At the end of the 19th century the British Empire was the largest the world had ever seen, covering some 19 million square kilometers of territory and nearly a quarter of the world’s population.
Britain was also the pre-eminent global power, possessing the strongest navy in the world and the largest merchant fleet and dominating the global economy as the biggest investor, banker, insurer and commodity dealer. According to Niall Ferguson, author of Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003), this Pax Britannica was not only a force for good, but also the “nearest thing there has ever been to a world government”. Perhaps it was, though for the millions of indigenous peoples who had been colonized, often with great brutality, and whose lands and natural resources were now being plundered by the British while they were relegated to the status of second-class subjects, the benefits of being part of the British Empire were somewhat elusive.
Yet, despite all these apparent strengths, Britain was no longer at the peak of its power, a point it reached in the 1870s. Indeed, the start of the 20th century marked the final phases of its inevitable decline. The erosion of British power was occurring on two fronts: first, through the imperial expansion of the other European powers, which impinged on its military dominance; and second, by the gradual loss of its industrial and commercial supremacy, upon which its military might had rested. The British Establishment was already reading these portents of imperial decay.
The First Lord of the Admiralty, for example, had warned in 1900 that in coming years Britain,
“…by itself will not be strong enough to hold its proper place alongside of the US or Russia and probably not Germany. We shall be thrust aside by sheer weight.”
It was in the midst of this pervading sense of gloom that, in 1909, a movement emerged which sought to preserve British power by converting its Empire into an “Imperial Federation” or “Imperial Union”. This movement was known as the Round Table.
The Round Table occupies a special place in most populist accounts of the New World Order, the group given a pivotal role in the World Government conspiracy. David Icke, for example, writes that the Round Table
“spawned a network of interconnecting groups in many countries working toward a common aim… world government”.
The reason for this focus on the Round Table is the rather sensational analysis of the group provided by Carroll Quigley (1910-1977) in his 1966 book, Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time. A professor of history and international relations at Georgetown University, Quigley discussed the Round Table movement in some detail, claiming it formed the hub of an “international Anglophile network” which had exercised disproportionate influence over the American and British governments for much of the 20th century. More importantly,he personally confirmed the existence of this alleged network, citing some 20 years of studying its history, including gaining exclusive access to its documents over a two-year period; even claiming that for much of his life he was “close to it and to many of its instruments”.
For many researchers, Quigley’s personal testimony has seemed reason enough to repeat his claims without exploring them much further, let alone without questioning their accuracy. Australian researcher Jeremy Lee, for instance, suggests Tragedy and Hope “exposed beyond argument” the existence of the New World Order conspiracy, while numerous other researchers continue to place the Round Table in key positions in wiring diagrams, linking it to the Council on Foreign Relations and Chatham House as though it were still a powerful organization near or at the top of the New World Order hierarchy.
It is not the intention of this article to join this consensus position of uncritically accepting Quigley’s account of the Round Table’s power-an acceptance based solely on his still unproven claims of special access. Nor is it the intention to embrace Gary Allen’s claim that the Round Table was a “secret society… dedicated to establishing a world government”. Equally, this article avoids the habit of more mainstream historians of minimizing the role of the Round Table and relegating it to a mere footnote. Instead, this article endeavors to establish that while Quigley’s claims contain some elements of truth, the Round Table’s contribution to the New World Order is more complex than is commonly supposed.
In fact, the movement is an unlikely participant in the push for global governance. Founded by advocates of Anglo-Saxon racial and political superiority, their scheme for imperial federation originally intended to consolidate the British Empire to protect it from disintegration and an expected challenge from Germany, the Round Table, at least initially, represented imperialist rather than internationalist ideals.
Moreover, despite its apparent wealth and political connections and an ambitious propaganda program, the Round Table conspicuously failed to achieve its goal of imperial federation. It also fell short in its attempts to remold the League of Nations concept into a form that would support the Round Table’s imperialist ambitions. The movement would also be beset by divisions between those who viewed the federation of the British Empire as an end in itself, and those who believed imperial federation should be a stepping-stone to world government.
