Born the son of a vicar in 1853, Cecil Rhodes was a sickly child. Due to his poor health he was sent to Natal to join with his brother. After failing to grow cotton there, together they attempted to make their fortune in the Diamond mines. Cecil saw alternative methods for making money by providing services to the other miners. He quickly realised the potential for riches by creating a monopoly. At first this was done with water, but he then applied this principal to acquiring diamond concessions. His efforts at amalgamating paid off with an enormous personal fortune and the creation of the De Beers consolidated Mines Company in 1888 and the creation of Consolidated Goldfields. Unfortunately for Rhodes he missed much of the opportunity to create a foothold in the newly discovered goldfields of the Transvaal. His ruthlessness for business was curtailed by the personal distress at losing one of his closest aides and confidants.
Rhodes used much of his personal fortune in the field of politics. Despite earlier support for Irish Home Rule, Rhodes quickly became a spokesman and activist for imperial expansion. His most famous ambition was to create a railway along a continuous pink strip of land from the Cape Colony to Cairo. He used his political skills and money to become the premier of the Cape Colony in 1890 and espouse his imperial ambitions on a much grander scale. He lobbied hard for the annexation of Bechuanaland and later, when he was becoming disappointed at the lack of political will at the Colonial Office, he even formed his own company to claim land in the interior of Africa. The British South Africa Company achieved a Royal Charter in 1889 and proceeded to negotiate and trick its way into the lands of the Mashona, Matabele and beyond, under the wily auspices of his right hand man Dr. Jameson. Later, their ambition would be their political and economic undoing when Dr. Jameson attempted to invade Transvaal in order to support an abortive coup. The political fall out from this adventure forced Cecil to resign his premiership of the Cape Colony.
Cecil Rhodes never lost his passion for his imperial dreams and spent much time planning and organising the colonies that were to bear his name; Rhodesia. When the Africans in these colonies rose up in rebellion to his company’s rule, he personally conducted negotiations with the leaders of the Matabele tribes. During the Boer war, he helped to organise and fund the defences of Kimberley in the seige.
Rhodes was a very complex and contradictory individual. His true feelings and idealogy have never fully been understood by historians and biographers. What is clear is that Rhodes was a very personnable leader who had the ability to inspire others and attract attention to his causes and ideas. On the flipside, he was a ruthless businessman who could often be accused of being little more than a bully. His treatment of Africans was equally contradictory, he often talked about them in a highly derogatory manner and virtually pioneered the ‘Apartheid’ system of separating the Africans working in his mines from the outside world. Yet, he also seems to have taken an uncommon interest in their cultures and language and had a respect and understanding for Africans that would have seemed remarkably liberal for his era.
Rhodes left a will that was to create one of the most successful educational endowments of all time; The Rhodes Scholarships. These were open to any of the Teutonic peoples; Britons, Germans and Americans. And had the express purpose of enabling the academic elites of these countries to mingle and understand one another better in an attempt to create an Anglo-Saxon empire across the world. Even in his death, Rhodes’ dreams were bigger and more comprehensive than most other peoples’.
Other biographies of Cecil Rhodes
- Cecil Rhodes – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- Cecil Rhodes – Encyclopaedia Britannica
- Cecil John Rhodes | South African History Online