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Rhodes is not a Colossus

The name of “Rhodes” conveniently provides an ideal springboard for imagination: it runs from the ancient Mediterranean to the 21st century, from Ptolemaic Greece to a global and divisively post-imperial Anglo world. It is a name that evokes both past grandeur and literal fall from grace, especially as creative puns have flurried in recent protests - with ‘it’s the end of the Rhode(s)’ and ‘all Rhodes lead to the river’ standing out with flair. But there are not just phonetics similarities uniting ancient and more recent Rhodes to current debates.


Imperial Ideals, from Antiquity to the Victorian Age

For non-British people - so for most of the world - when you read the name of Rhodes, the first thought crossing your mind is that image of the long lost Greek Colossus, which in distant centuries commemorated the sun god Helios. That gigantic statue, first built in 280 BCE, stood for about fifty years before collapsing in an earthquake. Yet, that short-lived existence didn’t prevent it from having a lasting legacy, and the Rhodes Colossus counts among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Initially built to celebrate a military victory, it displayed the ideals of manhood and warrior courage, gazing over the Mediterranean Sea - a Greek empire made of an archipelago of maritime colonies.

The Colossus of Rhodes, a prodigious brass statue dedicated to the Sun - Engraved for the Geographical Dictionary (Public Domain)
The Colossus of Rhodes, a prodigious brass statue dedicated to the Sun - Engraved for the Geographical Dictionary (Public Domain)

The Rhodes Colossus experienced a modern revival in late nineteenth century Britain. Just as several European nations were fighting each other for lands, resources, and power in what came to be known as the ‘Scramble for Africa,’ one individual came to epitomize that project in the British mind: Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902). The name was too good to be true, and cartoonists jumped at the chance to draw a re-imagined Rhodes Colossus, dominating an imperium much vaster than the old Mediterranean world. The cartoonish Rhodes was holding a telegraph line, thus illustrating his dreams of creating a ‘Cape to Cairo’ telegraph, soon to be followed by a railway, the culmination of Britain’s expansionist effort on the African continent - in his eyes a paramount example of modernization and a true humanitarian act. From an early age already, young Cecil, still working through his Bachelor degree at the University of Oxford, famously wrote in his first will:

“I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.” [1]

English businessman Cecil Rhodes represents across Africa to set up his telegraphic lines between Cape Town and Cairo. Illustration from 'Punch', 10/12/1892 (engraving)
"The Colossus of Rhodes: Striding From Cape To Cairo", Punch Magazine, 1892

Conquest, thus, was closely associated with an ideology of racial hierarchy. Imbued with social darwinist beliefs of the ‘survival of the fittest’ and imperial fervour, Rhodes felt convinced that God was supervising “the perfecting of the race by process of natural selection, and [recognized] the struggle for existence as the favourite instruments of the Divine Ruler.” [2] A free-mason, Rhodes was more of an agnostic, but the had been heavily influenced by the thought of William Winwood Reade, whose book, The Martyrdom of Man, would be further summarized in Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The White Man’s Burden” - which conflated empire and colonisation with divine mission. [3]

For a man who focused on business and politics, his vocabulary was pervaded with religious lexicon: he talked of fate, feeling compelled to take on the Premiership of the Cape colony. [4] Where the Greek Rhodes Colossus had been a representation of the god of Sun, the achievements of the British Rhodes Colossus were consecrated by devotion to the imperial mission. The presence of a deity, although left uncertain, would only reinforce and condone Rhodes’ work to further the British Empire, which would then be self-fulfilling: If there be a God (...) I think what He would like me to do is to paint as much of the map of Africa British red as possible.” [5] Notwithstanding this theological caveat, Rhodes embraced as his own the ideal of ‘white man’s’ responsibility to humankind - because it served his purpose. The call to paint Africa red echoed Rhodes’ call to parliament to “annex lands, not natives”: the local populations were of little concern provided there could be more space for ‘Anglo-Saxons’ to inhabit. [6]

