Cecil Rhodes

Cecil Rhodes


Cecil John Rhodes, PC DCL (5 July 1853 – 26 March 1902) was an English-born businessman, mining magnate, and politician in South Africa. He was the founder of the diamond company De Beers, which today markets 40% of the world's rough diamonds and at one time marketed 90%. He was an ardent believer in colonialism (some would say imperialism) and was the founder of the state of Rhodesia, which was named after him. Rhodesia, later Northern and Southern Rhodesia, eventually became Zambia and Zimbabwe respectively. South Africa's Rhodes University is named in tribute to him. He is also known today for the famous scholarship that bears his name.

Childhood in England

Rhodes was born in 1853 in Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire, England. He was the fifth son of the Reverend Francis William Rhodes, a Church of England vicar who prided himself on never having preached a sermon longer than 10 minutes, and his wife Louisa Peacock Rhodes. He had many siblings, including Francis William Rhodes, an army officer. A sickly, asthmatic teenager, he was taken out of grammar school and sent to Natal, South Africa because his family thought the hot, dry climate there would improve his health. There he was to help his brother Herbert on his cotton farm.

South Africa

After a brief stay with the Surveyor-General of Natal, Dr. P.C. Sutherland, in Pietermaritzburg, Rhodes took an interest in agriculture and joined his brother Herbert on his cotton farm in the Umkomaas valley in Natal. In the colony, he established the Rhodes Fruit Farms in the Stellenbosch district. In October 1871, Rhodes left the colony for the diamond fields of Kimberley. Financed by N M Rothschild & Sons, Rhodes achieved a virtual monopoly in the diamond mining industry, Rothschild also profiting on the yield from the future exploitation. 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 Charles Rudd, who later became his partner in the De Beers Mining Company and Niger Oil Company. After he first came to Africa, Rhodes supported himself with money lent by his Aunt Sophia.


Rhodes attended the Bishop's Stortford Grammar School. In 1873, Rhodes left his farm field in the care of his business partner, Rudd, and sailed for England to complete his studies. He was admitted to Oriel College, Oxford, but stayed for only one term in 1873, leaving for South Africa and returning 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 College and a director of the British South Africa Company, and Charles Metcalfe. His university career engendered in him an admiration for the Oxford "system", which was eventually to mature into his scholarship scheme: "Wherever you turn your eye—except in science—an Oxford man is at the top of the tree".

While attending Oriel College, Rhodes became a Freemason. Although his initial view of it was not approving, he continued to be a Freemason until his death in 1902. The failures of the Freemasons, in his mind, later caused him to envisage his own secret society with the goal of bringing the entire world under British rule.


Whilst at Oxford, Rhodes continued to prosper in Kimberley. Before his departure for Oxford, he and C.D. 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, who were occupants of the farm, which with the entire Griqualand West Region belonged to the Voortrekker great-great-grandfather of Claudine Fourie-Grosvenor. He had allowed various Afrikaner families including the De Beers to reside on the land after he had purchased the entire Region from the Modder River via the Vet River up to the Vaal River from Mr. David Danser, a Koranna Chief in the area, in 1839. This included the Diamond Fields and later named Kimberley too. Rhodes and his associates, who had proceeded North from the Cape to forcibly take the land, hastily paid these two brothers a sum of money after writing out a certificate supposedly stating that the farm belonged to the brothers.

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. It was during this period that Jim B. Taylor, still a young boy and helping to work his father's claim, first met Rhodes.

On 12 March 1880, Rhodes and Rudd launched the De Beers Mining Company after the amalgamation of a number of individual claims. With £200,000 of capital, the Company, of which Rhodes was secretary, owned the largest interest in the mine.

Politics in South Africa

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 Barkly West, a rural constituency in which Boer voters predominated. Barkly West remained faithful to Rhodes even after the Jameson Raid, and he continued as its member until his death.

When Rhodes became a member of the Cape Parliament, the chief goal of the assembly was to help decide the future of Basutoland, where the ministry of Sir Gordon Sprigg was trying to restore order after a rebellion, the Gun War, in 1880. The ministry had precipitated the revolt by applying its disarmament policy 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. He also introduced educational reform to the area.

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, the infamous Jameson Raid. The raid was a catastrophic failure which forced Cecil Rhodes to resign as Prime Minister of Cape Colony, sent his oldest brother, Col. Frank Rhodes, to jail in Transvaal on high treason, nearly resulted in his hanging, and led to the outbreak of both the Second Matabele War and the Second Boer War.

