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Cecil John Rhodes
1853 - 1902

The English imperialist, financier, and mining magnate Cecil John Rhodes founded and controlled the British South Africa Company, which acquired Rhodesia and Zambia as British territories. He founded the Rhodes scholarships.


Cecil Rhodes was born on July 5, 1853, at Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire, one of nine sons of the parish vicar. After attending the local grammar school, his health broke down, and at 16 he was sent to South Africa. Arriving in October 1870, he grew cotton in Natal with his brother Herbert but in 1871 left for the newly developed diamond field at Kimberley.

In the 1870s Rhodes laid the foundation for his later massive fortune by speculating in diamond claims, beginning pumping techniques, and in 1880 forming the De Beers Mining Company. During this time he attended Oxford off and on, starting in 1873, and finally acquired the degree of bachelor of arts in 1881. His extraordinary imperialist ideas were revealed early, after his serious heart attack in 1877, when he made his first will, disposing of his as yet unearned fortune to found a secret society that would extend British rule over the whole world and colonize most parts of it with British settlers, leading to the "ultimate recovery of the United States of America" by the British Empire!

From 1880 to 1895 Rhodes's star rose steadily. Basic to this rise was his successful struggle to take control of the rival diamond interests of Barnie Barnato, with whom he amalgamated in 1888 to form De Beers Consolidated Mines, a company whose trust deed gave extraordinary powers to acquire lands and rule them and extend the British Empire. With his brother Frank he also formed Goldfields of South Africa, with substantial mines in the Transvaal. At the same time Rhodes built a career in politics; elected to the Cape Parliament in 1880, he succeeded in focusing alarm at Transvaal and German expansion so as to secure British control of Bechuanaland by 1885. In 1888 Rhodes agents secured mining concessions from Lobengula, King of the Ndebele, which by highly stretched interpretations gave Rhodes a claim to what became Rhodesia. In 1889 Rhodes persuaded the British government to grant a charter to form the British South Africa Company, which in 1890 put white settlers into Lobengula's territories and founded Salisbury and other towns. This provoked Ndebele hostility, but they were crushed in the war of 1893.

By this time Rhodes controlled the politics of Cape Colony; in July 1890 he became premier of the Cape with the support of the English-speaking white and non-white voters and the Afrikaners of the "Bond" (among whom 25,000 shares in the British South Africa Company had been distributed). His policy was to aim for the creation of a South African federation under the British flag, and he conciliated the Afrikaners by restricting the Africans' franchise with educational and property qualifications (1892) and setting up a new system of "native administration" (1894).

Later Career

At the end of 1895 Rhodes's fortunes took a disastrous turn. In poor health and anxious to hurry his dream of South African federation, he organized a conspiracy against the Boer government of the Transvaal. Through his mining company, arms and ammunition were smuggled into Johannesburg to be used for a revolution by "outlanders," mainly British. A strip of land on the borders of the Transvaal was ceded to the chartered company by Joseph Chamberlain, British colonial secretary; and Leander Jameson, administrator of Rhodesia, was stationed there with company troops. The Johannesburg conspirators did not rebel; Jameson, however, rode in on Dec. 27, 1895, and was ignominiously captured. As a result, Rhodes had to resign his premiership in January 1896. Thereafter he concentrated on developing Rhodesia and especially in extending the railway, which he dreamed would one day reach Cairo.

When the Anglo-Boer War broke out in October 1899, Rhodes hurried to Kimberley, which the Boers surrounded a few days later. It was not relieved until Feb. 16, 1900, during which time Rhodes had been active in organizing defense and sanitation. His health was worsened by the siege, and after travelling in Europe he returned to the Cape in February 1902, where he died at Muizenberg on March 26.

Rhodes left 6 million, most of which went to Oxford University to establish the Rhodes scholarships to provide places at Oxford for students from the United States, the British colonies, and Germany. Land was also left to provide eventually for a university in Rhodesia.


Cecil John Rhodes was born on July 5th, 1853 in Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire, England where his father was a clergyman. The fifth son amongst a family of nine children he was afforded a grammar school education until he was diagnosed with a tubercular lung condition at age sixteen and doctors advised his parents to send him out to South Africa so as to benefit from the country's drier climate.

In 1870 Rhodes sailed off to southern Africa where he joined his eldest brother Herbert, who was trying his hand at farming in the coastal region of Natal. In the same year, diamonds - which had unexpectedly been discovered for the first time in southern Africa two years before - were suddenly being found in staggering quantities in the inland area now known as Kimberley. When Cecil arrived in Durban in September he found that Herbert had already departed for the diamond area. When Herbert returned to where Cecil was lodging with friends he related that he had had only a very little success diamond hunting.

In March 1871 Herbert left again for the diamond fields whilst Cecil remained tending crops expecting to earn a return sufficient to meet the cost of a university education. In happened however that crop prices fell dramatically leaving no chance of profit and in October Cecil followed Herbert in seeking his fortune as a diamond hunter.

By 1873 Rhodes finances were sufficiently established through his involvements in the diamond fields as to fund his hoped for education and he travelled back to England to pursue studies at Oxford University's Oriel College. It happened however that his health was again very seriously threatened, this time as a result of a bout of pneumonia contracted after a wet day's rowing on the river Thames, and he had to spend some more time in Africa returning periodically to work towards his degree.

Alongside his own control of several diamond workings Rhodes also proved to be an astute businessman. At one time he arranged for the largest capacity water pump in southern Africa to be hauled to Kimberly where it was used in keeping diamond workings open during the seasonal rains. In the dry season this pump was able to be used in the production of a scarce and desireable commodity - Ice Cream.

