A cabal of wealthy and/or politically and socially connected Englishmen — a “Secret Elite” — forms in 1891 to ensure Anglo‐Saxon domination of the world as it enters the 20th Century. They seek a federated Empire — the white dominions acting as partners with the Mother Country — and the recovery of the United States.
To achieve these ends, they develop talent through the granting of scholarships to Oxford — the legendary Rhodes Scholarships. They orchestrate global finance and trade, penetrate imperial administration, manipulate public opinion through control of the popular press — and ultimately plunge the Empire into war.
Sounds like a classic Masons/Illuminati/Bilderburger conspiracy theory, right? Or the plot to the first Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movie…
The Secret Society initiated by Cecil John Rhodes provides a perfect host for the febrile infection of conspiracy theory. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of believing that here one has found the answer that explains everything. Yet dismissing Rhodes’ Secret Elite as a mere figment of conspiracy theory would be equally misguided. The existence of the Society is thoroughly documented, principally through Professor Carroll Quigley’s books Tragedy & Hope and The Anglo‐American Establishment. Quigley — a professor of comparative civilization at Georgetown University — was no fringe figure.
Professor Quigley was famously name‐checked by a former student — also a Rhodes Scholar — who went on to attain the pinnacle of power. His name was Bill Clinton. In accepting the Democratic Party nomination for the Presidency of the United States in 1992, he intoned:
“As a teenager, I heard John Kennedy’s summons to citizenship. And then, as a student at Georgetown, I heard that call clarified by a professor named Carroll Quigley, who said to us that America was the greatest Nation in history because our people had always believed in two things —that tomorrow can be better than today and that every one of us has a personal moral responsibility to make it so.”
The influence of Rhodes’ Secret Elite is profound and long‐lasting, echoing down to the present day. Ironically the society’s first significant action to paint the map of the world British Red was an utter disaster. Yet the handling of a crisis of its own making showed how influence, artfully and not‐so‐artfully applied, can rescue an elite from the consequences of its own actions.
As of late 1895, the world’s most productive goldfields lay within the boundaries of the independent South African Republic (ZAR), also known as the Transvaal. Thousands of Brits, Americans, Australians and Europeans of many nations had flooded into the ZAR in a gold rush as colorful as any other in the wild and woolly history of the 19th Century frontier. The Boer settlers of the ZAR looked askance at these uitlanders, concentrated in Johannesburg. The Calvinistic Afrikaners were appalled by the Gomorrah that had erupted from the veld, and they feared the political potential of the uitlanders. If they were given the vote, they might swamp and push aside the Boers who had founded this land after fleeing British rule in the Cape in the Gret Trek of the 1830s.
For Rhodes and his inner circle — up to and including British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain — it was intolerable to allow the backward Boers to control all of that wealth, which, by rights should be British. They conceived a filibustering expedition using the British South Africa Company (BSA) Police from Rhodesia to support an uprising of Uitlanders in Johannesburg. They essentially plotted a coup in the South African Republic, seeking to raise the Union Jack over the goldfields.
Rhodes’ close friend and Rhodesian administrator Leander Starr Jameson was tapped to lead the filibuster, and he gathered his paramilitary force in Bechuanaland in December 1895. The problem was, the uitlanders weren’t in the mood for revolution. As long as they were making money, they cared little for politics. Aside from a few hotspurs and imperial idealogues, who smuggled arms into Johannesburg, there wasn’t any support for an Uitlander uprising.
Rhodes tried to call the coup attempt off, but the impetuous Jameson, who had won Matabeleland with nerve and a few Maxim guns, decided unilaterally to force the issue. He and a force of about 600 men crossed the Bechuanaland border. But Jameson wasn’t dealing with the Matabele. ZAR President Paul Kruger had invested tax revenues from the mines in Mauser rifles and Krupp artillery from a sympathetic Germany, and he had good intel on the plot.
Jameson’s raiders made it to Doornkop a little southwest of Johannesburg before they were cornered by a well‐armed Boer Commando backed with artillery. Jameson lost 30 men before he recognized the hopelessness of his position and surrendered on January 2, 1896. He was taken weeping in chains to Pretoria and jailed.
Everybody knew that Rhodes was behind the Jameson Raid, and he was forced to resign as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. In Rhodesia, the Matabele quickly recognized that the BSA Police had been stripped away, and in March they would rise in a rebellion that came close to knocking Rhodesia off its pins.
The game should have been up for the diamond magnate and imperial schemer — but this is where the Secret Society kicked in to save Rhodes and Jameson both
Rhodes had telegraph cables implicating Colonial Secretary Chamberlain in the plot. The government could ill‐afford the scandal that entailed, and they used the threat of revoking the BSA Charter as leverage to keep Rhodes from going public. The mutually assured destruction standoff with the British Government suited Rhodes well‐enough. Jameson, knowing his patron would take care of him, recovered his poise and kept his counsel. Rhodes’ agents of influence worked feverishly to save his reputation while Rhodes himself worked to save his country from the Matabele uprising.
The Rhodes’-friendly press pushed hard on public opinion, portraying the Raid in the light of plucky British freedom fighters going up against roughneck Boer oppressors. The press was handed a beautiful opportunity to go big on the jingoism when Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany sent Kruger a cable congratulating him on foiling the Rhodes/Jameson plot. Now the Raid became not just a South African issue but an international one, with “meddling” from the obnoxious Kaiser setting off fervid patriotic paroxysms in Great Britain.
Rhodes — though politically damaged — came out more or less unscathed, Charter and fortune intact. Jameson, who served a year of a 15‐month sentence for violating the anti‐mercenary Foreign Enlistment Act of 1870, was lauded in many quarters as a hero (much as Oliver North was in the wake of the Iran‐Contra Scandal). Jameson’s rehabilitation would ultimately see him Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa. Such was the influence of the Secret Elite.
And a new man soon came upon on the scene to lead that elite as Rhodes was forced to step back — a new High Commissioner for South Africa who would use his position to accomplish the goals of the Jameson Raid through full‐scale war. His name was Alfred Milner.