'Exposing Rhodes’s grand theft of African land, resources and the mass murder he perpetrated': The trial of Cecil John Rhodes

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Students cheer after the Cecil Rhodes statue was removed from the University of Cape Town on April 9, 2015 in Cape Town, South Africa. The statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes was removed from the University of Cape Town as a result of a month long protest by students citing the statue great symbolic power which glorified someone who exploited black labour and stole land from indigenous people. (Photo by Charlie Shoemaker/Getty Images)
Students cheer after the Cecil Rhodes statue was removed from the University of Cape Town on April 9, 2015 in Cape Town, South Africa. The statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes was removed from the University of Cape Town as a result of a month long protest by students citing the statue great symbolic power which glorified someone who exploited black labour and stole land from indigenous people. (Photo by Charlie Shoemaker/Getty Images)

In the novel, The Trial of Cecil John Rhodes, Cecil Rhodes awakens in an After African Limbo after being asleep for 120 years. Guided by Efua Sutherland, Rhodes is taken on a tour of After Africa’s five heavens, experiencing Africa’s greatness. Thereafter the novella centres on a grand trial of Rhodes for the crimes he committed in the Herebefore. Below is an excerpt. 

The Trial of Cecil John Rhodes by Adekeye Adebajo.
The Trial of Cecil John Rhodes by Adekeye Adebajo. (Jacana)

“I would first like to expose Rhodes’s grand theft of African land and resources as well as the mass murder that he perpetrated against an estimated 60 000 Africans. He had the support of the British government, which awarded his British South Africa Company a royal charter in 1889, which significantly was four years after the notorious Conference of Berlin. This conference effectively set the rules for an orderly partition of Africa so that the European powers could amicably divide our continent up between them as if they owned it. Now what was this royal charter that the British South Africa Company received? It was a formal grant enabling them to seize, administer, and populate our land with white settlers. 

“As Adolf Hitler did four decades later in relation to Germany and Europe at large, Rhodes argued that he needed to settle surplus British populations on African lands. He proceeded to dispossess black people of their ancestral lands in what is now Zimbabwe and Zambia through aggressive and duplicitous means, stealing three and a half million square miles of black territory in one of the most ignominious land-grabs in modern history. It was often said during the imperial era that trade followed the flag. Rhodes, in fact, inverted this saying, with the British government following his lead and lending political, economic, and military support to his mercenary and mercantilist adventures. 

“Not being satisfied with having cornered diamond and gold production in South Africa and establishing global monopolies, Rhodes was determined to find another El Dorado flowing with gold in Matabeleland and Mashonaland. He used his agents to negotiate a concession with the Ndebele king, Lobengula, who naively believed that he had only ceded limited mining rights, but ended up losing his entire country to Rhodes. Mr Rhodes then arranged for one Grobler, a representative of the Boer Republic to Matabeleland, to be murdered, and instigated Reverend John Moffat, an assistant to the administrator of Botswana, to meet with the illiterate Lobengula in 1888. Moffat then claimed to have signed an agreement with the King to forbid the sale or lease of any part of his country, or enter into any treaty, without the approval of the British government. Lobengula denied this, having only agreed to peace and friendship between the Amandebele and the British.

“As I have consistently noted, Moffat’s version was a huge, monstrous naked lie. Rhodes used this duplicitous ‘treaty’ to keep Germany, Portugal, and the Boers out of Zimbabwe. In the same year, he sent emissaries – led by Charles Dunnell Rudd, his business partner – to agree a deal whereby Lobengula would receive one hundred British pounds a month, one thousand rifles, and one hundred thousand cartridges, in exchange for a grant of mineral rights in Matabeleland and Mashonaland, and the exclusion of all other parties from the territory.

“Jameson then started recruiting mercenaries for the Pioneer Column in 1890 in search of their African El Dorado. Each man was offered a 6 000- acre farm and fifteen underground and five alluvial gold claims if found on land that they would steal. The British South Africa Company gave itself the right to half of the loot, with the rest being shared out among the assorted motley crew of settlers, freebooters, mercenaries, and adventurers.