Expanding the British Empire

Rhodes and the Imperial Factor

Rhodes used his wealth and that of his business partner Alfred Beit and other investors to pursue his dream of creating a British Empire in new territories to the north by obtaining mineral concessions from the most powerful chiefs. Rhodes' competitive advantage over other mineral prospecting companies was his combination of wealth and the 'imperial factor', his use of the British Government: he made friendships with its local representatives, the British Commissioners, and through them organised British protectorates over the mineral concession areas via separate but related treaties, conferring both legality and security for mining operations. He could then win over more investors. Imperial expansion and capital investment went hand in hand.

The imperial factor was a double-edged sword: Rhodes did not want it to mean that the bureaucrats of the Colonial Office in London would interfere in the Empire in Africa. He wanted British settlers and local politicians and governors, like himself, to run it. This put him on a collision course with many in Britain, as well as with British missionaries who favoured what they saw as the more ethical direct rule from London. But Rhodes won because he would pay to administer the territories north of South Africa against future mining profits, the Colonial Office did not have the funds to do it, and his presence would prevent the Portuguese, the Germans or the Boers from moving in to south-central Africa.

Rhodes' companies and agents cemented these advantages by obtaining many mining concessions, as exemplified by the Rudd and Lochner Concessions.

Treaties, concessions and charters

Rhodes had already tried and failed to get a mining concession from Lobengula, king of the Ndebele of Matabeleland. In 1888 he tried again. He sent John Moffat, son of the missionary Robert Moffat, who was trusted by Lobengula, to persuade the latter to sign a treaty of friendship with Britain, and to look favourably on Rhodes' proposals. His agent, Francis Thompson, who had travelled to Bulawayo in the company of Charles Rudd and Rochfort Maguire, assured Lobengula that no more than ten white men would mine in Matabeleland, but this was left out of the actual document Lobengula signed, the Rudd Concession. Furthermore it stated that the mining companies could do anything necessary to their operations. When Lobengula discovered later what the concession really meant, he tried to renounce it, but the British Government ignored him.

Armed with the Rudd Concession, in 1889 Rhodes obtained a charter from the British Government for his British South Africa Company (BSAC) to rule, police and make new treaties and concessions from the Limpopo River to the great lakes of Central Africa. He obtained further concessions and treaties north of the Zambezi, such as those in Barotseland (the Lochner Concession with King Lewanika in 1890, which was similar to the Rudd Concession), and in the Lake Mweru area (Alfred Sharpe's 1890 Kazembe concession). Rhodes also sent Sharpe to get a concession over mineral-rich Katanga, but met his match in ruthlessness: when Sharpe was rebuffed by its ruler Msiri, King Leopold II of Belgium obtained a concession over Msiri's dead body for his Congo Free State.

Rhodes also wanted Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana) under the BSAC charter but three Tswana kings including Khama III travelled to Britain and won over British public opinion for it to remain governed by London. Rhodes commented: "It is humiliating to be utterly beaten by these niggers".

The British Colonial Office also decided to administer British Central Africa (Nyasaland, today's Malawi) owing to the presence there of Scottish missionaries trying to end the slave trade. Rhodes paid much of the cost so that the British Central Africa Commissioner, Sir Harry Johnston (and his successor, Alfred Sharpe) would assist with security in the BSAC's north-eastern territories. Johnston shared Rhodes' expansionist views, but he and his successors were not as pro-settler as Rhodes and disagreed on dealings with Africans.


The BSAC had its own police force, which was used to control Matabeleland and Mashonaland, in present-day Zimbabwe. The company had hoped to start a "new Rand" from the ancient gold mines of the Shona, but the gold deposits were on a much smaller scale, so many of the white settlers who accompanied the British South Africa Company to Mashonaland became farmers. When the Ndebele and the Shona—the two main, but rival tribes—separately rebelled against the coming of the white settlers, the British South Africa Company defeated them in the two Matabele Wars (1893–94; 1896–97). Shortly after learning of the claimed assassination of the Ndebele spirit, Mlimo, by the American scout Frederick Russell Burnham, Rhodes walked unarmed into the Ndebele stronghold in Matobo Hills and persuaded the impi to lay down their arms, thus ending the Second Matabele War.

By the end of 1894, the territories over which the BSAC had concessions or treaties, collectively called "Zambesia" after the Zambezi River flowing through the middle, comprised an area of 1,143,000 km² between the Limpopo River and Lake Tanganyika. In May 1895, its name was officially changed to "Rhodesia", reflecting Rhodes' popularity among settlers who had been using the name informally since 1891. The designation Southern Rhodesia was officially adopted in 1898 for the part south of the Zambezi which later became Zimbabwe, and the designations North-Western and North-Eastern Rhodesia were used from 1895 for the territory which later became Northern Rhodesia, then Zambia.

