The Rhodes Papers, Summary Thoughts

The Rhodes Papers, Summary Thoughts

Some weeks of focused intensive work on the Rhodes Papers in the Bodleian library manuscript collections in Oxford have just finished. What to say in summation about our concentrated stare into the archival traces of this particular part of the imperial heart of darkness?

The remains that are ‘the Rhodes Papers’ were shaped and ordered after Rhodes’ death in March 1902 by his loyal secretaries and henchmen, a number of whom also produced careful biographies. In doing so, the awkward and revelatory were quietly vanished (something astutely noted by the Bodleian curator who produced the inventory of the Rhodes Papers), particularly but certainly not exclusively regarding the Jameson Raid.

IMG_0932The seemingly fragmentary structure of what now remains – there are about 11 or 12 internal divisions in the Rhodes Papers – is only partly a product of this, but is more importantly the result of the many diverse activities that Rhodes was either directly involved in or else promoted more indirectly through trusted henchmen. These divisions represent separate but connected organisational elements.

Rhodes’ supposed dislike of writing letters was perhaps rather less than mythology suggests it was. Although mainly not in these Papers, there are in fact around 500 extant letters by him to just a small handful of people (overwhelmingly men), with the signs being that he wrote many more which no longer exist.

This however begs the question, what is ‘writing’? From early on in his mushrooming career as an entrepreneur, Rhodes had a secretary, a young chap on the borders of friend, servant, younger brother, secretary (and for a few, perhaps also lover). He talked, they wrote, he signed off; while later amanuensis duties included senior henchmen writing drafts without dictation from Rhodes but using preliminary general talk and general knowledge of his views, with the results given his subsequent approbation or otherwise.

This in turn demonstrates just one way in which the importance of talk and the face-to-face are importantly interwoven with letter-writing. Rhodes was a talker and a doer, not a writer, and he talked out his thought processes. This extended into many other aspects than his letters. For instance, political and other opponents would be invited to ‘talk it out’ and in doing so succumbed to a combination of charm, patient rebuttal of qualms and questions, and the gift of whatever they wanted – money, shares, houses, safe Cape Assembly seats, friendship and love, promises. Whatever it took.

This necessarily lies outside the thousands of letters written to Rhodes in the Papers, apart from the few bewildered protests at promises reneged upon that it contains. It also lies outside the letters that Rhodes himself wrote and archived elsewhere, for this was a face and voice thing, and it was also felt if not succumbed to by stringent critics like Olive Schreiner (see her letters about Rhodes at As she commented, he was a man of great gifts and capacities who had looked good and evil in the face and willingly chosen evil.

The huge energy and driven character of the acquisitive and possessive ‘colossus’ aspects of Rhodes the empire-builder is often pointed to using a cartoon by Sambourne that appeared in Punch on 10 December 1892 and shown above. It is based – how Sambourne saw it is a mystery to me – on an actual map, setting out the line of the transcontinental telegraph Rhodes was building and the territories through which it passed. It is shown here (Rhodes Papers 21/147).

Many of the treaties and rights to the narrow strips of land – which the map barely indicates the slim size of – were negotiated in person by Rhodes, including with other imperial powers such as Germany (he met and squared the Kaiser). Then the Jameson Raid occurred, the Select Committee inquiry into this occurred, the South African War occurred, the Siege of Kimberley occurred, Rhodes shuttled about then died, and crucial stages in extending the line were never completely joined up because of events coupled with delays due to funding issues. However, the intention and organisational apparatus were there. And although not joined up, many countries between the Cape and Cairo gained telegraphic communications very early on as a result.


Last updated: 8 December 2015


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