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History in black and white

RHODES: The Race for Africa by Antony Thomas BBC Books pounds 17.99
IF you want a book to make money, experience shows that your best bet is to peg it to a television series. Unless of course the television series turns out to be a spectacular flop, in which case you'll be wishing you'd tried your chances on your own.

This appears to have been the fate of Antony Thomas, whose book has suffered the misfortune of being tied to the BBC drama Rhodes, a pounds 10 million epic panned by critics as the most lavish waste of licence-payers' money in recent memory.

At first glance the temptation is to say, "Tough luck, Thomas". For it was he who conceived of the Rhodes series and he who appeared on the credits as the executive producer. An internationally celebrated TV documentary- maker, Thomas was brought up in Cape Town in the 1940s and 1950s, when white children were taught to gaze in awe at a statue of Cecil Rhodes. During his adult years he has been consumed by the idea of dramatising Rhodes' life.

But here's the puzzle. The book is everything that the TV series was not: intelligent, detailed, well-researched and credibly nuanced. If one did not know better, the conclusion would be inescapable: that the one was specifically intended to refute the other. What appears certain is that the job of BBC executive producer is not as influential as the title would suggest.

The book's aim is to kill off once and for all the public-schoolboy perception of Rhodes as the model Englishman who selflessly deployed his vast diamond wealth to the task of civilising Southern Africa while adding, virtually single-handedly, a chunk of territory the size of Europe to Her Majesty's imperial possessions. The series also sets out to deflate the Rhodes myth, but fails where the book succeeds. One particularly glaring example of why the series failed was that it strove cheaply to insinuate that Rhodes, ever portrayed in the company of mincing pretty-boys, was a repressed homosexual. The charge has no basis in fact and, as such, provided imperial zealots like Paul Johnson and outraged readers of the Times and Telegraph with a wide- open opportunity to denounce the whole exercise as a historical travesty.

The book, by contrast, confronts the long-festering controversy generated by Rhodes' failure to marry in an adult and historically sensitive way. Drawing on scholarly studies to pooh-pooh the cliches about "Victorian repression", setting out the heterosexual credentials of Rhodes' male friends, Thomas concludes that Rhodes' relationships, "though intense and sometimes possessive, were not complicated by sexual desire". His muscular friendships might evoke prurient associations in contemporary minds, Thomas says, but raised no eyebrows in Victorian times.

Of rather more interest is the picture that persuasively emerges in the book, of a man of immense charm and demonic single-mindedness no more driven by patriotism, as the legend would have it, than Rupert Murdoch is by his love of Australia. Rhodes, himself a newspaper owner, tailored his rhetoric to suit an age when lust for acquisition had to be dressed in the garb of moral rectitude. Thus the famous lines from his precocious personal credo, drafted at the age of 23: "I contend that we are the finest race in the world, and the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for the human race."

But on close examination, Thomas writes, "it becomes clear that Rhodes' political decisions ... rested on a whole nexus of interconnecting deals and trade-offs calculated to benefit his business interests." Business, in turn, was the medium he employed to pursue personal power. "Every man has his own pleasure," Rhodes declared at the first annual general meeting of De Beers Consolidated Mines. "My pleasure has been beating them all around, and I want no sums of money."

He beat his rivals not by fighting them but by seducing them. By bribery (Rhodes coined the expression "every man has his price") or sheer force of personality, or more often both, he submitted members of the British cabinet, Kruger's Boers and proud African chieftains to his colossal will.

Such were his powers of persuasion that after a smallpox epidemic struck Kimberley in 1883, he prevailed upon local doctors to sign false documents declaring the outbreak to be a rare skin disease. Thus did he prevent the temporary closure of his diamond mines and thus did at least 751 people needlessly, hideously die.

Tales of Rhodes' perfidy pepper the book. But most damning of all is Thomas's thesis that the most lasting and evil legacy Rhodes bequeathed was the system of apartheid. During his early years in South Africa he showed glimmers of enlightened, if paternalistic, respect for the indigenous population, but he discarded these when justice and racial equality came into conflict with his interests.

The racial distinctions in pay and living conditions on the mines established an economic pattern that was to endure for a hundred years. Politically, his need to build a working relationship with the Boers persuaded Rhodes, in his capacity as premier of the Cape, to pass an education bill explicitly designed to keep "the native" subordinate to the white man in perpetuity. When Hendrik Verwoerd, apartheid's engineer, introduced a similar bill 60 years later, he was only improving on Rhodes' prototype.

But Thomas does not allow his animosity towards Rhodes to stand in the way of his admiration for the empire-builder's remarkable, occasionally heroic, achievements. One of the book's finest passages narrates in vivid detail how Rhodes quelled a bloody uprising by the Matabeles after venturing unarmed into the bush to negotiate with the rebel tribesmen. Here Rhodes comes across as the moral forebear not of Verwoerd but of F W de Klerk.

By the end of the book Thomas leaves us in no doubt as to Rhodes' greatness, but he concludes that it was a misdirected greatness, a story of talents squandered and opportunities lost. So pivotal was Rhodes' role that he might have steered South Africa and the country to which he gave his name in a different course, forestalling the need for another giant, Nelson Mandela, to bring his own force of personality to bear on decades of conflict, injustice and misery.

The best compliment one can pay the book is that when the reference to Mandela surfaces, completely out of the blue, in the very last paragraph, the comparison seems illuminatingly appropriate. Though twins in stature and influence, the Englishman was a self-obsessed cynic, the African is a generous moral force.