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The cult of Rhodes

10 August 2016

The Cult of Rhodes: Remembering an Imperialist in AfricaThe Cult of Rhodes: Remembering an Imperialist in Africa by Paul Maylam
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Why am I reading this book?

  1.  Because of the “Rhodes must fall” movement, which began with the demand for the removal of a statue of Cecil J. Rhodes from the campus of the University of Cape Town.
  2.  Because of the rise of Donald Trump in US politics. Cecil Rhodes seems to have been the Donald Trump of his day, an unscupulous businessman turned politician.
  3. Because of family history. At least one member our family, Henry Green, went to Kimberley at the time of the diamond rush, and some of his children were either associates or admirers of C.J. Rhodea and Company, and gave names to their chuildren that reflected this – one child, for example, was named Cecil Leander, and, like his namesakes, he never married.
Protests against Rhodes statues at the University of Cape Town

Protests against Rhodes statues at the University of Cape Town

Concerning the first of these. it is mainly curiosity. I don’t feel particularly strongly about statues of dead politicians, good or bad. Getting uptight about them seems rather pointless to me, and itmight be better to pay more attention to living politicians, who can do real damage, and more rarely, some good. About 20 years ago I was wandering through a park in Klin, in Russia, and there was a statue of Lenin. I suppose on the whole I’d prefer that it not be removed, but should stay as a reminder of history.

The resemblance to Donald Trump is more interesting, because Trump is a living politician who, like Rhodes, seems to have a cult following. According to Paul Maylam the cult of Rhodes seems to have arisen mainly after his death, fostered by his close associates who wrote biographies, and his will, which provided for various things by which he would be remembered, most notably the Rhodes Scholaships. Rhodes’s funeral, too, which was a long drawn-out affair, seems to have been calculated to foster the cult. Trump, on the other hand, seems to have a cult following even while he lives, though it may die down if he fails to be elected as president of the USA in November, and cause him to be no more remembered than Tielman Roos.

I was interested to learn how Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape (a part of the world that Cecil John Rhodes had little to do with) got its name. It appears that they were hoping to get sponsorship from the Rhodes Trust, and thought that calling it Rhodes University would increase their chances. Now that’s like certain sports reports I see on TV, when they say that a certain football team in the English Premier League has been “playing at the Emirates”. I pictured them having a six-hour flight to and from the Gulf, and think they must be pretty exhausted with all that travelling. But no, the stadium is in London, and sponsored by the Emirates airline. So if Rhodes University changes its name and suddenly becomes Nandos University, you’ll know why. The name of the university has little to do with the cult of Rhodes, and everything to do with sponsorship, marketing and branding.

The cult of Rhodes went way beyond the man himself, and was particularly strong in Southern Rhodesia, and Northern Rhodesia, the countries named after Rhodes, which jettisoned his name as soon as they became independent. Some white people in those countries named their children after Rhodes, even though they had no personal connection with him. But this also raises questions that Maylam does not deal with in the book. Rhodesia was conquered by Rhodes’s British South Africa Company under a royal charter, and the company ruled until 1923, when Southern Rhodesia became a self-governing British colony, and Northern Rhodesia became a protectorate. It would be interesting to know whether and how the cult of Rhodes differed before and after this event, but Maylam does not tell us. Another weakness of the book is its repetitiveness. Maylam reiterates the same points in every chapter.

Though Paul Maylam does not admire Rhodes, and disapproves of the cult, his book supports the cult in a curious way, by punctuation. He uses “Rhodes'” for the possessive rather than “Rhodes’s”. In English that form is only used for revered figures from the ancient world — Jesus, Moses, Socrates and so on. Maylam tells us that Rhodes admired classical civilisation, and liked to be identified with it, and his friend and admirer Sir Herbert Baker designed his memorial along classical lines for that reason, and every time I came across the possessive “Rhodes'” in the text I stopped short, and the cult came to the fore. Rhodes would have liked that.

Not all of his contemporaries admired Rhodes, and both his admirers and detractors compare him with other historical figures. As Maylam puts it,

Rhodes has been compared to many other historical figures — Caesar, Napoleon, Cromweell and Bismarck. to name just a few — but, as far as I know, he has never been compared to Shaka, the Zulu king. This would seem an unlikely comparison, and in many respects, it is. But it is not so much their lives that bear comparison, but their legacies and the way in which they have been represented and remembered. Both have come to be viewed in a polarised way, as hero or villain. Shaka has been represented as the heroic nation-builder, but also as a brutal tyrant; Rhodes as the great empire-builder, but also as the ruthles, dictatorial imperialist. Shaka has been revered by African nationalists, but hated by most white colonialists — although some of them have shown a grudging admiration for the Zulu king as a “noble savage”. Rhodes has been revered by imperialists, but loathed by African nationalists — although again there is evidence that some African leaders, especially in the early twentieth centuiry, admired Rhodes as “a great man”.

Some have also compared Rhodes with Robert Mugabe, and Maylam remarks, “Both men can be characterised as arrogant, authoritarian and vain. Both were land grabbers. And both were content to use force and violence to achieve their political ends.”

Maylam also makes much of the resemblance of the Rhodes memorial in Cape Town to a pagan temple,

… the colossal bust of Rhodes portrays him as a great thinker — which he was not. He had ideas, certainly, but as some biographers have observed, they were often boyish and immature… locating the bust in a “temple” amounts to the deification of Rhodes — but Rhodes, although the son of an Anglican clergyman, was not a religious person. For many, the near deification of someone who was far from being saintly smacks of idolatry.


Cecil Rhodes Memorial in Cape Town. By SkyPixels - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Cecil Rhodes Memorial in Cape Town. By SkyPixelsOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

G.K. Chesterton, writing in 1912, said,

Rhodes had no principles whatever to give to the world. He had only a hasty but elaborate machinery for spreading the principles that he hadn’t got. What he called his ideals were the dregs of a Darwinism which had already grown not only stagnant but poisonous. That the fittest must survive and that ony one like himself must be the fittest; that the weakest must go to the wall, and that anyone he could not understand must be the weakest.

And perhaps that fits Donald Trump as well.

View all my reviews

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Brian Maregedze permalink
    15 December 2018 7:08 pm

    I really enjoyed your review.
    I also reviewed the book a few weeks ago.
    Check my review;

  2. Brian Maregedze permalink
    15 December 2018 7:11 pm

    Reblogged this on Brian Maregedze.


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