The huge herds of Ndebele cattle would also be divided between these armed thugs and the British South Africa Company. Rhodes drew up a secret contract promising two rough freebooters – Frank Johnson and Maurice Heany – a total of £150 000 and 110 000 acres of land to command the white mercenaries to destroy Lobengula’s rule. The British government further provided imperial troops, with the prime minister, Salisbury, preferring to conquer other people’s land as cheaply as possible. As the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck had famously remarked, ‘The Englishman is like the dog in the fable. . . . The dog who cannot bear that another dog should have a few bones, although the overfed brute is sitting below a bowl full to the brim.’ 

Even as the British government professed its peaceful intentions to Lobengula, Jameson continued plans for a conflict which was launched without any ultimatum or declaration of war, despite the legal fiction of earlier treaties having been agreed with Lobengula, such as the Moffat Treaty and the Rudd Concession. Jameson also lied to British representatives that Ndebele warriors were endangering white settlers in the territory. Rhodes himself lied that the servants of white settlers were being slaughtered by Ndebele fighters. Emissaries whom Lobengula sent to the British were taken prisoner and shot dead.”

“Rhodes’s methods often relied on subterfuge and dishonesty. They were shockingly brutal. This Charter Law, or ‘Charter Ro’ as it was called, was used to kill indigenous Mashona through a psychopathic Rhodesian police chief Captain Lendy, who was later promoted to magistrate. A letter by Queen Victoria to Lobengula was replaced with a forged one by Rhodes and Jameson, containing very different terms. In two incidents in 1892, at least thirty locals were summarily executed after a Frenchman was murdered and a white Rhodesian had his goods stolen. 

Rhodes also ordered that expenditure in the country that his company was running be reduced from £250 000 a year to £36 000, while the police force was reduced from 700 to forty. This was ‘imperialism on a shoestring.’ It was backed by an understanding that Rhodes could count on British funding and troops to subsidise his grandiose ambitions in a murderous quest for gold and to subdue the ‘rowdy natives.’

“Rhodes and his associates cynically manufactured a casus belli to wage a war that destroyed Matabele power between 1890 and 1893. He used scaremongering tactics with the British government, warning that Germany, Portugal, or the Boer Republics would grab power in Zimbabwe if he did not do so on behalf of his native country. Using the false premise that the wire of the British South Africa Company had been stolen, Rhodes’s men seized all African cattle in the surrounding area, many of them belonging to King Lobengula.

This was clearly a provocative scorched earth policy that could only lead to starvation. Led by his trusted lieutenant, the racist Leander Jameson, they then killed thirty of King Lobengula’s men. Jameson and Lendy blatantly lied that the Ndebele had killed 400 men, women, and  children in a bid to recover their cattle, while in fact seven fatalities had been reported by eyewitnesses. Other lies were spread about Lobengula’s fighters, that they had destroyed crops, looted homesteads on white farms, and killed farm workers.

Samkange paused to relight his pipe, puffing until thick clouds of tobacco smoke hung over him on the giant stage.

“By 1893, in order to steal the land of Matabeleland and the gold that was believed to be underneath it, thousands of fighters of the cornered King Lobengula were massacred by Rhodes’s 900-strong mercenaries. The maxim gun was particularly prominent in these one-sided battles. Captured black prisoners of war were summarily executed against all legal conventions. Kraals were burnt, and thousands more innocent people were massacred. Farms were carved out of stolen land in choice, well-watered locations, and prospecting claims were laid over Matabeleland. Thousands of Ndebele cattle were stolen by Rhodes’s men and driven into pens in Bulawayo.

“And the devastating consequences of this military aggression and conquest? Tens of thousands of Ndebele men, women, and children were starved to death due to the theft of their cattle. Many were prevented from ploughing their lands and sowing seed until their surrender could be proved to their conquerors. Their crops were burned, thus preventing them from sustaining their livelihoods. The charges of mass murder against Rhodes are therefore irrefutable. This was a catastrophic war of aggression waged against a defenceless Ndebele nation.”

