Rhodes’ Library at Groote Schuur

Annette van den Heever – Philobiblon issue No.10 of January 1994

The cataloguing of a private library has an aura of adventure and excitement of discovery which is missing from the cataloguing of books in the ordinary lending or University Libraries.   It was, therefore, with a feeling of expectation, albeit mixed  with trepidation, that I started the cataloguing of the Library of Cecil John Rhodes at Groote Schuur during 1972.

The former University librarian, Dr R F M Immelman, had been approached by Mrs Tini Vorster, wife of Mr B J Vorster, Prime Minister from 1966 to 1978, to recommend someone who would be willing to catalogue the collection.   I was employed on a part-time basis for the next ± five years to organise the collection.   Apart from having the privilege of being able to work in the pleasant surroundings and serene house, I was able to lose myself in an era when Empire building was a cry to stir the hearts of patriotic Englishmen and when burgeoning new ideas on human rights and social reforms were being expressed in print for the first time.

Because the collection has not been added to since Rhodes’ death, it has remained the reflection of the interests of an unusual, enigmatic man who was not to live long enough to use and enjoy the library he had accumulated.

Many aspects of Rhodes’ character have remained unexplained – two of which I found particularly interesting.   What was the strange fascination that the soapstone bird from the Zimbabwe Ruins had for him?   Carved wooden replicas were used as decoration on the handrail of the main staircase at Groote Schuur, on the escutcheon plates of the doors to Rhodes’ bedroom and the north balcony, and as waterspouts.

And Rhodes’ bathroom with its enormous granite bath and white marble massage slab resembling something out of the Roman era – does it reflect his secret feeling that he was the reincarnation of the Roman emperor Titus, whom he resembled to a remarkable degree?

Rhodes arrived in South Africa in 1870 – without much money and in bad health to join his brother Herbert Rhodes, who was in Natal experimenting in growing cotton.   By 1893 he had accumulated a vast fortune and had become Prime Minister of the Cape Colony.

He decided to buy Groote Schuur, then called The Grange, in Rondebosch.   He employed a young English architect, Herbert Baker, to extend the house and worked closely with him to make it as South African as possible and a fitting residence for a Prime Minister.   Felix Gross says:

“Rhodes had never before spent any money on himself except for the merest necessities and he wanted now to give himself, without regard to costs, the very best that money could procure, something which would become a monument to his personality destined to live long after him.”[i]

He had definite ideas of what he wanted, but was willing to delegate authority once he had employed someone he trusted.   Baker says in his book,

“In these early meetings before I knew him better, I was surprised that such a man, the chairman of great business corporations, should give me no details or defined instructions of what he wanted.   He just gave me in a few words his idea – his thoughts – and trusted me to do the rest.”[ii]

However, in the Baker Collection (BC206 in the Manuscripts and Archives Department of Jagger Library) we have notes by Baker, showing that Rhodes had indeed discussed details of the house with him quite precisely; for example the design of the chandeliers.

Rhodes commissioned agents to acquire furniture, porcelain, fireplace- and other tiles and clocks for Groote Schuur, in the Cape and abroad, as he did not have the time to do it himself.   Many of the invoices for these items appear in the Baker Collection.   This resulted in a collection which, although it varies greatly in period and style – from large Cape armoires with Cape Silver fittings to a Boulle desk – well suits the house designed for a Prime Minister.   It was a house designed distinctly for bachelor living.   The Billiard-room, for example, was substantially larger than the dining-room, and nearly as big as the drawing-room.

Rhodes’ library was collected in much the same way, through agents and booksellers, but unfortunately no records of purchases of books exist.   Many of Rhodes’ papers were destroyed in the fire which gutted the first floor of the house and damaged the ground floor extensively.   The records of Hatchards, the one bookseller with whom we know that he did business, were destroyed during the Second World War.

