Roads must diverge from Rhodes

The Rhodes Scholarship should no longer celebrate the memory of an infamous colonialist

This cartoon, “The Rhodes Colossus,” from the 1890s shows Cecil Rhodes linking Africa from north to south, showing his looming presence over the continent.
This cartoon, “The Rhodes Colossus,” from the 1890s shows Cecil Rhodes linking Africa from north to south, showing his looming presence over the continent.
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Sarah Hobbs, ArtSci’14

Bill Clinton went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. Bill Clinton went to Oxford on the profits of rampant colonialism. Both of these sentences are true, but you'll only find the first on the White House's official website. I have a problem with that. Conventionally, it’s considered a good thing to win the Rhodes Scholarship ― an award given to high-achieving international students to study at the University of Oxford.

The award's official website boasts that it's "the most prestigious international graduate scholarship program in the world." Queen’s University echoes those words, declaring the Rhodes Scholarships to be the "oldest and most prestigious international scholarships for outstanding scholars."

That so many continue to trumpet the award without mentioning its murky history bespeaks the collective amnesia we seem to have regarding the award’s namesake, Cecil J. Rhodes.

After attending Oxford's Oriel College, in the 19th century, Rhodes returned to South Africa where he had previously worked in the Kimberley diamond fields.

He was determined to make his fortune, and he did. During the 1880s, he founded De Beers, a diamond mining and trading company that today remains one of the dominant names in the industry. After consolidating De Beers, he moved into the rich gold fields of South Africa.

Not satisfied with his massive wealth, Rhodes began to build himself a personal colony in 1889 as a director of the British South Africa Company. Armed with machine guns, the company's paramilitary force butchered the local Ndebele population.

Rhodes was then installed as the effective sovereign of the territory, called 'Rhodesia.' When not carving out private kingdoms, Rhodes got himself elected Prime Minister of Cape Colony, and set about reforming its 'native problem.' Believing that being the virtual emperor of roughly 300,000 Rhodesian natives made him especially qualified to represent indigenous interests, and anxious not to upset the Cape Boer settler population, Rhodes recommended that the government "adopt a system of Indian despotism in our relations with the barbarians of South Africa."

The historical wrongs continue, but Rhodes's way of working boils down to this: greed, imperialism and racism. That such a man's will called upon youth to fight "the world's fight" and to "esteem the performance of public duties as their highest aim" is somewhat incredible.

I can't help but wonder if Rhodes rather meant to call on the youth of the future to fight "the Empire's fight" and to "esteem the performance of imperial duties as their highest aim".

The scholarship established by his will selects candidates according to their "literary and scholastic attainments, energy to use [their] talents to the full, truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship and moral force of character and instincts to lead, and to take an interest in one's fellow beings."

There’s nothing wrong with any of that, of course, but what a messenger. Cecil Rhodes, racist diamond magnate, is preaching for the "protection of the weak" — it's obscene. To be clear, I don’t wish to belittle the many incredible men and women who are Rhodes Scholars, or those who may desire to become one. Besides Clinton, notable Scholars include Norman Manley, former premier of Jamaica, eighteen Pulitzer Prize winners and three Nobel Laureates. Nationally, Bob Rae, Danny Williams and Rex Murphy have the award on their resumes.

What credit is due to the Rhodes Scholarship for facilitating the accomplishments of these men and women, and whether that credit overshadows its less palatable history, is for each of us to decide. I don't think it does.

I should also mention, in fairness to the Rhodes Trust, that the organization itself has taken steps towards recognizing its place in a complex colonial history.

The Rhodes Scholars' Southern Africa Forum (RSSAF), an organization established by students who have won the prestigious award, raises awareness about historical and contemporary issues in Southern Africa, and the impact that Rhodes had on the region.

Its projects include a maternity ward in Kenya, micro-finance services in Tanzania and education projects in Rwanda. It was established by Rhodes Scholars who were concerned about Rhodes’ controversial legacy.

Apart from assisting the RSSAF, the Rhodes Trustees, in collaboration with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, have created The Mandela-Rhodes Foundation. With a criterion similar to that of the Rhodes Scholarship, this foundation funds postgraduate studies for youth in South Africa, to encourage their leadership potential. But the Rhodes Scholarship's official website states that in so doing, the Rhodes Foundation is continuing the "principles of its founder."

And therein lies my problem: the Rhodes Trust consistently declines to mention its colonial history. Oxford, and other universities, forget to mention that this scholarship — maybe the best one in the world — represents the legacy of a ruthless imperialist. The Rhodes Scholarship and Rhodes Scholars do so much good in the world, but they would also do well to tell this truth.

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