Somewhere towards the end of his history, Philip Ziegler quotes a fictional Rhodes scholar-elect who rejects his scholarship on the idealistic (if self-righteous) grounds that its benefactor, Cecil John Rhodes, "was a vicious imperialist and his Scholarship Fund would be more honourably used making restitution to the blacks he exploited". Those of us who share the current common sense about imperialism - that it was, all things considered, a bad thing - can conceive of no other sort of imperialist. One of Ziegler's impressive achievements in Legacy: Cecil Rhodes, the Rhodes Trust and the Rhodes Scholarships is his suggestion, ever so subtle, that there might just be a case, weak as it may seem on the face of it, for a less cynical view of Rhodes's project.
Already one treads on tricky ground. It is dangerously easy to slip into the at-least-they-built-the-railways mode, that pathetic new version of the long-since-shed White Man's Burden that sometimes passes for an argument. Ziegler has no such intentions. The broad strokes in which his early chapters paint Rhodes's life and career home in on a particular aspect of the man's world-view, best instantiated in a "Confession of Faith" he put to paper while at Oxford: that the English-speaking people were "the finest race in the world and that the more of the world [they] inhabit the better it is for the human race". Ziegler correctly reads the document as "combining the simplism of a contribution to Boy's Own with the fervour of an Old Testament prophet", suggesting how Rhodes himself viewed his legacy. Uninterested in producing another piece of biographical hackery dedicated to defending the thesis that Rhodes was (pick one of) the Messiah/the Antichrist/the Übermensch/proto-fascist, Ziegler goes the more interesting route, asking of what this legacy actually now consists.
One does a disservice to the author's considerable, if uneven, achievement by representing the book as being about the Rhodes legacy in a post-colonial world. A history of the Rhodes Scholarships is necessarily a history of the 20th century; it is the story of many thousands of young men (and later women) from across the world, with little in common except the honour they shared, and Ziegler has an admirable gift for the potted history, doggedly following the Rhodes trustees and scholars through war after weary war, debate after interminable debate, enlivened by a way with the pithy quotation.
Consider this mordant observation from Anthony Kenny, former warden of the Trust: "It was ironic that in the history of the Trust there had only been two occasions when American scholars had waited on the trustees in person. The first time, in 1907, it had been to protest against the election of Alain Locke, a black from Pennsylvania. The second time, in 1970, it was to protest against the non-election of blacks from South Africa." It is an interesting remark that reveals the utter strangeness of the past, while leaving one to wonder how the moral certainties of the present ever came to be.
At the centre of it all, naturally, was Oxford: Rhodes's personal Arcadia, however complicated his own relationship with it had been. Ziegler's story keeps returning there, and it is a fascinating account of how the 20th century eventually reached, and transformed, Oxford, unlikely as the prospect might once have seemed. Rhodes no more "suspected that Oxford, old world, High Church, Tory by tradition, would in the 20th century be as likely to produce progressive freethinkers as champions of the established order" than he realised that "the British Empire had within it the seeds of its own inevitable decay". Events after 1945 left the trustees with many hard choices; the "what would Rhodes have done" formula, so reliable in the early years, could scarcely be applied in a world that his world-view barely allowed for.
"It is remarkable," he says, "how, from generation to generation, the trustees . . . have felt able in one case to improve on Rhodes's will yet in another to conclude that they were rigidly bound by the founder's wishes." There had always been debates on how literally one was to interpret Rhodes's requirement of "success in manly outdoor sports" of the young men (the term emphatically not gender-neutral) elected to his scholarship. However, the questions of race and gender that occupied the postwar years called for more than a bending of the letter of the will: they called for rethinking the very spirit in which it had been conceived, a spirit seen to embody the values of an age now past. In the 1970s came the first female Rhodes scholars, one of many proposals that measured "high on the scale of rhodocycles - a measure devised by Kenny when he was warden to express the number of times any given innovation would cause the founder to turn in his grave". The Trust today appears to have come to terms with the regrettable fact that (as the vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town put it) the vision of Rhodes and his peers simply "failed to acknowledge the inhumanity of racism and sexism. They must, however, find peace."
Nakul Krishna is a current Rhodes scholar at Exeter College, Oxford