Review – Flint, “Cecil Rhodes”

John Flint, “Cecil Rhodes” (1974) – One of the big problems of pretty much any hierarchical structure is how often they entail press-ganging the less powerful into the stupid dreams of powerful people. Exploiting others for profit is wrong but it makes a certain intuitive straightforward sense. It’s when powerful people exploit others for non-material things — where they want others to play along with some stupid vision, and are willing to use coercion to do so — that I get really creeped out. This extends from the mundane (“service with a smile,” beyond basic politeness, makes my skin crawl) to most of the practices that have gone into making “new” kinds of people, whether nationalist, revolutionary, religious, whatever. If your program was good to begin with you wouldn’t need to coerce people into performing its attributes. But people with dreams that involve other people’s obedience typically don’t listen to that logic.

Few had bigger, dumber, creepier, more coercive dreams than Cecil Rhodes, and very few ever gained as much power to carry them out, however imperfectly. This relatively short (just under 300 pages) biography of Rhodes gets across a reasonable sketch of those dreams and the things Rhodes did to bring them to fruition. The massive expansion of European power over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries gave unprecedented opportunities for people like Rhodes to draw their designs on the world- generally at its cost.

Rhodes was a classic imperial “type”- younger son in a middle-class provincial family. Not notably smart or talented, he did have a certain doggedness that helped him when he joined a brother in prospecting the diamond fields in South Africa. His company, DeBeers, came to have a near-monopoly on diamonds, and Rhodes became a major player in gold as well.

But wealth was always secondary for Rhodes. It was secondary to what he called “the Idea.” Not being notably intelligent or articulate, the specifics of it are hazy, but the main thrust is clear enough. He wanted the British Empire to rule the entire world, and for white settlement to cover the whole planet (eventually displacing all over people, who, it’s implied but not stated, will die off). To see to it this happened, Rhodes wanted to create a secret order, based on the Masons or the Jesuits, or rather, versions of those organizations found in lurid fiction of the time. This secret order of the best young people from the best Anglo/Germanic stock — Germany, Britain, the white settler dominions, and the US, which Rhodes dreamed of reuniting with Britain — would be molded at Oxford University and then sent out to work together to shape the world according to Rhodes’s imperial dream. And that’s why the Rhodes Scholarship exists- though it’s worth noting that its executors stopped caring about the goofier bits of the founders vision pretty much as soon as he died in 1902.

The scholarship was a long term plan. In the shorter term, Rhodes sought to carve out an empire in Southern Africa, preferably one he could run himself in Britain’s name. Flint does a pretty good job keeping track of the players in the deeply complicated world of southern African politics in the 1880s and 1890s. If Rhodes showed real talent anywhere, it was in playing politics- working merchant interests, the Afrikaner republics, and the British administrators off of each other. At his height, this allowed his company to basically annex what became Zimbabwe and Zambia outright- this became “Rhodesia.” Rhodes was always seeking more, and doing so led him to start the Second Boer War (after years of getting along relatively well with the Afrikaner leaders, largely on the strength of impressing them as being equally racist as they) before he died.

Most of the time, Rhodes went faster than the government in London wanted to go. It’s not that the people in the Colonial Office were nice- they were just cautious and didn’t want to bite off more than they could chew. Rhodes got around them through combinations of canny politicking and appealing to the mob. Rhodes was a genuine celebrity, a symbol of upward mobility and white supremacy. His formula — imperialist expansion abroad as the way to allay class conflict at home — would prove important for the future, even when things didn’t go exactly as planned for him or other imperialists. Dreams of superiority (which involve you being you, but more so) are a useful antidote to dreams of solidarity (which might involve actual change).

The biography itself is pretty good, though one imagines one could do a much longer and more thorough job. Rhodes had numerous phases in his short life that shed light on a number of interesting pieces of history: his attempt to buy the Oxford experience in his late twenties with his diamond money, his various attempts to work out systems of power that would both balance various actors — English settlers, Afrikaners, British administration — and the explosive politics of racial exploitation, involvement with the ins and outs of extractive industry and political power. Moreover, it’d be interesting to have a close reading of his particular kind of racial jingoism, of the kind Elaine Frantz Parsons did with the early Klan. Still and all, if you want to spend some time with someone with a lot of money and big evil world-changing dreams, this book does it. ****

Review – Flint, “Cecil Rhodes”

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