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Cecil Rhodes and the Religion of Race

It is hard to deny that the achievements of Cecil John Rhodes were remarkable. He ...

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19th CenturyOxfordRace & EmpireResearch & Opinion

Cecil Rhodes and the Religion of Race

It is hard to deny that the achievements of Cecil John Rhodes were remarkable. He ...

return to all posts

19th CenturyOxfordRace & EmpireResearch & Opinion

It is hard to deny that the achievements of Cecil John Rhodes were remarkable. He became involved in mining at the age of 18, founded the diamond behemoth De Beers at 33, at 37 he was prime minister of the Cape Colony, and by the time he died at the age of 48 he had left a legacy that has haunted the histories of Southern Africa and the UK for over a century.

What motivated Rhodes to strive for ever more direct involvement in the affairs of Southern Africa? Some contend it was his drive for profit, as a capitalist, a prototypical businessman whose policies emerged from a simple desire for ever-greater riches. According to this view, he had no greater ideological goals other than those that protected his business interests and the mistake that brought about his downfall, the Jameson Raid of 1895, was simply a case of ‘capitalists harvesting their investment’.[1] Rhodes could be viewed as a ‘capitalist who, in many respects, utilised British imperialism for the benefit of his private fortune’.[2]

Scan of an old official document, such as an act or treaty.
Preference share in the De Beers diamond corporation, the wellspring of Rhodes’ influence.

Such an argument is compelling; were it not for Rhodes’ undeniable success in the exploitation of peoples across Southern Africa to further his business interests, he might likely be another figure of history consigned to a plaque or small London statue. Instead, his financial might ensured that he is enshrined above kings and bishops on Oxford High Street, with his scholarship occupying an ideological mausoleum in Oxford’s science quarter and representing the ‘best and the brightest’ minds across the world. He gained these spoils despite his well-documented poor academic performance, taking almost eight years to finish his degree[3]. His name dominates both Oxford and Cape Town, quite a feat for a politician whose legacy has been described as a ‘house of cards … blown away by the winds of history’.[4]

However, to view Rhodes as a capitalist purely motivated by his desire for profit is to misunderstand the nature of the man’s violent and extremist ideology that has provoked comparisons to the dictators of the 20th century and formed the foundation upon which Rhodes justified his actions to himself and his compatriots. His capitalism paired with an ideology rooted in turn-of-the-century racial pseudoscience to create a truly deadly combination.

Black and white photogaphic portrait of a young man in suite.
Photographic portrait of Rhodes as a young man.

No document speaks better to Rhodes’ ideology than his own writings. In 1877, at the age of 24, Rhodes was still an undergraduate, splitting his time between Oxford’s rainy skies and the arid warmth of Kimberley, a mining town in the middle of South Africa, two hours’ drive from Bloemfontein. He wrote of his goal in life being to further British rule, contending the British to be the ‘finest race in the world’ and adding that ‘every acre added to our territory provides for the birth of more of the English race, who otherwise would not be brought into existence’. He asserted he would work ‘for the furtherance of the British Empire… for the making of the Anglo-Saxon race into one empire’. He wrote six wills detailing this desire for a secret society that will colonise ‘all lands where the means of livelihood are attainable’ so that ‘Great Britain is to establish a power so overwhelming that wars must cease and the millennium be realised’[5].

He penned these thoughts in a document termed his ‘Confession of Faith’. His appeal predated his wealth, an element of dedication to a ‘cause beyond himself’ clearly evident in these texts.[6] Being at best an agnostic, Rhodes’ view was that if God did exist, the role set out for him was ‘the perfecting of the race by processes of natural selection’.[7] He wrote ‘if there be a God, I think what He would like me to do is to paint as much of the map of Africa British red as possible… to extend the influence of the English-speaking race’. ‘There is nothing so certain’, said Rhodes, ‘than the natural inequality of men’.[8]

Rhodes’ faith was his assertion of the supremacy of white Europe, an amalgamation of the writings of John Ruskin, the ethics of Aristotle and the science of Darwin. Whether these beliefs simply reflected the common opinion at the time is a matter of continuing contention, but the writings of his biographers draw some uncomfortable comparisons. The biography written by Sarah Gertrude Millin, a South African historian who grew up near Kimberley in the early 20th century, is widely considered an authoritative account of Rhodes’ life. Millin was no anti-colonialist; she was as committed to belief in the ‘savagery’ of South Africa’s ‘native’ population as Rhodes himself[9], and expressed outward support for Ian Smith’s vice-tight enforcement of white minority rule in Rhodesia.[10]

