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.)

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).

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