Overcoming Fake History: the Zimbabwe Bird and Rhodes’ Legacy in Modern Zimbabwe

Cecil Rhodes' false history of an iconic artefact, and the real story of how contemporary Zimbabweans view his legacy.

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19th Century20th CenturyOxfordRace & EmpireResearch & Opinion

Overcoming Fake History: the Zimbabwe Bird and Rhodes’ Legacy in Modern Zimbabwe

Cecil Rhodes' false history of an iconic artefact, and the real story of how contemporary Zimbabweans view his legacy.

Read more

return to all posts

19th Century20th CenturyOxfordRace & EmpireResearch & Opinion

This April Fools’ Day, museums across Oxford are taking the opportunity to highlight fakes and frauds hidden in their collections. However, one piece of deceptive history sits in plain view of everyone who passes along South Parks Road: the Zimbabwe Bird statue atop Rhodes House, headquarters of the world-famous Rhodes Scholarship. For a generation, this bird was the crowning symbol of the racial hierarchy put forward by arch-colonialist Cecil Rhodes. However, when the truth was uncovered, it turned out to be a refutation of everything he stood for.

Three Zimbabwe Birds photographed in the early 1890s by James Theodore Bent, the British archaeologist that Rhodes hired to investigate Great Zimbabwe ruins. Photo in the public domain.

The bird first came to Rhodes’ attention after he built a summer estate in the Matobo foothills, part of the land he had ‘acquired’ through a mix of coercion and semi-fraudulent negotiations. In 1889 he purchased a large sculpture of a bird from European hunter Willi Posselt, who had snuck into a sacred ruined site and hacked the sculpture off its pedestal to be able to sneak it out.[1]

Rhodes and his fellow colonists viewed the colossal ruins and its intricate carved birds as surely built by ancient Mediterranean travellers such as the Phoenicians or Arabs, since in their view Africans would have been incapable of such feats. The report commissioned by Rhodes from archaeologist James Theodore Bent declared it unbelievable “that such a style of architecture as we have described, and such a civilisation as it signifies, could have originated and developed in South Africa,” going on to add that medieval Arab sources on the region make it “easy to see that in those days the inhabitants were just as they are now, an uncultured wild race of savages.”[2] As one 1932 guidebook put it, the vast ruins were “a favourite symbol of the link between the ordered civilisation derived from the North or the East and the savage barbarism of Southern and Central Africa before the advent of the European.”[3] Rhodes adopted the bird as a kind of mascot, commissioning replicas to decorate his houses in England and Cape Town, because he saw it as epitomising one of his key doctrines: namely, that culture could only be brought to southern Africa by superior races from overseas. Another replica was also made to crown the dome of Rhodes House in Oxford.

Rhodes House on South Parks Road, Oxford. Note the ‘Zimbabwe Bird’ on the top of the dome. Photo © Kaihsu via Wikimedia Commons.

However, subsequent archaeological studies were to confirm that Rhodes’ narrative of Africa eternally requiring external civilisation was nothing but a fiction. In reality, the ruins were those of Great Zimbabwe, the capital of a medieval kingdom built by the ancestors of the modern Shona people. They are believed to be responsible for the carvings, and thus the praise lavished by colonialists on the bird’s artistic merits unwittingly undermined the case for their own supposed cultural superiority. Incidentally, the city is also the specialist study area of several University of Oxford archaeologists, including Professor Shadreck Chirikure, a Zimbabwean archaeologist who specialises in Southern Africa. Several unsolved questions about the site and the sculptures remain, but after years of being made to submit to others’ false interpretations of their history, Zimbabweans are increasingly leading efforts to provide answers.

You can read about their fascinating research into Great Zimbabwe here. Cecil Rhodes’ fake history of the Zimbabwe bird is interesting, but how do modern Zimbabweans feel about his real legacy? In the following article, Oscar Lozada explores this contentious topic.

Should Rhodes fall? Zimbabweans debate his complex legacy

In April 2022, I stood at the top of the highest peak in the stunning Matobo National Park in Zimbabwe, gazing out at the high rock stacks and lush vegetation where antelopes and white rhinos roam. This sacred peak is called Malindidzimu, meaning “Hill of the Ancestral Spirits” in the local language, and was for centuries where the Ndebele people would go to consult their ancestors [4]. Today though, the main attraction advertised to tourists like myself is the tomb of Cecil Rhodes.

Standing in front of the tomb, I asked my guide, Thembi, “How do people in Zimbabwe view Rhodes today?” I recall that he shook his head and looked at me with a pained expression, before saying “It is very complicated… everyone has their own opinions”.

Cecil Rhodes’ tomb on Malindidzimu (“Hill of the Ancestral Spirits” in the local Kalanga language), referred to by Rhodes as the “World’s View”. Photo by the author.

The Rhodes Must Fall movement has become a staple of decolonisation efforts in the UK and southern Africa in recent years. Calls for the removal of statues of the infamous imperialist had been going on since at least the 1950s, but it wasn’t until March 2015 when a student-led protest at the University of Cape Town gained global attention and spread to other parts of the world. In Oxford, thousands turned out to protest the statue of Rhodes on the facade of Oriel College in both 2016 and again in 2020.[5] The statue in Cape Town came down, but the one in Oxford remains to this day.