Rhodes decreed in his will that he was to be buried in Matobo Hills, so when he died in the Cape in 1902 his body came up by train to Bulawayo. His burial was attended by Ndebele chiefs, who asked that the firing party should not discharge their rifles as this would disturb the spirits. Then, for the first and probably the only time, they gave the white man the Matabele royal salute "Bayete". Rhodes is buried alongside both Leander Starr Jameson and the 34 white soldiers killed in the Shangani Patrol.

Political views

Rhodes wanted to expand the British Empire because he believed that the Anglo-Saxon race was destined to greatness. In his last will and testament, Rhodes said of the British, "I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race." He wanted to make the British Empire a superpower in which all of the white countries in the empire, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Cape Colony, would be represented in the British Parliament. Rhodes included Americans in the Rhodes scholarships and said that he wanted to breed an American elite of philosopher-kings who would have the USA rejoin the British Empire. Rhodes also respected the Germans and admired the Kaiser, and allowed Germans to be included in the Rhodes scholarships. He believed that eventually Great Britain, the USA and Germany together would dominate the world and ensure peace together.

On domestic politics within the United Kingdom, Rhodes was a supporter of the Liberal party. Rhodes' only major impact on domestic politics within the United Kingdom was his support of the Irish nationalist party, led by Charles Stewart Parnell (1846–1891). He contributed a great deal of money to the Irish nationalists, although Rhodes made his support for the Irish nationalists conditional upon an autonomous Ireland still being represented in the British Parliament. Rhodes was such a strong supporter of Parnell that even after the Liberals and the Irish nationalists had disowned Parnell because of his adultery with the wife of another Irish nationalist, Rhodes continued to support him.

Rhodes was much more tolerant of the Dutch-speaking whites in the Cape Colony than were the other English-speaking whites in the Cape Colony. He supported teaching Dutch as well as English in public schools in Cape Colony and even lent money to support this cause. Also, while Prime Minister of Cape Colony, he helped to remove most of the legal disabilities that English-speaking whites had imposed on Dutch-speaking whites. He was a friend of Jan Hofmeyr, leader of the Afrikaner Bond, and became Prime Minister of Cape Colony largely because of Afrikaner support. Rhodes advocated greater self-government for his country, the Cape Colony, in line with his preference for the empire to be controlled by local settlers and politicians rather than by London (see "Rhodes and the imperial factor" above).

Confusingly for the modern reader, self government of the type Rhodes supported was known as "colonialism". The opposed policy, direct control of a colony from London, was known as "imperialism". This should be kept in mind when reading documents from this time.

Personal relationships


Rhodes never married, pleading that "I have too much work on my hands" and saying that he would not be a dutiful husband. However, several writers have speculated about the possibility that Rhodes may have been homosexual, although admittedly the amount of direct evidence is scarce. In particular, in discussing this issue the scholar Richard Brown observed: "there is still the simpler but major problem of the extraordinarily thin evidence on which the conclusions about Rhodes are reached. Rhodes himself left few details... Indeed, Rhodes is a singularly difficult subject... since there exists little intimate material - no diaries and few personal letters."

Brown also comments: "On the issue of Rhodes' sexuality... there is, once again, simply not enough reliable evidence to reach firm, irrefutable conclusions. It is inferred, fairly convincingly (but not proved), that Rhodes was homosexual and it is assumed (but not proved) that his relationships with men were sometimes physical. Neville Pickering is described as Rhodes' lover in spite of the absence of decisive evidence." Regardless of if he was his lover, Rhodes’ was clearly close to Pickering since he rushed back from important negotiations for Pickering's twenty-fifth birthday in 1882; on that occasion, Rhodes drew up a new will leaving his entire estate to Pickering.

Princess Radziwill

In the last years of his life, Rhodes was stalked by a Polish princess named Catherine Radziwill (1858–1941), born Rzewuska, married into a noble Polish-Lithuanian dynasty called Radziwiłł. Radziwill falsely claimed to people that she was engaged to Rhodes, or that they were having an affair. She asked him to marry her, but Rhodes refused. She eventually got revenge by falsely accusing him of loan fraud. He had to go to trial and testify against her accusation. He died shortly after the trial in 1902. She wrote a biography of Rhodes called Cecil Rhodes: Man and Empire Maker. Her accusations were eventually proven false.

During the Boer War

During the Boer War Rhodes went to Kimberley to help during the siege, but he was more of a liability than an asset. The British military found him intolerable. In particular, Lieutenant Colonel Kekewich disliked Rhodes because of Rhodes' inability to cooperate with the military. Rhodes kept demanding that the military adopt his plans and ideas instead of just doing as they said. (source Pakenham, Thomas The Boer War)

Rhodes' will and the Rhodes Scholarship

Although Rhodes remained a leading figure in the politics of southern Africa, especially during the Second Boer War, he was dogged by ill health throughout his relatively short life. Rhodes died in 1902, and was considered at the time one of the wealthiest men in the world.

