Cecil Rhodes's vision of an all-British “Cape-to-Cairo” road,rail, and telegraph route is addressed by a reconstruction of the cultural matrix that appears to have held this concept before the public eye for nearly five decades. This cultural matrix constitutes a kind of colonial and imperial imaginary, which generated a particular founding myth for the colonial state of the Union of South Africa in 1910 and which also lent to foreign visitors,tourists, and immigrants a readily understood interpretation of South Africa and the Cape as “Mediterranean” rather than as“African.”
This essay approaches the material from four broad emphases: first, the neo-Hegelian tropology of pre–World War I Oxford idealist philosophy,which celebrates the “dawning of consciousness” in the subcontinent with the advent of union in 1910 and which the essay relates to Hegel's views on Africa and Egypt; second, the ubiq-uitous influence of Freemasonry in Britain and the British Empire at the turn of the nineteenth century, in particular Freemasonry's concern with Egyptology; third, the varied impulses behind the concept of the Cape as Mediterranean, from climate to architecture, tourism, and ethnography; and fourth, the mutually supporting roles of journalism, travel, and performance in rehearsing a national act of identity formation.
The Cape-to-Cairo idea coincides with the historical moment of the forging of union. It also coincides with a period of transition in Western culture from the late Victorian age to modernism. This essay suggests that these broad issues of national identity formation and of simultaneous transition between two different cultural milieus, which are evident as much in the dominant nations of Europe at the time as they are in the making of South Africa, may be tracked in a reconstruction of the complex of cultural epiphenomena that surrounded and propagated for several decades the fantasy of the Cape-to-Cairo axis.