Cecil Rhodes has become a highly controversial figure in history and at the university which takes in Rhodes Scholars. The controversy derives from his colonial administration. Students at Oriel College, Oxford, wanted to remove Rhodes’ statue from their grounds because of his imperial racism. The controversy was quite heated during 2015 and 2016. The campaign was called Rhodes Must Fall and began at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. It quickly spread to Oxford.
The Oxford students were criticised by academics and historians for their apparent bias against just one man when many others commemorated throughout the university had worse reputations than Rhodes. The historians pointed out that 22 of the first US Presidents and most of the Signatories of the Declaration of Independence were slave-owners and white supremacists. There were no calls from students to remove George Washington’s coat of arms from Oxford’s Trinity College library. (Last year the Virginia church where George Washington worshipped removed a commemorative plaque to him because of his links to slavery.)
When Zimbabwe became independent in 1979 Robert Mugabe became President. It’s an irony of history that a republican regime like Mugabe’s, which was finally removed last year, could have been so homophobic when Cecil Rhodes was very probably gay. It is the colonial powers in Britain that set the political boundaries of Zimbabwe way back in the 1890s as part of the territory known as Zambesia. It was named Rhodesia in 1895 due to Rhodes’ popularity.
We may never know for sure if Cecil Rhodes was gay. He never married and never seemed to have any public romantic attachment to anyone, male or female. It is his private life which offers glimpses of what his sexual interests might have been.
The first significant friendship was with Neville Pickering (1857-1886), a good-looking young man whom Rhodes employed as company secretary of De Beers, Rhodes’ huge diamond-mining business. Shortly afterwards they were living together in a modest shack. On Pickering’s 25th birthday Rhodes left some important business meetings to spend time with him. He even changed his will to make Pickering his sole beneficiary. Pickering never inherited Rhodes’ fortune. He broke his leg in a fall from his horse and septicaemia set in. Again, Rhodes left an important meeting in Johannesburg and rushed back to Kimberley to tend to his injured friend. Rhodes nursed Pickering until he died in Rhodes’ arms and Rhodes was absolutely inconsolable.
After Pickering there was Henry Latham Currey, who angered Rhodes when he decided to get married, and there was Dr. Leander Starr Jameson. Rhodes and Jameson had been friends, possibly more, through all of Rhodes’ relationships. All of them could well have been non-sexual.
Rhodes earned his fortune and the means by which the Rhodes Scholarships could be funded, was though De Beers diamond company. In 1866 diamonds were found in what became Kimberley, South Africa. A diamond rush led to the higher demand for diamonds, which had until then had only been obtainable from India or to a lesser extent Brazil. Cecil Rhodes took advantage and formed De Beers, the company that still dominates the industry.
Here I could go in several directions through this 80 Gay journey with diamonds and its connections. I could go into De Beers’ famous slogan “A Diamond is Forever” which influenced the title of the James Bond novel “Diamonds Are Forever”. If you’d like to follow that route you can begin with my article on James Bond’s queer connections here. Two people in that article are Numbers 77 and 78 in this “Another 80 Gays” series – but you’ll have to wait until December to find out who they are! Bond fans, don’t worry, because there is another, very surprising and uplifting, link to 007 coming in late summer.
The route I’ve chosen from Cecil Rhodes and diamonds takes us back thousands of years to where diamonds first came from, India. There was a legendary place called the Valley of the Diamonds in northern India. Legend says that this Valley was discovered by a Greek king who invaded the area and who was said to be the first to bring diamonds back with him to Europe. He was the famous 6) Alexander the Great (356 BC-323 BC).
I hope to write a more detailed article on Cecil Rhodes, Alexander the Great and diamonds later in the year.
Next time we look at something else attributed to Alexander the Great, his coat of arms.