The Bullingdon Club at Oxford University in the late 1870s, with Rhodes 2nd left in the front row

Cecil Rhodes and the Bullingdon Club

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Mike James is one of our team of fantastic museum volunteers and he has been working on the museum’s Rhodes collection. This blog explores some of the photographs he has been cataloguing.

The Rhodes collection in Bishop’s Stortford Museum is full of books, artefacts and boxes of photographs, all to do with Cecil Rhodes and colonial southern Africa. We are carefully cataloguing this material, as well as the local history collections, with the ultimate aim of making it all more accessible to the public. I knew very little about Rhodes before starting on this. I learned he was born in 1853 in Netteswell House, South Road, now part of the Museum (see the plaque on the building’s front).

I discovered he attended Bishop’s Stortford Grammar School, and won some prizes there. He was not well, and so, aged 16, he voyaged (70 days!) to his brother’s farm in Natal where it was hoped the climate would help. Our collection documents his extraordinary rise, becoming enormously wealthy as a result of diamond and gold mining, and then fostering the British colonial expansion. It is hard to think of anyone similar today, but the world situation is now utterly different: As far as the Victorians were concerned southern Africa in the 1870s was a vast continent with only vestigial civilization – so it was all up for grabs, and the rules were imported from Europe by the settlers. The discovery of diamonds at Kimberley at this time only accelerated the push. Rhodes belied his physical ailments through considerable toughness and entrepreneurial drive . The collection’s fragile newspaper cuttings reveal the great loss the colonialists felt at his death, of heart failure at the age of only 48 in 1902. The books catalogue his life, adventures and legacy, including the colonial fall-out as African countries achieved their independence.

The Museum’s photographs are insightful too. Here are two: The first is a photo of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford University in club dress, with Cecil Rhodes second from left in the front row. He looks straight at the camera, legs crossed, in a very assertive pose. The Bullingdon Club remains an exclusive, wealthy, invitation-only University society once notorious for its outrageous behaviour. The present Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Mayor of London were all members.

The Bullingdon Club at Oxford University in the late 1870s, with Rhodes 2nd left in the front row

Rhodes alternated his studies at Oxford with diamond mining at Kimberley. His election to the Bullingdon Club suggests his personality and growing influence were appreciated by its aristocratic members – his humble background was certainly quite unlike theirs. Thus his Oxford education, wealth and elite contacts would allow him access to the top of the Imperial British Government, lubricating his later colonial enterprises.

The second photo is the Board of the British South Africa Company. Set up by Rhodes to accumulate and govern vast territories for the Crown, by 1894 it controlled much of present-day South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. You see men at the height of success: Rhodes (Chairman) is centre front, with Dr Jameson, his loyal lieutenant to his right, with other administrators. They gaze out, relaxed, self-confident, even challenging; well-dressed yet informal, everyone moustachioed, before a backdrop of arranged Union Flags. They have ‘arrived’.

The Board of the British South Africa Company in October 1894. Rhodes (chairman) is centre front row. Six months later, the Company’s vast territories were named Rhodesia

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