The British Empire 
                                                              1815-1914

Should the Rhodes statue at Oriel College, Oxford, be toppled?




A small group of Students at Oxford have campaigned in recent months for Rhodes’ statue at Oriel College to be taken down. The group argues that because he was a ‘Victorian imperialist racist’ the statue should be removed. The campaign was led by Ntokozo Qwabe, who has been funded by a Rhodes Scholarship, who argued that the statue is at odds with the university’s inclusive nature and should therefore be removed.


Included in the report of The Daily Telegraph (29 January 2016) on the decision of the College authorities to rule against the statue being taken down was a cartoon by Matt showing a couple of birds atop a statue with the caption ‘If we take down statues of everyone we disapprove of, very soon we’d have nowhere to go’. Given that Rhodes’ views on  Imperial policies and native peoples was in accord with much of the establishment and most of the British people in the last quarter of the c19th, many of Britain’s statures would have to be removed, if we took down the statues of those we considered racist. Included the statues which would have to be taken down would be those of Queen Victoria and one of Oxford’s most famous sons, John Ruskin.


Queen Victoria fully approved of her government’s imperialist policies. Her favourite Prime Minister of the time was Disraeli who had Victoria made Empress of India in 1876. Victoria took a keen interest in the foreign policy of Disraeli which included the annexation of Fiji, the Ashanti War and the purchase of the Suez Canal shares. Victoria claimed she took a close interest in the affairs of her colonial subjects and received a number of native chiefs although her main involvement in the Empire was in employing Indian servants and serving Indian food. Victoria received Rhodes at Windsor on a number of occasions and at one audience Rhodes said to Victoria that ‘I am doing my best to enlarge your majesty’s dominions.’ If Victoria did not approve of Rhodes’ imperialist expansionist policies she would have not invited him to Windsor. Victoria probably shared Rhodes’ views on Britain’s civilising mission which was a powerful motive in Rhodes’s action in southern Africa and encouraged his expansionist policies. Indeed on his visit to Windsor in 1894 following the destruction of the Ndebele in 1893, Rhodes took pride in telling Victoria in his audience with the Queen that ‘I have added two new provinces to your possessions, Madam...since we last met’.


Rhodes believed that it was Britain’s mission to civilise the undeveloped world. In 1877 whilst at Oriel, he had produced a document called his ‘Confession of Faith’ outlining his thoughts at the time. He wrote, ‘Why should we not form a secret society with but one object, the furtherance of the British Empire and the bringing of the whole uncivilised world under British rule, for the recovery of the United States, for making the Anglo-Saxon race but one Empire?


One of those who had inspired Rhodes to believe in what became known as the Mission to Civilise was John Ruskin, Slade Professor of Art at Oxford during the 1870s when Rhodes himself attended Oriel College. In his inaugural speech in Oxford 1870, given at the Sheldonian Theatre Ruskin spoke of Imperial Duty and it introduced a new theme into Imperial Policy and thrust the question of Britain’s empire into the forefront of politics for the first time. ‘There is a destiny now possible to us, the highest ever set before a nation to be accepted or refused. Will you youths of England make your country again a royal throne of kings, a sceptred isle, for all the world a source of light, a centre of peace: mistress of learning and of the Arts, faithful guardian of time honoured principles? This is what England must either do or perish; she must found colonies as fast and as far as she is able, formed of her most energetic and worthiest men; seizing every piece of fruitful waste ground she can set foot on, and there teaching these her colonists that their chief virtue is to be fidelity to their country, and their first aim is to be to advance the power of England by land and by sea…’


Ruskin’s speech was to become the clarion call for a new type of Imperialism that dominated the last quarter of the c19th. This ‘New Imperialism’ was to see the British Empire expand in the last two decades of the c19th, especially in Africa. The British claimed that their Empire in this period had a moral dimension in that its main focus was to bring civilisation to those territories it controlled.


Rhodes was motivated by Ruskin’s speech as were many other young people. The British came to believe that because of their industrial superiority, the control they exerted over the world’s seas, their implicit belief in evangelical Christianity and the size of their Empire that God had provided Britain with this mission to bring civilisation. Many missionaries believed that their purpose was to civilisation, commerce and Christianity native communities. What Rhodes believed about his mission in life accorded with the prevailing views of the British public on their imperial role.


In his ‘Confession of Faith’ written in 1877 Rhodes writes of race saying that ’we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race…’ However, at the time of writing there was no accepted definition as to what race meant. There was though plenty of discussion both at the popular and at the academic level about Darwin’s ‘The Descent of Man’ which had been published in 1871 and left unresolved that question as to whether the different human races had a common origin or whether they were sub-species of homo sapiens. Discussion on race continued to be vague well into the c20th. Those who condemn Rhodes for being a racist judge him against contemporary values. Historical characters should be always judged against the values of the society they lived in not those of people living in a later society especially when there is no agreed definition of the accusation.


