Remarkable People

ID #5168

Cecil John Rhodes, Businessman and Statesman, Southern Africa.

Cecil John Rhodes was born in England in 1853. He was the fifth son of Francis Rhodes and his second wife Louisa Peacock. His father served as curate of Brentwood Essex until 1849, when he became vicar of Bishops Stortford. Rhodes attended grammar school at Bishops Stortford. After leaving school he fell ill and, as his lungs were affected, he visited his brother in Natal where he arrived in 1870. He invested the three thousands pounds his aunt lent him in the diamond diggings in Kimberley.

After staying 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 1871 Rhodes left for the diamond fields in Kimberley. He supervised the working of his brother's claim and speculated on his behalf. Early associates were John X Merriman and C D Rudd, who later became a partner in the De Beers Mining Company.

In 1872 Rhodes suffered a mild heart attack. To recuperate and to investigate the prospects of finding gold in the interior, the brothers trekked north as far as Mafeking (Mafikeng) then eastwards through the Transvaal to the Murchison Range. The journey inspired a love of the country and marked the beginning of his interest in the northern interior.

In 1873 Rhodes left his diamond fields in the care of his partner, Rudd, and sailed to England to complete his studies. He was admitted to Oriel College, but only stayed for one term in 1873, returning for his second term in 1876. He was influenced by John Ruskin's lecture which reinforced his attachment to 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 matured into his scholarship scheme

In spite of being at Oxford, Rhodes continued to prosper in Kimberley. Before his departure for Oxford he and Rudd had moved from Kimberley to invest in claims at the De Beers farm Vooruitzicht. It owed its name to Johannes de Beer and his brother, Diederik who were the original owners. In 1874-1875 the diamond fields were in the grip of depression. However Rhodes and Rudd stayed to consolidate their interests. They believed that diamonds would be numerous in the blue ground exposed after the softer, yellow layer near the surface had been worked out. During this time clearing water from the mines became a serious problem and they obtained a contract to pump out the water.

In April 1880 Rhodes and Rudd launched the De Beers Mining Company after 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 entered public life at the Cape. With the incorporation of Griqualand West into the Cape in 1877 the area obtained six seats in the Cape House of Assembly. Rhodes chose Barkley West, a rural constituency in which Boers predominated. It remained faithful after the Jameson Raid and he continued as its member until his death.

At the time the chief preoccupation of the Cape Parliament was the future of Basutoland (Lesotho), where 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. In 1890 Rhodes became Prime Minister of the Cape and implemented laws that would benefit mine and industry owners. He introduced the Glen Grey Act removing blacks from their land to make way for industrial development.

Rhodes was instrumental in development of British imperial policies in South Africa. He did not, however, have power over the Transvaal Republic. He often disagreed with its policies and felt he could use his money and his power to overthrow the government. In 1895 Rhodes supported an attack on the Transvaal (the Jameson Raid). It was a failure and Rhodes had to resign as Prime Minister of the Cape.

Rhodes used his wealth to pursue his dream of expanding Britain's empire in Africa. His British South Africa Company was used to colonize Mashonaland (Zimbabwe). He had hoped to start a ‘new Rand' from the ancient gold mines of the Mashona, but the gold had been worked out. White settlers who accompanied the British South Africa Company became farmers instead. When the Matabele and the Mashona rebelled, British South Africa Company police crushed them. The conquered lands were named Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) to honour Rhodes. He died at Muizenberg in 1902 and is buried in the Matopos in Zimbabwe. 

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Last update: 2014-05-14 16:57
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.6

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