Historical Notes: The restoration of Britain's manhood

WAS THE love that dare not speak its name indirectly responsible for the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902? With the centenary of that disastrous conflict impending, it's instructive to consider the homoerotic impulses that paved the way for this ill- advised, fin-de-siecle manifestation of brute British manhood. The curious behaviour of John Ruskin's disciples bears investigation.

For a start, there was Oscar Wilde, who fell under Ruskin's spell in the early 1870s, while an undergraduate at Oxford. The brilliant and unpredictable Slade Professor of Art offered students the opportunity to combine beauty with manual labour, and Wilde found himself pushing a wheelbarrow to gain his master's special attention. Ruskin was building a road: digging earth, laying stone, and planting floral borders to the bemusement of his students and the inhabitants of North Hinksey, Oxford. The project attracted high- minded undergraduates like Arnold Toynbee and Alfred Milner who were happy to work like navvies in the hope of spiritual improvement.

Another undergraduate was in thrall to a different facet of Ruskin's philosophy. Cecil John Rhodes, empire-builder and diamond tycoon-to-be was so influenced by the his inaugural lecture in Oxford that his destiny could be said to have sprung from it. Ruskin (supposed to be addressing the subject of British landscape) beseeched the influential young men in his audience to go out and found colonies in the name of England. Rhodes set off at once. Unexpected parallels develop between Rhodes and Wilde, arising from their passion for less-than-worthy men. Rhodes adored the dashing Leander Starr Jameson, a GP who saved his life and went on to take a leading role in the wars that would transform Matabeleland into Rhodesia. Jameson, or Jim-Jam to his friends, was a handsome, healthy man; Rhodes was ill, overworked and overweight. Wilde adored Bosie, the Marquess of Queensberry's aesthete son whose beauty was a reverse of his own bloated face and belly. Both Rhodes and Wilde would be ruined by these glittering unscrupulous men within the same year.

At the height of his career, Wilde was urged by Bosie to sue his father, the Marquess, who had called Wilde a "sodomite". Wilde could not resist his beloved's pleas. After his case collapsed, he was arrested and ordered to stand trial. He was prosecuted by Sir Edward Carson. In May 1895 Wilde was found guilty of corrupting young men and sentenced to two years' hard labour in Reading Gaol. Britain's manliness had been humiliated.

Six months later Jameson led a chaotic raid into a South African Boer Republic, ostensibly to support a non-existent uprising by British immigrants who were being unfairly treated by the Boers, but in reality to grab the republic - and the richest goldfields in the world - for Britain. He did it to please Rhodes, who was dithering about whether to go ahead with this illegal incursion or not. When the raid ended in ignominious failure, Jameson found himself on trial in London for invading a friendly country. He was defended by Sir Edward Carson, the man who had prosecuted Wilde. Sentenced to 15 months in Holloway, he became a folk hero overnight; Kipling wrote "If" to celebrate his reckless courage. Jameson was the knight in shining armour who had restored the manhood of Britain. He was released from gaol after only five months.

Enter Sir Alfred Milner, another of Ruskin's acolytes, Milner, a hard- line imperialist, was sent to South Africa by Joseph Chamberlain to sort out the fiasco of the raid, and reach some sort of compromise with the outraged Boers. Instead he seized this opportunity to display the might of Britain and consolidate her Empire. Unable to withstand Milner's intransigence, the Boers invaded Natal in October 1899. Wilde and Ruskin died within the year, closely followed by Rhodes.

Ann Harries is the author of `Manly Pursuits' (Bloomsbury, pounds 15.99)