To assume a moral certainty as the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign does is to do exactly what Rhodes and much of the British population did at the end of the 19th century – which is to assume that the British race was superior and had been given God’s mission to civilise the world. To assume the moral certainly that Rhodes did and the current campaign to take down his statue in Oxford also does is, is tantamount to saying ‘we are beyond moral reproach’.  If we base our decision to take down statues because they offend our values, what of those who are offended by homophobia, sexism, ageism? Do we take all the statues down of those who fitted into these categories? What about those who are offended by classism and elitism? Should we demolish those places that perpetuate classism and elitism – namely Oxford and Cambridge?


When Rhodes arrived in Africa in 1870 it was to work on his brother’s cotton farm. The farm employed about thirty Africans labourers with whom he had a good relationship. He looked after them well, often loaning money when needed, and would spend time in their huts. He was always interested in their lives and appreciated the trust they had in him. He commented at the time that ‘Africans were safer than the Bank of England’.


Once Rhodes had moved to Kimberley and established his money in diamonds his attitude changed, especially after he became MP for Barkley West in April 1881. Rhodes liked to say to fellow businessmen that his motive for becoming an MP was to claim the area north of the Cape Colony for Britain in order to save it from becoming a German and Boer sphere of interest. The facts though do not fully support this view. He was as interested in developing his commercial and business interests. His period in the Cape Parliament from 1881 until his death in 1902 was a complex one with many twists and turns in policy as he tried to maintain the support of different groups.


A year after his entrance into Parliament, Rhodes was a prime mover in getting the Diamond Trades Act through Parliament. This bill was presented as necessary if the diamond industry were to survive the various threats to it, including illicit diamond buying IDB) which was a constant issue for the concession owners. Clauses were introduced which were intended to prevent theft which included workers strip-searched daily and the flogging of thieves. By this time Rhodes’ company, De Beers, had ‘native’ compounds where 11,000 African labourers were housed in corrugated barracks surrounded by a fence and patrolled by police with dogs. The whole area was roofed over by wire netting with guard towers with searchlights. Detectives were empowered to search for diamonds without a warrant and any diamond buyer could be stopped and searched. The onus of proof lay with the buyer with a penalty of 15 years imprisonment for offenders.


Rhodes’ motivation in dealing with the question of African labour in this way was to ensure he had control over his labour force. It was the first step in the disciplining of the black work force and was to become the model for future industrial and agricultural work in South Africa. Pass laws and fixed term contracts were also features of the diamond trade that would in time become part of Apartheid South Africa. The diamond industry and later the gold industry in the Transvaal relied on black labour but needed that labour to be reliable.  Native labour though only wanted to work for as long as was needed to pay their hut tax and sometimes to acquire a gun. As they were usually self-sufficient, natives would return home as soon as they had the money they needed. The mine owners, nearly always European by the end of the 1870s, wanted a cheap and reliable work force that signed and kept to fixed term contracts.

The Cape Parliament at the time Rhodes entered parliament in 1881 did not have a rigid party system. Instead MPs coalesced around prominent politicians, except for the Afrikaner Bond led by Jan Hofmeyr. Rhodes turned to this party to support his various schemes on northern expansion railway expansion. Rhodes dream was to establish a federated South Africa which would include the Boer republics and the territories Rhodes campaigned to include in the Empire: Bechuanaland, Zambesia. He needed Bond support for this and this meant supporting Hofmeyr and the policies of the Bond. When in 1887 the Voter Registration Act was debated in the House Rhodes delivered a clearly racist speech in a shameless attempt to get their support. ‘Does this house think it is right that men in a state of pure barbarism have the franchise and the vote? Treat the native as a subject people, as a child to be denied the franchise. We must adopt a system of despotism, such as works so well in India, in our relations with the barbarians of  South Africa.’


He depended on the Bond to support him once he became Prime Minister in July 1890 and his actions as Prime Minister from 1890-1895 resulted in Rhodes moving the Cape to a much harsher policy on the treatment of African labour in his search for a common ‘native policy’ for the region.


As Rhodes became Prime Minister in July, the Master and Servants bill was going through Parliament. This bill would give rural magistrates powers to sentence blacks to flogging for trivial sentences and there would be no age limit. As such cases would be difficult to prove the word of the white master would be accepted as evidence. Rhodes supported the bill even though children could be flogged. The bill was rejected but reintroduced by Rhodes. After opposition he withdrew the bill. This has been portrayed by some historians as evidence of Rhodes’ ‘racism’ although other historians have said that it was all a political ploy to get the support of different factions in Parliament.


