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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The dominant imprint on the scholarship program, Ziegler correctly observes, is that of its dedicated administrators, especially one postwar figure who was, for many in the 1950s and after, a great force: Sir Edgar Williams, Warden of Rhodes House and secretary to the Trust for almost three decades. He gets a chapter to himself, deservedly. "Bill" Williams had been an Oxford history don before World War II, then rose to become chief of intelligence to Field Marshal Montgomery and, as such, the youngest brigadier in the British army. As mentor to hundreds of scholars, he was a wry presence who interpreted the Rhodes vision for a less visionary age, always with bone-dry wit and good sense. He once left a luncheon with the words "Well, back to Lenin's tomb"--meaning the monumental Rhodes House, erected in 1929, whose vast unlivable spaces he and his family despised. He liked to tease Americans about politics. "I am a very right-wing Tory," he said one night, "much to the left of anything you have in the U.S." He did not fear the word "elite" so long as that elite did not have "sharp elbows."

What Williams would say of the latest manifestation of the Rhodes legacy, the Rhodes-Mandela Trust, is unknowable. It is a compensatory design hatched by the trustees in part to mark the centennial year (2003) of the scholarships and financed with a pledge of £10 million, the object being to broaden educational chances for young Africans. For Rhodes himself, some evolutions of his vision might impel a few "rhodocycles," defined by one wit as the number of times the Founder would spin in his grave if he knew how his money is being spent. And after more than a century, there is an inevitable and substantial gap between Rhodes's hermetic vision and the programs that mark his legacy. That legacy, indeed, may offer a classic study in serendipity: the chance discovery of the surprising in quest of the expected.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr., a former editor and columnist in Washington, wrote his reminiscences of Oxford in a memoir, Telling Others What to Think: Recollections
of a Pundit (2004).