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Cecil Rhodes

Civilization:British: South Africa
Era: Victorian
1853–1902Field of Renown:business: Diamonds

 Cecil Rhodes.

Cecil Rhodes was the founder of the De Beer diamond company in South Africa, and was for many years the Prime Minister of Cape Town Colony. He is often represented as an evil caricature of British Imperialism, but of course, the reality is far more complicated. Rhodes made his fortune mostly through speculation, finance, and the creation of a diamond cartel, but these were common business practices in his age. Personally, he was a man of simple tastes and used virtually his entire fortune on projects that he believed would benefit "mankind". He made his fortune while still in his twenties, and from that point on, left his business mostly in the hands of his partners. His personal, over-riding interest was politics, not finance, and he worked tirelessly towards his vision of a Unified South Africa under British rule.

Imperialism has fallen so far out of fashion that it is difficult to realize that at the time Rhodes lived, the abstract idea of British imperialism had a noble and romantic character that could appeal to the best instincts of well-intentioned people. What is now portrayed as "cultural arrogance" was at the time, considered to be "concern for humanity", so by way of compromise, Rhodes can be understood as an "arrogant humanitarian". He could be generous and considerate of those who sympathized with his vision, but was tyrannical and dismissive of those who stood in the way of what he regarded as progress. His support was not by any means drawn along ethnic lines. Many of his adherents included natives, Afrikaners, and missionaries, and many of his detractors were British citizens who disagreed with his policies. His fiercest opponents were the white, and ardently racist Boer Republics, who were as thoroughly "Anglo-Saxon" as Rhodes himself, but wanted nothing to do with the British Empire.

Cecil Rhodes came from a large farming family in England. He was sent to South Africa as a teenager for his health, but soon left his brother's farm for the diamond fields of Kimberley. He made his initial fortune by buying up worthless claims that had been flooded, pumping water out of them, and then reselling them. When the diamond market went through a depression in 1874-75, he and a partner were able to buy up hundreds of claims very cheaply that later proved to be worth a great deal. They incorporated as the De Beers Mining company in 1880, and by that time controlled enough of the diamond market to set prices. Remarkably, during the same time he was building his business, Rhodes returned periodically to Britain to attend Oxford University and there acquired his exalted view of the merits of British Civilization.

When only thirty years old and the richest man in South Africa, Rhodes was elected to Parliament and became Prime Minister of Cape Colony. He favored policies that encouraged commerce and settlement. His idea of "imperialism" was essentially just a commonwealth, with low tariffs, little regulation, and minimal interference from the central government in colonial affairs. On the other hand, he was utterly convinced of the necessity of stamping out the independent Boer republics that were "in the way" of a United South Africa.

By the time Rhodes came to power, Britain already controlled some of the territory in the Great Lakes region, as well as the Southernmost region of Africa. In order to unify these territories, the regions surrounding the Zambezi river, which Livingstone had explored a generation earlier needed to be brought under British domination. Rhodes took personal control of the matter by obtaining a charter that allowed him to treat with the natives on behalf of Britain. He thereby in established first Bechuanaland, then Metabeland as British Protectorates, and these territories (modern Zambia and Zimbabwe) were later referred to as Rhodesia.

In 1886 gold was discovered in one of the Boer Republics and within 10 years thousands of settlers, many of the British, had moved to the region. Rhodes believed that if he could inspire a rebellion among the settlers, he could induce them to overthrow the Boer government. An associate of Rhodes by the name of Jameson crossed the border with an armed force, but utterly failed to incite a rebellion. Rhodes was rightly blamed for the disaster, and was forced to resign in disgrace as Prime Minister. He then left Cape town, went to live in Rhodesia and did all he could to encourage white settlement and the development of commerce in the region. Meanwhile back in South Africa, the disastrous Boer War broke out, largely as a result of Rhode's interference in the region, and his passionate insistence that a unified South Africa was imperative for British interests. Rhodes did not live to see the resolution of the conflict. He died in 1902 in Cape Town, leaving his enormous estate to the University of Oxford, and the government of South Africa.


Key events during the life of Cecil Rhodes

Year Event
1853 Cecil Rhodes born into an English farming family.
1870 Traveled with his brother to South Africa for 'health' reasons.
1871 Set out for the diamond mines near Kimberly. Bought and sold claims.
1873 Returned to Britain to study for one term at Oxford.
1874 Back in Kimberly. Consolidated holdings during a 'depression' in diamond prices.
1876 Back to Oxford to complete his studies.
1880 Founded De Beers Mining company with Charles Rudd.
1881 Elected to Parliament in Cape Town.
1885 Established Bechuanaland (Zambia) as a British protectorate.
1886 Gold discovered in the Boer's Transvaal.
1890 Became Prime Minister of Cape Colony.
1893 War with Matabeles lead to colonization of Metabelands (Zimbabwe).
1895 Supported the failed Jameson Raid in Transvaal, caused Rhodes to resign as Prime Minister.
1896 Moved to Metabaland, (later Rhodesia), in order to help settle the region.
1899 Second Boer War Begins.
1902 Cecil Rhode dies in Cape Town.
1902 Death of Cecil Rhodes

 

Story LinksBook Links
War and Peace  in  Our Empire Story  by  Marshall
Dream of Cecil Rhodes  in  Growth of the British Empire  by  Synge
Johannesburg Gold Fields  in  Oom Paul's People  by  Hillegas
Cecil John Rhodes  in  Oom Paul's People  by  Hillegas
Story about a Pretty Stone  in  Our Empire Story  by  Marshall
Founding of Rhodesia  in  Growth of the British Empire  by  Synge
Cecil Rhodes in Rhodesia  in  Reign of Queen Victoria  by  Synge

Image Links
The Rt. Hon. Cecil J. Rhodes on the piazza of his residence  in Oom Paul's People Cecil Rhodes  in Reign of Queen Victoria


Contemporary Short Biography
Paul Kruger Boer leader who resisted British rule, and was president of the Transvaal Republic.
Dr. Jameson Friend and associate of Rhodes that led the failed Jameson raid in Transvaal.
Charles Rudd Formed De Beers Mining Company with Rhodes.
Robert Moffet Influential missionary in region of Bechuanaland. In-law of David Livingstone.
Rothchilds Banking family that helped finance Rhodes cartel of the diamond market.
Barney Barnato Diamond speculator that competed with Rhodes for control of Kimberly mines.