"we are the first race in the world" – 11/16/21

Today's selection -- from Merchant Kings by Stephen R. Bown. In the late 1800s, Cecil Rhodes gained a fortune in diamond mining in South Africa, came to dominate the country politically, and used his influence to pursue “the dream of a Cape-to-Cairo corridor of British influence.” It was based on his belief “that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for the human race”:

"[In 1874, when] he was still only twenty years old, [Cecil Rhodes] already dreamed of owning as much of the diamond industry as he could, by buying claims and consolidating them. Rhodes returned to Oxford in 1876 and stayed for two years, spending his vacations at Kimberley. Between 1878 and 1881 he was mostly at Kimberley, returning to Oxford for a final term to collect his degree at the age of twenty-eight. Although he was not a scholar but rather a very practical man, at Oxford he learned to dream big, to see life as an enormous canvas, with the possibility to make history. He was also exposed to the begin­nings of the populist imperialist fervour that was then sweeping the land, particularly the dream of a Cape-to-Cairo corridor of British influence, an idea that would later become his pas­sion. This dream motivated him to make even more money as a means of realizing his goal. Rhodes's Oxford education also gave him confidence in his decision making and secured his status as a gentleman rather than as just another money grub­ber, if a successful one. He learned to socialize with gentlemen and perhaps to use or dominate gentlemen, to understand their motivations and their foibles. Rhodes also observed the power that his money brought him. 'The Oxford system,' he wrote, 'in its most finished form looks very unpractical, yet, wherever you turn your eye, except in science, an Oxford man is at the top of the tree.' His love of Oxford University, and the life purpose he believed he had gained from that institution, remained with him his entire life.

Rhodes, c. 1900

"Around this time Rhodes wrote a paper expressing his budding ideas, which were similar to those gaining popularity in Britain. 'I contend,' he wrote, 'that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for the human race. I contend that every acre added to our ter­ritory provides for the birth of more of the English race, who otherwise would not be brought into existence. Added to which, the absorption of the greater part of the world under our rule simply means the end of all wars.' By the time he had graduated, many of his philosophical ideas about the world and its relation to the British Empire had crystallized: one should, he thought, work for 'the furtherance of the British Empire, the bringing of the whole uncivilized world under British rule, the recovery of the United States of America, the making of the Anglo-Saxon race into but one Empire.' It was the first written expression of what historian John Marlowe called Rhodes's 'queer mixture of intellectual immaturity and practical genius,' a sort of nationalism with pseudo-scientific race theories as its foundation. His ever-increasing wealth, Rhodes believed, would be the means of acting on these philosophies and dreams."

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Stephen R. Bown


Merchant Kings


Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2009 Stephen R. Bown


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