Rhodes: Man, Myth and Matrix

Whites Writing Whiteness
Rhodes: Man, Myth & Matrix – Annotated Reading List

This Whites Writing Whiteness reading list provides references which together add up to an outline guide to the role in South Africa, indeed in southern Africa more widely, of Cecil Rhodes – or rather, with the role and impact of what Olive Schreiner referred to as the ‘matrix’ of organisations, interests and power-bases that Rhodes variously founded, dominated, undermined and influenced. In significant part through Rhodes’ greater or lesser involvement in them, these bodies became complexly interlinked and formed ‘the matrix’ Schreiner invokes.

There are few areas of economic and political life in South Africa that the activities Rhodes fronted, master-minded, initiated, controlled and so on did not impact on, from domination of the ‘local’ and world diamond trade through De Beers to the northwards expansionist activities of the British South Africa Company, from impacting on the character of political life to promoting the unification of the local states in southern Africa, from streamlining fruit-growing and wine production to the control of sheep diseases and the export of refrigerated farm produce. Such things as the growing hierarchicalisation of black and white labour relations in mining, the recruitment of migrant labour across southern Africa, the gradual imposition of compounds and related labour controls, the expropriation of land and mineral resources from black peoples, the routine use of force and violence, and the development of a ‘baas’ or boss idea of the white relationship to black people, were not ‘invented’ by Rhodes and the different elements of his empire, but they were certainly central to its activities, and it streamlined and imposed these in increasingly totalising ways over time.

Anyone seeking to understand social change in South Africa particularly over the period from the 1870s to the 1900s consequently has to reckon either directly or indirectly with Rhodes, or rather with the array of organisations and activities he was associated with. Indeed, a good case can be made for the still reverberating impact of the workings of ‘the matrix’ in southern Africa.

Background Reading

Charles H. Feinstein (2005) An Economic History of South Africa: Conquest, Discrimination and Development Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

A thorough and readable examination of the economic history of South Africa from before white incursions, though to the demise of apartheid. Land, labour, minerals and mining all come under scrutiny and the dynamics of both economic change and also patterns of subjugation are explored. Rhodes appears, but as part of a much broader context of events and which includes the various companies and organisations he was associated with. This is extremely helpful in making sense of the overall role and impact that Rhodes and his activities had.

Man and Myth

T. R.H. Davenport (1989) ‘The Rhodes Industry, 1987–1988’, South African Historical Journal, 21: 95-100.

A useful review of Appolon Davidson’s Cecil Rhodes and His Time, Robert Rotberg’s The Founder and Brian Roberts’ Cecil Rhodes. He concludes, not surprisingly, that Rotberg’s book is in an intellectual sense the most substantial, but that it also errs on the side of being more complimentary to Rhodes than the others.

Richard A. McFarlane (2007) ‘Historiography of Selected Works on Cecil John Rhodes (1853–1902)’ History in Africa 34: 437-46.

 A largely useful overview, although McFarlane’s overly dichotomised approach – works on Rhodes are seen to take either the form of ‘chauvinistic approval or utter vilification’ (p.437) – is intrusive and leads him to some slightly odd conclusions.  The emphasis in the words discussed is on biography rather than ‘the works’.

Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido (2004) ‘Rhodes, Cecil John (1853–1902)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/35731

This DNB entry by two distinguished historians of South Africa provides a short succinct account and is an excellent starting point.

Paul Maylam (2005) The Cult of Rhodes: Remembering an Imperialist in Africa Cape Town: David Philip.

An extremely interesting and in the best sense of the word provocative book, concerned with memory and representation and the making of the legend of Rhodes. It is also well-written and ‘makes you think’ and is bursting with useful footnotes and helpful references. An important read and a good corrective to the ‘it’s all the past and he was alright really’ school of thought.

Brian Roberts (1987) Cecil Rhodes: Flawed Colossus London: Hamish Hamilton.

A solid readable biography which focuses on Rhodes the man and his array of activities and straddles the popular and scholarly modes. Written as a kind of response to earlier biography that simply accepted the ‘Colossus’ epithet.