Basil Williams mentions that Rhodes had, in 1892,

“sent Mr Wilmot, a member of the Cape Legislature, well-known for his interest in African antiquities, to secure copies of documents in the Public Record Office and in the Vatican Library, and to buy for the library at Groote Schuur manuscripts and rare books about the early history of South Africa.”[iii]

No documents exist in the collection and only one manuscript, Journeys in South Africa under Governor Janssens 1801-4, which probably means that if any others were collected by Mr Wilmot, they were destroyed in the fire of 1896.

Some of his biographers have made unflattering remarks about the library.   Sarah Gertrude Millin says “The library is that of a conscious Empire-maker not of a reader”[iv], and John Flint: “Rhodes also built up a library at Groote Schuur, but his efforts were more curious than impressive”[v].   Others, though, had different opinions.   Basil Williams says

“it was composed, as a library should be, of books that reflected the owner’s taste in history, travel and adventure, social questions and novels, not always the best, but those he fancied himself”[vi].

Howard Hensman relates that Rhodes had said in answer to a friend who had jokingly asked him

“Suppose that the Imperial Government decides to send you to prison along with Jameson, Rhodes, how will you like that?   …   Well I suppose I would get along all right.   There are a lot of books I have been wanting to read for years now, without having the opportunity to do so”[vii].

Rhodes may not have bought the books personally – he was busy with greater matters when he visited Europe – but his books were acquired in very specific areas of interest and not for show as a “gentleman’s library” to adorn the book-shelves at Groote Schuur.   Basil Williams agrees:

“His books were not a mere millionaire’s collection of standard works, sumptuously bound, or rare editions collected without plan or personal taste, but the gleanings of his own eccentric choice.   Though not a great reader – he led a too active life for that – he occasionally had great bouts of reading, especially on board ship.   There he read books likely to help him in his own schemes, mining regulations of all countries ..  when he was immersed in his diamond mines”[viii].

He bought books because he intended using and reading them when he had more time.

Had he wanted a “gentleman’s library” the small section of English and other literature which consists of 17 titles, and which includes works by Shakespeare, Ruskin, and Tolstoy, would certainly have included “sumptuously bound” works of the great 19th century English poets and novelists.

Instead we have a library that houses all the new ideas of the late nineteenth century.   One hundred and nineteen titles by the great reformers in the field of social sciences, Benjamin Kidd, Herbert Spencer, H M Thompson, E B Bax, T E Huxley, Ruskin, Charles Booth, Marx, Engels and many others, the only poet being Camöes.

Rhodes’ great dream of expanding the British Empire to include the whole of Africa was probably inspired, amongst other things, by a lecture by Ruskin which he attended at Oxford in which he exhorted England to “found colonies as fast and as far as she is able”[ix].   He confided in his friend W T Stead that he would work “for the furtherance of the British Empire for the bringing of the whole civilized world under British rule”.   Not surprising therefore that we find 130 titles of biographies, including the Empire-builders of Victorian England in India and North Africa – and 20 lives of Napoleon.

A comprehensive collection of works of exploration of the African continent from the earliest discoveries of the Portuguese navigators to Livingstone, Burton and Andersson, are the most valuable in the library.   Barros, van Linschoten, Dapper, Leo Africanus, Ogilvie are all there as well as the early travellers in South Africa, Lichtenstein, Barrow, Burchell, Latrobe, Chapman, Thunberg and many more.

There are fascinating books on Indian antiquities as well as Schliemann’s books on his excavations, works on Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities.   Arthur Humphreys of Hatchards mentions that

“Rhodes wanted all the books it was possible to obtain upon the early history of Africa and the gold mining of the Phoenicians”[x].

Two thick, heavy, leather-bound copies of Ethiopian manuscripts, from the collection of Lady Meux, provide a fascinating and refreshingly different picture of the Virgin Mary and the Saints.   The illustrations, coloured in dark green, red and ochre, differ greatly from the European view of biblical characters.   The manuscripts were translated with commentary by G W Wallis Budge and printed in a limited edition of 300 copies.   Manuscript No. 1 The Lives of Mabâ Seyôn and Gabra Krestôs, late 16th or 17th century, Ethiopic translation of Coptic or Arabic texts, shows how the Ethiopian ascetic applied Christian dogmas and beliefs to the events of his daily life.   The second volume contains Manuscripts Nos.  2-5: The Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary; The Life of Hanna [Saint Anne] and The Magical Prayers of Aheta Mîkâêl.   These originated in the late 14th or early 15th century.

