The following is from an interview conducted for the filming of "Queen Victoria's Empire." It is an actual transcript of the interviewee speaking; hence, much of the text may seem informally constructed.
Q: What was Cecil Rhodes like as a young man?
A: Well, we're very lucky because we've got a whole series of letters that he wrote to his home, and there must be few historical characters that one can get as close to at that early age. And he's a quite remarkable young man. [H]is descriptions of Africa, frankly, are more artistic and intuitive and creative than the great Antony Trollope managed when he toured Africa...six years later. Rhodes had an intuitive feeling for the people of Africa. None of the later racism was there in evidence. We have wonderful descriptions of him spending whole nights in African Kraals. He...observed every detail. How things functioned. [Y]ou could see the early signs of his kind of technical excellence. He was always badgering people at home for the latest information he could get on cotton planting, on seeds, on gins and so forth. So here we have a young man of enormous charm, of enormous liberalism and openness. Communicating with his family with these loving, chatting letters. And it's hard to think that this was the man who would eventually seize a million square miles of Africa and use that dreadful riposte, "I prefer to land to niggers."
Q: Was he a racist when he first got to Africa?
A: Rhodes was definitely not a racist when he first came to Africa. He was fascinated in African society. He would spend whole nights in Kraals, he wanted to understand how they operated. He was quick to learn Zulu so he could communicate directly. He also understood the value that Africans placed on a person's trust. And he was much mocked by the other cotton farmers because he used to pay his [laborers] in advance. And that was seen by the people who worked for him as a sign of trust, and of course, it built up their loyalty.
Q: He has his first heart attack at 19, and he goes on a long trip after that. How does that trip affect him?
A: A lot of commentators have said that those nine months that Rhodes spent with his brother touring Africa by ox wagon...right up into Boer territory had an incredible effect on him. It is said that this was the first time the idea of territorial expansion in Africa took place in his head. It is certain that during that time he developed a very, very close affinity with the Afrikaans people -- many descriptions of him sitting on the, you know on the stoups at night talking to the old burghers. He himself bought a large farm there, so he became a burgher of the Transvaal. And I would say from the early 1870s onwards, Rhodes was, whether this was happening in Kimberley, whether this happened on his trek with his brother, Rhodes would be continually hearing stories about the African interior from wandering hunters, the legend of their fear, the source of King Solomon's mines. So it's neat to say that during those nine months of travel with his brother, he developed this kind of relationship with Africa. I believe that it was on that journey that he formed his first nascent ideas of an Africa that was there ready to be reached, ready to be taken.
Q: What if any kind of relationship or contact did Queen Victoria and Rhodes have?
A: In the initial stages when Rhodes was an unknown MP in a distant colony, Victoria was in a sense a barrier to his expansion. She dictated or had prepared a very famous letter warning Lobenguller that Rhodes and his consortium had no official sanction from the British government. That wonderful expression, "A king gives a stranger his ox, not his whole herd." In other words, the dear lady was trying to enter the African imagination by using a pastoral image like this. When Rhodes came to London in 1890 in those famous four months where he seduced the entire British establishment, Queen Victoria and [her] government remarkably changed their complexion, and came behind Rhodes. When he eventually met Queen Victoria on a subsequent visit, he charmed her. There's a wonderful moment where it's said that she said to him, "Is it true, Mr. Rhodes, that you're a woman hater?" to which he replied, "How can I possibly hate a sex to which your Majesty belongs?" [That was an example of] Rhodes' charm. He had a wonderful way with women. And [the Queen] was one of his great admirers in the final years of her life.
An award-winning filmmaker, Antony Thomas was born in India and brought up in South Africa. He moved to London in 1967, and has subsequently written and directed over 40 documentaries and dramas for British and American television. He is also author of a highly-acclaimed biography, Rhodes: The Race for Africa.