Nevertheless, the movement’s vision of a world ruled by an Anglo-American federation represented one of the first attempts in the 20th century by a power-elite clique to bypass democracy in order to achieve its goal of overriding national sovereignty and establishing a supranational form of governance. Yet, as this article seeks to demonstrate, the Round Table movement’s legacy was not one of success but of failure. Its members’ efforts to arrest Britain’s decline by unifying the Empire soon proved futile, and their dream of ruling the world slipped from their grasp.
CECIL RHODES AND HIS IMPERIAL VISION
This was not to be a living partnership, given Rhodes’s untimely death well before the Round Table was founded and their limited contacts while he was alive, but more of a posthumous association in which Milner sought to realize Rhodes’s dream of a unified British Empire. As prominent Round Table member Leopold Amery (1873-1955) later observed,
“If the vision was Rhodes’, it was Milner who over some twenty years laid securely the foundations of a system whose power…throughout the English-speaking world…would be difficult to exaggerate”.
While his claims of the Round Table’s power can be forgiven as wishful thinking, Amery by no means overstates the importance of Rhodes and Milner.
Cecil Rhodes is better known as the founder and primary owner of the famous diamond company, De Beers; as creator of the colonies of Northern and Southern Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe); and as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896.
Compelled by a life-threatening heart condition to leave Britain, Rhodes had travelled in the 1870s to southern Africa where he made his fortune in the diamond-mining boom in the Kimberley region. It was there that Rhodes first demonstrated his desire for centralized control.
Rhodes believed the intense competition between the hundreds of small mining companies was damaging the viability of the diamond industry. His solution was to establish a company with monopoly control over the supply of diamonds, thus making it more profitable in the long term. In 1888 Rhodes realized his vision, collaborating with share dealer Alfred Beit and the London bankers Nathaniel M. Rothschild and Sons to buy out rival mining companies throughout the Kimberley region. The product of this collusion was a single diamond mining company, De Beers Consolidated Mines. This bold move gave Rhodes and his backers “control of the commanding heights of the Cape economy” (Thomas) and made him, “almost overnight, the most powerful man in Africa” (Rotberg).
As Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, Chairman of De Beers and one of the richest and most aggressive imperialists in southern Africa, Rhodes commanded considerable power and his exploits earned him the admiring accolade of “the Colossus of Africa”. Driven by an imperialist fervor, the Colossus embarked on a number of bold schemes devoted to the expansion and consolidation of British rule in Africa. Some of these plans were partially successful, such as the annexation of Matabeleland and Mashonaland in support of the British South Africa Company’s goal of controlling all the land in the interior of Africa between the Limpopo and the Nile. Other schemes, such as his attempt to overthrow the Boer government in the Orange Free State through the Jameson Raid and his plans for a trans-African railway stretching from the Cape to Cairo, were for him personally costly and conspicuous failures.
Yet, in pursuing these various projects, Rhodes was not enacting his own ideas but using the plans of others to fulfill his broader vision. As one historian observed:
“Rhodes was not a thinker; he was doer. He appropriated the ideas of others rather than conceiving ideas himself.”
Significantly, the only exception to this rule was his most ambitious grand design of all: imperial federation.
This is not an accepted fact in most accounts, including in Quigley’s book where the famous British artist John Ruskin is cited as the sole source of Rhodes’s enthusiasm for imperial federation. Rhodes is said to have attended the inaugural lecture given at Oxford in 1870 by Ruskin, then Professor of Fine Arts, and to have been so inspired that he kept a copy of the lecture with him for the next 30 years, regarding it as “one of his greatest possessions” (Quigley). The problem with this version of events is that Rhodes did not attend Oxford until September 1873, thus obviously missing Ruskin’s lecture; more importantly, as Rotberg notes, there is
“absolutely no evidence…that Rhodes was ever affected by Ruskin’s popularity and the cult which helped spread his message of light, right and duty”.
