Two Cecil Rhodes letters

Two Cecil Rhodes letters
Cecil John Rhodes to Sir Philip Currie, March 1891; and to the Duke of Fife, December 1895

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2015) ‘Two Cecil Rhodes letters’ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. Introduction

1.1         There are some hundreds of letters written by Cecil Rhodes now extant, while there are many thousands to him, both personally and in his ‘head of organisation’ capacity in relation to De Beers, the British South Africa Company (the Chartered Company) and Gold Fields Consolidated, among others. A relatively small number are filed as components within the Rhodes Papers, Bodleian Library, Oxford; and discussing two of them is of interest in exploring some interpretational issues. The ‘heart of darkness’ of imperialism for many will be forever associated with Kurtz in Conrad’s novel, but in a moral sense – and as Olive Schreiner underscores in her Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland – Rhodes is up there with the worst of them together with the card-carrying Christians she nailed for failing to oppose him because he professed Christian values for his acgi items, sanitised as ‘expansion’. But how to find traces in the banalised business papers that after his death were carefully ‘arranged’ by loyal underlings such as Rhodes’ secretary Philip Jourdan?

1.2         The two letters for discussion here are not momentous ones in terms of words on their pages. They are rather part of the unfolding routines that went into making empire, capitalism, subjugation, control, and show something of the subterranean interconnections between these.

1.3         Comments on each letter are followed by brief discussion of general points, including some interpretational ones. The letter extracts provided following the discussion of each of letter are given verbatim, mistakes and all, and the spellings and so on including of names are as in the originals. Omissions are indicated … thus.

1.4  Both letters are hand-written, in two different hands; the second explicitly comments near its end that it was dictated to a shorthand-writer. These, then, are either drafts or else were never sent, and so whether they were ever read by their addresses is not known.


2. CJR to Sir Philip Currie, nd March 1891

2.1         In March 1891 (no day given), Rhodes wrote to Sir Philip Currie, Permanent Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs (i.e. head of the Foreign Office) from 1889 to 1893 and also personal Secretary to Lord Salisbury, then Prime Minister of Britain (CJR to PC, nd March 1891; s228, 3Aii/149). Rhodes was then in London. His letter puts to Currie, for him to pass on, some detailed points about Logenbula’s position as ruler of the Ndebele (in what is now Zimbabwe) and which Salisbury in Rhodes’ view needed to be told. The letter is in effect an instructional one, it contains observations on balances of power between the African rulers in that part of southern Africa, and comments on what effects any European intervention might have, in connection in particular with disputes regarding the Portuguese presence in the area, regarding which Rhodes thought Salisbury and the Foreign Office might either favour using military force against or else give way to. In July 1890, so-called Pioneers with Chartered Company armed police had occupied Mashonaland by going round Ndebele territory, with the Ndebele army held in check by Logenbula. The implied message of this letter is, Logenbula’s rule should not be overturned or put in peril as he had become quiescent.

2.2         Unlike letters by some of his associates also filed in the Rhodes Papers, this Rhodes’ letter contains no racist language or contemptuous comments (although it is said some in other collections do). Instead, there is appreciation of the key position of Logenbula regarding then-prevailing ratios of power, his close connections with powerful leaders in Gaza (in now-Mozambique) because married to Gungunhana’s sisters and also with Swazi rulers, such that any move against him might be highly consequential, and measured comments about the Portuguese presence.

2.3         As well as delineating aspects of Logenbula’s power, Gungunhana is described as ‘a native of considerable breadth of mind’. The word ‘native’, now a deep insult and then not so, is however used as a qualifier and is as close to the negatives as the letter gets. These rulers’ dislike of Portugal, and if not liking for, then greater acceptance of, the British presence, is also commented on. However, the bottom-line is nonetheless very clear – ‘manifest destiny’ for them and their peoples is ‘to be developed through European agency’, albeit with some choice of which particular agency this might be (guess who, then?).