Samkange looked down at his written notes and continued, “Lobengula, before he died in flight and was secretly buried, belatedly recognised in a telegraph to Rhodes, ‘I thought you had come to dig for gold, but it seems you have come not only to dig for gold but to rob me of my people and country as well.’ The Zimbabwean King would later describe white men as ‘fathers of liars.’ As Olive Schreiner noted earlier, Rhodes’s brutal rule led to another uprising by the Ndebele in 1896 which was also brutally suppressed. The share of their stolen land and cattle that was promised to them was not returned, and indigenous populations were moved by their white conquerors to badly watered land unsuitable for farming.

“Rhodes’s imperial greed to conquer and possess territory was insatiable. He patronisingly stated that ‘Africa is the last uncivilised portion of the empire… and…it must be civilised.’ Given his destructive legacy of empire-building, Mr Rhodes must be condemned for his imperial crimes.

“He was petrified after the disgrace of the Jameson Raid in 1895 that the names of both Rhodesias would be changed, and asked apprehensively, ‘Did you ever hear of a country’s name being changed?’ His worst fears were eventually realised. Northern Rhodesia became Zambia, and the statue of Rhodes in Lusaka was toppled when they achieved independence in 1964. Southern Rhodesia became independent Zimbabwe, and after 1980 they wiped clean the streets of Harare and Bulawayo of his statues. Both countries sought to remove the imperial stain by rebaptizing themselves. South Africa has only belatedly started a debate on the numerous Rhodes memorials that still litter its post-apartheid landscape. 

As we heard from the Herbefore, students at the University of Cape Town toppled a statue of Rhodes prominently displayed on its campus in 2015, at a time when its main hall, the very centre of its graduations and other ceremonies, was still named after Rhodes’s racist and destructive lieutenant, Jameson. Rhodes University in Grahamstown had earlier quietly removed a bust of the man after whom it was named from its main entrance to avoid a debate about renaming the university.”

The After Africa masses started discussing these shocking details animatedly among themselves, before Elias again asked for silence. Samkange continued, “As for the charge of racism, Rhodes is clearly guilty as charged, and there is incontrovertible evidence of his prejudice in many of his utterances, as documented in my 1982 booklet, What Rhodes Really Said about Africans. Since many of these racist attitudes have persisted in the Herebefore, I really wonder whether there is something in the British psyche that makes racism and prejudice so widespread. The self-inflicted wound called Brexit, whereby Britain left the European Union after a referendum, was, after all, largely a nativist anti-immigrant vote. Even before apartheid was passed into law in 1948, as prime minister of the Cape Colony between 1890 and 1895, Rhodes was its forerunner, helping to curtail black voting rights through introducing new property and educational criteria. Rhodes told the Cape parliament in 1887, ‘The native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise. . . . We must adopt a system of despotism, such as works so well in India, in our relations with the barbarians of South Africa.’

He also once reprimanded a police officer in Matabeleland in 1897 for having spared the lives of Ndebele rebels who had pleaded for clemency, saying, ‘…you should not spare them. You should kill all you can, as it serves a lesson to them... 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.’

Rhodes’s credo of white supremacist thinking can, in fact, be summarised by his statement, ‘Treat the natives as a subject people as long as they continue in a state of barbarism and communal tenure; be the lords over them, and let them be a subject race and keep the liquor from them.’”

The audience gasped, and many had begun weeping at these unbelievably offensive utterances. Rhodes had turned a dark red, and reached for the whisky flask which he fumbled nervously to remove from the pocket of his tweed jacket, and furtively sipped from it.Elias again asked for calm and Samkange continued.

