Victorian Literature and Culture

Research Article


Bradley Deanea1

a1 University of Minnesota, Morris


Cecil Rhodes, the “Colossus” of late Victorian empire, proudly proclaimed himself a barbarian. He spoke of his taste for things “big and simple, barbaric, if you like,” and boasted that he conducted himself “on the basis of a barbarian” (Millin 165, 242). His famous scholarships designed to turn out men fit for imperial mastery required success in “manly outdoor sports,” a criterion Rhodes privately called the proof of “brutality” (Stead 39). Yet while Rhodes celebrated qualities he called barbaric or brutal, his adversaries seized upon the same rhetoric to revile him. During the Boer War, for instance, the tactics by which Rhodes and his friends tightened their grip on South Africa were boldly condemned by Henry Campbell-Bannerman as “methods of barbarism.” Similarly, G. K. Chesterton denounced Rhodes as nothing more than a “Sultan” who conquered the “East” only to reinforce the backward “Oriental” values of fatalism and despotism (242–44). This strange consensus, in which Rhodes and his critics could agree about his barbarity, reflects a significant uncertainty about late Victorian imperial ambitions and their relationship to “barbarism.” Clearly, the term was available both to the empire's critics as a metaphor for unprincipled or indiscriminate violence and to imperialists as a justification for their efforts to bring civilization to the Earth's dark places, to spread the gospel, and to enforce the progress of history that the anthropologist E. B. Tylor called “the onward movement from barbarism” (29). But Rhodes's cheerful assertion of his own barbarity represents something altogether different: the apparent paradox of an imperialism that openly embraces the primitive. Nor was Rhodes alone in sounding this particularly troubling version of the barbaric yawp. During the period of the New Imperialism (1871–1914), Victorian popular culture became engrossed as never before in charting vectors of convergence between the British and those they regarded as primitive, and in imagining the ways in which barbarians might make the best imperialists of all. This transvaluation of savagery found its most striking expression in the emergence of a wildly popular genre of fiction: stories of lost worlds.