Robert Rotberg (1988) The Founder: Cecil Rhodes and the Pursuit of Power Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The sub-title of Rotberg’s detailed and thorough biography is indicative of his interpretational slant. Rather than an idealist, Rhodes is viewed here as an operator who used his wealth in the pursuit of power in a range of other arenas. When written, Rotberg had access to previously unavailable sources, so it is packed with information not available to earlier biographers. Skip the psychoanalytic aspects (it was in part written with a psychiatrist) unless this is of particular interest, for this is frequently heavy-handed, often very outdated and intrusive. A good few of the chapters also deal with ‘the matrix’ aspects of Rhodes’ activities, so it spans both of the headings in this reading list.

Anthony Thomas (1996) Rhodes: The Race for Africa London: BBC Books.

Thomas sees Rhodes as an idealist who becomes corrupted by power, rather than an arch manipulator who sold himself to people as an idealist. The book was the source for an unusually bad BBC TV series on Rhodes, but this should not be held against it.

George Shepperson (1983) ‘Cecil John Rhodes: Some Biographical Problems’, South African Historical Journal 15: 53-67.

Shepperson comments, ‘As I see it, there is no adequate biography of Rhodes’ (p.54), in part because so many early papers were destroyed in the fire at Groot Schuur, in larger part because the biographers to that date had taken up sides’, with the existing tradition in the English-speaking world focused on ‘the man’ rather than ‘the work and the world’. Shepperson himself comments most on Rhodes in the connection of his family and especially his relationship with his siblings.

Rhodes the Matrix

S. D. Chapman (1985) ‘Rhodes and the City of London: Another View of Imperialism’ Historical Journal 28: 647-66.

Ticking off the overly narrow concerns of Rhodes’ biographers (to that date), Chapman’s concern is with Rhodes’ business dealings and financial connections in London and in particular the range of merchant banks (not just Rothschilds) he had dealings with or who acted as his agents. Like other researchers exploring the nitty-gritty, Chapman sees imperialist and capitalist interests as by no means coterminous.

J.S. Galbraith (1974) Crown and Charter: The Early Years of the British South Africa Company Berkeley: University of California Press.

As the sub-title suggests, this book provides a detailed look at the early years of the ‘Chartered Company’, aka the British South Africa Company, mainly using the BSAC records in the National Archives of Zimbabwe. A detailed discussion at the level of ‘the Company’ and ‘the Government’ and its officials, rather than what the ‘men (literally men) on the ground’ were up to. The archive collection used bears a complex relationship to the Rhodes Papers held in the Bodleian Library special collections in Oxford, and for a discussion of this see the ‘Rhodes the Matrix’ blog post via the Whites Writing Whiteness homepage.

Duncan Innes (1984) Anglo American and the Rise of Modern South Africa New York: Monthly Review Press.

Although Rhodes is mentioned in the opening chapter of this excellent book around amalgamation and the centralisation of capital in diamonds and then gold, the investigation by Innes is concerned more with Anglo American’s rise to power, including its gaining of ascendency over De Beers, and then ‘what came next’. In this sense, it takes an account of ‘the matrix’ chronologically further and examines how it plays out a hundred years after its initial states. Its particular interest is the inbuilt drive to monopoly and the exploitation of labour that characterises the role of the extractive industries in the South African economy. Its analysis is still highly pertinent, as witnessed by last year’s strikes in South Africa’s plutonium mines and the violence of the state response to these.

Stephan Kanfer (1993) The Last Empire: De Beers, Diamonds, and the World London: Hodder & Stoughton.

A well-written popular history of the role of mining and extraction, specifically although not exclusively in relation to diamonds and De Beer and also covering Anglo American and other inter-related companies. It is based on secondary sources and uses these judiciously and well (although with some howlers early in the book). Its particular interest is in the ‘empire’ aspects including in relation to family connections and there are useful discussions of the Isaacs/Barnato, Rhodes and Oppenheimer siblings.

Arthur Keppel-Jones (1983) Rhodes and Rhodesia: The White Conquest of Zimbabwe 1884-1902 Kingston, Ontario: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

A detailed and primary research based examination of what ‘the advance into the interior’ by the British South Africa Company actually meant when looked at ‘on the ground,’ with its sub-title making clear the position adopted. Both ‘the advance’ and ‘the conquest’ are closely associated with Rhodes and the matrix of his activities and, as Keppel-Jones shows, what has to be taken into account is the changing roles of his higher-level subordinates, his followers and the motley collection of ‘pioneers’ attracted to the northwards expansion, and the settlers and administrators who followed. The focus by the end of the book changes from the Chartered Company, its troop columns and the Pioneers, to the development of white representative bodies and ensuing clashes of interests and approach among whites.

