Friday, 19 February 2016

Five Things You Need To Know About Cecil Rhodes

(Warning: this piece contains a distressing image).

I've been following with some interest a debate which has raged over the last few months in the UK about the unlikely subject of the fate of a statue. The statue in question is of Cecil Rhodes (pictured above), arch British imperialist of the late nineteenth century, and endower of the Rhodes Scholarships at Oriel College, Oxford, allowing generations of outstanding students from overseas to study at Oxford. Beneficiaries of the Rhodes scholarships have included a president of the US (Bill Clinton), and numerous Prime Ministers of Pakistan, Canada and Australia.

Last year a successful campaign to remove a large statue of Rhodes (pictured left) from the University of
Cape Town spread to Oxford itself. The campaign 'Rhodes Must Fall' declared that Rhodes was a racist who had wrought untold damage on the native peoples of Africa and that the college should, belatedly, refund its ill-gotten benefaction to the people that Rhodes stole from in the first place. The campaign also sought to highlight inequality of representation for ethnic minority groups at Oxford and to decolonize the curricula. Oriel College took the campaign seriously and announced it would conduct a review process to see whether its own statue should be removed. This in turn prompted an uproar from those who felt that this was political correctness gone mad and many newspaper inches were filled with heated debate on the subject, with a former prime minister of Australia (Tony Abbott) and a former white president of South Africa (F W de Klerk), and perhaps more surprisingly the black former chair of the UK's Equality and Human Rights Commission Trevor Phillips, all weighing in to say that the statue of Rhodes should stay in place, and that attempts to remove it were, according to Philipps, 'witless and wrong-headed'.

Other commentators pointed out however that consigning statues to oblivion - such as those of Queen Victoria in India or those of Communist leaders in eastern Europe - were all part of natural historical evolution. The 'should he stay or should he go' debate finally received a full airing at the Oxford Union in January where by 245 votes to 212 it was carried that the statue should indeed fall. By this time however disgruntled members of Oriel College had already threatened to cancel tens of millions of pounds in intended donations and seeing what a disastrous impact the debate was having on the college's reputation (indeed on Oxford's reputation as a whole), it was quickly announced that the statue would after all remain in place and the provost of the college responsible for the PR fiasco was besieged with calls to resign. As a sop to the 'Rhodes Must Fall' faction, it was announced that although the statue (hard to spot below, but high above the central arch of the college entrance) would stay, a plaque providing 'context' to Rhodes' questionable life would be installed. We wait to see what exactly that 'context' will be.

One of the many curiosities of this furious, much-publicized debate is that hardly anyone in Britain today has any idea who Cecil Rhodes was and what exactly he was responsible for. Most people tend to vaguely think of him as a personification of the worst excesses of nineteenth century British imperialism, with the row descending into a partition between those who think that more reparations and apologies are needed for imperial exploitation and those who think that enough is enough and that endlessly trying to judge people of the past by today's sensitivities and standards is self-serving and futile.

The one point of agreement between the 'Rhodes Must Stay' and 'Rhodes Must Fall' factions was that Rhodes' actions - his imperial plundering of vast swathes of southern Africa, including modern-day Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and South Africa and his firm assumption of white racial superiority - were unacceptable in today's enlightened age and were at the heart of the problem. The only question is how do we today judge people who lived in an age when moral assumptions were completely different. The 'Rhodes Must Fall' faction indeed argued that even in Rhodes' own lifetime his actions were judged by many to be greed-driven and immoral.

I want to argue here that both the 'Rhodes Must Fall' and the 'Rhodes Must Stay' factions are equally deluded - indeed utterly blind to reality - in their assumption that the assessment of Rhodes should consist of a morally enlightened present looking back on a morally challenged past. Indeed what is really important about Rhodes, and yet what is ignored, is the insight his extraordinary life story brings to us about the follies of the present age, indeed to what is a universal constant of human history.

Cecil Rhodes caused pointless misery to millions of people. This was not primarily caused by his 'racism', indeed he probably caused just as much disaster to white people as to any other variety (should such things be the subject of your interest). His influence was calamitous because he had a gargantuan flaw. But he was also a brilliant man, whom I in many ways admire. Polarizing debates demand that we cast people as straightforward 'heroes' or 'villains'. Rhodes was actually both hero and villain, but the important thing is to critically discern where exactly it was that a man like Rhodes went wrong and why.

Before coming to the calamitous flaw, I'd like to tell you first of four reasons why I really admire Cecil Rhodes. It all comes down to this: Cecil Rhodes was a truly brilliant businessman. He understood (reason one) that success in life involves calculated risk and technological innovation. If you wish to understand that principle, there is no better place to go than Kimberley in South Africa, home to the 'Big Hole' (pictured below), in the 1870s and 1880s the biggest diamond mine in the world.

Cecil Rhodes was the sickly son of a cleric in England who suffered his first serious heart attack at the age of 19 and was predicted to have 6 months left to live. Sent to South Africa as a young man of 17 he thought he might as well get a move on in life and when a diamond rush broke out in Kimberley headed out to join a multitude of other prospectors. What happened in Kimberley is a wonderful case study of entrepeneurship (aka capitalism) in action. Rhodes steadily bought out all the prospectors' strips and amalgamated them into his own holdings. He did in truth not exactly start from rags - he is known to have been given £2000 (worth about £200,000 today) by an aunt - so he certainly had a major head start. But he also had the courage to buy the land and take the risk: the prospectors who sold to him (and who were subsequently hired to dig for him) must have thought they were taking a fool's money. But Rhodes, not they, understood the golden rule of business/ capitalism that it rewards those who are prepared to invest in risky enterprises. Rhodes followed up the speculative purchases by introducing the latest technology to help make the mines more efficient. By the mid 1880s, when Rhodes was in his early thirties, he could boast an annual income of £50,000 (about £5 million in today's money).

