The JRB presents an excerpt from Adekeye Adebajo’s forthcoming novella, The Trial of Cecil John Rhodes.
The Trial of Cecil John Rhodes
Jacana Media, 2021
Read the excerpt:
Cecil John Rhodes had been asleep. Still wearing a crumpled tweed jacket and white flannel trousers, he got to his feet slowly, and tried to look around, oppressed by the absolute darkness that surrounded him. He imagined vividly that he was in a tomb, with a colossal weight of stone above, threatening to bury him. He groped around until he stumbled painfully into a staircase that was as rough and cold to the touch as stone. He began to make his way upwards, feeling his way in the dark. He made a decision and began to grope his way. It was not long before light glowed dimly on the clammy walls, and then he heard distant screams that grew louder. Swift leathery shapes darted past his head, sending his heart racing—only bats, he tried to reassure himself.
Cecil turned a corner of the rocky winding stairway, and saw throngs of naked, wailing bodies being consumed by flames along the edges of a lake of fire that burned with greater intensity than any flame he had ever seen before. The air stank of sulphur and brimstone, and the wailing grew louder. He saw shuddering bodies being eaten alive by rats and lizards, while figures with horns and hooves, darkly visible within the swarms of fiery serpents and dragons that swirled around them, poked burning spikes into the mass. Some had their skin flayed off their backs, and salt poured on their raw skin. Some had the soles of their feet dipped in burning sulphur. Others were disembowelled. The horned figures wielded a variety of torture implements: iron spikes, heated kettles, sharpened pangas and assegais, bloodied knobkerries. More frightening screams could be heard from condemned souls being skewered in a giant barbecue. Others were hoisted on spits and basted by taunting figures.
Creeping upwards, he recoiled in horror as he saw, without understanding how he knew what he saw, gluttons wallowing in filth amidst a hailstorm; carnal sinners being swept around by furious winds; traitors being cased in ice; the greedy endlessly stealing great stone weights from each other; spendthrifts torn apart by three-headed dogs; heretics burned in tombs; soothsayers condemned to walk backwards; hypocrites wandering aimlessly; adulterers tormented by a stream flowing with blood; alchemists struck with deadly plagues; suicides transformed into baobab and acacia trees; and flakes of fire raining down incessantly on the homicidal. Birds of prey gorged on raw flesh, even as a huge dragon with four large horns and blazing eyes was thrown into a lake of burning sulphur.
Cecil skirted the fringes of a more open space, in which even more hideous attention was given to a small number of victims. He could not know that among the most notable was Uganda’s Idi Amin, whose regime had killed an estimated 300 000 people. Another was Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic who had squandered a quarter of his country’s national income on a grandiose coronation. There was Nigeria’s General Sani Abacha, the brutal ruler of Africa’s most populous state, who infamously hanged nine environmental campaigners, and launched military operations that killed thousands of innocent people. Alongside were leaders of the genocidal militias in Rwanda who had murdered 800 000 people in three months.
Cecil struggled past these horrific sights, climbing ever upwards, until light broke through at the end of the rocky steps. Reaching the top, he stumbled out, gasping for air and bewildered. He lay down to catch his breath and did not know when he passed out, drifting into a deep slumber.
When he awoke, Cecil saw a forest in front of him, a dense swathe of green and yellow trees that stretched for miles. He climbed painfully to his feet, and began walking towards it. He spotted a long row of fever trees with green and yellow leaves, cracking bark and foliage in which flocks of black hawks and brown-and-white eagles with yellow beaks nested. Towering above them were hundreds of ancient baobab trees with their gigantic trunks and slender tangled branches, on which vultures perched, alongside brown owls with glowing eyes. Mingled with them were vast numbers of mopane trees. He remembered the Shona word for them, meaning ‘butterfly,’ after the shape of the leaves which protect the tree from heat. He touched the tough termite-resistant mopane wood, and stared above at the green pigeons and green Cape weavers, which he also recognised.
Out of nowhere appeared a group of Abiku, child-ghosts who die in infancy and continue to be reborn with the same birthmarks. These ghost-children had a penchant for mischief, and this particular group followed Cecil through the forest chanting ‘Oyinbo pepper, leave the Bush of Ghosts! Muzungu, go back to England!’ They tugged at his clothing and leaped up to pull his hair, and trailed him singing the same tune. Frightened, Cecil broke into a run, and only left them behind when he exited the forest and staggered onto the muddy verge of a wide vlei (or shallow lake), along which foraged flocks of sacred ibis, blue cranes, and brown-and-white storks with long orange beaks.
Eventually he passed around it and reached the other side, exhausted. He lay down to dry out his muddy clothes in the hot sun, wondering at the nature of this strange place. After a couple of hours, three bizarre human figures materialised, each covered in gold, silver, and bronze. One had no arms. The other hopped along on one leg, and the third had only one eye in the middle of her head. They did not speak, but beckoned him to follow them down a long trail through the grassland on the other side of the vlei, and into a large house. Inside, he was handed some Ethiopian injera bread and wat stew with assorted meats, which he devoured ravenously as the ghosts sat round a large marble table with him. He was also served West African palm wine from a brown gourd. As the friendly ghosts drifted to sleep, Cecil made for the door and escaped into the burning orange dusk. He walked as far as he could, until he lay down in a thicket of long grass, as it was getting dark, and slept.
- Professor Adekeye Adebajo is the Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation (IPATC) at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. He is the author of six books on African history and politics, and editor and co-editor of ten books. He obtained his doctorate from Oxford University in England and is a columnist for Business Day (South Africa), the Guardian (Nigeria), and the Gleaner (Jamaica).
‘Many people want Rhodes to fall, and his statue is definitively toppled by Adekeye Adebajo’—Ken Barris, award-winning writer
‘You will now be tried in this fifth heaven for five crimes committed in the Herebefore. First, mass murder; second, racism; third, grand theft of Africa’s natural resources and land; fourth, exploitation and enslavement of African workers; and fifth, egotism and a vainglorious quest for immortality.’
Set over five days in an African Hereafter called ‘After Africa’, this story revolved around the British South African imperialist Cecil Rhodes, awakening in an After African Limbo after being asleep for 120 years.
Guided by Ghanaian writer Efua Sutherland, he is taken on a tour of After Africa’s five heavens, experiencing Africa’s great civilisations, its Nobel laureates, its writers, its musicians and its sporting legends. The novella centres on the grand trial of Cecil Rhodes in the fifth heaven for five crimes committed in the Herebefore. Two Counsel for Damnation—Olive Schreiner and Stanlake Samkange—face off against two Counsel for Salvation—Nelson Mandela and Harry Oppenheimer. The seven judges from Africa’s five sub-regions and its North America, Caribbean and South American diasporas are also well-known figures: Ruth First, Wangari Maathai, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Patrice Lumumba, Taslim Elias, Maya Angelou and Toussaint l’Ouverture.
This is not just a man on trial, but the very system of imperialism itself.