Rhodes was instrumental in amalgamating the major mining interests of Kimberley into one organisation, De Beers Mining Company, which he finally established, under his own control but with a junior partner named Charles Dunell Rudd, in April 1880. A primary aim of this company being an attempt to regulate the mining and sale of diamonds. Rhodes considered that diamonds are not really intrinsically valuable and that the demand for them was essentially related to young couples looking to become engaged. Given the profusion of diamonds at Kimberly Rhodes considered that unless care were taken the market could be flooded bringing down prices.

Rhodes finally graduated in 1881 and in that same year gained one of the newly established parliamentary seats in Barkly West, near Kimberley, that he was to hold for the remainder of his life. After this election as a member of the Cape Parliament much of Rhodes' irrepressible energy was directed towards his expansionary plans - his ultimate dream being `to paint the map (British) red' from `Cape to Cairo.'

Other aspirations were also stirring in southern Africa. A numerous Dutch (Boer or Farmer) opinion being inclined to favour the formation of a United States of South Africa that was to include such Boer republics of the Transvaal. Rhodes strove to modify this aspiration towards any such Union operating within the British Empire. On May 2nd 1883 the first German protected territory outside Europe came into being when a young merchant named Fritz Luderitz acted on Bismarck's consent in extending such protection by running up the German flag over his own trading station on the Atlantic coast south of the Congo. The possibility of a rival Dutch or German colonisation to the north of Cape Colony allowed the British to view their own control of that area with favour. Rhodes' interest in expansionism led to his appointment in 1884 as resident deputy commissioner in Bechuanaland a territory to the north that Rhodes hoped to see attached to Cape Colony.

In 1888 De Beers was restructured as De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd. and this company has continued to exercise a monopoly over Kimberly diamond production. Rhodes also won mining rights from the Matabele King Lobengula whose domain lay to the north of Bechuanaland.

In 1889 Cecil Rhodes formed the British South Africa Company and obtained a Royal Charter from the British Government to occupy Mashonaland. In 1890 he took office as Prime Minister of the Cape, from which office he had involvement later that year with the establishment of the British outpost of Fort Salisbury (named after the British prime minister of the day) deep in Mashonaland. By 1894 Mashonaland and neighbouring Matabeleland had been subjugated and were united under the name of Rhodesia.

In the late 1830's a number of Boers had become frustrated with the oppressive interference of their British rulers of the Cape and made a `Great Trek' northwards across the Vaal river where they hoped to live as they themselves pleased. The original Trekkers defeated a native opposition to their presence and were later joined by many Boer migrants. All of this led up to the establishment of a Transvaal Republic in 1860. Although Rhodes viewed the Transvaal Republic as an inconvenient obstacle to British expansionism in southern Africa it was, generally speaking, of little interest to anyone but their own citizens until 1887, when fabulously rich gold reefs were discovered in the Witwatersrand area.

The prospect of sudden and amazing wealth lured tens of thousands of non-Boers, many of them English, into the Transvaal to seek their fortunes. The Transvaal's president, Paul Kruger, refused to grant these 'uitlanders' (aliens) meaningful political rights, and Rhodes used this denial as an excuse to conspire to overthrow the Boer-dominated government.

He organised his close friend, Dr. Leander Jameson, to lead a column of some 500 armed men to Pretoria with the aim of triggering an insurrection against the Kruger government. The Jameson Raid, which took place in December 1895, was a complete fiasco and resulted in a polarisation of animosity between Englishman and Boer throughout the country. Rhodes was severely censured by the British government for his involvement and forced to resign his premiership of the Cape in early 1896.

In the aftermath of the Jameson Raid, Rhodes spent much of this time up in Rhodesia, where he devoted himself to the development of his beloved country. Tensions had been rapidly building up between Rhodes' pioneers and the country's indigenous Shona and Matabele population. They eventually rose up in armed revolt against the white settlers, resulting in widespread loss of life. In 1896 - in what was undoubtedly his finest hour - Rhodes and three companions rode, by invitation but unarmed, deep into a Matabele stronghold in the Matopo Hills to negotiate for peace.

In October 1899, the simmering tensions between the British and the Boers finally resulted in the outbreak of the Boer war. Rhodes was in Kimberley at the time and was trapped there during a four month siege of the town by 5,000 Boer commandos. As well as playing an important supervisory and morale-building role in the defence of Kimberley - most of whose citizens were employed by his De Beers company - he even had his workshops manufacture a special artillery piece, called `Long Cecil', to help ward off the attackers.

Rhodes, who had a weak and troublesome heart for much of his life, passed away at his beachside cottage at Muizenberg near Cape Town on March 26th, 1902 at the age of only 49. He died just two months before the end of the Anglo-Boer War. By the time of his death, Rhodes had been instrumental in bringing almost one million square miles of Africa under British dominion.

At the age of 19 Rhodes had first written out his "Last Will and Testament." This brief document, prepared at a time when Rhodes' possessions were modest indeed, included, as its central objective, the furthering the interests of the British Empire. The Will that was valid at the time of Rhodes' death established the funding of 57 scholarships - now famous as the Rhodes Scholarships - as a practical way of attempting to meet such objective.

Rhodes actually left the greater part of his vast fortune for the establishment of these scholarships at his alma mater, Oxford University. Rhodes decreed that these scholarships were to be awarded to young men in regard to:

'literary and scholastic attainments; his fondness of, and success in, manly outdoor sports; his qualities of manhood, truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for the protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship, and his exhibition during his school days of moral force of character and of instincts to lead and take an interest in his schoolmates'.

In 1977 the British parliament legislated in relation to Rhodes' will such that more Rhodes Scholarships (94) are available and are now open to being awarded to females as well as males and also to persons of a wider range of national origins than Rhodes had himself envisaged.










This web page was last updated on: 15 December, 2008