Two of the interesting books on Australia are George Barrington: A Voyage to Botany Bay to which is added his Life and Trial, (London, H D Symonds, pref.  1793) and Tench, Watkin: A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay, with an account of New South Wales (London, J Debrett.  1789).

The Greek and Roman Empires had a special interest for Rhodes who read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with great interest.   It was this interest that caused him to commission Hatchards of London to have the Greek and Roman authorities to whom Gibbon refers translated into English.   Unfortunately, as mentioned before, no records exist to furnish us with details for these transactions and we have to rely on information provided by his biographers and also by James Laver in his book Hatchards of London 1797-1947, (London, Hatchards, 1947).   Sir Thomas Fuller writes

“Mr Rhodes occupied much of his leisure time poring over these volumes, and talking about them as they lay open on his knees”[xi].

According to Humphreys, Rhodes emphasized a few things from the beginning.   The translations were to be unexpurgated and unabridged and all the workers were to be well paid.   It was agreed that the work was to be kept a close secret, one copy only of each work was to be typed upon the best paper obtainable (for there was to be no question of publication) and all the volumes as well as a collection of the original texts were to be handsomely and uniformly bound in red Levant morocco.   A working committee was formed, consisting of A L Humphreys, Dr C Maurice Davis, of Durham University, and Humphreys’ assistant, W J Clarke, a classical scholar recently down from Oxford.

When the work was well on the way Rhodes protested that he had

“not realised that so many of the authorities cited by Gibbon were Apostolic Apologists, Post-Nicene Greek and Latin (others some as late as AD600) …  he had not bargained for so much theology”[xii],

what interested him was the Imperial Idea.   So the scheme was modified into a series of the Lives of the Caesars.   The services were secured of the great classical scholar Herman Degener of Leipzig and Heidelberg.   With his help a new library of authorities was got together and the work proceeded in spite of the disastrous fire at Rhodes’ house, which destroyed many of the books which had already been sent on to South Africa.   This resulted in a most extensive collection of biographies of about 18 Roman emperors and empresses, beginning with Augustus.   Humphreys notes that

“at one time I had as many as twenty scholars engaged to do the work, in addition to indexers, typists, binders”[xiii].

For many years this collection of translations, which cost Rhodes £8 000, was looked upon as an interesting curiosity.   It seemed a pity that the money had not rather been spent on rare books to extend the Africana collection.   However, Mr John Sang, former lecturer in Classics at UCT, examined the translations with great enthusiasm.   He says that the translations, some of which to this day have not been published in English at all, are of such a high quality, that the scholars employed must have been the best in their field.

This brings us to a puzzling aspect of the acquisition of the collection.   Rhodes did not mind spending money on the things he wanted – this is borne out by everyone who had contact with him – and yet, at a time when fine copies of the books he wanted were readily available, some incomplete and even damaged copies were bought for him.   Cornwallis Harris Portraits of the Game and Wild Animals of Southern Africa (London.  1840), has, pasted on the inside of the front cover, a clipping, apparently cut out of a sales catalogue, which states “some of the plates and leaves stained by damp”.   Four copies of J Ogilvie’s Africa were bought of which only one is complete.   Andrews, H C: Coloured engravings of Heaths (London, The author, 1802), the four-volume work in which Andrews described living plants, mostly in the extensive collection of George Spencer, Marquis of Blandford, to whom he dedicated the work, has beautiful hand coloured engravings.   Unfortunately Groote Schuur has only an incomplete volume, one containing 54 of the original engravings bound in different order to the first volume in the Bolus Herbarium at UCT.   The title page, index, address, introduction and “a short dissertation” are missing.   The volume has the bookplate of Reginald Cholmondeley, Condover Hall, and seems to have been bought for 3 guineas, that sum appearing (in pencil) on the flyleaf.

