Rhodes Papers, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Rhodes Papers, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Rhodes and the Rhodes Papers

The Rhodes Papers in the Bodleian Library, Oxford is a very large and complexly configured collection composed by the remaining papers of a number of companies and other organisational bodies that the entrepreneur and politician Cecil John Rhodes was associated with. Its main components are numbered Mss Afr s227 and s228 respectively, detailed later.

Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) was a British entrepreneur and politician who made his mark and money through diamonds and other minerals, gold, land-grabs and financial and share dealings. He also gained and used political power to further these things, and vice versa. Admired by some, the general consensus now concerns his combination of ruthlessness and charm and the quest for power for its own sake.

The Bodleian collection is core to grasping the surviving documentary traces of Rhodes and the various business organisations, including the British South Africa Company (the Chartered Company) and De Beers, that he was key to. It is difficult to comprehend its contents and shape overall without extensive work. However, there is a helpful detailed Inventory, commissioned in the early 1980s, which provides an overview, discusses the main sub-divisions within the collection, and also specifies contents at an individual folio level. It also makes clear that the folio numbering can be misleading, because ‘a folio’ sometimes covers very large numbers of individual items (on occasion, over a hundred). The Inventory is therefore essential reading, and indeed it is helpfully read before, and then re-read during, and again after, conducting any research on the Rhodes Papers.

The initial shape of the Papers was the product of the working filing system instituted by Philip Jourdan, Rhodes’ principal private and confidential secretary. However, the Papers were subsequently re-sorted, pruned, some of its structure modified or overturned, and also some content was shifted about, by another secretary, Gordon Le Sueur, after Rhodes’ death. This was to mask or remove activities and documents that would put Rhodes in a particularly bad light (removing all material pertaining to the Jameson Raid that could be found is the obvious example). The Inventory hints that other changes were made for similar reasons, concerned with obfuscation of the awkward and unpalatable. While there are some earlier and later dated materials, the bulk of the Papers concerns the period from 1888 to Rhodes’ death in March 1902. It reflects – with the provisos mentioned above – the range of Rhodes’ major and some of his minor political and economic involvements and interests particularly the economic aspects.

Rather than an interest in Rhodes himself, it is the ‘heart of darkness’ aspects of the manifold contributions to these materials in ‘race’ terms that has been the draw for WWW research on the Rhodes Papers. The collection covers an exceptionally important time-period; a number of major structural changes to colonial and Chartered governance as well as the racial order occurred during it, with the ‘Rhodes empire’ in the eye of the storm. It is not ‘Rhodes’ as a person, then, but the figuration of people, interests, activities and organisations represented in collection contents that WWW’s work has been concerned with. The Rhodes Papers provides a key point of ingress into these figurational matters in the focused time-period concerned, 1880 to 1902, with a small tail thereafter. Its companion piece of WWW research is its work on letters by South African missionaries to the LMS covering the period from the 1790s to the 1950s, which provides a longitudinal point of ingress into changes over this very much longer period of time. Together, these provide complementary backdrops for comparative purposes regarding the key concerns of WWW research and the collections that support investigating them.

The main components of the collection are two-fold. The first, S227, contains letter books and telegrams dispatched out; these are copies, often difficult to read. It has not been part of the detailed research, which has been focused on figurational aspects of the diverse but overlapping networks of letter-writers, not that of organizational staff. The second, S228, is composed by 28 Boxes, now taking the form of bound volumes, has been researched in detail. While there is more detail in the collection Inventory, their contents are outlined below.

Researching the Rhodes Papers

WWW work on the Rhodes Papers has consisted of: (a) drawing a 1 in 5 random sample of the contents the S228 ‘Letters etc received’, resulting in details of some 610 documents of the more than 3000 in the collection; and also (b) drawing an extra 170 documents from this sub-set, which were purposively selected because of their specific content. Some are immensely long, others just a few sheets of paper, but most are of significant length. The Sample documents and the purposively selected Extras are each identified in the resulting database. Summaries are provided, together with more detailed information regarding the content of many of these items. A brief overview of preliminary results from this work will be found below, following an outline of the collection’s two components.

