Names: Rhodes, Cecil John
Born: 5 July 1853, England
Died: 26 March 1902, Muizenberg, Cape Colony
In summary: South African statesman, proponent of British imperialism, and businessman after whom Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) was named
Cecil John Rhodes was born on 5 July 1853 in England. He was the fifth son of Francis William Rhodes and his second wife, Louisa Peacock. A priest of the Church of England, his father served as curate of Brentwood Essex for fifteen years, until 1849, when he became the vicar of Bishops Stortford, where he remained until 1876. Rhodes had nine brothers and two sisters and attended the grammar school at Bishops Stortford. He fell ill shortly after leaving school and, as his lungs were affected, it was decided that he should visit his brother who had recently immigrated to Natal. He arrived in Durban on 1 September 1870. He brought three thousands pounds his aunt had lent him and used it to invest in diamond diggings in Kimberley.
After a brief stay with the Surveyor-General of Natal, Dr. P. C. Sutherland, in Pietermaritzburg, Rhodes joined his brother Herbert on his cotton farm in the Umkomaas valley in Natal. In October 1871 Rhodes left the colony for the diamond fields of Kimberley. He supervised the working of his brother’s claim and speculated on his behalf. Among his associates in the early days were John X Merriman and C D Rudd, who later became his partner in the De Beers Mining Company.
In 1872 Rhodes suffered a slight heart attack. Partly to recuperate, but also to investigate the prospects of finding gold in the interior, the Rhodes brothers trekked north by ox wagon. Their trek took them along the missionary road in Bechuanaland as far north as Mafeking, then eastwards through the Transvaal as far as the Murchison range. The journey inspired a love of the country in Rhodes and marked the beginning of his interest in the road to the north and the northern interior itself.
In 1873 Rhodes left his diamond fields in the care of his partner, Rudd, and sailed for England to complete his studies. He was admitted to Oriel College, but only stayed for one term in 1873 and only returned for his second term in 1876. He was greatly influenced by John Ruskin’s inaugural lecture at Oxford, which reinforced his own attachment to the cause of British imperialism. Among his Oxford associates were Rochefort Maguire, later a fellow of All Souls and a director of the British South Africa Company, and Charles Metcalfe. His university career engendered in Rhodes his admiration for the Oxford ‘system’ which was eventually to mature in his scholarship scheme: ‘Wherever you turn your eye – except in science – an Oxford man is at the top of the tree’.
Whilst at Oxford, Rhodes continued to prosper in Kimberley. Before his departure for Oxford he and Rudd had moved from the Kimberley mine to invest in the more costly claims of what was known as old De Beers (Vooruitzicht) which owed its name to Johannes Nicolaas de Beer and his brother, Diederik Arnoldus de Beer, the original owners of the farm Vooruitzicht.
In 1874 and 1875 the diamond fields were in the grip of depression, but Rhodes and Rudd were among those who stayed to consolidate their interests. They believed that diamonds would be numerous in the hard blue ground that had been exposed after the softer, yellow layer near the surface had been worked out. During this time the technical problem of clearing out the water that was flooding the mines became serious and he and Rudd obtained the contract for pumping the water out of the three main mines.
In April 1880 Rhodes and Rudd launched the De Beers Mining Company after the amalgamation of a number of individual claims. With 200 000 pounds capital the Company, of which Rhodes was secretary, owned the largest interest in the mine. In 1880 Rhodes prepared to enter public life at the Cape. With the incorporation of Griqualand West into the Cape Colony in 1877 the area obtained six seats in the Cape House of Assembly. Rhodes chose the constituency of Barkley West, a rural constituency in which Boer voters predominated. Barkley West remained faithful to Rhodes even after the Jameson Raid and he continued as its member until his death.
The chief preoccupation of the Cape Parliament when Rhodes became a member was the future of Basutoland, where the ministry of Sir Gordon Sprigg was trying to restore order after a rebellion in 1880. The ministry had precipitated the revolt by applying its policy of disarmament to the Basuto. In 1890 Rhodes became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony and implemented laws that would benefit mine and industry owners. He introduced the Glen Grey Act to push Black people from their lands and make way for industrial development.
Rhodes’ policies were instrumental in the development of British imperial policies in South Africa. He did not, however, have direct political power over the Boer Republic of the Transvaal. He often disagreed with the Transvaal government’s policies and felt he could use his money and his power to overthrow the Boer government and install a British colonial government supporting mine-owners’ interests in its place. In 1895 Rhodes supported an attack on the Transvaal. It was a failure and Rhodes had to resign as Prime Minister of the Cape.
Rhodes also used his wealth to pursue his dream of expanding Britain’s empire in Africa. His British South Africa Company, which had a police force, was used to colonise Mashonaland, present Zimbabwe. They had hoped to start a ‘new Rand’ from the ancient gold mines of the Mashona, but the gold had been worked out of the ground long before. The White settlers who accompanied the British South Africa Company to Mashonaland became farmers. When the Matabele and the Mashona rebelled against the coming of the White settlers to their land, the British South Africa Company police crushed them. The conquered lands were named Southern and Northern Rhodesia, to honour Rhodes. Today, these are the countries of Zimbabwe and Zambia.
He died at Muizenberg on March 26 in 1902.