Remembering Rhodes' detractors

Hughes, Heather (2016) Remembering Rhodes' detractors. The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, 105 (2). pp. 221-222. ISSN 0035-8533

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The students leading the Rhodes Must Fall campaign are to be commended for reminding us of who Cecil John Rhodes was (the vast majority of those passing one of the many monuments to his memory would have no idea) and also for reminding us that untainted money is rare: most fortunes are amassed at someone else’s expense. One can also concur fully with the campaigners’ verdict that Rhodes was a rogue who ruthlessly furthered his imperial ambitions in southern Africa; some notable Rhodes biographers have reached a similar conclusion.

An element of the campaign that I find troubling, however, is the assumption that students have been the first to notice any of this about Rhodes. The fact is that he was a controversial figure in his lifetime and had many detractors. It is disappointing that not only do they seem to have been entirely forgotten in all the Rhodes-related discussions, but no one has suggested memorialising them.

One episode will suffice as an example. In 1896–97, Rhodes and his British South Africa Company were involved in a bloody suppression of the Shona and Ndebele rebellions against colonial incursion in what was then Southern Rhodesia. Crops were burnt, villagers turned off their land, there was widespread famine and hundreds of rebellion leaders were rounded up and hanged. Olive Schreiner, already feted as the author of Story of an African Farm, was so incensed at the misery caused to so many by Rhodes’ greed for wealth that she wrote a searing story/novella, Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland.11. This can be read at the Project Gutenberg site,
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Its hero, Peter Halket, starts out with much the same racist, grasping attitudes as his fellow Company soldiers. But one night he is visited by a Christ-like figure who causes him to search his soul and rethink his values and motivations. His attitude to Africans changes dramatically, which angers his colleagues. The story ends with Halket being ordered to kill an African captive who is tied to a tree, but before this can happen, Halket cuts the captive free and in the ensuing melee is killed by his captain: goodness and humanity are sacrificed to avarice and intolerance.

John Dube, who in 1912 would be elected first president of the South African Native National Congress (which later changed its name to the African National Congress), was studying in the United States in the late 1890s. He had not yet made his mark in the world, but left enquiring journalists in no doubt as to where he stood on Rhodes’ actions: ‘Rhodes and the other officials of the South Africa Company, we have found by fearful experience, are trying to put all they can in their pockets by killing and plundering us’.22. Los Angeles Times, 30 June 1896, p. 1.
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Schreiner and Dube both despaired of having any impact on the actions and decisions of white colonialists. Yet their voices are no less significant for that. What a great opportunity presents itself now to remember them and others like them: instead of leaving plinths empty and alcoves vacant, why not surround Rhodes (as it were) with the women and men of different colours who stood up to him in his lifetime? The technology exists to create augmented reality apps to do just that, so that whichever Rhodes memorial one visits, one can see his opponents crowding him out.

There is another matter. Whether the stony Rhodes gazes down on his Oxford legacy or not, none of us can escape the contradictions of drawing on resources or facilities whose provenance seems suspect or even odious. South African broadcaster Eusebius McKaiser recently noted on his chat show (in a discussion of Rhodes’ legacy33. Eusebius McKaiser on Power FM, available as podcast at
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) that many recipients of Rhodes scholarships had agonised over whether they should have taken them up or not. Such debates are useful and necessary; yet surely what is more important is whether recipients of this or any other means of learning and enquiry have done something different with their opportunities; have put their learning to uses that serve the many, rather than the few.

Additional Information:The 2015 Singapore General Elections. Guest Editor: James Chin
Keywords:Cecil John Rhodes, NotOAChecked
Subjects:V Historical and Philosophical studies > V250 African History
Divisions:Lincoln International Business School
ID Code:27930
Deposited On:01 Aug 2017 10:27

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