S227 Letter books and telegrams OUT
[NB. S227 has NOT been worked on in detail]

Letter Books 1-3, 1897-1902
Telegrams 1-5 Nov 1893 –
Telegrams 6-10
Telegrams 11-15
Telegrams 16-20
Telegrams 21-25
Telegrams 26-31
Telegrams 32-35 –Dec 1903
Index, Book 1, Book 2

S228 Letters and telegrams RECEIVED
[NB. All S228 Boxes have been worked on in detail, in the way explained later]

1 Administrators, Boxes 1A, 1B
Mashonaland and Matabeleland uprising, land and labour, taxes, normal rule and its apparatus, police, the volunteer force, disputes with settlers, railway, mines.

2 Cape Colony, Boxes 2Ai, 2Aii, 2B
Focuses on the period when Rhodes was PM especially; German expansion, concessions and the north, railways and tariffs, a possible customs union, Swaziland, the Adendorf trek, issues with the Transvaal, Glen Grey, the Scab Act, Milner, the Bond, everyday politicking.

3 Charter, Boxes 3Ai, 3Aii, 3B
Occupation of Mashonaland, relations with Lobengula, concessions and rivalries, Manica, Pungwe, dealings with the Portuguese, sub-concessions and amalgamations, Adendorf trek, Moodie trek, occupation and land titles re-Mashonaland, railway links, gold finds, Shangani battle, mining activities, land commission in Matabeleland, Bechunanaland Protectorate and its railway, Matabele war, London Board matters re many of the above and also internal aspects, Cape Town Board matters primarily from Stevens.

4 Charter – Home Board          } Boxes 4, 5, 6; one bound volume
See above.

5 Charter – Cape                     }
See above.

6 Cold Storage                        }
Cold storage companies in Cape Town and others, distribution issues and networks, contracts.

7 De Beers, Boxes 7A, 7Bi, 7Bii
Diamond trade, diamond syndicate, accounts, reserve fund, De Beers Directorships and Board matters, purchases of farms in Kimberley and elsewhere, selling policy, the Consolidated Gold Fields of South Africa, financial position, relations with Cecil Rhodes, especially letters from Gardner Williams and Pickering, dynamite supplies, shares, links with Rhodes, Links with Rhodes Cold Storage and meat contracts et cetera, Kimberly siege and obligations for defence, municipal projects, labour supply and labour agents. NB. Quinan = Manager De Beers Explosives Works.

8 Farms                                   } Boxes 8, 9; one bound volume
Stock, sheep, for Matabeleland and Mashonaland, railway and transport, farm purchases and stocking, dam projects, lot on fruit farms, some on Inyanga farms.

9 Finance                                 }
Syndicates, dividends, De Beers debentures, Central Search and United Concessions, Chartered Company financial position, issues re diamond market, transcontinental telegraph, investments; much from Maguire, also Rothschild.

10 Goldfields, Boxes 10A, 10B
All or most to CJR, F. Lawley its accountant; effects of Cape of Good Hope bank failure, Matabeleland expedition, company matters re London, company matters re staffing of different offices et cetera, Rhodes connection with this, much from Rudd, E Rhodes, NL Sapte, F Chaplin; overlaps with De Beers and other parts of Rhodes empire, monthly reports.

11 Hawkesley             } Boxes 11, 12, 13; one bound volume
Issues re Jameson Raid Select Committee, policy re Rhodesia, Princess Radziwill, purchases of estates.

12 Immigration            }
Women’s immigration scheme, Mrs Bairnsfather.

13 Inyanga                  }
Buying farms, surveys, expenditure on purchase and transfer, need to be self-financing after first year, only cattle doing okay, issues with various tenant farmers, stocking and stock loss, map and plans.

14 McDonald
Manager farms in Matabeleland, of the De Beers Rhodes farms, also acted for Goldfields and Consolidated Exploration; stock, estimate for dam, general progress and progress of dam, Matabeleland mining, issues with the Ross/Huntley tenantship and others, monthly reports on Westacre later Sauerdale, Golden Frog mine, indunas want the return of Njube, progress of the dam, farm accounts, Colenbrander overdraft, various on Michell, also Le Sueur and Jourdan, reports on tenancies.

15 Michell
Lewis Michell, banker. Securities held, finances, sales and purchases of farms, Rhodes financial affairs, re Syfret’s accounts, Inyanga finances, payments received, shareholdings, statements of accounts, railway accounts, Rhodes personal account, Cape stock advice, Princess Radziwill matters.

16 Miscellaneous
Many and varied, finances, wars, finances, labour politics and philanthropy.

17 Ngami Trek                        } Boxes 17, 18, 19; one bound volume
Various, all expressly on this, especially the role of Adrian Hofmeyr.

