The Magazine

Imperial Man

From Cape to Cairo to the Rhodes-Mandela Trust.

Jun 30, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 40 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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Cecil Rhodes, the Rhodes Trust and Rhodes Scholarships

by Philip Ziegler

Yale, 400 pp., $45

Rudyard Kipling, a devoted friend of Cecil Rhodes, and himself eventually a Rhodes trustee, stated the 19th-century imperial faith in unforgettable, if impolitic, words:

Take up the White Man's Burden

And reap his old reward:

The blame of those ye better,

The hate of those ye guard

One who believed in that burden--in his unique fashion--was Rhodes himself. As a teenager of 17 he left his home in an English parsonage to seek his fortune in South Africa, and made it in diamonds and gold. After many drafts of his will, he left the bulk of his wealth to endow scholarships at Oxford for young men of the British empire, the United States, and Germany. From the start, it was to be an Anglo-Saxon male cabal, and he was unapologetic about it.

For later sensibilities, perhaps, this vision carries grating resonances. But the Rhodes Scholarships remain the gold standard, as they were the first, among international scholastic programs. And their tale is told with style by Philip Ziegler, a practiced chronicler of the British gentry. Some of the revelations he offers--he seems to have enjoyed full use of the Rhodes Trust's confidential records--may be of interest mainly to the Rhodes tribe; but others are of general human interest, none more so than the enigmatic personality and purposes of Cecil Rhodes himself.

As he was amassing his fortune, by means mostly fair but occasionally foul, and becoming an influential power in southern Africa, Rhodes kept his eye fixed on a legacy shaped by the imperialist outlook. The initial concept was a secret international society. In a strange and naive passage in one of his wills, he instructed his executor, Lord Rothschild, to dig up the (perhaps imaginary) "constitution" of the Jesuit order and simply substitute "British empire" for "Christian church"! Rhodes's vision is perhaps best appraised now as a "mentality" in the analytical term of the French annalist historians: a creed whose devotees almost unconsciously assumed it to be a fit part of the natural order. The virtues of imperialism came as an unquestioned assumption to Rhodes in the palmy days of the "second" British empire, when a fifth of the planet's dry land and a fourth of its people lived under British dominion--and as a rule not badly, as methods of governance go.

Little even now is known about the origins of Rhodes's obsession to found this legacy. Certainly he believed in the benevolence of British institutions and law. He was a constant reader, it seems, of the Meditations of the great Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, imperialist precursor of another empire and age. Perhaps his shaky health had something to do with it. He died early.

Not merely did Rhodes envision a secret order to propagate British rule; he seems even to have thought it imaginable that George III's dissident colonies in America might someday be lured back into the fold. Good advice prevailed with him, and he abandoned the notion of a secret cabal to leave his fortune for a more practical use: scholarships at Oxford. The eligibles stipulated by his will were to be public-spirited, athletic (no "mere bookworms" please), good at literary pursuits, protective of the weak and, above all else, devoted to "the performance of public duties."

The evolved selection process, by committees composed of former scholars but checked by an "outsider" as chairman, has never applied the terms of the will literal-mindedly. And apart from a certain mutual clubbability, there is no uniformity of Rhodes Scholar style or type, countless myths to the contrary notwithstanding. (This reviewer once was amused to hear it said on a television panel discussion, prompted by Bill Clinton's election to the presidency, that Rhodes Scholars must be "thin." But in many years of service on selection committees I never heard a word said about anyone's weight. Mental, yes; bodily, no.)