The controversy around Cecil Rhodes and his scholarship

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OPINION: “I find that I am human but that I would like to live after my death; still, perhaps, if this name is associated with the subject of England everywhere. “

Cecil Rhodes was the Caesar of his time. A man in high office, left in disgrace, expanded an empire by force of arms in a largely private enterprise. It made headlines this week as Oriel College in Oxford, after resisting calls to remove a statue honoring the British imperialist, sought to appease the protesters with an explanatory plaque.

Each generation has its emblematic figures. Most of them disappear over the years. Rhodes is not one of them. Today, his legacy is maintained thanks to the scholarship that bears his name and is still partially supported thanks to his initial bequest.

Oriel College's statue of Cecil Rhodes.

Laurel Chor / Getty Images

Oriel College’s statue of Cecil Rhodes.

He founded De Beers, a company that retains a strong grip on the diamond industry. He violently created two colonies: Southern Rhodesia and Northern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe and Zambia, respectively. As prime minister of the Cape Colony, he passed laws that increased the property qualification for voting, effectively depriving many natives of the right to vote and laying the groundwork for apartheid.

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His writings and speeches were littered with racial statements and slurs that confront modern ears.

I brought these issues to Bryan Gould, who received his Rhodes Scholarship in 1962, and have put that success to good use in a remarkable career. He was a candidate for the leadership of the British Labor Party in 1992, losing to a guy called John Smith. Smith died two years later and was replaced by Tony Blair, but by then Gould had returned home.

The former British politician fondly recalled his time in Oxford and was a firm believer that the stock market is a force for good. He warned that we should be slow to judge historical figures by modern values, a perspective common to many of his generation.

However, Rhodes was strongly criticized by his contemporaries.

The Guardian marked his death by writing: “He understood weak men and the particular qualities of their weakness – how some are best trained with a little and others shot with a nose ring.”

Contemporary sound Mark Twain wrote: “I know very well that if Mr. Rhodes is the noble and venerable patriot and statesman that the multitudes believe he is, or that Satan returns, as the rest of the world reckons, he is still the most imposing figure in the British Empire outside of England.

Protesters march towards the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College in May.

Laurel Chor / Getty Images

Protesters march towards the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College in May.

These attitudes persisted and culminated in 2015 with a campaign to remove a number of statues erected in Rhodes, including one in Oxford.

Max Harris, Rhodes Scholar from New Zealand since 2012, written in 2015: “Rhodes is well known for creating the Rhodes Stock Exchange, but he was also an imperialist who made public statements in his day about the inferiority of native South Africans, supported the disastrous Jameson Raid in 1895 and adopted a legislation that divided the black South. African land ownership.

Another Oxford alumnus and Rhodes scholar, treaty expert Professor David Williams, takes a similar view to Gould’s and has positive memories of his time in Oxford. For him, the scholarship represents an “unqualified human good”, with successful candidates now selected around the world and from various backgrounds.

“We have statues for kings and generals,” he notes, many of which have a morally questionable historical legacy.

Activists in the UK and South Africa have called for the removal of statues in honor of Rhodes, arguing that Rhodes is the epitome of white supremacy.

Laurel Chor / Getty Images

Activists in the UK and South Africa have called for the removal of statues in honor of Rhodes, arguing that Rhodes is the epitome of white supremacy.

For Williams and Gould, the scholarship represents the best of the Empire’s heritage: academic excellence, truth, courage, leadership and service. While acknowledging Rhodes’ sins, Williams points out that he chose to establish the stock exchange and that this institution should be evaluated on its merits, without looking back on the failures of its founder.

This progressivism among Rhodes scholars is not recent. Williams remembers protesting the All Blacks against the Springboks in 1970, a team that included his colleague Chris Laidlaw.

Indeed, an argument has been made that this kind of free thought and inquiry is exactly what Rhodes intended. One of his selection criteria was those who demonstrated “moral strength of character and instincts to lead and care for others.”

Speaking with Rhodes Scholars young and old this week, I found the shift in generational outlook to be clear. Williams made headlines in his local newspaper when he received the scholarship. Dannevirke High School, Gould’s alma mater, gave its students a day off to celebrate their success.

Damien Grant thinks Cecil Rhodes was the Caesar of his day.

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Damien Grant thinks Cecil Rhodes was the Caesar of his day.

Modern academics, those in New Zealand I’ve spoken to anyway, see the scholarship as just one of many. It became transactional rather than ambitious, and revisionism towards its original benefactor had an impact.

It’s a shame. And an error.

I have some sympathy for Harris’ argument that “… the removal of the statue (of Rhodes) would be a statement about the characters we want to worship – and the values ​​we want to uphold – in the present.”

But you cannot separate the purse from the man. Rhodes was flawed by modern standards, and even by the assessment of his contemporaries, but he operated within the limits (if perhaps to the extreme) of what was then acceptable.

He was a colossus, as the cartoonists of his time parodyed.

Damien Grant: Rhodes would look with admiration and envy at the aspirations and achievements of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

Tony Gutierrez / AP

Damien Grant: Rhodes would look with admiration and envy at the aspirations and achievements of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

Humanity does not advance only through the work of the virtuous. Without the amoral scoundrels with grandiose ambitions and the will to achieve them, we would be poorer as a species.

We are not only the heirs of Aristotle, Curie and Nightingale, but also of Caesar, Ford and Jobs.

Cecil Rhodes grabbed each day that his lord allowed him. As his hourglass was running out he wrote: “Thinking of those stars… .these vast worlds that we will never be able to reach. I would annex the planets if I could. “

Rhodes viewed with admiration and envy the aspirations and achievements of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos; explorers and adventurers who pursue careers as unique and daring as his.

His scholarship is part of his career as a Rhodesian legacy and not separate from it. One would not be possible without the other. Greatness is often built on impure, even malignant foundations.


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