Founder of Rhodesia: Is there any evidence that Cecil Rhodes ever set up a secret society?

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[Professor Quigley said that Rhodes created a secret society and he had access to their secret records for 20 years. This is an excellent discussion from Reddit. But, if you go to the source link you'll see links embedded in the original text which lead to interesting things. This is the best discussion I've seen of Rhodes and his secret society yet. Jan]

The British colonialist associated with southern Africa and Rhodesia is often quoted about his idea of forming a secret society with the goal of furthering British interests and expanding the British Empire:

Why should we not form a secret society with but one object, the furtherance of the British Empire and the bringing of the whole world under British rule, for the recovery of the United States, for making the Anglo Saxon race but one Empire? What a dream, but yet it is probable; it is possible.

Is there any evidence this secret society was ever brought into existence? I can’t imagine it was very successful if it was, since the British Empire has long since fallen (and to my knowledge there was no attempt at recovery of the USA during Rhodes’ lifetime) . I don’t know much about this subject, my searches just lead to conspiracy theory nonsense so if anybody could point me in the direction of a decent book on the subject it’d be much appreciated.

Popular history would suggest that Cecil Rhodes did found a secret society, the Society of the Elect, but its history is a murky one and unfortunately, as you say, many sources have been fictionalised or mutilated by conspiracy theorists. David Chidester, an academic of the study and use of history in Africa especially, addresses the society of the elect here in his book. There are very few other academic works that address the Society of the Elect for one simple reason; the evidence is scant or non-existent beyond pure desire for such a society.

So what evidence do we have?

The main and most commonly drawn upon sources are the copies of Rhodes’ Will and Last Testament. From the first to the fifth edition of his will, a large amount of funds was to be put aside for the ‘Society of the Elect’, an organisation designed to do exactly what you have described above, namely preserve and expand British control throughout the world, through economic and political manipulation. It was not until the sixth edition of Rhodes’ Will that all mention of this society disappeared to be replaced by funds to be set aside for the education of boys from the Empire, America and Germany, at Oxford University; the famous Rhodes’ Scholarships.

As the story traditionally goes, this society was set up in 1891 by Rhodes and William T. Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, a London newspaper. The society had an elaborate and complex hierarchical structure (undoubtedly a result of both Rhodes’ and Stead’s Masonic links), and was desinged to include as many important people as possible without neglecting or slighting any of them. At the top of it all was Rhodes himself. Why Stead? Well Stead was trusted with Rhodes’ final Will in 1902 and is credited as the editor of the finished document available here. He was also used by Rhodes, indirectly and discreetly, to help shape public opinion of the British South African Company’s actions in Rhodesia, particularly after the 1896-97 Shona and Ndebele Rebellions.

So why are there so few sources? Honestly, the biggest problem is that Rhodes left little personal correspondence behind, except for letters written in a formal sense (i.e. whilst acting on his position in government or as Director of the British South African Company) which makes writing about the Society of the Elect a nightmare for academic historians, forced to rely upon ‘weak’ (as in dubious creation dates or authenticity) sources. This is one such source which magically appears in an 1981 conspiracy book on the Anglo-American Establishment by Carroll Quigley. If you are actually interested in reading this book, and are willing to keep a very, very open mind about its credentials as an academic source, it is available free here. It actually seems to read as if written by an authority on the Society of the Elect but most of it is unsubstantiated or when sources are provided, these sources are of the dubious nature mentioned earlier.

The concept of the Society of the Elect is actually much older than Rhodes, and began in German higher education establishments in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In this 1834 work on Societies and Associations there is mention of a Society of the Elect, almost sixty years before Rhodes and Stead established their own.

Unfortunately, what all of this means is that recommending anything for further reading on the subject is difficult. All of the work is either anti-conspiracy such as David Chidester, or pro-conspiracy such as Carroll Quigley. It is telling though that in the good biographies of Rhodes, his biographers steer clear of the secret Society as much as possible.

Robert Rotberg’s The Founder: Cecil Rhodes and the Pursuit of Power for example, says only,

In a letter to Lord Rothschild which accompanied the will, and in the sentiments of which Rothschild acquiesced, Rhodes instructed his imperious social better to use the funds released by Rhodes’ death to establish a society of the elect for the good of the empire. "In considering question suggested take Constituion Jesuits if obtainable and insert English Empire for Roman Catholic Religion", he directed Rothschild cryptically.’ (Available here)

Similarly, Anthony Thomas in his book Rhodes: The Race for Africa writes:

From an early age Rhodes had acknowledged his debt to the Jesuits…In Rhodes’ case, they were the inspiration for his plan to create "a secret society…placed at our universities and schools…in every Colonial legislature…[which would] crush all disloyalty and every movement for the severance of the British Empire." (p.31)

That referenced quote is from an older book by John Flint, called simply Cecil Rhodes.

Finally, there is a piece of work called the Confession of Faith that Rhodes wrote in 1877 as a 23 year old boy, already familiar with Africa and the British Empire. You can view it here. In it he first suggests this secret society of his, in fact in the very first pages. But as I said, finding any evidence or even reference to this secret society existing is damn near impossible. Maybe we will someday find a letter talking about it, or a membership book with ticks by peoples names, but I’m not holding my breath.

Anyhow, hope this helps. Any questions just ask. I researched this tangently for my current work so I could probably go into more detail if required.

Source: https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/27haof/is_there_any_evidence_that_cecil_rhodes_ever_set/



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