Apart from the translations of the classics, the only other unique items are the two leather-bound volumes containing a collection of manuscript and engraved maps of Asia and Africa.   These large volumes are albums specially made to receive the maps and drawings which have been carefully pasted in.   The engraved maps give details of the two continents and there are numerous engravings depicting islands, cities and fortresses, mainly French and Portuguese.   The maps and pictures were all taken from books or atlases, and are dated from 1631 onwards.   The maps are by well-known cartographers including Hondius and de l’Isle.

The manuscript maps are by the celebrated Portuguese cartographer, Joao Teixeira Albernas II, and according to Commander Avelino Teixeira da Mota, authority on Portuguese cartography, they exceed in illumination and quality all other known maps by this 17th century cartographer.   The volume on Asia includes 15 maps on vellum, beautifully illuminated, showing coastlines from the Red Sea to Japan.   The volume on Africa includes 17 maps of the coast of Africa excluding the Mediterranean.

Efforts to establish the provenance of these volumes have so far been unsuccessful.   The only clue to any former owner could be the bookplate pasted on the inside front cover of both volumes.   The original bookplate is 4×5 cm, [and is reproduced in this issue].   According to Mr Sang, the motto is Hastili Tincta Cruore.  [Ed.  Rough translation: Stained by the blood of a spear.]

In the eighty years since his death, Rhodes’ actions have come in for a great deal of criticism.   The British Empire has been fragmented.   Former British colonies in Africa and elsewhere have become independent nations with the help and support of their former rulers.   Nevertheless Groote Schuur and its contents remain a generous and valuable gift to the South African Nation, reflecting the mind and interests of the donor.

[Editor’s Note: This article by Annette van den Heever, a member of the Society of Bibliophiles in Cape Town, appeared in the Jagger Journal No. 3 of December 1982, the annual journal of the J W Jagger Library, headquarters of the University of Cape Town Libraries system.   We are grateful to the author and to the University Library for allowing us to reproduce it here.

In view of the general interest in the libraries of important personalities in history, the feasibility of publishing a full catalogue of the Rhodes Library at Groote Schuur as a venture to be undertaken by our Society, is being examined.   Comments by members would be welcomed.

It may be noted that a catalogue of the library of General Smuts already exists in The library of Jan Christiaan Smuts.   A catalogue arranged and edited by Ursula Brigish, published in 1972 in two volumes by the University of the Witwatersrand, Department of Bibliography and Smuts Memorial Trust, in co-operation with the South African Institute of International Affairs.]


[i].   Gross, F.  Rhodes of Africa.  London: Cassell.  1956.  p244.

[ii].  Baker, H.  Cecil Rhodes by his Architect.  London: OUP.  1934. p 172.

[iii].  Williams, B.  Cecil Rhodes.  London: Constable.  1921.  p 223

[iv].  Millin, S G.  Rhodes.  London: Chatto & Windus.  1933.  p 150

[v].  Flint, J.  Cecil Rhodes.  Boston: Little Brown.  1947.  p 172

[vi].  Williams, B.  ibid.  p244.

[vii].  Hensman, H.  Cecil Rhodes, a study of a career.  Edinburgh & London: William Blackwood.  1901.  p 72.

[viii].  Williams, B.  ibid.  p 222.

[ix].  Millin, S G.  ibid.  p 29.

[x].  Laver, J.  Hatchards of Piccadilly: London.  Hatchards.  1947 p 44.

[xi].  Fuller, T E.  The Right Honourable Cecil John Rhodes, a Monograph and a Reminiscence.  London: Longmans, Green.  1910 p 133.

[xii].  Laver, J.  ibid.  p 43.

[xiii].  Fuller, T E.  ibid.  p 136.

Published by Graham Giles

Cape History and history of families of Louw, Muller, Bowker, Giles

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