There are certainly good grounds for supposing that Rhodes would have agreed with most of Ruskin’s message that Britain’s destiny, “the highest ever set before a nation”, was to make it “for all the world a source of light” by founding colonies “as far and as fast as she is able to”. There is, however, no single source of inspiration for Rhodes’s dream of unifying the British Empire.
The range of influences on Rhodes’s imperial thinking was legion. His favorite books included the works of Classical Greek and Roman scholars, such as Aristotle’s Ethics, Plato’s Republic, Plutarch’s Lives, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and Thucydides’ History, or were about the Roman Empire-evident in his avid reading and rereading of Edward Gibbons’s six-volume The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788). These books had exposed Rhodes to the cosmopolitanism of the Stoics and also to arguments extolling the virtues of imperialism. From these, it seems, he had concluded that it was Britain’s destiny to succeed Rome as the ruler of the world.
Another key influence was William Winwood Reade’s book, The Martyrdom of Man (1872), a neo-Darwinian tome which presents a universal history of humanity supporting the argument that suffering is necessary to the achievement of progress. Rhodes had read Martyrdom, describing it as a “creepy book”, but he also said, somewhat ominously, that it had “made me what I am”.
He also found inspiration in the imperialist fervour generated by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s expansion of the British Empire in the 1870s. Disraeli himself was an advocate of imperial federation.
Arguably, it was from this rich concoction of ideas and influences, rather than from Oxford itself – where he apparently learned little – that Rhodes had developed his own unique vision of imperial federation.
RHODES AND HIS “CONFESSION OF FAITH“
Rhodes first put his vision of imperial unity to paper on 2 June 1877 in his handwritten testimony, the so-called “Confession of Faith”. In the Confession, Rhodes stated he had concluded that his chosen calling in life was not marriage, travel or the accumulation of wealth, but to make himself useful to his country. Expressing his belief in the inherent racial and cultural superiority of Anglo-Saxons, Rhodes argued that only the British should rule the world:
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. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable of human beings; what an alteration there would be in them if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence… Added to which the absorption of the greater portion of the world under our rule simply means the end of all wars.
To this end, Rhodes put forward his own vision of an expanded British Empire that would be achieved by the formation of a secret society:
Why should we not form a secret society with but one object: the furtherance of the British Empire and the bringing of the whole uncivilized world under British rule for the recovery of the United States for making the Anglo-Saxon race but one Empire. What a dream, and yet it is probable, it is possible.
This secret society would have “its members in every part of the British Empire”, including in the schools and universities to select new members and in the Colonial legislatures, where they would “advocate the closer union of England and colonies, to crush all disloyalty and every movement for the severance of our Empire”. He also envisaged this secret society owning “portions of the press, for the press rules the mind of the people”.
Rhodes’s motivation for creating his own secret society stemmed from his disappointment and contempt for Freemasonry, which he had recently joined. His disdain for the Craft had been almost immediate, demonstrated at his induction banquet in June 1877 where, as a new life member for the Apollo Chapter of the Masonic Order, Rhodes scandalized his brethren by casually revealing the mystic cult secrets of the 33rd Degree Rite. In his Confession, Rhodes denigrated the Freemasons as an essentially pointless organization whose members “devote themselves to what at times appear the most ridiculous and absurd rites without an object and without an end”. However, this was not a blanket rejection of secret societies, as he expressed his admiration for the Jesuits whom he believed had achieved much despite their “bad cause” and “bad leaders”.
Elements of Rhodes’s Confession were incorporated into his wills, of which eight were produced over the years as his fortune and ambitions increased but his cardiovascular problems worsened, reminding the Colossus that his time in this world was short. His second will of 19 September 1877, for example, was produced following a “heart attack” he had suffered in August of that year. Although it had only two executors, that document clarified Rhodes’s essential vision of establishing a “Secret Society” devoted to “the extension of British rule throughout the world”, including the “ultimate recovery of the United States as an integral part of the British Empire”. This would culminate in:
…consolidation of the whole Empire, the inauguration of a system of Colonial Representation in the Imperial Parliament which may tend to weld together the disjointed members of the Empire, and finally the foundation of so great a power as to hereafter render wars impossible and promote the best interests of humanity.