2.4         The effect overall is somewhat clinical as well as arrogant. Rhodes’ letter expects Currie to do his bidding and just assumes he knows better than Salisbury or any diplomat what should happen, in particular regarding the Portuguese presence and Logenbula’s rule. It recognises ‘native’ power and authority and breadth of mind. It matter-of-factly then out-trumps them with manifold destiny after quietly diminishing them as ‘native’. There is a ‘this is how it must be’ quality to it.

2.5         This letter to Currie thence to Salisbury can be seen as part of a long-running test of strength between Rhodes and the Foreign Office as to what he and his ‘interests’ in southern Africa could and could not do with impunity. As it was written, an invasion of Logenbula’s territories was being planned via more so-called ‘Pioneers’, recruited for this purpose backed by Rhodes’ Chartered Company (the British South Africa Company) armed police and machine-guns. In 1893, this invaded Ndebele territory, and Manica and Gaza, with the so-called Matabele War following. These are the events, in effect genocidal, that are the topic of Schreiner’s Trooper Peter Halkett…. Outside the letter, then, and which Salisbury and Currie could not have known about at the time, ‘destiny’ was unfolding in the shape of planning an invasion by what is referred to elsewhere as a white impi, an army, an army with machine-guns marshalled against spears.

2.6         Why? Why anything with Rhodes. Because he wanted to and could. Because there was (he and others thought, wrongly) much gold that could be easily mined in Matabeleland and Mashonaland. Because control through the Chartered Company would be total in a way that colonial rule by Britain would not be. Because the status quo could not be maintained, for there were many mining and concessions interests jockeying for access.

2.7         Rhodes was in London when his letter was sent. The letter if arrogant is ‘gentlemanly’ in tone and expression and in a curious way almost respectful of Longenbula and Gungunhana and the independent polities they represented. But, also outside the letter, like the Chartered Company’s planned invasion, a telegram in code makes the point – Rhodes is in London, other telegrams have been destroyed, there is nothing traceable to show that Rhodes set this matter in motion, it was being necessitated by local events and claims of a threatened attack. And this latter point had already been conceded at the highest level and in writing, that an attack on the Chartered Company could be responded to.

2.8         CJR to Philip Currie, extracts

…put before Lord Salisbury … respecting Logenbula’s position

This Chief rules over the country north of the Limpopo west… …all the natives request to be protected from his attacks His tribe is a Zulu one – Gungunhana’s sisters are married to Logenbula. He is closely connected with the Swazi royal family… anything affecting him would thus quickly be known throughout South Africa… the petty chiefs…

the Portuguese… Gungunhana does not consider he is dealing with a European power… …and any document signed by indunas only would be absolutely valueless

Gungunhana … He is a native of considerable breadth of mind…

To sum up … It seems to be the manifest destiny of Africa to be developed through European agency, but it does seem that the native inhabitants who have full experience of the different methods of the European powers should have some unreadable in the choice of the agents…


3. CJR to the Duke of Fife, nd December 1895

3.1         In December 1895 (no day given), Rhodes wrote a long letter to the Duke of Fife regarding Britain having made a Bechuanaland settlement that guaranteed its independence as a British Protectorate (CJR to F, nd Dec 1895; s228, 3B/274). Its tone and approach is very different from the letter to Currie.

3.2         Fife was a founder member of the Chartered Company, with Lord Abercorn, Lord Gifford, Alfred Beit, Albert Grey (later Earl Grey), George Cawston and Rhodes himself. He was one of the four life directors of the British South Africa Company, a place-man on its Board and one of its more ‘respectable’ members (he was married to the eldest daughter of the Prince of Wales). The settlement that is the sole topic of this Rhodes letter had occurred following a visit to London by the three senior rulers in the area – Chiefs or Kings Bathoen, Sebele and Khama – to Queen Victoria and her ministers. They wanted a Protectorate status (that is, a hands-off/hands-on kind of colonial governance which would guarantee no other power would gobble it up), and this they achieved. Other correspondence on file in the Rhodes Papers puts on record the rejection of Rhodes’ request to expand the boundaries of the territories covered by the Charter on grounds of the Protectorate mandate. Rhodes had been out-strategised.

