Cecil Rhodes died on March 26 1902. The centenary of his death was marked by a modest ceremony at the thatched cottage in Muizenberg, Cape Town - now a small museum - where he died. Otherwise, scant notice was taken of this anniversary in southern Africa, where Rhodes once stamped his presence on the region as mining magnate, colonial politician and imperial expansionist.
Neither was the date marked in Oxford. No flag flew at half-mast over Rhodes House, the Herbert Baker building that is headquarters to the Rhodes Trust. But the Rhodes trustees had already decided to commemorate the centenary of their founder's death by producing a history of the trust. Sir Anthony Kenny, then the trust's secretary and warden of Rhodes House, was asked to edit it.
The result is a hefty, handsome book - with a price to match. It is also an oddly shaped and uneven work. The unevenness is perhaps inevitable with eight principal contributors. Its sandwich shape is a product of editorial decision. Despite its title, only the first chapter, "The Rhodes Trust and its administration", by Kenny, and the ninth, "The Rhodes Trust in the age of empire", by John Darwin, focus on the trust, the trustees and their activities. The intervening seven chapters provide a series of discrete histories of the Rhodes scholarships, divided by the countries of origin of the scholars.
These chapters vary in length and quality, and the format guarantees some repetition. The chapters on the trust itself by Kenny and Darwin are so well researched and engagingly written that one is prepared to accept their overlapping coverage as complementary. Less acceptable, and surely more amenable to editorial blue pencil, is the extent to which some of the country histories replicate material covered in the framing chapters. The political and legal challenge to the South African scholarships in the 1970s is recounted by Kenny, by David Alexander in "The American scholarships" and by Tim Nuttall in "A century of South African Rhodes scholarships". Kenny and Alexander also both address the successful struggle in the 1970s to extend the scholarships to women.
Some of the depth of detail in the country histories is self-defeating, virtually ensuring that their appeal will be nationally circumscribed. Was there a failure of nerve somewhere between the original trustees' decision to commission a history of the trust and the eventual appearance of this lopsided two-books-in-one? If so, it is a pity. Many would share my preference for a succinct monograph on the history of the Rhodes Trust, not least because it provides a fascinating story - "a record of lost visions, forgotten purposes and failed projects", as Darwin writes, as well as "purposeful growth towards a planned objective". The trust was an important and intriguing body in its own right, but serves also "as a lens through which to peer at the vanished political and academic culture" of Britain from the hey-day of empire, through imperial adaptation and retreat, to decolonisation and after.
From the trust's first meeting in May 1902 until the project of "modernising imperialism" was blown away by the winds of change of the early 1960s, it remained centrally concerned with the larger vision of Rhodes as well as with the scholarships provided for in his will. The most prominent trustees adhered tenaciously to the founder's vision of British imperial sway, underwritten by a wider Anglo-Saxon alliance. They saw themselves as "unofficial agents of empire", reaching places where Whitehall was too pusillanimous, too parsimonious or too clumsy to intervene.
Before 1914, the trustees embodied the "fusion of two remarkable camp followings": individuals close to Rhodes himself and those enrolled by Lord Milner in his post-Boer war kindergarten. They pumped large sums of money into political projects close to the heart of the founder, such as an ill-fated irrigation scheme designed to transform desert tracts into fertile lands, and pay-outs to individual henchmen of Rhodes. Between the wars, the trust was dominated by forceful exponents of adaptive, pragmatic imperialism: Milner, Leo Amery, Otto Beit, Lord Lovat, Philip Kerr (marquess of Lothian), Stanley Baldwin and Geoffrey Dawson.
These seven men clocked up a total of 150 years as trustees or, in Kerr's case, as general secretary. They recognised the inevitability of Indian self-rule, and endorsed Lord Hailey's vision for empire in Africa as one of partnership and gradual indigenous advance (yet they switched the emphasis in South Africa from British presence to keeping the country white). They championed close Anglo-American relations as a better bet for long-term British influence than either the League of Nations or the tilting European balance of power. Above all, they adhered to a vision of imperial weightiness and of the scholarships as a means to this end. They wanted to make the University of Oxford a "laboratory of empire", but - in Milner's words - were "dead against" having the trust run by "dons with donnish ideas".
The final phase covered in this history, roughly from the 1960s to the end of the 20th century, saw this balance effectively reversed. With the protracted but decisive toppling of the empire east of Suez and south of the Sahara, "physically and mentally the claims of Oxford on the trust became irresistible". The trust bankrolled the Historic Buildings Appeal in the university city, put money directly into colleges and, over time, abandoned the increasingly anachronistic imperial visions of its founder and became "not the progenitor of new academic causes but a hardship fund for the collegiate university".
Kenny reminds us that, during the British Parliament's inquiry into the Jameson Raid, Rhodes fretted about Rhodesia: "'They can't change the name of the country, can they?' he pleaded." Today, in the age of Zimbabwe and Zambia, "his name is now perpetuated only by the scholarships". The dons with donnish ideas had the last postcolonial laugh.
Colin Bundy is director and principal, School of Oriental and African Studies, London, and a former Rhodes scholar.
The History of the Rhodes Trust: 1902-1999
Editor - Anthony Kenny
ISBN - 0 19 920191 9
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £60.00
Pages - 606