All that remained was to bring about this desired state of affairs, and in successive wills Rhodes continuously refined his envisaged secret society. In a letter accompanying his fourth will, written in June 1888, Rhodes instructed Lord Nathaniel M. Rothschild (1840-1915) – his collaborator and financier at De Beers and to whom he originally left most of his fortune – to obtain the Constitution of the Jesuits and “insert English Empire for Roman Catholic Religion” so the secret society could use the document as its charter.
But Lord Rothschild, although a supporter of imperial expansion, soon proved unworthy of this task. For one, Rothschild failed to meet Rhodes’s immediate demands for assistance in achieving his various schemes in Africa. This frustrated the Colossus of Africa, who had apparently believed in the great power of the Rothschild name to work the all-too-numerous miracles he required.
Lord Rothschild also seemed unable to absorb Rhodes’s ultimate imperial vision. The disappointment was obvious. Rhodes was to confide to his friend Lord Esher in 1891 that Lord Rothschild,
“…is absolutely incapable of understanding my ideas. I have endeavoured to explain them to him, but I could see from the look on his face that it made no impression… and that I was simply wasting my time.”
The fate of Britain’s richest banker was to be removed from Rhodes’s subsequent wills and replaced with an anonymous trustee.
STEAD AND THE “ANGLO-AMERICAN RE-UNION“
Rhodes was to find a more understanding audience through his friendship with William T. Stead (1849-1912), editor of the Pall Mall Gazette and founder of the periodical, Review of Reviews. Stead was an ardent supporter of imperialism, conceiving it in Ruskinian terms of Britain’s moral duty to the rest of the world, which he defined as the “imperialism of responsibility”. He was a supporter of imperial federation, evident in the avowed purpose of Review of Reviews of “promoting the re-union of the English-speaking race”.
However, Stead had also been a member of the South Africa Committee, which was opposed to Rhodes’s brutal methods of expanding British rule in southern Africa. Nevertheless, it was an article by Stead in the Pall Mall Gazette, endorsing an “Anglo-American re-union”, that had prompted Rhodes to seek him out during his visit to England in April 1889. Their subsequent meeting was to have a profound effect on Stead, who was to put aside his previous reservations and write excitedly of his newfound admiration for Rhodes, proclaiming that he had never before “met a man who, upon broad Imperial matters, was so entirely of my way of thinking”. Stead was especially impressed with Rhodes’s “gorgeous” ideas for the “federation, expansion and consolidation of the Empire”.
The impact appears to have been mutual, with Rhodes giving Stead a gift of £2,000 to settle an adverse libel judgment and promising £20,000 to promote their ideas of imperial federation through the British media. In time, Rhodes was to show his confidence in Stead by naming him a trustee in one his wills. Stead was also to have an impact on the Anglo-American component of Rhodes’s imperial vision. It is noted by Quigley that Rhodes accepted Stead’s proposal to modify his vision of imperial federation to make “Washington the capital of the whole organization or allow parts of the empire to become states of the American Union”.
According to Stead’s own account (and Quigley’s most likely source), it was during Rhodes’s visit to England in February 1891 that the diamond magnate had finally:
…expressed his readiness to adopt the course from which he had at first recoiled… that of securing the unity of the English-speaking race by consenting to the absorption of the British Empire in the American Union if it could not be secured any other way… [H]e expressed his deliberate conviction that English-speaking re-union was so great an end in itself as to justify even the sacrifice of the distinctive features and independent existence of the British Empire.
