The Founder: Cecil Rhodes and the Pursuit of Power

By Robert I. Rotberg; Miles F. Shore | Go to book overview

"The Grandest Opportunities" A Preface

THE AGENDA WAS defined a decade ago: "A biography [of Rhodes] adequate for historians of Africa or of imperialism and a biography in its own right has yet to be written." A wise critic, Jeffrey Butler desired a study which would bring together "Rhodes the businessman and Rhodes the politician, Rhodes the creator and ruler of Rhodesia and Rhodes the Cape politician; Rhodes the South African and Rhodes the actor in English politics and money markets; and perhaps above all, Rhodes the formulator of 'native policy.'" The major unfinished business for biographers, he suggested, lay in producing a portrait that was "psychologically convincing," giving appropriate weight "to the favorable and unfavorable aspects of his personality and conduct." Cornelis W. de Kiewiet, who masterfully synthesized the history of South Africa, had earlier written that Rhodes was "not one man, but several men who blended their dissimilar and incongruous traits into a firm and successful union. The biographer [had not appeared who could] do justice to the contradictions of the loftiness to which he could rise and the baseness to which he could stoop." Why and how Rhodes proved so creative and effective in all his multifarious pursuits are key questions, and the driving ones of this new biography. 1

Rudyard Kipling warned, however, that "Rhodes's personality would be a very difficult thing to translate to a man who did not know him well. . . ." That may be why Anthony Sampson, one of the ablest of recent writers, believes that "the character of Rhodes--with his combination of shrewdness and adolescence, romanticism and ruthlessness, imagination and vulgarity--has eluded all his biographers." For the same reason Geoffrey Wheatcroft, concluding his study of The Randlords, felt that "a satisfactory life of Rhodes is still to seek." For him, and doubtless for many others, "the looming gap between [ Rhodes'] deeds and his unfathomable personality remains." 2

-vii-

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