In 1894 Rhodes introduced what was to become the basis of his solution of the ‘native question’ – the Glen Grey Act. This bill was to set up the first ‘native reserve’. Glen Grey was an area south of the Kei River south of Natal. The area was to be designated as an area for natives only so that European voices would not be learned by natives. Blacks would be given eight acre allotments which could not be subdivided or sold. The idea was that eldest sons would inherit these pieces of land and that other family members would be forced to look for work elsewhere. Every family would be required to pay a hut tax and every male (including the landowners) had to pay a labour tax if they did not sell their labour outside the area within a twelve month period. This was an attempt to force blacks into the capitalist labour market. The missionaries who had worked in the area previously were told to leave and their mission schools were replaced with industrial schools provided by the Government. These schools would be the model for the later ‘Bantu Education Act’.


Whilst Rhodes as Prime Minister was introducing legislation that would result in a racially segregated South Africa, he was also doing what he could to expand the British Empire northwards of the Cape. In October 1889 he was awarded a charter to establish the British South Africa Company with wide ranging powers to establish and run colonies in southern Africa. His methods in establishing British rule over Matabeleland, Mashonaland and land north were ruthless. He used the Maxim gun to destroy the power of local tribes but in doing so was no more ruthless than other Imperialists of the time, many of whom have their own statues. Frederick Lugard in Nigeria and Kitchener in Sudan used the Maxim gun to as great an effect as Rhodes did when using it for the first time against the Ndebele in 1893.


Rhodes was never a very well man and left England to go to South Africa because of his health. At the time it was thought by the family doctor that he had a weak lung but when he returned to England in 1873 to begin his studies he had to cut short his time at Oxford because he suffered his second heart attack at the age of 20. He was given just six months to live by a doctor and as his health got markedly worse in his 40s he became obsessed with his own mortality and the need to achieve what he considered his life’s ambitions. As Prime Minister he became increasingly autocratic and dictatorial, doing deals behind closed doors and being intolerant of opposition to his plans. His frustrations, particularly with the British Government at not being able to acquire the Bechuanaland Protectorate for the BSAC, began to show his views on the South African native and a change in attitude from that which he held when he first arrived in the country. His response to the passage of the Glen Grey Act was that ‘If the whites maintain their position as the supreme race, the day will come when we shall all be thankful that we have the natives with us in their proper position’.


Rhodes’ ‘racist’ legislation was the result of his need to have the support of the Afrikaner Bond for his colonial schemes, the need for industrialists to have a labour force that could be controlled, and for a common ‘native policy’ that would be acceptable to all potential governments, particularly that of the Transvaal. Whether he believed that Africans were capable of development or not is difficult to say given the paucity of documents on the subject although in his last few years his language when describing blacks (the word ‘savage’ was frequently used) would suggest that he saw them as inferior. Whether he saw them as inherently inferior is difficult to say.


Rhodes was quite able to charm anyone into believing he had their interests at heart as when he negotiated peace with the Ndebele following the war of 1896 but the reality of it was that he believed the native had to be taught to labour for the white man if white settlement of South Africa was to be successful and that Africans were inferior the Europeans.  


The individual in society rarely acts alone. He or she is usually the product of a society that shares similar views and he is merely he representative of a former time. As I have said above, Rhodes was influenced By Ruskin, Disraeli and by those whom he read (mainly classical authors like Aurelius, Gibbon and Aristotle). He also would have been nothing without the support of men like Beit, Rudd, Barnato and Jameson. There was opposition to his schemes and his policies, from politicians, missionaries and colonial officers who disapproved of his treatment of native peoples but he was increasingly seen as a great imperialist, especially after the Jameson Raid.


In conclusion if we were to take down statues of every Victorian we regarded as racist there would not be many left. If we took down the statues of everyone we disapproved of we would be left with hundreds of empty plinths. We cannot rewrite history to suit our own prejudices and write out of history those we dislike. Who is to say that our values are better than those of a previous generation? To pass judgement in this way on the values of a preceding generation could be considered arrogant. How will a succeeding generation judge us? A university should be a place for debate and history students need to be able to judge the leaders of past societies against their contemporaries and analyse the past without the prejudices of the present. What the campaign has succeeded in doing though is generating debate about the role of Rhodes and his place in British imperialism.


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The statue in question - at Oriel College, Oxford

Cecil Rhodes in old age

Benjamin Disrali - who embraced new Imperialism as a means of winning the working class vote following the extension of the franchise in 1867

John Ruskin - the father of New Imperialism?

‘The Descent of Man’ provoked a debate over race but the question of race remained unresolved until into the c20th.

The Rhodes memorial on the wall of the building where he lodged whilst in Oxford

The mine at Kimberley where Rhodes’ company ‘De Beers’ first started.

African workers at ‘De Beers’.

THE provisions of the Glen Grey Act were later (in the 1890s) extended to other areas of the  Transkei, seen here.

Jan Hofmeyr, leader of the Afrikaner Bond, whose support Rhodes relied on to keep him in power and to achieve his ambitions of a federated South Africa.

The Rhodes memorial at Devil’s Peak, Cape Town.