This Anglo-American arrangement thus became one of the central components of his envisaged supranational enterprise, if not an obsession. Rhodes often blamed King George III for the loss of the American colonies (see epigraph), and once lamented to Stead that “if we had not lost America… the peace of the world [would have been] secured for all Eternity!” The postscript to his will of September 1893, for example, expressed his belief that the merger of Britain and the United States would “take the government of the whole world”, leading to the “cessation of all wars and one language throughout the world”.
Elsewhere, Rhodes envisaged joining the British House of Commons to the United States Congress, establishing an “Imperial Parliament” that would sit for five-year periods, alternating between London and Washington.
Rhodes’s vision can appear quite idealistic, even naïve, in its motivations. Quigley contends that Rhodes’s utopian scheme for a world-dominating Anglo-American Federation was driven not by greed or other materialist wants but by a sincere belief in Britain’s mission to spread its culture and values worldwide for the common good. However, Rhodes also made some quite rational calculations about British power, particularly its declining economic fortunes. He recognized that British trade was suffering due to “hostile tariffs” imposed by America and Europe. As he was to tell Prime Minister Gladstone, the only logical solution was the “further acquisition of territory”, giving Britain a domain large enough to maintain tariffs against the rest of the world. “Great Britain’s position depends on her trade,” Rhodes argued, saying that if Britain did not “take and open up the dependencies of the world which are at present devoted to barbarism, we shall shut out the world’s trade”.
Quite simply, Rhodes did not believe that free trade in itself would benefit Britain unless there were some political action to support it, preferably in the form of imperial expansion and consolidation. “Being a Free Trader,” he was to write to Stead, “I believe that until the world comes to its senses you should declare war with those who are trying to boycott your manufactures.” He had been particularly taken by South African politician Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr’s proposal, first raised at the 1887 Colonial Conference, of an Empire-wide two-per-cent tariff against foreign goods.
“The politics of the next hundred years are going to be tariffs and nothing else,” Rhodes proclaimed while Prime Minister of the Cape Colony.
In his letter to Stead, Rhodes identified the only possible solution:
“You might finish the [tariff] war by union with America and universal peace, I mean after a hundred years and a secret society organized like [St Ignatius] Loyola’s [founder of the Jesuits].”
THE NEW WEISHAUPT
In pursuing this course, Rhodes was in many respects one of the first true modern heirs to Adam Weishaupt, founder of the Bavarian Illuminati. A Professor of Law at the University of Ingolstadt and a former a Jesuit priest, Weishaupt created the Illuminati in 1776 to achieve his radical, utopian goal of transforming society. He envisaged a world devoid of “princes and nations”, in which the human race would “become one family”.
Rhodes’s similarities with Weishaupt are threefold:
- first, he came to the same conclusion as Weishaupt that creating his own secret society for the purposes of changing elite opinion was the only means to ensure that his goals could be achieved
- second, he was similarly unimpressed by the Freemasons and the Jesuits, yet he copied their methods
- finally, his ultimate goal was essentially the same as Weishaupt, in that he sought to create a world order in which peace would prevail as divisions would be overcome by a global civilization, albeit an Anglo-Saxon one
There were a number of important differences, however, with Rhodes being influenced by Classical philosophers rather than by the Enlightenment theorists whom Weishaupt admired; this had made him into an ardent imperialist rather than the cosmopolitan idealist that Weishaupt clearly was. Unlike Weishaupt, a radical thinker who aspired to overthrow the existing political and religious order, Rhodes sought only to expand and preserve what he regarded as the absolute pinnacle of human civilization: the British Empire.
Furthermore, Weishaupt was an academic of limited means, whose only hope of realizing his vision was to use the Illuminati to try to infiltrate existing centers of power and sway elite opinion. His ambitious endeavour met with some success, but ultimately ran afoul of the Bavarian authorities, culminating in his exile and the banning of the Illuminati.
Rhodes, in contrast, with a controlling stake in southern Africa’s diamond monopoly, two terms as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony and feted by Britain’s Establishment, had at his disposal enormous financial and political resources-and, as such, ample opportunity to act on his ideas without fear of persecution by the state because, especially in southern Africa, he was the state.
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