The Commonwealth. The Rhodes scholarship. Members of the British Parliament. World War I and II. According to a book by Robin Brown, The Secret Society. Cecil John Rhodes’s Plan for a New World Order, the controversial colonialist, had a hand in all of these, in a quest to, well, rule the world. It sounds like fiction. A madcap conspiracy theory. Except, Brown’s well-researched book seeks to expose this as truth, as insane as it sounds.
In the foreword, former Rhodes scholar and Modern History tutor, Jeremy Cato, describes Rhodes as a practical man and a visionary, one who cannot be made to take the blame for all the social disruption and injustices that followed his exploration, furthering of imperialism, and creation of personal wealth. It’s difficult to accept such statements, particularly amidst the recent Rhodes Must Fall protests, both in South Africa and at Oxford university (Rhodes’s alma mater and the institution that hosts those who have won bursaries in his name). But, as we are constantly reminded, history is subjective. The question is: can Rhodes’s mission to ‘civilise’ all English-speakers erase his entrepreneurial achievements, as repulsive as many consider their consequences?
Brown writes that the telling of Cecil John Rhodes’s story has been “influenced by shifting attitudes toward colonialism and imperialism… [the latter becoming] a dirty word.” Rhodes has become either a ‘Colossus’ or a ‘White Devil’. But, Brown argues, Rhodes was neither. Instead, the writer claims the “maligned ‘Grand Imperialist’ paradoxically championed the rights of black people, and was, for the most of his political career, a friend to the Boers.”
“In 1899, when asked by a representative of the coloured community in the Cape what his position was on enfranchisement, Rhodes answered: “‘My motto is – equal rights for every civilised man south of the Zambesi’ – whether black or white, as long as he was basically literate, owned some property, and was ‘not a loafer.’” But, this is still problematic, considering there was little or no schooling for anyone who wasn’t white.”
This book begins with Rhodes’s travel from England to Kimberley to make his fortune at the diamond “hell hole”, as the author refers to the enormous pit that hundreds mined for precious stones. Rhodes’s intentions were clear from the start. Not only did he mine stones, he opened a lucrative ice cream stand in the boiling hot weather, the first of many projects that made him filthy rich. Rhodes’s vision for world domination was evident even at this point. Diamonds could begin to finance his dream of uniting English-speakers across the globe, and form a mega-empire. Crazy, right? But as Brown shows, the colonialist came pretty close.
The driving force behind Rhodes’s mission echoed the zeitgeist of the time that “[i]mperialism was the God-driven cause of many great men and women of his age.” Once he arrived in South Africa, Rhodes decided to establish a secret society (‘creatively’) called, “Secret Society”, based on that of the Jesuits. Many biographers have dismissed this as conspiracy theory, but Rhodes documented almost everything he did, and Brown uses this to prove that not only was the Society real, and that it reached far and wide across powerful institutions around the world, but that it continues to do so, even now.
Mining giant De Beers was formed by Rhodes. Members of the Secret Society owned or ran newspapers in both South Africa and England, helping to propagate his idea that all English-speaking nations (including the United States, Australia, as well as British colonies) should be united. It’s a fanciful, madcap idea by a megalomaniac. But Rhodes and his Society built links and friendships with celebrities and rich and powerful families, like the Carnegies, Rockefellers, and Astors, in order to direct foreign economic policies. In a bid to extend the British Empire, Rhodes almost unanimously decided to create the Rhodesias, and he wanted to capture Bechuanaland (the predecessor of Botswana) as well. He had influence over the actions of prime ministers, like Lord Rosebury and Winston Churchill. These friendships, in turn, affected Britain’s attitude to the two world wars of the early twentieth century. And then there is the Rhodes scholarship, which Brown says Rhodes set up in order to produce the kind of people that could be influenced to propagate the Society’s aims.
Even if, despite all the documentation and other evidence presented by Brown, the reader dismisses this book as reminiscent of the fiction of that other Brown (Dan), it is fascinating in a way that doesn’t let go. As Robin Brown shows, decades after Rhodes’s death, his relentless pursuits continue to have ripple effects today, a chilling and astonishing thought. For example, heard of Chatham House? Yup, it is involved (you’ll have to read the book to find out how). The Secret Society is some of the best non-fiction available right now, and the book has made it onto the 2016 longlist for the Alan Paton Award for non-fiction. For more on how close Rhodes came to realising his dream, listen to the podcast of my interview with the author.
Rating: 4½ out of 5
The Secret Society. Cecil John Rhodes’ Plan for a New World Order is published by Penguin.