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Historiography of Selected Works on Cecil John Rhodes (1853–1902)

From: History in Africa
Volume 34, 2007
pp. 437-446 | 10.1353/hia.2007.0013

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I

The historiography of Cecil John Rhodes may be divided into two broad categories: chauvinistic approval or utter vilification. In the Introduction to Colossus of Southern Africa, Lockhart and Woodhouse wrote: "Those who hated [Rhodes] most were those who knew him least, and those most admired and loved him were those who knew him best." The earlier works written soon after Rhodes death, and usually by his "intima[te]" friends, constitute the first group. Later works written by historians and journalists largely constitute the second group. Generally speaking, the category into which a particular biography or history is placed has a strong correlation to the time it was written. Chronologically, these two groups divide at about 1945, when the last of Rhodes's intimate companions died and the British Empire was beginning to be dismantled.

The earliest published biography of Cecil Rhodes was Cecil Rhodes: His Political Life and Speeches, 1881-1900 published just two years before his death. The work was published pseudonymously under the moniker "Vindex." C.M. Woodhouse, in the "Notes on Sources" at the front of his book on Rhodes, identified Vindex as the Reverend F. Vershoyle. Vershoyle was "deputy editor of the influential Fortnightly Review [and] was paid to remain loyal." No one should be surprised that the preface and the biographical introduction in the volume are complimentary, almost fawning. Nevertheless, the speeches are a valuable primary source in their own right, and deserve to be consulted by any biographer of Rhodes, or historian of Southern Africa.

Continuing in this vein, Sir Lewis Michell's The Life of the Right Honorable Cecil John Rhodes, 1853-1902, Howard Hensman's Cecil Rhodes: a Study of a Career, Philip Jourdan's Cecil Rhodes: His Private Life By His Private Secretary, and Sir Thomas E. Fuller's The Right Honorable Cecil Rhodes: a Monograph and a Remembrance, are of a type. Each of these authors was an "intimate" of Cecil Rhodes and is essentially offering his personal views and experiences with him. Michell's book, a two-volume work, was the first attempt at writing Rhodes' life story from birth to death. Michell was conscious of his chauvinism and asked to be excused for it: "Personal affection on my part may unconsciously sway my judgment of the only great man with whom I have lived on terms of intimacy, but whatever the shortcomings of his Biographer, I am confident that posterity will not fail to appreciate the genius and essential worth of one of the greatest Englishmen of the Victorian era." Nevertheless, Michell's Life is the primary source—in the sense of being the first source—for Rhodes scholarship, and a primary source in its own right for the views of Michell on his friend Rhodes.

Hensman's Study of a Career is chronologically the first book written about Rhodes, other than Vindex's Speeches. Study of a Career has a publication date of 1902, makes no mention of Rhodes' death and has a preface dated November, 1901, suggestng that Rhodes was still alive when Hensman wrote. Rather than a birth-to-death life history, Hensman's book is truly a study of the "methods and character of one who . . . plays an important part in the history of the British Empire." Study of a Career is reminiscent of the sort of book one might find about the business success of Ted Turner or Donald Trump.

Jourdan's Private Life is an exception to the rule that no man is a hero to his valet; Rhodes was a hero to Jourdan. In the introduction, Jourdan wrote that he "felt it a duty to my late chief to spare no effort which would in any way help to disabuse the public mind of the erroneous impressions which had gained currency concerning [Rhodes]." Jourdan gives readers the best picture of all the authors of Rhodes the Man. He brings up interesting personal details such as Rhodes' love of books and history. However, his Private Life doesn't go anywhere; rather it is a collection of private reminiscences and anecdotes, although an interesting and useful source document.

Fuller's book, by the author's own admission, does not make an attempt...



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