Robert V. Kubicek (1979) Economic Imperialism in Theory and Practice: The Case of South African Gold Mining Finance 1886-1914 Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

A useful account of the financial aspects of Rhodes’ involvements in gold and other industries, his share buying and stock dealing, and the formation of syndicates and cartels, all of which supported his activities and provided his shifting and changing power base. Kubicek’s concern is with the various theories of imperialism and which of them are best supported by the evidence he reviews. His conclusion is that modified versions of Hobson’s thesis and Lenin’s position need to be combined with ‘new imperialism’ ideas and in particular that “capitalism was in competition if not in conflict with imperialism and nationalism” (p.203).

Daniel Litvin (2003) ‘A warlike tribe: Cecil Rhodes and the British South Africa Company’ Empires of Profit: Commerce, Conquest and Corporate Responsibility New York: Texere, pp.43-70.

Litvin is a financial journalist with a particular interest in business ethics. His book focuses on a chronological succession of commercial empires, starting with the East India Company followed by the BSAC, through to Royal Dutch/Shell and the Murdock empire and their dealings with and profound misunderstandings of ‘indigenous peoples’. Recognising the BSAC as one of the first of the giant multinationals, it accessibly discusses its conflicts with the Matabele and Shona. However, it fails to link the BSAC with any others of Rhodes’ corporate ventures or to look closely at the commerce, corporate and profit aspects in any depth. Useful at an introductory level, putting depth to it requires delving into the more substantial research literature.

Paul Maylam (1980) Rhodes, the Tswana and the British: Colonialism, Collaboration and Conflict in the Bechuanaland Protectorate 1885-1899 Westport, Conn: Westwood Press.

Detailed and thorough, this utilises a range of sources, including the British South Africa Company records in the National Archives of Zimbabwe and the Rhodes Papers held in the Bodleian Library special collections in Oxford. Its prime concern is with the ‘men (literally men) on the ground’ in the then-Bechuanaland, what they did, when they did it, and with what consequence. For a discussion of the complex relationship between the National Archives of Zimbabwe BSAC collection and the Bodleian Library Rhodes Papers, see the ‘Rhodes the Matrix’ blog post via the Whites Writing Whiteness homepage.

Bill Nasson (2009) ‘Me, Mine and Yours: Mining and Imperialism, Review of Mining Tycoons in the Age of Empire, 1870–1945’ South African Journal of Science 105: 401-2.

The ‘not so gentlemanly “gentlemanly capitalists”’ are the core concern of Dumett’s collection, with Nasson’s interesting and insightful review noting Colin Newbury’s chapter on Rhodes as a novel examination of Rhodes as ‘a politician in business with a voracious appetite for the politics of British territorial expansion’ (p.401).

Colin Newbury (1981) ‘Out of the pit: The capital accumulation of Cecil Rhodes’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 10: 25-49.

A discussion of the earlier years of Rhodes, mining and De Beers which proposes that he activities initially in Natal and then in Kimberley were more important than finance capital for the early years of Rhodes’ business experience and capital accumulation.

Colin Newbury (2009) ‘Cecil Rhodes, De Beers and Mining Finance in South Africa: The Business of Entrepreneurship and Imperialism’ in (ed) Raymond E. Dumett Mining Tycoons in the Age of Empire, 1870–1945: Entrepreneurship, High Finance, Politics and Territorial Expansion Farnham: Ashgate, pp.85-107.

