Rhodes to Hell

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Jan. 11 1998 3:30 AM

Rhodes to Hell

Was the father of Rhodesia really the epitome of pure evil?

Rhodes
PBS

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All that remained in the way of Rhodes' imperial vision of controlling the African interior was "one naked old savage," as Rhodes called King Lobengula. The story of how the ruler of the Matabele, a tribe that lives in what is now southern Zimbabwe, was cheated of his lands is truly a sad one, and one of the most affecting parts of the miniseries. A pair of binoculars here, a few hundred Martini-Henry rifles there, fail to do the trick. So Dr. Jameson, Rhodes' sidekick (played by Neil Pearson), treats Lobengula for his gout by turning him into a trembling morphine junkie, prepared to sign anything put in front of him for his next fix. As Rhodes announces to his shareholders in London that shares in the Charter Company have risen 1,500 percent, Lobengula, defeated, his people reduced to servitude, kills himself.

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But as with any historical figure, there's a danger here of wrenching Rhodes' life too far out of its own context and examining it through the microscope of today's sensibilities. Rhodes is a stirring production, beautifully filmed, but it feels like a work overwhelmingly informed by malice, consistently seizing on the very worst interpretation of the man without really attempting to get under his skin. Rhodes was no 19th-century Hitler. He wasn't so much a freak as a man of his time.

Before dissolving into a sobbing heap at Lobengula's terrible fate at Rhodes' hands, for example, we should remember that the king was a bloodthirsty tyrant whose people had arrived as colonists themselves only a generation before, wiping out most of the Mashona who lived there and treating the rest as slaves.

And while the film's main scene of intertribal warfare was based on a conflict fomented by Jameson, the Matabele impis did in fact launch frequent bloody raids on the Mashona. In this respect, at least, Rhodes and his cronies fit in perfectly with their surroundings and conformed to the morality (or lack of it) of the day. As is so often the case, history simply followed the gravitational pull of superior firepower.

The film leaves the impression, too, that had it not been for Rhodes' invasion of Mashonaland and Matabeleland, they would somehow have been spared the terrible subjugation of colonization. Hardly: Paul Kruger and the Transvaal Boers were already eyeing the territory north of South Africa avariciously, as a haven to which their trekkers could escape from British domination. And the Belgians, Portuguese, and Germans were also scrambling for African territories.

Discrediting Rhodes is not a novel game. He was discredited even before his death, by his implication in Jameson's raid on Boer-ruled Johannesburg, an effort to overthrow the Kruger regime and take over the Transvaal that was never sanctioned by the British and turned into a military fiasco and grave political embarrassment. But curiously, the Matabele themselves accorded him the respect this warrior nation always granted a victor. At his funeral, the assembled chiefs gave Rhodes a traditional salute--the only commoner ever to be accorded the privilege. No guns were fired by the honor guard, at the insistence of the chiefs, who believed that gunfire would disturb the spirits who resided there.

White men's memorials don't usually fare well in Africa. The old pioneer memorial in Chimanimani, the eastern Zimbabwean village where I grew up, was smashed by a posse of comrades from the ruling party's youth league shortly after independence. But Rhodes' grave remains intact and undisturbed. A heavy brass plaque marks the spot where his body lies interred within a swollen granite hill--a dwala, we call them--and I dare say it will probably still be there when the next wave of reassessment breaks over Rhodes' legacy. For Africans are loathe to offend the dead: There is no surer way of provoking ancestral spirits than interfering with their graves, and for all the mixed feelings he evokes, Rhodes is still a powerful spirit.

Rhodes and the white pioneers in southern Africa did behave despicably by today's standards, but no worse than the white settlers in North America, South America, and Australia; and in some senses better, considering that the genocide of natives in Africa was less complete. For all the former African colonies are now ruled by indigenous peoples, unlike the Americas and the Antipodes, most of whose aboriginal natives were all but exterminated.

Peter Godwin's memoir, Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa, was published in 1996. A version of this article previously appeared in the Guardian in London.