18 Northern Rhodesia             }
Labour supply and difficulties, getting labour further north, concessions and minerals, railway and extension, the Gwele route, Orders in Council for government of North and South Rhodesia

19 Rhodesian Goldfields         }
De Beers interests therein, mining developments, Chinese labour; NB. Wools Sampson is Consolidated Exploration and Development Company.

20 Rhodesian Railways
Bechuanaland railway and its debentures, carriage contracts, rates, relationship with Cape Broadway. Mashonaland railway and railway strip. Beira railway. Tanganyika railway and Metcalf. Reports and accounts, timetables, rates, carrying capacity.

21 Syfret                                             } Boxes 21, 22; one bound volume
EB Syfret handled Rhodes fruit farms, cold storage, dynamite and brick-making subsidiaries, Rhodes farms, matters concerning Groote Schuur and Muizenberg properties and the Cape Times. Accounting matters regarding the above, sales and leases, estimates, shares and share issues.

22 Transcontinental Telegraph }
ATT, routes and surveys, progress and difficulties, Blantyre staff, negotiation of access rights.

23 Transvaal                                        } Boxes 23, 24; one bound volume
This is concerning territorial ambitions, mining matters, and the feeling that the Matabeleland trek was the Transvaal government’s provocation.

24 Wernher Beit & Co             }
Rhodes accounts and balances, shares and state of the market, De Beers affairs, share purchases and sales, Chartered Company shares and the state of the market for these, Rhodes securities, statement of Rhodes accounts with them, the sale and purchase of shares, Bechuanaland railway debentures, Life Governors of De Beers, interests and payments.

25 Delagoa Bay                                               } Boxes 25, 26; one bound volume
Its possible purchase from the Portuguese government, a lot in cipher, negotiations and intermediaries, including Rothschild and Baron Merck, the Merck case for payment for services rendered.

26 Papers saved from Groote Schuur Fire      }
Motley collection of a small number of things, mainly scraps on diverse topics without much pattern to them.

27 Personal, political & business
Sauer financial dealings, congratulations to Rhodes on becoming prime minister, with other contents including James Rose Innes on Sievewright, Jane Waterson letter Great White Chief, Hoffmeyer grubbiness, Shippard grubbiness, Njube Lobengula, WT Stead, Milner, Rothschild, Crewe, Olive Schreiner.

28 Personal, general, Box 28
Letters from the Rhodes siblings, handful of Sauer and others, Rebecca Schreiner, Theo Schreiner, some women, some letters not personal but on the war, finances and property.

Overviewing commentary

The above headings within the S228 Boxes are important because they represent what were on ground real – and separate – organisations, activities, persons. Because the archival numbering is consecutive in terms of the Box numbers, it is difficult not to treat them as components of the same overall entity, and particularly so when a single bound volume contains a number of the original boxes. But in fact there are quite a large number of different organisational entities here, connected mainly because associated to lesser or greater extents with Rhodes. However, in practice their activities and operations were often largely separate from each other.

In working on the Rhodes Papers, then, it needs to be kept in mind that it is not ‘a collection’ in a tightly-bounded sense, but a clustering of activities, persons and organisations which are sometimes loosely and sometimes more closely interconnected.

An indication of the reality of these separations is that there is fairly little overlap of personnel between the different organisational sub-entities of the collection. By and large, the activities concerned were different and often occurred in different places – London, Cape Town, other areas of South Africa, or in wider southern Africa – and very different kinds of men (there were barely any women) were involved in them. There was however an inner grouping, men who are to be found across a number of these organisations and activities. They are variously close associates, tools or instruments who Rhodes used, hangers-on, and ordinary employees; and what they had in common was a closer and more direct connection with Rhodes, rather than necessarily with each other, although some did have this. They include associates like Grey, Gifford and Beit, tools like Sivewright, Metcalfe and Shippard, hangers-on and ‘go-for’s like the ‘secretaries’ Grimmer and Le Sueur, and ordinary but high-level employees like Milton as Administrator of the Rhodesias and Stevens as Secretary of the BSAC offices in Cape Town.

Rhodes himself, perhaps surprisingly, is to a significant extent absent from various of these organisations/activities, and appears as a final source and arbiter rather than having a hands-on involvement. They were instead run by trusted associates and henchmen who were to a large degree autonomous. Of the organisational headings in the list of boxes above, McDonald in charge of Rhodes’ Rhodesian farms and Pickstone the top level manager of his wine farms are examples, with the correspondences and other organisational documents that exist here having been written and sent between people working at a day-to-day level within these organisations, with many fewer of them informing Rhodes of events or responding to enquiries or commands from him.