3.3         Rhodes describes his letter at its start, and again near its end, as written to relieve strong feelings, his anger. This erupts into sentences at a number of points and leads him to an intemperance lacking in the letter to Currie.

3.4         ‘Who are these people?’, Rhodes rhetorically asks, who had been granted what he wanted and had fully expected to get. There were only 60,000 of them and ‘the worst specimens of humanity – certainly in Africa – and perhaps in the whole world’; and they had been ‘granted’, rather than it being already theirs, an area the size of Britain. Moreover, they were ‘sixty thousand of the laziest rascals in the world, who will never cultivate to any extent and whose chiefs will now be puffed with the importance of having seen the Queen’.

3.5         Rhodes’ letter comments that ‘we’ (the British South Africa Company) had given £200,000 in money and also taken up a burden (of policing), while they got the country, with the first point of blame that he assigns being that it was ‘Simply to please the temperance and the missionary sections of the English people’.

3.6         The second source of blame appears a little later in the letter: ‘The Colonial Office… dictate what terms the natives demanded…’. And more particularly, ‘I blame Fairfield [the civil servant then at its head] and the Colonial Office… advantage was taken of my greater object’, with this latter the idea of a southern Africa federation of states. As well as the temperance and missionary people, then, it was Edward Fairfield and the Colonial Office who ‘dictated’ what ‘the natives’ asked for. But there is more.

3.7         As a kind of ‘proof’, Rhodes’ letter also associates Lloyd, the missionary seen as most closely involved – and therefore as being more than impartial – as ‘telling the story’ that Bathoen and Sebele are drunkards and also heathens (although he discounts this). And, unable to include in this the devout Christian Khama who maintained his territories as alcohol-free, Khama is instead portrayed as a coward who (in fighting against the Ndebele in the above mentioned invasion) had supposedly ‘bolted’ and left (Colonel) Gould-Adams ‘in the lurch’. So while others were to blame, so too were the ‘puffed up’ chiefs.

3.8         Rhodes’ letter to Fife, one of his toadies, is an expression of fury at being thwarted. His thwarted anger is clear, and while insults abound these are expressed in contemptuous but indirectly racialised terms.

3.9.    As the letter says near its end, ‘I am really too angry to dictate any longer’, for he had not got his way and two supposed drunkards and a supposed coward – and ‘natives’ to boot – had got the better of him. The insistence that ‘We have not been fairly dealt with’ is a tacit admission that Rhodes thought the matter of expanding Charter territories was already sewn up. Clearly, he found it galling that the ‘chiefs puffed up with the importance of having seen the Queen’ had out-maneuvered the great maneuveror. And, he winds down in a way that suggests his last point of blame is specifically Khama, for the settlement is referred to as ‘Khama’s settlement’.

3.10         CJR to Duke of Fife, extracts

I write to relieve my feelings by writing to you about the Bechuanaland settlement… we have not been fairly dealt with… We have given up £200,000 and taken the burden of police… and the natives have been left with the whole country… as big as the British Isles… definitely beaconed and dedicated to these people… Who are these people? They are only sixty thousand in number and the worst specimens of humanity – certainly in Africa – and perhaps in the whole world. And why was this done? Simply to please the temperance and the missionary sections of the English people.

