Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Cape to Cairo

The above cartoon, which was drawn by Edward Linley Sambourne and appeared in Punch magazine in December 1892, is a familiar illustration used as a representation of European colonialism in Africa. The cartoon itself is a visual pun: it depicts British diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes in a pose reminiscent of the Colossus of Rhodes of the ancient world, stringing a telegraph line from Cape Town to Cairo.

The popular Cape-to-Cairo concept Rhodes promoted envisioned a "red line" of British territories stretching north-south from Egypt to South Africa, but there was just one thing that stood in the way of realizing this goal: German East Africa, which is now Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda.

So how did Rhodes build his telegraph line? Well, I stumbled upon a New York Times article dated June 23, 1918, which revealed that Rhodes had negotiated directly with Kaiser Wilhelm II to obtain permission for his telegraph to pass through German East Africa. Apparently, Rhodes met with the Kaiser in Potsdam in 1899 and struck a bargain which allowed Germany a free hand in its interests in Mesopotamia in exchange for concessions for the Cape to Cairo line. The article claims that this meeting was a factor in Germany's decision to stay aloof of the Anti-British sentiment during the Second Boer War. (Read the full article here.)

The upshot of it all is that by 1899, Cecil Rhodes was not even a statesman any more. He had been the Prime Minister of Cape Colony in the 1890s but he resigned in the aftermath of the 1895 Jameson Raid fiasco. So how could a mere civilian have the nerve to negotiate with a foreign sovereign over matters of imperial import?

In any case, we know the Cape to Cairo dream never materialized. The concept lives on, however, in the Cape-Cairo Railroad and the Cairo-Cape Town Highway, both of which have uncompleted sections and "missing links" not unlike the Darién Gap of the Pan-American Highway.

The connected string of British possessions from Cape to Cairo finally came about in 1919, 17 years after Rhodes' death, when the UK was granted the Tanganyika portion of German East Africa by the Treaty of Versailles (Ruanda-Urundi went to Belgium).


M. Milosz said...

Hahaha I love the cartoon.

Your ending seems random/unfinished, though. I hope it's a transition to the next post or something?

Also, how could you leave the question of how Rhodes managed to negotiate with Wilhelm, without throwing in a bit of speculation?

Moskatoe said...

I guess he would meet the Kaiser not as a government representative, but as a director of the British South Africa Company (BSAC) discussing his business interests.