In his first will, of 1877, (before he had accumulated his wealth), Rhodes wanted to create a secret society that would bring the whole world under British rule. The exact wording of the will is:

To and for the establishment, promotion and development of a Secret Society, the true aim and object whereof shall be for the extension of British rule throughout the world, the perfecting of a system of emigration from the United Kingdom, and of colonisation by British subjects of all lands where the means of livelihood are attainable by energy, labour and enterprise, and especially the occupation by British settlers of the entire Continent of Africa, the Holy Land, the Valley of the Euphrates, the Islands of Cyprus and Candia, the whole of South America, the Islands of the Pacific not heretofore possessed by Great Britain, the whole of the Malay Archipelago, the seaboard of China and Japan, the ultimate recovery of the United States of America as an integral part of the British Empire, the inauguration of a system of Colonial representation in the Imperial Parliament which may tend to weld together the disjointed members of the Empire and, finally, the foundation of so great a Power as to render wars impossible, and promote the best interests of humanity.

In his last will and testament, he provided for the establishment of the Rhodes Scholarships. The scholarship program enables students from territories under British rule, formerly under British rule, or from Germany, to study at the University of Oxford.

Rhodes' will also left a large area of land on the slopes of Table Mountain to the South African nation. Part of this estate became the upper campus of the University of Cape Town, part became the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, while much was spared from development and is now an important conservation area. Rhodes Memorial stands on Rhodes' favourite spot on the slopes of Devil's Peak, with a view looking north and east towards the Cape to Cairo route. Rhodes' house in Cape Town, Groote Schuur, has recently been inhabited by the ex deputy president Jacob Zuma. The cottage in Muizenberg where he died is a national monument. Rhodes was laid to rest at World's View, a hilltop located approximately 35 kilometers south of Bulawayo, in what was then Rhodesia. Today, his grave site is part of Matobo National Park, Zimbabwe.

In 2004, he was voted 56th in the SABC3's Great South Africans.


Rhodes famously declared: "To think of these stars that you see overhead at night, these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annex the planets if I could; I often think of that. It makes me sad to see them so clear and yet so far.

“We must find new lands from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit the cheap slave labor that is available from the natives of the colonies. The colonies would also provide a dumping ground for the surplus goods produced in our factories.”

“Pure philanthropy is very well in its way but philanthropy plus five percent is a good deal better.”

Popular culture

  • Mark Twain's summation of Rhodes ("I admire him, I frankly confess it; and when his time comes I shall buy a piece of the rope for a keepsake"), from Chapter LXIX of Following the Equator, still often appears in collections of famous insults.
  • The will of Cecil Rhodes is the central theme in the science fiction book Great Work of Time by John Crowley, an alternate history in which the Secret Society stipulated in the will was indeed established. Its members eventually achieve the secret of time travel and use it to restrain World War I and prevent World War II, and to perpetuate the world ascendancy of the British Empire up to the end of the Twentieth Century. The book contains a vivid description of Cecil Rhodes himself, seen through the eyes of a traveller from the future British Empire.
  • In the British film Rhodes of Africa (1936, directed by Austrian filmmaker Berthold Viertel), Rhodes was portrayed by American actor Walter Huston.
  • In 1996, BBC-TV made an eight-part television drama about Rhodes called Rhodes: The Life and Legend of Cecil Rhodes. It was produced by David Drury and written by Antony Thomas. It premiered on PBS in 1998. It tells the story of Rhodes' life through a series of flashbacks of conversations between him and Princess Catherine Radziwill and also between her and people who knew him. It also shows the story of how she stalked and eventually ruined him. In the movie, Cecil Rhodes is played by Martin Shaw, the younger Cecil Rhodes is played by his son Joe Shaw, and Princess Radziwill is played by Frances Barber. In the movie Rhodes is portrayed as ruthless and greedy. The movie also strongly suggests that he was homosexual.
  • The Wilbur Smith "Ballantyne" series of novels feature Rhodes. These novels also strongly suggest that he was homosexual.
  • In 1902 Colonel Francis William Rhodes erected the village hall in the village of Dalham, Suffolk, to commemorate the life of his brother who had previously purchased the estate, but who had died before taking possession.


  • Rhodes has been portrayed by some current scholars of the history of continental Africa as a violent and brutal racist who used forced labour tactics as a means of founding De Beers and other portions of his lucrative success. One example of this type of scholar is Dr. C. Magbaily Fyle, Ph.D.

See also


Further reading

  • Ziegler, Philip (2008). Legacy: Cecil Rhodes, the Rhodes Trust and Rhodes Scholarships. Yale: Yale University Press.

External links

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