The Colonial Office… dictate what terms the natives demanded… the difficulty will be in future that these huge reserves will have been beaconed… the natives will say that these were the solemn gift granted by the Queen…

a country as large as the British Isles will have been given to sixty thousand of the laziest rascals in the world, who will never cultivate to any extent and whose chiefs will now be puffed with the importance of having seen the Queen…

I blame Fairfield and the Colonial Office… advantage was taken of my greater object…

…the story… told by the Missionary Lloyd, who is their interpreter and friend… Bathoen and Sebele are both drunkards, further that they are heathen… the least objectionable part… They are also a most disloyal loyal lot… As to Khama, I will leave him to the Revd Moffat… All I do know about him is that he bolted and left Gould-Adams in the lurch… if Jameson had not beaten the Matabele Gould-Adams would have been in a very awkward corner…

I am really too angry to dictate any longer to my shorthand-writer… …to say again I am deeply grieved at the Khama settlement…


4. Some issues regarding interpretation

4.1         The first point to mention is the non-representational ‘heterotopic world’ character of letters. These are representational systems with codes and conventions, both those of ‘the letter’ as understood contemporaneously, and in their own terms as letters by X or Y. This is notable regarding Rhodes’ letter to Currie: it represents an entirely reasonable, plausible and so on set of points and descriptions. But – and it is a big BUT – outside the letter, things were happening which Rhodes was fully party to and which, once brought into frame, give the lie to notions of epistolary good faith and veracity. An invasion was afoot, and the traces of Rhodes’ instrumentality, in the shape of the documents that showed the certitude of this, were being removed from existence, leaving behind just opaque trails, traces of traces.

4.2         Also, regarding the heart of darkness, does this appear at all in the Rhodesian epistolary heterotopia, as the sources were cleaned up at the time? Or is it just by reference to ‘outside the letter’ that this is opened up to view? ‘Surface reading’ helps, that is, attending closely to the words and elisions on the page, and relating these to the immediate circumstances producing the letter. For shorthand, instructing Currie to tell Salisbury, and venting anger at being thwarted, provide the beginnings of reading frames for the two letters considered here. And for further discussions of this approach, please see:

‘Documents of life: Analysing letters and other found data in researching ‘Whites Writing Whiteness’ in South Africa’ in SAGE Research Methods Datasets. SAGE Publications Ltd.

‘Analysing a letter in detail’ –

‘How to interpret a letter?’ –

4.3         Considering other letters in the Rhodes Papers in addition to those to Currie and Fife is also helpful with the interpretational issue. ‘Manifold destiny’ was fabricated  by shabby and at times very bloody means.

4.4         The idea of the faux good and the faux true is that, while the behaviours involved may ‘really’ be bad or a lie, they are not openly such but rather ersatz versions of the good and true. Another way of expressing this is that Rhodes wrote or said whatever was needed to get the things he wanted, with the letter to Currie of this kind. It was not the truth, this would become apparent not that long afterwards, but he just wrote it anyway; and faced with the glittery brazenness, people did not directly and openly remonstrate. There are sledgehammer versions on file of what is relatively subtle in the letter to Currie, such as Rhodes telling Sir Henry de Villiers (Chief Justice of the Cape Colony) he would resign as Premier of the Cape in de Villiers’ favour, not doing so, forming a new Ministry while de Villiers stayed in for two days waiting for a call to come, and ignoring de Villiers’ bewildered notes to him (5 May 1893, HdeV to CJR; s228, 2A /65).

4.5         Rhodes’ pattern of ignoring remonstrations about such betrayals, which were dealt with if at all by his minions, is also multiply evidenced. A notable example concerns Rhodes’ famed unarmed encounter with Ndebele indunas in the Matopos Hills, which is said to have brought a peaceful end to ‘uprisings’ there in the wake of the invasion mentioned earlier. This is an ersatz moment, shown by two letters regarding Johan Colenbrander, also present at the Matopos indaba. One is dated 13 May 1897 and is from Herbert Canning, manager of the BSAC office in London, to Cecil Rhodes (HC to CJR, 13 May 1897; s228, 4/2); the other of 8 May 1897 is from GA Witt, Colenbrander’s attorney, to Canning (GAW to HC, 8 May 1897; s228, 4/2). Both Colenbrander and Witt had written letters ignored by Rhodes, and Witt had sent others to Canning, also ignored until he managed to meet him. The bottom-line here is that Colenbrander arranged the Matopos meeting, which took place in spite and not because of Rhodes’ presence because the indunas trusted the bilingual Colenbrander, all the other whites had guns, and Rhodes had promised to pay Colenbrander handsomely, which promise had not been kept. The letters were to press him to honour the promise, although this had never been expressed on paper. Canning intimated to Rhodes that there should be a settlement, but there is no record of the outcome.