"“Rhodes    is    also    guilty    of    the    charge    of exploitation and the enslavement of black workers. He  practised  a  half-baked  social  Darwinism  in which the fittest were to survive and the weakest –like the dinosaur and the dodo – would become extinct. Working with Afrikaner legislators in the Cape parliament, as prime minister, Rhodes restricted the size of African-owned freeholds and inheritance rights, and forcibly removed blacks to native reserves through the 1894 Glen Grey Act – a precursor of apartheid’s notorious Bantustan policies by half a century. Rhodes further pushed the Cape parliament to introduce hut and labour taxes on blacks in order to force them into the cash economy; packed over 11 000 black miners into inhumane, dog-patrolled, wire-protected barracks; and supported draconian labour laws like the ‘strop bill’ that Olive Schreiner referred to earlier, in order to facilitate the continued supply of human fodder to his mines while impoverishing the black population. Rhodes effectively sought to build the British empire on the backs of cheap black labour, virtually slave labour. As premier of the Cape Colony, he also introduced social segregation – later to be called apartheid – for indigenous people in schools, hospitals, prisons, sport, and public transport; forced blacks to carry passes – a precursor of the apartheid ‘dompas’ – and removed thousands of members of these groups from the colony’s electoral rolls. It is thus crucial to demythologise the cult of Rhodes that has been so carefully cultivated by legions of his fanatical supporters since his death in 1902.”

Samkange took a few more puffs on his pipe, but it had died again. He put it back on the lectern, and continued, “Rhodes is also guilty of egotism and a grandiloquent quest for immortality. His scholarship scheme at Oxford University, which started after his arrival in After Africa in 1902, sought to create a breed of largely Anglo-American ‘rulers of the world’ from the British Commonwealth and Germany. Over 6 000 scholars – most of them overwhelmingly white American, Australian, and Canadian males from outside Africa, from where this wealth was stolen – studied at Oxford within a century of Rhodes’s death. He perceived the English as ‘God’s chosen instrument in carrying out the divine idea over the whole planet.’ He proclaimed that ‘the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for the human race’. Rhodes insisted on being buried in a granite rock in the sacred Matopos hills of Zimbabwe, predetermining the inscription on his grave, and looking down on people in a country he had conquered for eight decades, until Zimbabwe won its independence in 1980. His burial place became a Valhalla, a shrine and place of pilgrimage for Rhodesians and South Africans, including assorted racist white supremacists, imperialists, and members of the British royal family.

“Rhodes confirmed Vladimir Lenin’s belief that imperialism was the highest form of capitalism, harnessing political power, as prime minister of Cape Colony, as well as economic power, as a diamond and gold magnate. He used his economic wealth to buy political power, and employed political power to protect and extend his wealth. He perverted politics as he had business, using patronage – in the form of shares or land – to buy off politicians, as he had bought out diamond prospectors, in Britain and South Africa. This included members of the Afrikaner Bond with whom he established an alliance in the Cape parliament in order to pass harsh legislation against blacks and to protect white Afrikaner farmers.

“Rhodes was thus a ruthless and unscrupulous businessman and politician. He was a monopolist both in terms of territorial expansion and control of diamonds and gold. In cornering the diamond industry in Kimberley, he ruthlessly crushed many smaller businesses, and defrauded many of his opponents. He manipulated the stock exchange and bought off people with company shares, outright bribes, and job offers. It has been indisputably proved that he had speculative shares in a shell diamond company in the early 1880s. He bought off rival entrepreneurs, politicians, and journalists to further his expansionist goals. His character was often autocratic, brutal, and bullying. Many saw him as a ruthless megalomaniac, even in his day. In order to secure a royal charter, he misled investors and the British government into believing that his British South Africa Company owned the Rudd Concession.He continued to control the company even after he was compelled to surrender his directorship after the Jameson Raid.

“As we learned from beyond the grave, South African historian, Bernard Magubane, who is here with us in the audience, condemned Rhodes as ‘a robber and a racist to the core who ruthlessly, cynically pursued his goals. No shortcut was too dishonourable for him to use to achieve his vision. He was possessed of imperial greed and insatiable rapaciousness.’ British South African Paul Maylam, a historian in the land of the living, wrote an epitaph to Rhodes’s unscrupulous greed which was equally devastating: ‘In reflecting on the life and career of Rhodes I find little to redeem him. I have not come across a sentence spoken or written by him that is inspiring or uplifting; his utterances range from the ordinary to the abhorrent. His crude racist outbursts have been well documented. He possessed an authoritarian personality, and some of his ideas about empire were puerile. His methods were often dubious or despicable... Rhodes does not deserve to be rehabilitated.’”