However, Cecil Rhodes’ legacy holds an extra level of potency for Zimbabweans, whose country was ruled by his British South Africa Company for decades and now houses his remains on the sacred hill of Malindidzimu. This is especially true for many black Zimbabwean students at Oxford University.

The statue of Cecil Rhodes outside the University Of Cape Town being removed in April 2015 after concerted Rhodes Must Fall protests. Despite similar efforts in Oxford and Zimbabwe, however, his statue at Oriel College and his remains on Malindidzimu are still there to this day. Photo © Tony Carr via Wikimedia Commons.

Rhodes in Zimbabwe: the history

Rhodes first became involved in the land that is now Zimbabwe in 1888, when agents working on his behalf approached King Lobengula of the Ndebele people to obtain mineral mining rights in his lands. Since the king was illiterate, he had to rely on translators to agree and finalise the document that he believed granted the Europeans very limited mining rights (“the right to dig one hole in which ten men could fit”).[6] Once Lobengula realised that his terms had been mistranslated and misrepresented, he attempted to overturn the treaty. However, this was ignored, and in 1889 the Rudd Concession (as the document was known) became the foundation for the royal charter granted by the UK Government to Rhodes’s British South Africa Company.[7]

From there, the Company went on to seize the lands of the local peoples, forcing them to toil on it as indentured labourers, in particular for the extensive gold reserves of the area. Multiple episodes of armed resistance (most notably those known as the Matabele Wars) were put down violently, and the subsequent company rule in ‘Southern Rhodesia’ became the basis for the apartheid regime that existed until political independence.[8]

Rhodes makes peace with the Ndebele izinDuna (leaders and councillors) in the Matobo Hills after the Second Matabele War, as depicted by Robert Baden-Powell (future founder of the Scout Movement), 1896. Note the clear power imbalance inherent in the image. Photo in the public domain.

Rhodes’ legacy in Zimbabwe

Given such a problematic history, Westerners often assume that Zimbabweans also view Rhodes entirely negatively.

Indeed, many Zimbabweans are understandably outraged at the placement of Rhodes’ grave at a site of such spiritual significance. In 2010, Zimbabwean politician Cain Mathema branded the grave an “insult to the African ancestors” and said he believed its presence had brought bad luck and poor weather to the region.[9] Similarly, writer and activist Cynthia Marangwanda views it as Rhodes’ “final display of power, a deliberate and calculated act… of domination.”[10] Yet this view is more common among younger, more progressive Zimbabweans.

For example, News24, a South African news website, reports an interview with an 82-year old man named Micah Sibanda who has lived in the Matobo area most of his life. He says that Rhodes’ grave is “important” to the villagers because it attracts visitors who then buy crafts “and we get some money to send our kids to school… [and] get food and clothing”. If the grave is removed it would be “very painful for us”. After all, Sibanda said, the white visitors are also coming “to pay respects to their own ancestor.”[10]

My guide Thembi also told me that some view Rhodes as one of the founders of their nation, so should at least be respected for that. In fact, some Zimbabweans view Rhodes positively simply because they believe that, if he had not ruled the lands of Southern Rhodesia separately from the Cape Colony, they may have become part of modern South Africa, which some Zimbabweans view with hostility [Guide, pers. comm.]. Others point to the vast networks of roads, mining infrastructure, rail networks and more that the British South Africa Company commissioned, with many modern cities like Mutare and the capital Harare still following a classic ‘Rhodesian’ cross-hatched street plan [Guide, pers. comm.].

The monumental Great Zimbabwe ruins. Photo © Simon Chihanga via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, it must be remembered that such infrastructure was built by African indentured labourers “on wages that made them little better than slaves” and became the basis of the exploitative mining industry that continues to destroy lives in southern Africa today.[11]

Yet the debate runs deeper than infrastructure and graves. In the 1990s, Robert Mugabe’s government, riven with corruption, economic mismanagement and more, had lost popular support. Mugabe responded by blaming all of the country’s problems on colonialism, and especially Cecil Rhodes. As we saw above, Rhodes and his Company certainly built a society based on racism and exploitation, but Mugabe used this history to deny the corruption of his own regime, turning white farmers into scapegoats and branding the opposition as un-African – an attitude that persists in some forms in the country’s political discourse to this day.[8]

Zimbabweans in Oxford today

Rhodes’ legacy at the University of Oxford is also far-reaching. Beyond the famous statue at Oriel, in his will he established the Rhodes Scholarships, enabling 100 select international students to study at Oxford each year, and is often regarded as one of the most prestigious scholarships in the world.[12] Naturally, Zimbabwean students and scholars at the university, some of whom study under the Rhodes Scholarship itself, have often grappled with studying at a place that so venerates the name of Rhodes.

