Rhodes to Hell

Was the father of Rhodesia really the epitome of pure evil?


When I was growing up in Rhodesia, the foreboding image of Cecil John Rhodes, our founder, glowered from bank notes and coins, and from the obverse side of the medal white boys were awarded for doing national service in the Rhodesian security forces. It was a brooding face of livid complexion, a prominent nose overhanging disapproving jowls and a drooping mustache. Even then he struck me as an unlikely visionary and hero.

Rhodes’ story is an inherently implausible one: a sickly, asthmatic vicar’s son from Bishop’s Stortford, England, heads to South Africa for the sake of his health and ends up the richest man in the Western world and the colonizer of a vast tract of Africa. Rhodes had three simultaneous careers in his 49 years–diamond magnate, politician, and imperialist. His big idea was to “save Africa from itself.” Only after his death, in 1902, did the dizzying extent of his imperial fantasy become apparent. In his will, he left a fortune for the establishment of a “secret society” modeled on the Jesuits, with the aim of extending British rule throughout the world.

H e was one of few men in history, apart from Simón Bolívar, who managed to get a sizable mainland country named after himself–two countries, actually, Northern and Southern Rhodesia. Only one person topped that, the Italian-born explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who claimed an entire continent. Of course, Northern Rhodesia became Zambia in 1964. And when “Southern Rhodesia” was jettisoned for “Zimbabwe” in 1980, the new black government began energetically.

In the new South Africa, Rhodes’ statue still clings to the side of Cape Town’s Table Mountain, for the moment at least. Standing on a rough-hewn granite pedestal in his trademark crumpled linen suit, he points northward. “Your hinterland is there,” the inscription mocks, as whites flock out of Africa. Other than that, the scholarships–originally envisioned by Rhodes as part of his plan to create a worldwide, English-speaking ruling elite–which have sent Bill Clinton and thousands of other Americans and Commonwealth students to Oxford, are about all that save Rhodes’ name from obscurity. His most enduring legacy in the post-apartheid world is the De Beers cartel, which he set up to manipulate the world diamond market, and even that looks increasingly shaky.

Now Rhodes has been resurrected in a 10-hour BBC miniseries, shown on PBS’s Mobil Masterpiece Theatre earlier this week. The BBC’s most ambitious project since War and Peace over two decades ago and, at $17 million, its most expensive production ever, the much-delayed film took longer to make (12 years) than its subject took to conquer a territory the size of central Europe. Not since Michael Caine fought them off at Rorke’s Drift in Zulu have we seen so many massed impi warriors.

Rhodes, a politically correct biopic that trumpets script approval by both Nelson Mandela and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, sets about debunking the Rhodes mythology. But in an era of postcolonial discourse studies, there is little mythology left to debunk, so it goes further, presenting Rhodes as a caricature of pure evil.

Martin Shaw, who plays Rhodes, has said in interviews that he interpreted the character as a combination of “Hitler, Napoleon, and Saddam Hussein.” Anthony Thomas, the white South African who wrote the screenplay and the accompanying biography of Rhodes, admits that Rhodes fills him with “self-disgust,” and that studying him was “a descent into evil.” Shorthand clichés of demonology abound: One episode begins with Rhodes, his eyes unnaturally pale, stroking a lion cub on his lap–just like the sinister Bond villain Blofeld, so fond of caressing his Persian cat as he plotted nefarious deeds.

The young Rhodes (played in the miniseries by Shaw’s son Joe, a Hugh Grant look-alike) initially showed scant potential as a terrifying tyrant. In the series, he arrives in the heat and dust of the Kimberley diamond diggings, then called New Rush, resplendent in his cricket flannels and boating blazer, armed with Virgil, for his year off before going up to Oxford. But Cecil’s version of the Victorian Peace Corps is knocked off course by his bullying, hard-drinking elder brother Herbert, who signs over his diamond claims to Cecil before disappearing into the interior. As he departs he gives Cecil–and us–a brisk tour through the lexicon of Victorian African prejudice. Boers are “a creepy lot with no sense of fun”; you should never trust “a who speaks English or wears trousers.”

R hodes is narrated via a series of flashbacks, through witnesses questioned by the Russian Princess Catherine Radziwill (played by Frances Barber with an accent as thick as boiled-down borscht), who comes to Cape Town in pursuit of the world’s most eligible bachelor. The princess is clearly as much of a diamond hunter as her quarry. But Cecil was not the marrying kind. This portrayal of Rhodes as, notwithstanding some feeble dissembling on the part of Thomas to the effect that Rhodes was probably not a “practicing” homosexual. Historians disagree as to whether he was or wasn’t, but the glee with which the homosexuality is depicted here turns it into a taunt: Old Rhodes wasn’t just a racist megalomaniac and a genocidal gangster–guess what, he was a poof to boot!

