23. The Trial of Cecil John Rhodes
Reviewer: Mack Lundy
Review Publisher: The Good Book Appreciation Society – Facebook
Author: Adekeye Adebajo
Date: 14 August 2021
Image courtesy of: N/A
The Trial of Cecil John Rhodes by Adekeye Adebajo.
This is the last of the three books I’ve had difficulties figuring out how to review, so be gentle. I’m not entirely happy with it but I’m putting it out there anyway.
This is by no means an impartial account of Cecil John Rhodes. I can’t imagine anyone not knowing that Rhodes is in for the high jump from the start, but Adebajo lets the facts speak for themselves, though in a dramatic fashion.
I knew very little about Cecil Rhodes before picking up this short (174 pages), creative non-fiction historical/political novella. I knew that:
he lived during the height of the British empire
he wanted to build a Cape to Cairo railway
there is a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University
Northern and Southern Rhodesia were established by and named after him
there was (is still?) a “Rhodes Must Fall” movement in South Africa.
I didn’t know what Rhodes would have done in Africa to warrant a trial in the afterlife.
Here are some dates to give you a historical context for Rhodes’ life:
Cecil John Rhodes: 1853 – 1902
Rhodes arrived in South Africa in 1870
Victorian England – 1820 – 1914
Queen Victoria reigned 1837 – 1901
Height of the British Empire: 1815- 1914 (The British Century)
Adebajo sets actual people, places, and events in a narrative framework with (I think) the aim of educating the reader in the richness of Africa and the horrors perpetrated on its peoples. I don’t want to repeat the details provided by the author so I will confine myself to describing the narrative framework. From further reading outside this book, I see that Adebajo has accurately laid out Rhodes’ life and crimes though in a very dramatic manner. For me, this made the details about Rhodes more accessible and interesting. The parties in the trial show how Rhodes’s and imperialism had an impact on their own lives.
The Narrative: Cecil John Rhodes awakens in total blackness. Feeling around, he finds stairs and begins to ascend. As he ascends, he observes scenes of people undergoing horrendous torture. He emerges into the open and begins walking. After a night sleeping in the open, Rhodes finds his way to the bank of a mighty river where a ferryman awaits. The ferryman is AhmadBen Bella who fought for Algerian independence and later was a leader in the movement to liberate all of Africa. He is to transport Rhodes to the other side where he will meet his guide.
This is the start of Rhodes’ —and the readers’— education. You might think this part is a bit dry since it serves to acquaint Rhodes to an Africa he didn’t know. For the reader, it’s a launching point to learn more about Africa.
One the other side, Rhodes is met by Eufa Sutherland, a Ghanaian and pioneer in African theatre. She tells Rhodes that he has been dead for 120 years and is now in After Africa where the departed souls from Africa and the diaspora go after death. Eufa informs him that he is to be tried for what he did in the Herebefore but before his trial he will be given a tour of five of After Africa’s seven heavens.
Upon learning about his upcoming trial, Rhodes dryly asks if any of the judges will be white: I fear my imperial achievements might not be impartially viewed by those who suffered their consequences.
It might be unfair to call this first part dry. I use that term because it is an outline of African history and culture. It is also very interesting. If you follow the references in the tour section of the book — actually the rest of the book for that matter — you will gain an appreciation of the richness of African history and culture.
The five heavens Rhodes will tour are:
Historical Heaven of the Ancestors — tableaus of past African civilizations.
Guild of Nobel Laureates — African who have been awarded a Nobel Prize
The Dead Poets Society — African writers
The Celestial Music Concert — celebrating music from Africa and the diaspora.
The Afrolympics — African achievements in sports.
Rhodes’ imperialistic self-assurance and arrogance suffers as he sees an Africa that he didn’t know existed. For him, African history began with the arrival of Europeans. He seems to suffer the most while observing the Afrolympics. Rhodes was sickly and came to South Africa to improve his health. My takeaway from this is that Rhodes suffered from feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy and his imperialistic empire building was compensating.
