How Cecil Rhodes left his mark
You never know what your most enduring legacy will be. Cecil Rhodes, a megalomaniac if ever there was one, thought that giving his name to a country — Rhodesia — would be his most lasting memorial. “They can’t take a country’s name away,” he is said to have pronounced shortly before his death at the beginning of the 20th century. Rhodes was not known for being naive: Had he not vanquished his rivals so that most of South Africa’s vast mining wealth was under his control, all the while having a spectacular political career that saw him prime minister of the Cape Colony when he was in his early 30s and substantially expanding the pink of the British Empire on the maps of the world? But we who lived in that century when countries’ names fell like ninepins know better. They could and did take the name of his country away: Zambia and Zimbabwe are there to mock his naivete in this one sphere at least.
But a man like Rhodes was determined to have a legacy one way or another and he was bound to get one. He knew that his heart was diseased and that it would kill him before long. He had no descendants or loved ones to provide for, so his enormous fortune would give him another means to leave his mark on this earth: The scholarships that bear his name. So it is entirely fitting that Philip Ziegler, that peerless writer about great Britons — he is the official biographer of Lord Mountbatten and of King Edward VIII (Duke of Windsor) among others — should title his exhaustive and enlightening study of the Rhodes Scholarships “Legacy.”
There seems to be no aspect of these scholarships — their intent, their function, their evolution in 105 years that they have been awarded — that Mr. Ziegler does not illuminate in his dense study. But it is not all dry stuff: There are fascinating characters throughout the story, starting of course with the colossal figure of Rhodes and continuing with the trustees he chose to oversee the program, and their successors over the succeeding decades. Wills are generally thought to be pretty dull stuff, with all that legal phraseology and careful language — unless of course you are a beneficiary! — but not the one belonging to Rhodes.
Mr. Ziegler prints the whole document, along with the codicils added after it was drawn up in 1899, three years before Rhodes’ death; and it is redolent with the personality of the man. When he says that he does not want his scholars to be “merely bookworms” and calls for them to be athletes as well, and to exhibit such qualities as “manhood, truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness, moral force of character,” not to mention the all-important attribute of leadership, you see the imprint of an extraordinarily complex human being. And what is perhaps most interesting is the prominence of altruistic and even knightly qualities for which Rhodes had little time or inclination in his own life and career, known for ruthlessness above all. Yet he had always been a strange mixture: After making his first fortune, he took time off to study at Oxford University before re- turning to Africa and more money making and empire building. So it is not surprising that the Rhodes scholars were exclusively bound for Oxford.
So the scholarships were set in his mold and also its opposite. He was very specific as to where his scholars would come from: South Africa and Rhodesia, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, Bermuda and Jamaica. And also the United States, with the express purpose of eventually bringing it back into the British Empire! No kidding, he really believed this. Well, it may have bred many an Anglophile, (like longtime Arkansas senator William Fulbright, the architect of the scholarships bearing his name that are at once an homage and a rival to Rhodes’), but I doubt that including the United States has brought it any closer to rejoining what it fought a hard war 230 years ago to escape. Mr. Ziegler is very interesting on the German Rhodes scholars, who were suspended twice as a result of the 20th-century’s World Wars and were apparently always the odd men out in this anglophone program.
Rhodes scholarships may not have kept the British Empire alive, but there is no doubt that they have contributed to a closeness between Britain and its former possessions all over the globe. In an age when their imperial connections are anathema, the scholarships flourish still, expanded now to include India and other parts of Africa excluded by Rhodes. Rhodes would probably disapprove of some of this broadening and would doubtless be deeply disappointed that the British Empire is gone forever. But pragmatist that he always was, he’d be delighted to know that this legacy of his at least was flourishing even when it turned out that they could indeed erase his name from map and atlas.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.