Zimbabwe bird statue - Illustration by Kati Lacey

Yet Rhodes's fascination with the sense of purpose that he saw in the British imperial project was also deeply intertwined with the Greco-Roman tradition. He had studied classics during his student years at Oxford, had been quite an indifferent scholar and graduating with a pass degree. Nonetheless, he was fascinated by the glories of ancient civilizations and empires - less so their history than their past power, finding they could provide a roadmap or inspiration for the British imperial project. Despite his busy career, he repeatedly made his way to Egypt, Italy, and visited Athens and Constantinople. On the other hand, almost all of his voyages between the Cape and Britain were direct - African cultures and civilizations were of little interest to him, unless they could be re-imagined Greek. In 1889 North of the Cape colony, archaeologist Willi Posselt had encouraged the ruins of the medieval city and civilization of Great Zimbabwe (11-14th century). Rhodes believed to his death that it was the legacy of Greek or Phoenician colonists who had made their way to this continent in previous centuries, rather than the remains of a medieval African power - which it was. The Zimbabwe bird, used as a the insignia for the Rhodes Scholarship, is based on soapstone carved statues found on the site, and which was one of Rhodes cherishes possessions, as a “a favourite symbol of the link between the civilisation derived from the North and the savage barbarism of Southern and Central Africa before the advent of the Europeans.” [7]


Colossal monuments and historical narratives

Cecil Rhodes’ pre-eminence in the imaginary of the British Empire only equals the prominence of statues and memorials celebrating his achievements - and financial donations. As historian Richard Symons noted: “no one has more memorials in Oxford than Cecil Rhodes.” [8] And this is where the question of the construction of the historical narratives comes front and centre: is the prominent image of Cecil Rhodes’ an accurate representation of the history of the British Empire, and what story does it tell us? Is this a story just about Britain - embodied in the life of one British man - or is it about generations of people across a diversity of communities, languages, and cultures, who experienced imperial rule? Who is at risk of historical erasure and who has been historically erased?

His business and political career in Southern Africa - and particularly as the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony - are discussed in the previous blog, marking the point that Cecil Rhodes was not a god, nor a monarch or religious figure. While a university student, Rhodes had found the Oxford system “impractical,” and he himself was described as “belong[ing] to a set of men like himself, not caring for distinctions in the schools [final examinations] and not working for them” (Rev. A. Butler). [9] Despite all that, Rhodes had to acknowledge that wherever he traveled, he found Oxford men in positions of power - or as he put it, “at the top of the tree.”

This is one of the achievements of Cecil Rhodes’ ultimate will - confirming the place of the University of Oxford as a nexus connecting men in power. His donations to Oxford were two-fold: first he created a scholarship programme for white men from the colonies to come to Oxford, to instill “in their minds the advantages to the colonies as well as to the United Kingdom of the retention of the unity of the Empire.” [10] The scholars were not to be ‘bookworms’ who ‘swot’ over Latin and Greek - despite Rhodes’ affection for these classical models. [11] Rather, ‘qualities of manhood’ and ‘success in manly outdoor sports’ were encouraged, in the model of the Athenian gymnasium contests. In Rhodes’ opinion, this was the needed spin on modern systems of competitive examinations, in order to “get the best man for the World’s fight.” [12] Second, he richly endowed Oriel College, is alma mater, with the provision of erecting a new building in the centre of Oxford, wiping out the town homes and shops of 95 to 101 High Street. The external façade of the building was built in a manner exalting hierarchy, with two kings (George V and Edward VII, emperors in their own right) and two bishops halfway up, and Cecil Rhodes above them.

The Rhodes Building, Oriel College, on the High Street of Oxford - © Marcus Beale Architects

Rhodes claimed a place, figuratively and in practice, at “the top of the tree”, a modern Colossus whose statue would be preserved for centuries to come - protected by the generous financial ties that embedded him in the Oxford landscape. Where the Greek Colossus looked over the Mediterranean, and the Rhodes Colossus caricature gazed over the African continent, the Rhodes statue looks out upon the Oxford dreaming spires - a place of knowledge, but most importantly, a place of power.