Two part picture with the black and white photograph of a woman leaning on her hand (left) and the poster for a fielm with several persons featured (right).
Sarah Gertrude Millin (left) and a poster for a 1936 biographical film based on her biography of Rhodes (right)

Regardless, in 1941, reflecting on the spread of fascism across Europe, Millin expressed that ‘the something that rises in me against Rhodes is the something – unendingly intensified – that rises in me against Germany’. Not withdrawing from comparisons, Millin compared the Jameson Raid to a ‘Hitlerian Putsch’.[11] In her view, race was the religion of these ‘big men’ who concentrated on one thing: the government of the world.[12]

These comparisons were frequently made, not purely with the benefit of hindsight, but during the very expansion of Nazi Germany that made many question how this religion of race had come to dominate Western politics. The uncomfortable truth is that what was used to justify British colonialism decades before Hitler’s rise had been outwardly and proudly developed by Rhodes and his establishment. Another South African author, Stuart Cloete, wrote in 1946 of Rhodes as the ‘prototype of the modern dictator’, constructing a diamond cartel where one race would control the world’s riches, a secret society ruling a Great British ‘reich’.[13] His fervent faith in the religion of race drove his obsession with this ‘mystic idea’ and cemented his position as an ideologue as well as a businessman.

Highlighting Rhodes’ religion of race leads us to these comparisons with Germany, comparisons against which charges of anachronism are often levelled. However, despite the desperate and concentrated post-war urge to purge the deeply carved legacies of eugenics and race science from ‘enlightened’ British history, it does not take much effort to view the road from Rhodes to Hitler as the logical progression of dangerous and toxic ideology.

Statue of a man with the arm raised in a green space.
Statue of Rhodes in Cape Town. Author’s photo.

Writer G.K. Chesterton, a contemporary of Rhodes, wrote one of his most scathing reviews just a decade after Rhodes’ death, terming his ideology as ‘not a Church at all… but a madman’s cell… What he called his ideals were the dregs of a Darwinism which had already grown not only stagnant, but poisonous’. It is Rhodes’ lack of any coherent, defendable beliefs that rendered his legacy so sour to Chesterton: ‘it was exactly because he had no ideas to spread that he invoked slaughter, violated justice and ruined republics to spread them’.[14]

Rhodes’ impact on the world in his 48 years is indeed remarkable. His legacy is one of a religion of race, one so violent and so contemptible that comparisons to the other fascist uprisings of the 20th century are far from unwarranted. Though his wealth and business empire formed important parts of the Rhodes we know today, it would be a mistake to neglect his motivating ideology. This was ideology that he wanted to live on for four thousand years: his name blazoned across Africa ‘like no other white man’.[15]

As described by Millin, ‘he boldly degrees brass for his name: ‘here lie the remains of Cecil John Rhodes’, no date of birth, no date of death, no name of country or begetter… rightly or wrongly, but superbly, he declares himself, like the greatest of the Caesars, an immortal’.[16]

Written by Cameron Scheijde


[1] Blainey, G. (1965) ‘Lost Causes of the Jamieson Raid’, Economic History Review, 2 (18), 350-366

[2] Maylam, P. (2005) ‘The Cult of Rhodes: Remembering an Imperialist in Africa’, Claremont: David Philip, pg. 7

[3] Hensman, H. (1901) ‘Cecil Rhodes’, Edinburgh: Blackwood and Sons

[4] Roberts, B. (1987) ‘Cecil Rhodes: Flawed Colossus’, New York: W. W. Norton & Company

[5] In Millin, S. (1933) ‘Rhodes’, London: Chatto & Windus, pg. 32

[6] Butler, J. (1977) ‘Cecil Rhodes’, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, 10 (2), 259-281

[7] Walker, G. (2016) ‘’So Much to Do’: Oxford and the Wills of Cecil Rhodes, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 44 (4), pg. 706

[8] Ibid, pg. 707

[9] Coetzee, J. M. (1980) ‘Blood, Flaw, Train and Degradation: The Case of Sarah Gertrude Millin’, English Studies in Africa, 23 (1), 41-58

[10] Maylam, ‘The Cult of Rhodes’, pg. 10

[11] Ibid

[12] Millin, ‘Rhodes’, pg. 7

[13] Maylam, ‘The Cult of Rhodes’, pg. 11

[14] Chesterton, G. K. (1912) ‘The Sultan’

[15] Plumb, J. H. ‘A Giant’s Will, a Deadly Legacy’ (1963), The Sunday Review, p. 29

[16] Millin, ‘Rhodes’, pg. 347