The Cult of Rhodes: Remembering an Imperialist in Africa
Reviewed by Brian Maregedze
Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902) remains a controversial figure in colonialism and imperialism studies. Paul Maylam’s 2005 publication is useful in confronting debates on his role in the colonization of Southern Africa-South Africa and Zimbabwe being well studied. The book by Maylam, although published over a decade ago, is worth reading since in Zimbabwe and South Africa, the place of Rhodes in decolonization remains a contested terrain in academic and non-academic circles. In as much as the book is grounded in exposing the evils of Cecil John Rhodes to a greater extent upon Africans, arguments for Rhodes’ apologists are posited. The six chapters which make up the book make it an easy read due to the readable approach undertaken by Maylam, considering that Rhodes belongs those individuals with a lot of literature devoted to his personality.
The introductory chapter situates Rhodes within debates on biographies which celebrated and condemned him. Three key features on biographers of Rhodes are well noted, namely, the early biographies being written by close associates or acquaintances such as Sir Thomas Fuller, Sir Lewis Michell, Philip Jourdan, J.G McDonald and Herbert Baker, among others. The second category includes writings from professional, academic historians, namely, Basil Williams, John Flint, Apollon Davidson and Robert Rotberg. The last and third group consists of reputable writers who were however not professional historians such as Sarah Getrude Millin, William Plomer and Andre Maurois. J.G Lockhart and C.M Woodhouse, John Marlowe and Brian Roberts targeted a wider audience (p.4).
The second chapter grapples with monuments and memorials on Rhodes. Tracing from Rhodes’ birthplace, Cape Town estate, place of death and grave, Maylam, takes one into the history associated with each of these sites. The chapter is more interesting in that, according to Rhodes’ will, Matopos in Zimbabwe is his place of burial. Drawing from the late T.O Ranger’s works, Maylam demonstrates how Matopos remains a contested space due to Rhodes’ burial side by side with Mzilikazi. The chapter ends by a focus on memorial sites in South Africa.
The third chapter addresses Rhodes’ education and commemoration. Rhodes’ legacies are noted in his scholarships, names of places after him and in some cases, connections with his name. Rhodes University in South Africa, Oriel College- a major beneficiary of Rhodes’ will and more notable being Oxford, with more memorials on Rhodes (p.78). In some cases, Rhodes’ obsession is viewed in the way he made efforts to falsely claim that Great Zimbabwe to be an ancient, exotic civilization. Rhodes scholarships remain much alive in twenty-first century and regarded as the most famous educational award in the English-speaking world and the most prestigious student award in the USA (p.78). Although the Rhodes scholarship is viewed in that light, recently in Zimbabwe, Augustine Tirivangana (2018) in The Patriot Zimbabwe newspaper has made efforts to revive discussions on Rhodes scholarships in a context of Munhu Munhu Scholarships Programme 2019 which targets to support lesbians, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (and queer) individuals between 18-35 years. Degree programmes to be pursued include, democracy, governance, justice, human rights and conflict resolution strategies. It is notable from Maylam’s book that, contradictions and ironies exist on the criteria for selection of the scholarships. After Rhodes’ death, changes on what Rhodes wanted took shape which the book unpacks.
In chapter four, the discussion on whether Rhodes was a ‘hero or villain’ is set out relying on novels and films about him. Three classical works critical of Rhodes in the form of novels are dealt with, namely, Mr Magnus written by Francis R. Statham; Peter Halket by Schreiner and also The Colossus: A Story of To-day by Morley Roberts. Plays on Rhodes are also addressed, that is, The Fall by Anthony Delius; Ancestors and Diamonds by Michael Picardie; King of Diamonds by Harold Laite among many other films. This chapter is engaging in that there is analysis beyond ‘hero or villain’ dichotomies.
Chapter five focuses on why Rhodes matters, that is, the biographies, road to cultdom, Rhodes Trust and the striving for immortality. Finally, with chapter six, Maylam explicitly demonstrates his position on Cecil John Rhodes articulating that he was more of a curse than a blessing to Southern Africa especially the formerly colonized countries under the influence of his British South Africa Company (BSAC). The establishment of Mandela Rhodes Foundation creates another avenue from which the memory of Rhodes ignited debates among historians, and interested researchers. From the various narratives engaged, Rhodes’ imperialism always gained prominence, the figure of a ruthless colonizer and a cultural chauvinist portrayed with the theme of ecological imperialist emerging as another unexplored issue from which further research is necessary.
However, Maylam doesn’t offer a detailed analysis of the whole body of works on Rhodes as he scantily summaries major works. Nonetheless, the book is a must read for those interested in the history of imperialism, the initiated and uninitiated in historical studies who seek an overview of many academic and non-academic works on Cecil John Rhodes. Above all, the context from which the book was written make it relevant as the wave of decolonization of space, names and re-naming of landscapes are still topical not only in South Africa and Zimbabwe, but globally, in imperial historical studies.
Brian Maregedze is an author, historian and columnist. Researcher with Leaders for Africa Network (LAN), a Pan-African research think tank and membership with Zimbabwe Historical Association [ZHA]. Email; [email protected]
Author of; A Guide to Sources of African History: For Advanced Level Examination Candidates, 2018. https://www.amazon.com/Guide-Sources-African-History-Examination/dp/1985640600, Link to the e-book.
Author, historian & columnist
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