Rhodes at the 'top of the tree' - illustration by Kati Lacey

The importance given to the statue - and the lack of attention given to the career, values, and ideals of Cecil Rhodes - bears to question the validity of keeping such a statue up today on the streets of Oxford - as in other places in Britain and abroad. The ancient Rhodes Colossus was a symbol of patriotic pride, without representing a single individual - the modern Rhodes statue celebrates the life of a single man as a patriotic symbol. It does so with little questioning of how his life and ideals were at odds with his own historical context. Saying that his values were ‘those of his time’, fails to recognise how the views of a small group of people in power - all white, all male - are taken as representative of the whole of a population of millions of people, including those subjugated by Rhodes. The values of a single man cannot speak for the objective experience of the multitude of people who were caught, whether they wanted it or not - in the process of imperial expansion. The Rhodes statue provides a narrow view of history, a history that takes those in power as representatives of the history of humankind as a whole.

Statues are not neutral - illustration by Kati Lacey

Removing a statue is no neutral act, just as erecting one is not. Prior to the nineteenth century, very few statues erected were not of monarchs or religious figures. Public statues have complex historical legacies, because they speak less of historical depiction than of intent - the celebration of an achievement, the dissemination of values, or in the case of Cecil Rhodes and others, the power of money. We must then, collectively, ponder: does the statue of this individual man help promote an objective rendering of history? Or does history lie, rather, with the thousands of voices, each complementing each other, carrying generations of trauma and erasure?

Rhodes is not a Colossus - illustration by Kati Lacey

Rhodes wanted to be a colossus, and was described as such; yet his legacy, and particularly his statues, when left uncontested, fails to teach us history. The protests have meaningfully contributed to remedy this failure, and rarely have we publicly discussed the legacies of Cecil Rhodes more than over the past five years. To those worrying that the removal of the statue would “hide history”, some more credit should be given to the work of historians to make this narrative known. And just as the Colossus of Rhodes, once standing proud, eventually fell, its history has not been lost to us. Falling statues help make history.

written by Olivia Durand



[1] Cecil John Rhodes, ‘Confession of Faith’, 2 June 1877

[2] Rhodes, Cecil, and W. T. Stead. The Last Will and Testament of Cecil John Rhodes : With Elucidatory Notes to Which Are Added Some Chapters Describing the Political and Religious Ideas of the Testator. London: "Review of Reviews" Office, 1902. 95

[3] Reade, William Winwood. The Martyrdom of Man. 5th ed. London: Trübner, 1881.

Kipling, Rudyard. The White Man's Burden [a Poem]. Lond, 1899.

[4] Rotberg, Robert I., and Miles F. Shore. The Founder : Cecil Rhodes and the Pursuit of Power. Bergvlei, Johannesburg: Southern Book Publishers, 1988. 342

[5] Rhodes, Cecil, and W. T. Stead. The Last Will and Testament of Cecil John Rhodes, 1902, 415. Stead quoting Rhodes: “If there be a God, and He cares anything about what I do, I think it is clear that He would like me to do what He is doing himself. And he is manifestly fashioning the English-speaking race as the chosen instrument (...).”

[6] Rotberg, Robert I., and Miles F. Shore. The Founder, 1988, 151.

[7] Maylam, Paul. The Cult of Rhodes : Remembering an Imperialist in Africa. Cape Town: David Philip, 2005. 75.

[8] Symonds, Richard. Oxford and Empire : The Last Lost Cause? Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

[9] Quoted in Rotberg, Robert I., and Miles F. Shore. The Founder, 1988. 88

[10] Rotberg, Robert I., and Miles F. Shore. The Founder, 1988, 669

[11] Rhodes, Cecil, and W. T. Stead. The Last Will and Testament of Cecil John Rhodes

[12] Rotberg, Robert I., and Miles F. Shore. The Founder, 1988, 669



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