Dr Naseemah Mohamed, a former PhD researcher in the colonial history of Zimbabwe at St Edmund Hall, is one such student. In a personal reflection written in 2020, shortly after the second round of Rhodes Must Fall protests, she reflects on her childhood playing near Rhodes’ grave, before eventually coming to Oxford under a Rhodes Scholarship.[6]

Being intimately aware of the legacy of colonialism in Zimbabwe, she notes that she is often asked why she would accept a scholarship in Rhodes’ name. She frames her answer as two-fold. Firstly, the wealth he used to fund the scholarship came from her country and her ancestors, and so in the words of Fanon, “We do not tremble with gratitude. Quite the contrary; we say to ourselves: ‘It’s a just reparation which will be paid to us.’” Secondly, in studying colonial history she hopes to do her part in “unravelling the painful legacy of Rhodes that has continued to haunt my country, and so many others like it.”[6]

Professor Simukai Chigudu has been confronted with a similar question. From a black middle-class Zimbabwean background, he recounts how he grappled with his identity at a Zimbabwean public school entrenched in colonial ideals. When he arrived at Oxford in 2013, he was surprised to discover the ghosts of Zimbabwe’s colonial past all around him. He is now an Assistant Professor of African Politics at Oxford, and was one of the founding members of the Oxford Rhodes Must Fall movement back in 2016. Faced with the potential contradiction in working for the institution that he continues to agitate to change, he expresses hope that by studying and writing about contemporary African politics he can increase awareness and contribute to the decolonisation of both Oxford and Britain more broadly. “Zimbabwe is not Britain’s troubled former colony” he says. “It is its mirror.”[8]

Based at Rhodes House in the Oxford, the Rhodes Trust was established in 1902 from Rhodes’ will to support Rhodes Scholarship students and scholars at the University. The bird in the logo is in fact a ‘Zimbabwe Bird’. Image © Rhodes Trust.

Where do we go from here?

Despite his anti-colonial rhetoric, Mugabe argued that Rhodes’ remains at Malindidzimu were part of the country’s history, and even blocked attempts to exhume them.[13] The current president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has shown more enthusiasm. “If you go to the shrine, you don’t know whether you are talking to Rhodes or our ancestors” he said in 2021, going on to argue that Rhodes’ remains should be returned to Britain in exchange for Zimbabwean ancestors’ remains in the UK.[14]

Despite this, more than five years into the Mnangagwa Presidency, there is no indication of movement and the issue will likely continue to be debated for some time. Perhaps the most important thing though, is that these discussions are increasingly occurring. It is only through increased awareness and questioning historical assumptions that colonial legacies can be deconstructed.

As Dr Naseemah Mohamed concludes: “I believe that, in the words of Ida B. Wells “the best way to right wrongs is to shine the light of truth upon them.””[6]

Written by Oscar Lozada

References

  1. Brown-Lowe, Robin (2003). The Lost City of Solomon and Sheba: An African Mystery. History Press. p. 20.
  2. J. Theodore Bent (1895). The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland. Longmans Green & Co. pp. 176, 232.
  3. Maylam, Paul (2005). The Cult of Rhodes: Remembering an Imperialist in Africa. New Africa Books. p.85.
  4. Block, R. 1998. Now in Bad Odor in Zimbabwe, Rhodes Isn’t Safe in His Grave. Wall Street Journal (18/10/2023)
  5. Masondo, S. 2015. Rhodes: As divisive in death as in life, News24 (18/10/2023); Larsson, P. 2020. Cecil Rhodes: Where we’re going, we don’t need Rhodes, Uncomfortable Oxford (18/10/2023)
  6. Mohamed, N. 2020. Between Rhodes and Me: Cecil Rhodes’ Legacy is Robert Mugabe and Emmerson Mnangagwa, Rhodes Trust (23/10/2023).
  7. Keppel-Jones, A. 1983. Rhodes and Rhodesia: The White Conquest of Zimbabwe, 1884–1902. Montreal, Quebec and Kingston, Ontario: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
  8. Chigudu, S. 2021. ‘Colonialism had never really ended’: my life in the shadow of Cecil Rhodes, The Guardian (23/10/2023).
  9. Kenrick, D. 2019. Decolonisation, Identity and Nation in Rhodesia, 1964–1979: A Race Against Time, Palgrave Macmillan Cham.
  10. News24, 2023. ‘You can’t erase what happened’: Cecil John Rhodes legacy debated in Zimbabwe, News24 (18/10/2023)
  11. Nyamnjoh, F. B. 2021. Cecil John Rhodes: ‘The Complete Gentleman’ of Imperial Dominance, The Jugaad Project (23/10/2023)
  12. Adams, R. 2018. Rhodes scholarships opened up to students from UK and rest of world | Higher education, The Guardian (23/10/2023)
  13. Laing, A. 2012. Robert Mugabe blocks Cecil John Rhodes exhumation, The Telegraph (20/10/2023)
  14. Mazingaizo, S. 2021. Emmerson Mnangagwa calls for Cecil John Rhodes to be exhumed, BusinessLIVE (20/10/2023)