Our Men in Oxford

In July 2010, I spent a few days in the library of Rhodes House, Oxford, going through a collection of manuscripts relating to the early Moreton Bay settlement.  It was a great place to work, light and airy, but with polished wooden furniture that glowed with a sense of the timeless traditions of Oxford – but with free wifi too.

The Rhodes Trust takes a keen interest in the achievements of its alumni.  Walking up the stairs to the library in mid-2010, I was startled to encounter a large photograph of Tony Abbott (New South Wales, 1981), who had a few weeks earlier replaced Malcolm Turnbull (New South Wales, 1978) as Opposition Leader.  In terms of global reach, perhaps Bill Clinton (Arkansas, 1968) was Cecil Rhodes’ greatest coup, but others include a President of Pakistan and Prime Ministers of Australia, Canada, Jamaica and Malta.

In fact, Rhodes House is not old by Oxford standards.   It is a 1920s building, built to house the Rhodes Trust, which administers the Rhodes Scholarships.  When Cecil Rhodes died without issue in 1902, he left a fortune of nearly £5 million from gold and diamond mines in South Africa and what was once called Rhodesia.

Cecil Rhodes (Sketch by Mortimer Menpes)

Cecil Rhodes (Sketch by Mortimer Menpes) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cecil Rhodes was an adventurer, and probably a rogue, but when he died before his 50th birthday, he followed in the footsteps of many medieval sinners by a lavish act of charity.  I’m not sure whether, like those earlier sinners, he thought he could buy his way into heaven through good works, but he certainly hoped to put his stamp on the next century by his targeted benevolence.

The scholarships he established were to target the best and the brightest young men from the colonies (in his day they were all men) and mould them into an Oxford-educated elite that would rule the world.  Since members of the Anglo-Saxon race were bound to rule that world, he included Americans (2 from each State or Territory) – and added 5 Germans in a codicil.

The first Rhodes Scholars arrived in Oxford in 1903, and since then over 7000 young people have followed them to Oxford. The German scholarships disappeared during the First World War, but since then, further changes have tended to make the scholarships more inclusive, with women included from 1977, and many more African students.

Cecil Rhodes wanted to recruit potential leaders, ‘not…merely bookworms’.  He wanted men with ‘literary and scholastic attainments’ but also ‘qualities of manhood’ such as courage, devotion to duty and sympathy for the weak, and the ‘instincts to lead’.

Rhodes was a Victorian, who believed in Mens sana in copore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body), so he also specified that scholars should have a ‘fondness of and success in manly outdoor sports such as cricket football and the like’.  Although they’ve widened the definition a little, it is still important to have some outside interests, but it can be a problem.

Bob Hawke Turf Tavern

Bob Hawke’s memorial at the Turf Tavern, Oxford, for downing a yard of ale (2.5 imperial pints or 1.4 litres) in just 11 seconds in 1953, while at Oxford Uni, a record at the time, and entered in the Guinness Book of Records

In 1953, young Bob Hawke arrived in Oxford from Western Australia on a Rhodes Scholarship.  His supervisor was the economist, Colin Clark, who was unimpressed.  On 25 November 1957, he wrote to his son:

I must say that I think Hawke is showing some effrontery.  He turned up in Oxford with an I-know-it-all-already attitude, and thought that if we just showed him one or two more tricks of the trade he could be a complete authority on wage fixing.  We found, not only that he did not know any economics at all, but that he was far too stubborn to learn any.  So we got him to drop his thesis and transferred him to Wheare, to write a thesis in the sub-faculty of politics, which we thought would be easier.  Hawke’s principal interest was cricket.  If he succeeds, I shall regard it as proof that Australian labour leaders, like British, are now beginning to produce a hereditary governing class – and I shall regret it.

As it turned out, Prime Minister Hawke, like President Clinton, met the criteria that Cecil Rhodes had been looking for: both men turned out to be natural political leaders, whose personal peccadilloes (and both of them had many) were outweighed by their ability to woo the electorate.  In both cases, too much Oxford polish would have been fatal to their political chances.

But Colin Clark was right too.  Australian labour leaders have since become a hereditary governing class – and I regret it, too.

Brenda Niall and John Thompson (eds), The Oxford Book of Australian Letters (1998)
Cecil Rhodes’ Will (1899)  

This time last year:
Ice, 15 August 2011

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