An important contribution to the analysis of the matrix aspects of Rhodes’ activities in which Newbury points out that how Rhodes has been seen and the positions people have taken up concerning him and what he was about are to an important extent the product of the evidence that was used. In Newbury’s own case, his focus is the three major companies Rhodes had a major interest in (De Beers Consolidated Mining Ltd, Goldfields of South Africa Incorporated, and the British South Africa Company) and his role as a leading politician in the Cape; the evidence he draws on is composed by the minute books and private correspondences of Boards and the Directors of these and associated companies. Newbury’s analysis is notable for not treating ‘Rhodes’ in the singular but rather in relation to his higher-level associates and their roles in decision-making, the mining lobby with Rhodes at its core, and the pursuit of amalgamations which incorporated and extended both the pool of associates and the lobbying clout involved. For Newbury, patronage, ‘plagarism’ (the swift borrowing of good ideas) and money and power reinforced each other and that Rhodes is ‘not easy to fit into a simple definition of other “entrepreneur” or “sub-imperialist”’ (p.107). This is essential reading.

Olive Schreiner Letters Online (2012) – search on ‘Rhodes’ at www.oliveschreiner.org.

Olive Schreiner was an early, key and indeed centrally important presence in the political and ethical opposition to Rhodes, not so much as a man as a matrix of interlinked sources and uses of money and kinds of power. Her letters are compelling reading in showing in close detail her unfolding, and hard-earned, knowledge of the veniality and ruthlessness with which ‘the matrix’ operated.

Ian Phimister (1974) ‘Rhodes, Rhodesia and the Rand’ Journal of Southern African Studies 1: 74-90.

An important discussion of the thesis that the economy of southern Africa over the period at the end of the nineteenth century has to be considered as a regional system around Rhodes’ controlling interests in Kimberley diamonds, Rand gold, and southern Rhodesian (Zimbabwean) land and mining. Rather than seeing Rhodes as primarily motivated by imperial convictions or the drive to power, Phimister suggests the evidence supports the view that Rhodes was in fact pursuing his own financial interests and the interaction between these.

Mordechai Tamarkin (1996) Cecil Rhodes and the Cape Afrikaners: The Imperial Colossus and the Parish Pump London: Frank Cass.

An exploration of the changing dynamic of the alliance between Rhodes and the Afrikaner Bond, including in the period after the watershed of the Jameson Raid. Detailed and thorough, although also somewhat uncritical of the Bond and its not always benevolent political role, it is nonetheless essential reading with regard to Rhodes’ political career and its changing fortunes.

Robert Vicat Turrell (1982) ‘Rhodes, De Beers, and Monopoly,’ Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 10: 311-43.

Takes up and constructively disputes Phimister’s argument that Rhodes wealth lay in the Rand and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), focusing instead on the diamond mines and the Kimberley aspect of his activities. The formation of De Beers, Turrell convincingly argues, ‘signified a fundamental change’ in the nature of British imperialism’ (p.335). De Beers enabled control of production, this enabled financial speculation and accumulation of monetary reserves, this in turn facilitated secret buying of shares elsewhere, in turn increasing his influence and supporting his political involvements and power.

Robert V. Turrell (1987) ‘Finance … The Governor of the Imperial Engine’: Hobson and the Case of Rothschild and Rhodes,’ Journal of Southern African Studies 13: 417-32.

A kind of detailed review and engagement with Norman Etherington’s (1984) Theories of Imperialism in relation to J.A. Hobson and South Africa and a book by Chapman on merchant banking, Turrell is particularly concerned with changes in the influence of the Rothschild finance house and in particular in relationship between Lord Rothschild and Rhodes. Interesting.

Robert V. Turrell (1987) Capital and Labour on the Kimberley Diamond Fields 1871-1890 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

An important archive-based study of the origins and growth of the diamonds industry from 1871 to 1890 in New Rush/Kimberley, with much detail on the role of De Beers Consolidated Mines. Its particular concern is with the introduction and effects of the compound system (including truk), in which Rhodes and De Beers played an important part, and the later role this played in the growth of amalgamation, syndicates and the concentration of capital.

Chris Youe (2010) Mining Capital and Colonialism in Africa, Canadian Journal of African Studies/La Revue canadienne des études africaines, 44: 179-87.

A review of Raymond Dummett’s (2009) edited collection Mining Tycoons and Patricia Shilaro’s (2008) book on colonial capitalism and gold in Kenya. Makes the useful point that their approaches are very different – ‘great’ or at least powerful men, and the impact of the extractive industrials on African peoples – and does a useful job of comparing them in spite of the differences.

Last updated: 20 December 2014


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