Misinformation in the Rhodes Campaign

Misinformation in the Rhodes Campaign

Madeline Briggs


Martin Luther King once said “Hate cannot drive out hate- only love can do that”.

On 9 April, 2015, the statue of Cecil Rhodes was removed from the University of Cape Town following a vote of approval by the University Council.  The statue’s removal was a victory for the “Rhodes Must Fall” (RMF) movement which asserted that the statue was a symbol of colonial aggression and oppression and that it served as a prominent reminder of the horrors inflicted by colonial imperialism.

Ever since their victory in Cape Town, the RMF movement has gained traction and momentum at Oxford University.  RMF is again demanding the removal of a statue of Rhodes, this time the one located on property owned by Oriel College. In a petition, RMF states that by refusing to remove the statue “Oriel College and Oxford University continue to tacitly identify with Rhodes’s values, and to maintain a toxic culture of domination and oppression.”

As evidence for their position, they cite an abhorrent statement by Rhodes.  Their petition states that “Rhodes is the same apartheid colonialist who said: ‘I prefer land to niggers…the natives are like children. They are just emerging from barbarism…one should kill as many niggers as possible.’”  The quotation reveals Rhodes not just as a colonial racist, but as a man advocating genocide.  A statement this damning makes one pause.

So when exactly and in what context did Rhodes make these statements?  That is where the story gets interesting.

Although the source for the quotation is not cited in the petition, with a little digging one can find it in the form above, complete with ellipses, in a book review by Adekeye Adebajo of Paul Maylam’s “The Cult of Rhodes” (Times Literary Review, 2006).  Adebajo, himself a former Rhodes scholar, subscribes fully to Maylam’s disparaging treatment of Rhodes. Reached for comment, he repeated  that the quote is directly from Maylam, and confirmed the attribution to Rhodes. A careful search of Maylam’s text reveals the seeds of the quotation on page 14. However, the three phrases indicated by ellipses are indicated by Maylam to have been said by Rhodes at different times, and in different contexts. The single sentence quoted by RMF does not exist in Maylam’s book.

But each of three phrases is incriminating in its own right, so it is worth digging deeper into Maylam’s sources.  The first phrase is cited from a 1957 biography by Felix Gross, titled “Rhodes of Africa.”   Gross did not present his biography as a work of serious scholarship.  He notes in the introduction that “The thoughts and soliloquies of Cecil Rhodes are derived from his speeches, letters and reported conversations. So as not to interrupt the continuity of the story I have refrained from giving references in footnotes.”  On page 242, cited by Maylam, he attributes the quote directly to Rhodes, but, on page 395, he expands that Rhodes made the statement to Olive Schreiner during a dinner.

Yet, in 1897, after writing and days before publishing her novel, Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland, Schreiner wrote to William Hay asking him to provide evidence for a quote used in the book. “It is most necessary,” she wrote, “that we have some exact quotations from… a speech which I heard [Mr Rhodes] make [to Cape Parliament] about four or five years, some valuable remarks as showing his attitude on the native-question, “I prefer land to niggers””. Schreiner appears to have mis-remembered Rhodes’s 1892 speech to the Cape House, regarding taxation and governance, in which he said “You want to annex land rather than natives. Hitherto we have been annexing natives instead of land.” No evidence of a reply from Hay exists, and Schreiner proceeded with using her memory of the quote on page 37 of her novel.

The second quotation is from Rhodes’ 1894 speech to Cape Town Parliament on the Second Rereading of the Glen Grey Act. The full paragraph reads: “Now, I say the natives are children. They are just emerging from barbarism. They have human minds, and I would like them to devote themselves wholly to the local matters that surround them and appeal to them. I would let them tax themselves, and give them the funds to spend on these matters — the building of roads and bridges, the making of plantations, and other such works. I propose that the House shall allow these people to tax themselves, and that the proceeds of their taxation shall be spent by them on the development of themselves and of their districts.”

The final quotation – “one should kill as many niggers as possible” – is the most abhorrent. But this wording actually does not come from the Maylam biography; it was introduced in Adebajo’s review, and no other source has been located or provided by the author. Maylam presents the quote as “You should kill as many as you can”, and cites Gordon Le Sueur’s book “Cecil Rhodes: The Man and his Work”, published in 1913.  On page 159, Le Sueur references a conversation recounted to him by ‘an unnamed officer’. This unidentified man reported hearing Rhodes say, following a deadly and bloody battle against rebels, “Well you should not spare them. You should kill all you can, as it serves as a lesson to them when they talk things over at their fires at night. They count up the killed, and say So-and-so is dead and So-and-so is no longer here, and they begin to fear you.”

In summary:  in making its case against the character and legacy of Cecil Rhodes, RMF presents and seems persuaded by a single damning quotation.  But a modestly careful analysis of the quotation and source should cause us to pause and then recognise its insubstantiality.  The quotation fractures into three parts.  The first is, in all evidence, an avowedly fictional attribution. The second, in full, speaks more for the African people than against them. The third, finally, appears to have been fabricated.

The disintegration of this quotation is not an argument for the character and legacy of Rhodes.  Rhodes, and the British nation as a whole, were engaged in colonialism in ways that are impossible to disconnect from racism.  Mistakes made by preceding generations cannot simply be set aside or dismissed.

Still, these injustices are not rectified by taking a symbolic action against the legacy of any one man, whether it be Cecil Rhodes at Oxford or Woodrow Wilson at Princeton. When a movement is spurred by such a quote as that used by RMF, the protest quickly transforms from symbolic into actively aggressive.

It is fair to dig deep into history and vindicate those who have been oppressed and marginalised.  It often takes time and perspective to see things clearly.  But it does not help or make things better to misrepresent the evidence to score a victory today.  It merely perpetuates the conflict.  One cannot defeat lies with more lies or hate with more hate.