But somehow this shabbily dressed buffoon, with his falsetto giggle; this fidgeting, bumbling public speaker who was once described by a senior Colonial Office mandarin as “grotesque, impulsive, school-boyish, humorous and almost clownish … not to be regarded as a serious person,” rose to become a business colossus and the prime minister of the Cape Colony, and ran rings around the British government. Lord Salisbury, the British prime minister, eventually granted Rhodes his royal charter to occupy the north. “Take all you can–and ask afterwards,” was his typically wimpish advice, as Rhodes’ pioneer column trekked into the interior. So, like much of British imperialism, the conquest of Rhodesia was a private-sector colonization, costing the British taxpayer nothing, at least initially.

All that remained in the way of Rhodes’ imperial vision of controlling the African interior was “one naked old savage,” as Rhodes called King Lobengula. The story of how the ruler of the Matabele, a tribe that lives in what is now southern Zimbabwe, was cheated of his lands is truly a sad one, and one of the most affecting parts of the miniseries. A pair of binoculars here, a few hundred Martini-Henry rifles there, fail to do the trick. So Dr. Jameson, Rhodes’ sidekick (played by Neil Pearson), treats Lobengula for his gout by turning him into a trembling morphine junkie, prepared to sign anything put in front of him for his next fix. As Rhodes announces to his shareholders in London that shares in the Charter Company have risen 1,500 percent, Lobengula, defeated, his people reduced to servitude, kills himself.

But as with any historical figure, there’s a danger here of wrenching Rhodes’ life too far out of its own context and examining it through the microscope of today’s sensibilities. Rhodes is a stirring production, beautifully filmed, but it feels like a work overwhelmingly informed by malice, consistently seizing on the very worst interpretation of the man without really attempting to get under his skin. Rhodes was no 19th-century Hitler. He wasn’t so much a freak as a man of his time.

Before dissolving into a sobbing heap at Lobengula’s terrible fate at Rhodes’ hands, for example, we should remember that the king was a bloodthirsty tyrant whose people had arrived as colonists themselves only a generation before, wiping out most of the Mashona who lived there and treating the rest as slaves.

And while the film’s main scene of intertribal warfare was based on a conflict fomented by Jameson, the Matabele impis did in fact launch frequent bloody raids on the Mashona. In this respect, at least, Rhodes and his cronies fit in perfectly with their surroundings and conformed to the morality (or lack of it) of the day. As is so often the case, history simply followed the gravitational pull of superior firepower.

The film leaves the impression, too, that had it not been for Rhodes’ invasion of Mashonaland and Matabeleland, they would somehow have been spared the terrible subjugation of colonization. Hardly: Paul Kruger and the Transvaal Boers were already eyeing the territory north of South Africa avariciously, as a haven to which their trekkers could escape from British domination. And the Belgians, Portuguese, and Germans were also scrambling for African territories.

Discrediting Rhodes is not a novel game. He was discredited even before his death, by his implication in Jameson’s raid on Boer-ruled Johannesburg, an effort to overthrow the Kruger regime and take over the Transvaal that was never sanctioned by the British and turned into a military fiasco and grave political embarrassment. But curiously, the Matabele themselves accorded him the respect this warrior nation always granted a victor. At his funeral, the assembled chiefs gave Rhodes a traditional salute–the only commoner ever to be accorded the privilege. No guns were fired by the honor guard, at the insistence of the chiefs, who believed that gunfire would disturb the spirits who resided there.

White men’s memorials don’t usually fare well in Africa. The old pioneer memorial in Chimanimani, the eastern Zimbabwean village where I grew up, was smashed by a posse of comrades from the ruling party’s youth league shortly after independence. But Rhodes’ grave remains intact and undisturbed. A heavy brass plaque marks the spot where his body lies interred within a swollen granite hill–a dwala, we call them–and I dare say it will probably still be there when the next wave of reassessment breaks over Rhodes’ legacy. For Africans are loathe to offend the dead: There is no surer way of provoking ancestral spirits than interfering with their graves, and for all the mixed feelings he evokes, Rhodes is still a powerful spirit.

Rhodes and the white pioneers in southern Africa did behave despicably by today’s standards, but no worse than the white settlers in North America, South America, and Australia; and in some senses better, considering that the genocide of natives in Africa was less complete. For all the former African colonies are now ruled by indigenous peoples, unlike the Americas and the Antipodes, most of whose aboriginal natives were all but exterminated.