After the tour of the five heavens, Rhodes is sent off to a hotel with the interesting name of Hotel Afropurgatario where he will rest before the trial the next day. Rhodes is escorted to the stadium where the Afrolmypics was held. It is packed with millions of people eager to witness the events.
Rhodes will be judged by the Council of the Wise, five judges representing the sub-regions of the African continent and two representing the diaspora —US, Caribbean, & South America. I have a little knowledge of five of the judges:Patrice Lumumba, Boutros Boutros- Ghali, Ruth First, Maya Angelou, and Toussaint L’Overture. I don’t know (right now) about Taslim Olawale Elias and Wangari Maathai.
Rhodes will be prosecuted by The Council for Damnation: Stanlake Samkange and Olive Schreiner. The defense, The Council for Salvation, has Nelson Mandela and Harry Oppenheimer. If Rhodes is found guilty by all of the judges he will be consigned to the Hades of African Autocrates for eternity.
The chair of the Council of the Wise, Elias, informs Rhode of the five crimes he is accused of committing in the Herebefore for which he will be judged:
grand theft of Africa’s natural resources
exploitation and enslavement of African workers
vainglorious quest for immortality
Judge Elias gives a concise history of Rhodes in Africa emphasizing his expansionism activities and concludes by saying: It is therefore European imperialism as a whole that is on trial over the next two days, and you are the greatest individual symbol and embodiment of this phenomenon in the Victorian age. This is therefore the trial of a system, not just a man.
Samkange is the ideal person to lead the prosecution. He was born in what was then Southern Rhodesia and also very familiar with Rhodes’ history having written On Trial for My Country, published in 1966. In this book he put Rhodes on trial. Schreiner’s case against Rhodes is more personal, having once been a friend and admirer.
Mandela, as you would expect, takes a conciliatory approach by emphasizing the good he accomplished through education. Mandela was the only real choice to defend Rhodes. Oppenheimer, on the other hand, doesn’t help Rhodes at all; he basically glosses over the bad things Rhodes did and emphasizes “the breadth of his vision and his ultimate achievements…which benefited the greater good.”
Basically, the defense boils down to declaring that Rhodes did a lot of good with his educational endowments. Besides, he was a man of his times and considered it his duty to further British imperialism any way he could. Really, he was the embodiment of Kipling’s poem, The White Man’s Burden. which holdes that it is the burden of the white race to “civilize” the non-white races. It was a moral imperative to colonize the non-whites for their own good. Kipling wrote the poem in 1899 justifying the Philippine-American War (1899-1902) but the theme certainly applies to British imperialism.
As the trial concludes, each judge gives a statement about Rhodes along with their verdict. Patrice Lumumba’s remarks were particularly interesting to me because of what he added afterwards. Lumumba tales to task both his co-council, Olive Schreiner (1855-1920) ] and the lead council for the defense, Nelson Mandela. Lumumba acknowledges that Schreiner condemned Rhodes and advocated for the rights of black people, yet she had the early belief that British imperialism was a force for good. He characterizes her approach as that of a “paternalistic white liberal”. Mandela, one of the greatest liberators in the 20th century, is criticized for allowing his name to be linked to Rhodes in the Mandela Rhodes Foundation and going so far as to suggest similarities between himself and Rhodes, something Lumumba stridently rejects. Powerful stuff.
Adebajo displays a remarkable talent in not only laying out the foundation for African civilization and culture but also describing the effects imperialism and colonialism had on Africa, effects that are still seen today. I learned a lot reading this book and learned that there is still more I should know. It wasn’t mentioned here but Patrice Lumumba reminded me that I have intended to read King Leopold’s Ghost which describes the atrocities and genocide that took place when the Congo was King Leopold of Belgium’s personal colony (and after).
I am pleased that I read this book which will also be my guide for further reading. A+ Recommended.
Query for anyone who has read this book:
Early on, Rhodes encounters three bizarre human figures covered in gold, silver, and bronze: one has no arms, one has only one leg, and one has an eye in the center of her forehead. They take Rhodes to their hut and feed him. Rhodes abandons his hosts in the night fearing them. These beings seem like they must symbolize something but I have no idea what. If anyone knows, please leave a comment.