstrations in Oxford have resumed, this time supported by the city council and Oxford’s two MPs.

I think my story of Rhodes’ life demonstrate that for all his extreme expressions of English superiority, Rhodes in fact spent very little time in the country of his birth.  He left at 17, and returned intermittently only when business in Africa permitted, to gain an Oxford degree.  And even then, he may only have been in Oxford long enough to meet the University’s minimum nights in Oxford, and the (still within living memory) requirement to have partaken in the minimum number of college evening meals, to qualify for his bachelors degree.

Rhodes spent most of his life, from an early age, in Africa and his business and political interests were all there.  The intensity of his “English” fascination and pride is that of a colonial ex-pat, although it must be admitted that the views and the way of life he espoused would no doubt be typical of Englishmen in other of our colonies and within the vast majority of English people in the 18th and 19th century.  And I feel sure the vast majority of commuters, tourists and even students passing along the High Street before this campaign, would not know who this statue represented, among a number of others of indeterminate identity (except to Oriel) on Oriel’s wall in the High Street.

To me, as a representation of apology and regret for our disgraceful activities in the world from 200 years ago, and as a reaction to the despicable killing of George Floyd, taking down a statue of Cecil Rhodes seems inadequate and irrelevant.  The German people, to their credit, have ultimately acknowledged, accepted and taken on board Germany’s war and holocaust guilt.  This is the way of expiation of our guilt in the sincere hope of some forgiveness.  Not by transference to an irrelevant scapegoat.

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