4.6         Also evidenced in letters in the Rhodes Papers is the better-known Rhodes practice of ‘squaring’, of buying support or buying off possible opposition. This was not necessarily monetary in character, but could be for instance association with Rhodes and having (or seeming to have) his friendship or approbation. However, few were above what Rhodes spoke of as ‘the tip direct’ and pocketed the coinage involved. One such was the Bishop of Cape Town, William West Jones, who figures in Rhodes’ accounts (eg. Lewis Michell to CJR, 8 July 1897, accounts April, May and June 1897; s228, 15/8), with the sum of £200 paid annually over a period of years into Jones’ personal bank account (Lewis Michell to Phillip Jourdan, 20 July 1898; s228, 15/21). The names of other Bishops, missionaries, politicians, the great and the good of all kinds are also buried – but not so deep that they cannot be found – in these accounts.

4.7         To confront the ‘heart of darkness’ interpretational issue, then: ‘Inside’ and ‘outside’ of letters involves a complicated relationship, and the representational order of letter-writing is indeed representational. Letters by and to Rhodes do not give direct access to, in the above examples, invasions and genocide and other aspects of the heart of darkness (nor indeed to the successful politicking of African statesmen). But they do give access to something, which is the representational order itself.

4.8         Within this particular epistolary heterotopia, by looking across the different organisational structures whose remaining papers form the collection, and by deploying an attentive surface reading, some of the key methods used by Rhodes come to sight. They include advancing the faux good and the faux true, aka lying; betraying people, by ratting on promises and in other ways; ignoring or silencing remonstrations, by blanking responses through a variety of means; and squaring or buying people, by foul means and fair; and multiple examples of each can be found in the traces remaining or in traces of such traces.

4.9         The phrase ‘heart of darkness’ used as a synonym for imperialism and empire is an emotive one, rightly so, albeit with many of its composing practices shabby and faux rather than directly evil. But it is not a thing but a process involving degrees and gradations and kinds of culpability. The epistolary practices shown in the to-ing and fro-ing of letters in the Rhodesian epistolary heterotopia commented on above can be connected trace by trace with the continuum of methods deployed in making ‘manifest destiny’. The lying to cheat and to gain land and minerals concessions can be connected with many letters, while the claimed Ndebele attacks that unleashed the Pioneer column and associated troop companies feature in traces of epistolary traces, the Gatling guns used are there too along with records of how many of them were used and their purchase price, and the transmutation into an uprising of people defending their country is taken-for-grantedly is inscribed in letter after letter.

4.10       Social processes and the workings of what the social theorist Norbert Elias terms ‘sociogenesis’ – the slow movements of societies over time – do not stop. Concessions, incursions and invasion became, perhaps surprisingly quickly, a form of absolute rule instituted by the Chartered Company in what was called ‘Rhodesia’. But is this only to be glimpsed outside the letter? Not so.

4.11       This development is in fact covered, albeit in sanitised form, in a section of the Rhodes Papers banally called ‘Administrators’. And in a much less sanitised way, the letters of LMS missionaries working in the area, sent to their London base, detail the ruthless violent qualities of ‘sociogenesis’ here. It included battles, almost casual routine killings, fear and panic, burned crops and kraals, widespread starvation of those too old or too young or too leaderless to flee to the hills and swamps, and the rule-bound system of governance rapidly introduced with its iron management of land ownership as a white possession only.

4.12       There are traces, on paper, in letters, and even the traces of traces can be stitched together. It can all be joined up. Some of these other sources will be the topic of future discussions of the traces remaining.


Last updated: 25 November 2015


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