The most trusted, autonomous and powerful of all of Rhodes’ associates was Dr Leander Starr Jameson. However, material relating to him is notable for its scarcity in the collection. The pruning of papers engaged in after Rhodes’ death (principally by Le Sueur) seems particularly to have made inroads on documents concerning Jameson’s activities and presence.

With such a complex set of papers representing the activities of diverse and fairly separate groups of people, not surprisingly it is difficult to pin down broad generalisations including concerning how matters of ‘race’ appear in the composing documents.

Some overall preliminary observations are as follows.

  • The ‘Rhodes empire’ appears in the Papers in its organisational aspects and largely concerns the ordinary business of the doings and dealings of those involved. Fairly infrequently is Rhodes or his higher-level managers and associates present in any clear way, with the organisational men involved in them operating fairly autonomously. There are however other areas of activity and organisational entities that are the converse and feature only Rhodes and his higher level associates. Financial matters and share dealings are the key example here.
  • The organisations that compose the ‘Rhodes empire’ were formed with very different purposes and seem to have operated in isolation from each other. They range from in the groupings of higher level financiers through to establishing and running farms, the development of a cold storage business and promoting women’s emigration to South Africa.
  • In addition to these ‘ordinary business’ aspects of the organisations that compose the Rhodes empire, there are letters from a diverse range of individual letter-writers communicating with Rhodes himself. These were people who he met, dazzled and in a sense recruited to provide him with information-gathering on the activities they were involved in, but who did not have more direct links with the ‘empire’ than this.
  • Although there are different organisations, the overarching framework of the ‘Rhodes Empire’ means that there are some commonalities in their concerns and operational activities. In particular, the emphasis is on land and its acquisition, mineral resources, and the provision of cheap quiescent labour, raising finance and other structural requirements to pursue these, and making money from them and from the companies and organisations formed around the exploitation of land, minerals and labour.
  • Some key aspects of how Rhodes operated as an entrepreneur are indicated when standing back from the many diverse organisational matters represented in the Papers. Having or creating a strong sense of purposefulness, having an overview across almost the entirety of the activities involved, operating around broad goals and purposes rather than detailed matters, charming and recruiting people in an individual way and doing so at different levels and for sometimes very different purposes, giving many of them considerable leeway to execute activities at a policy as well as practical level, giving some of them semi-autonomous – and for a few effectively entirely autonomous – powers, are all involved.
  • With regards to matters of ‘race’, there is perhaps surprisingly fairly little use of racial language or racist comments. Where such are used, this is important and tends to be in a concentrated repeated way by some people, in some contexts.
  • Where these terms are used, this tends to be in letters, reports and other documents written by particular men whose writings repeatedly contain such things, and also and relatedly those who are working in particular contexts such as land grabs (aka ‘expansion’) and mining. Labour, land, mineral resources, are the key areas.
  • Neither documents by Rhodes’ key associates, nor the remaining letters by Rhodes himself in the collection, contain such crudities – which is not to say that the terms they do use might not be offensive in other respects. However, one of Rhodes’ speeches features in the Papers in draft and this is replete with racial terms and concerns racial policies, although these are of a different order of expression than the casual racisms of some of the other letter-writers.
  • It is the redneck Chartered Company men and the farmers in the Rhodesias, men involved at lower levels in mining activities, and some of the hyper-masculine young men around Rhodes, who often use racist terminologies. It comes across that using such language and expressions would have been tolerated in others, but was seen as ‘not done’ by Rhodes and his more upper class associates.
  • This is certainly not to suggest that these associates of Rhodes or their activities and involvements might not be otherwise reprehensible in racial and racist terms. It is rather that different modes of expression were considered acceptable or unacceptable by different groupings within the Rhodes’ figuration.
  • No matter what they thought or did, Rhodes’ associates expressed this – at least in the remaining paper-work in the collection – in different terms from those used by men lower down the hierarchy, who used such crudities seemingly because entirely acceptable among their confreres and signifying a valorised version of white manliness.
  • Overall, it is the situational and contextual nature of racist modes of expression that comes across, with this located primarily in specific organisational parts of the collection, and being multiply expressed by particular individuals or those whom such things are part of their characteristic ways of representing their activities.
  • Brief biographies of key Cecil Rhodes letter-writers and addresses and also key people mentioned will be provided in due course.

Last updated: 28 April 2017


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