Reason Two: Rhodes understood the importance of branding. You and your product are not the same, indeed you can create a separate brand identity by the simplest of methods. In Rhodes' case, his company De Beers was named after the Afrikaner farm on which diamonds had first been found. By this simple means he created a separate identity for all business activities: indeed for generations afterwards right up to the present day, people buying a piece of jewelry from De Beers often have no idea they are buying a product of Rhodes' former company.

Reason Three: Rhodes grasped the importance of understanding, adapting to and manipulating your market. Rhodes realized that the market for his diamonds - engagement rings in the West - was entirely governed by the number of couples in the West getting betrothed every year. Flooding the market with diamonds would simply mean that the price of diamonds would collapse so he shrewdly rationed supply.

Reason Four: Almost impossibly Rhodes somehow seemed to combine being a student at Oxford with being a young entrepreneur in South Africa. Later on he combined being a politician in South Africa with being a big society presence in the UK. He was I suppose what the long-established Afrikaner settlers in South Africa used to crudely refer to as 'salt-dicks', men who never wholly gave themselves to Africa but so straddled South Africa and Europe that their genitals were supposed to have dipped into the briny sea. For the Afrikaners it was a term of abuse, but it seems inspirational how Rhodes back in the 19th century managed to achieve so much on two opposite sides of the world (famous image of Rhodes bestriding Africa below).

Which leads me to the fifth thing you need to know about Cecil Rhodes, where it all went disastrously wrong. This can I think be summed up quite simply: Rhodes believed that the same principles with which he had achieved success in business could be equally applied in politics. As a young man of 27, Rhodes became a member of parliament of Cape Colony (most of current South Africa) and rose up from there to be Prime Minister by the age of 37. Business and politics for Rhodes went hand in hand. As a politician he dreamt of extending the British Empire in one continuous block through the whole of Africa from Cairo to the Cape and successfully schemed to add present day Botswana and Zimbabwe to the British Empire, famously signing numerous concessions with tribal chiefs which ceded rights to areas the size of modern African countries for a relative pittance in return.

Rhodes was here acting on a modus operandi of the British Empire which had been in evidence for generations, stretching back to the nefarious activities of the East India Company in Bengal and many other places. Servants of commerce and governors were encouraged with a nod and a wink from the government in London to grab what they could, then administer it from their own profits, and if any outrages occurred, the government back home could then loftily announce that Her Majesty's Government was now taking direct control to restore order.

In the case of Rhodes, the whole of southern Africa appeared like the diamond mine at Kimberley, something which he desired to have monopolistic control over. When vast gold deposits were discovered in the Afrikaner republic of Transvaal, it drove Rhodes to distraction that he (and by extension the Empire) did not have control of it. Here he employed his second principle of business - what I would characterize as the 'De Beers feint' - in which he attempted to use a front for his political ambitions. Famously in 1895 he backed the disastrous Jameson Raid in which his close friend Leander Starr Jameson and 600 horsemen, mostly policemen from the Matabeleland Mounted Police, attempted to ride into the Transvaal and seize control for Rhodes. Instead Jameson and his accomplices were captured and the scandal forced the end of Rhodes' political career. But behind the scenes he still would not give up and four years later engineered the Boer War by encouraging the British Government to provoke war on the Transvaal and the Orange Republic on the utterly specious grounds that they would not grant voting rights to Uitlanders (foreign workers in the Tranvaal, whom Rhodes hoped would effect a coup d'etat on his behalf).

The Boer War would last for three long years and pointlessly sent 21,000 British soldiers to their deaths. It caused misery and deprivation for the British, white Afrikaner and black African population of South Africa and eventually saw 27,000 white Afrikaner women and children, and a slightly lower but comparable number of black Africans, perish in concentration camps introduced for the first time by the British that became the scandal of Europe (horrific image of Lizzie Van Zyl below who died in Bloemfontein Concentration Camp). Ironically, Rhodes himself - a major architect of the conflict - died at the end of it, from his long-standing heart complaint, at the age of 48.

The lesson I take from Rhodes' life is the utter devastation that can be unleashed when a hugely talented man of business is let loose upon the international political stage believing that the same principles that guide one in business apply to politics. This is something which is still at the very heart of world affairs today.

Take for example the disastrous US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. It fascinates me how many similarities there are between that calamity and what transpired in southern Africa in 1899. In his desire to get his hands on the gold of the Transvaal, Rhodes and his associates concocted a narrative of outrage about an oppressive Afrikaner government suppressing democratic rights. The war that broke out as a result devastated southern Africa. In the case of Iraq, a desire to assume control of Iraqi oil led to the US and UK talking up a terrifying narrative of 'weapons of mass destruction' mixed in with emphasis on genocidal atrocities. Famously, the Americans having conquered Iraq, had no plan whatsoever on how to govern the country. It was confidently assumed that the influx of Western capitalism - a gold rush of American companies eager to grasp the mineral wealth of Iraq - would inevitably lead to a glorious age of democracy. It was, and is, a truly Rhodesian delusion.

If there is a lesson to be learnt from the life of Cecil Rhodes then it is that capitalism should learn humility and know its limits. It should work within political frameworks not attempt to drive political ambitions, where its influence is often catastrophic. For me, this is the important, universal 'context' which should be written loud and clear in any assessment of the life and achievements of Cecil Rhodes, not some deluded trumpeting of our supposed moral superiority over our Victorian ancestors.

(For more information on the shocking image of Lizzie Van Zyl, click here

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