The Rhodes Scholarship is the most famous scholarship in the world, founded just over 100 years ago by an enormously rich and ruthless diamond magnate, the unmarried son of an English parson who annexed a nation and gave it his own name, Rhodesia. Cecil Rhodes was an imperialist who believed the English-speaking races were destined to rule the world. Not surprisingly, the USA was central to his vision and he thought Washington might even replace London as the empire's centre.
The British Empire declined and disappeared, but the scholarship Rhodes established grew in prestige and influence. Today hundreds of young men and women from the US, Canada, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Australia, New Zealand, the Caribbean and some former dots marked red in old school atlases compete each year for the 80-plus scholarships on offer to Oxford University.
Philip Zeigler has written an authoritative assessment of the scholarship, its evolution from only bachelors to women and married scholars, the problems of selection, the self-importance of the trustees, the greed of Oxford's colleges, their condescension towards the scholars. At times his book has the dense feel of a corporate history, but that is to deny the delight and idiosyncrasies that emerge.
The scholarship was Rhodes's great legacy. His will laid out in detail the conditions under which his fortune would be spent. He wanted the best and the brightest regardless of race or religion: perfect all-rounders, academically clever, active sportsmen, public-spirited, kindly and protective. They would mature in Oxford's all- embracing atmosphere before starting their careers.
The vast majority of scholarships went to America then came South Africa, Rhodesia, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Bermuda and Jamaica. When English was made compulsory in German schools, Rhodes made provision for five Germans to be nominated "for the time being" by the Kaiser.
The Germans were the first to arrive in 1903, mostly young aristocrats in top hats, morning coats and spats, speaking little English. The Americans followed soon after, leaving New York with great fanfare, each carrying a congratulatory telegram from the president and chocolates and champagne from Manhattan's shopkeepers. Cunard gave them upgraded first-class cabins.
Scholars are chosen by selection committees in their own country. There were and still are wide interpretations of Rhodes's wishes. In Sydney, the selection committee put greater emphasis on sporting prowess. In Melbourne, the selectors once chose a candidate who listed marbles as his sport. In New Zealand, the chairman of the selection committee in the 1930s was a keen pig breeder and chose a candidate who spent his interview discussing the merits of "Large Whites".
The difference between Rhodes and subsequent international scholarships is its tolerance of dissent, eccentricity and independence. Despite the roll call of presidents and prime ministers, statesmen, Nobel laureates, diplomats, jurists and generals, the Rhodes trustees are always searching for a maverick spirit that rises above conventional achievement. This is the candidate who is valued and encouraged. Could they be looking, I wonder, for Cecil Rhodes?