Elias again turned to the imperialist in the dock and asked whether he had anything to say in hisdefence against these very serious charges.

Rhodes got up slowly. His face was pale, he was sweating profusely, and his hands trembled.

“My lord, I cannot deny that these incidents took place. However in my defence, these were the moral standards of the age. Otto von Bismarck, to whom Professor Samkange referred, once noted that making laws is like manufacturing sausages; it is better to see the end product than the messy process itself. One has to break a few eggs to make an omelette. So also was imperialism. It was a system in which the end justified the means, and this was a civilising mission on behalf of primitive barbarians that I felt at the time would continue living in trees and caves.”

The crowd objected loudly to this racist language. Judge Elias quietened the audience, and turned to Rhodes, “I hope you are aware of how serious the charges levelled against you are. Criminal charges of this wide-ranging kind in After Africa are very rare. I would really advise you to choose your words very carefully.”

“I am sorry, Your Honour,” replied Rhodes. “Even though my father was a vicar in England, as has often been mentioned, I never went to church and considered Table Mountain – that’s in Cape Town – as my chapel where I could experience spiritual moments. The religious teachings I learned as a child included not merely devotion to God, but to Queen and country as well. I believe that through my imperial exploits which augmented the British empire in Africa, I did fulfil these teachings. Queen Victoria was, after all, head of the Church of England, and British missionaries were key allies of imperial expansion, constantly urging onwards our Christian soldiers, encouraging us to convert and civilize the heathen African ‘sons of Ham.’ I must note, in my defence, that I took Lobengula’s sons into my own home after he had ceded his kingdom to me. Is that evidence of racism?

“Let me tell you that my main aim was to unite Southern Africa in a customs union. In fact, and most genuinely, I was the first contemporary Pan-Africanist.”

The crowd burst into wild laughter. Rhodes’s face darkened, either in defiance or shame, or perhaps both. He lit another cigarette as Judge Elias again calmed the teeming throng.

Elias then ceded the floor to a gesturing Stanlake Samkange to respond to the defendant.

“I must just quickly respond to Mr Rhodes’s exaggerated claim that he looked after Lobengula’s sons. These children were treated not as adopted sons but were humiliated as servants. It was widely reported that when one of the sons asked to visit ‘Rhodesia’ with Rhodes, the imperialist told the boy, ‘Now if you come up with me, I must have no nonsense about your being a king. You will have to wash plates and clean my boots.’

“On another occasion, in front of assembled guests, Rhodes callously asked Lobengula’s sons as they worked in his garden at his lavish Groote Schuur estate, ‘Let me see, what year was it I killed your father?’ and then laughed loudly. These are scarcely examples of caring for the children of the vanquished king.

“My fellow Counsel for Damnation, Olive Schreiner, lived in the same era and was subject tothe same empire and exposed to the same colonial values. Yet she categorically rejected the despicable imperial values that Mr Rhodes embodied and sought to defend here, attempting as he does to justify the unjustifiable. Even in Rhodes’s own day, many people in England and Southern Africa condemned his awful methods. There were, after all, abolitionists who condemned slavery even when its practice was widespread. Rhodes’s justifications of imperialism are therefore unacceptable and fly in the face of all the moral codes that we uphold here in After Africa. He has never been held to account for any of his heinous crimes, and nor has the system of Imperialism ever been tried and unequivocally condemned to eternal damnation.

That is why Rhodes – as the greatest embodimentof the imperial age – must surely face damnation in hellfire for all of eternity.”

The crowd rose to their feet and gave Samkange a standing ovation for his eloquent and meticulously detailed testimony. Cecil lit another cigarette, and continued to sweat profusely. Olive Schreiner ceded her right to a closing statement, and the audience waited with bated breath for the defence of the two Counsel for Salvation.

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