One of the few books on Cecil Rhodes that conveys the "contemporary mind and contemporary methods" of a man who, by 1896, at the age of 42, had gained control of the world's diamond supply, built a second fortune in gold, added two countries to Queen Victoria's empire, and became prime minister of the Cape Colony.
The outlines of his spectacular career are well known: the sickly youth who went to South Africa for health reasons; understood the need to organize the chaotic diamond diggings; had his imagination fired by his travels to the north; used his wealth first to fool and then to conquer the Matabele; and is almost brought to ruin when he tries a similar coup against the Boers in the Transvaal. Thomas's account strikes a judicious balance between Rhodes's ruthlessness and amorality on the one hand, and his remarkable capacity to win people over to his side on the other. The same man acted to conceal the outbreak of smallpox at his mines and to strip black voters of their rights; and yet, when it was in his interests, he made all-out efforts to capture the non-white vote and, in perhaps the most sublime act of his career, went unarmed with a small party into the midst of the rebellious Matabele, who had killed large numbers of settlers, and persuaded them to make peace. Not the least of Thomas's achievements is to negate the (largely latter-day) suggestions that Rhodes was homosexual. The charge against Rhodes, Thomas believes, is that he "squandered his great gift," his ability to "reach out to others, whatever their race, sex or background, and inspire them with a great sense of purpose."
This may go too far: The late 19th century was not notable for liberal conceptions of race relations. But if Thomas (whose Masterpiece Theatre version of Rhodes's life will air this fall) is not finally convincing in this judgment, he does manage to restore the relevance of a remarkable man.