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Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902) was born at Bishops Stortford, Hertfordshire and educated at Bishops Stortford Grammar School, 1861-1869, when his health broke down. He was sent to Natal in southern Africa in 1870 to help his brother Herbert grow cotton, though Herbert was increasingly occupied with diamond prospecting. In his brother's absence, Cecil was left to run the plantation, showing an ability to manage the native Zulu labourers.
The discovery of diamonds in Orange Free State eventually led the brothers to abandon their cotton plantation and to begin prospecting in Colesberg Kopje, Kimberley. Herbert began to take an interest in pioneering and, in November 1871, he handed over the working of the claim (he died accidentally in 1879 while pioneering in the area west of Lake Nyasa). Rhodes again showed entrepreneurial skills as well as a marked sense of purpose and an ability to react to new situations quickly. His claim therefore prospered despite the conditions of disease, taxation, flooding and lawlessness prevalent at Kimberley, and in the high veld his health actually improved. He also made efforts to understand the wider machinations of the stock market, etc. as his profits increased. In 1874 he formed a partnership with Charles Dunell Rudd and consolidated his holdings in the De Beers Mine, one of the area's largest concerns. After the depressions of 1873 and 1882 he was able to amalgamate several smaller claims, and in 1880 established his concern as the De Beers Mining Company. At the same time, the rival Barnato Mining Company was formed to work the equally large Kimberley mine.
An avid classicist, in October 1873 he returned to England, matriculating at Oriel College, Oxford, though a chill which spread to his heart and lungs led to the postponement of his studies. From 1874 onwards he travelled back and forth between Kimberley and Oxford, gaining a B.A. and M.A. in 1881. During this time he also became a lifelong member of the Masonic Order, gained social contacts, and became aware of the beginnings of the ideology which would lead to an international scramble for colonies towards the end of the century.
Rhodes's greatest ambitions were political. After his first serious heart attack in 1877 he made a will in which he disposed a fortune not yet amassed to the establishment of a secret society dedicated to the extension of British rule worldwide, and the perfecting of a system of emigration from the United Kingdom and the subsequent colonisation of the entire continent of Africa, the Holy Land, the Euphrates valley, Cyprus and Candia, the whole of South America, the islands of the Pacific, the Malay Archipelago, the sea-board of China and Japan, as well as the ultimate recovery of the United States of America and a system of colonial representation in the British Parliament.
In 1880 he was elected as one of two members for Barkly West (near Kimberley) and took his seat in the Cape legislature a year later, retaining it for life. As MP he cultivated the influence of key persons, including Sir Hercules Robinson, later High Commissioner for South Africa. He also gained the friendship of General Gordon, who invited him to Khartoum in 1884.
At this time the colonists of the recently recognized Transvaal Republic, under President Paul Kruger, were nurturing their own ambitions for Dutch supremacy in the Cape. In 1880 a British attempt to annexe the Transvaal led to their expulsion the following year after the battle of Majuba Hill. At this time a number of Boer leaders emerged, such as Jan Hofmeyr, a member of the Cape Parliament, while 1879 saw the formation of the Afrikaner Bond, the first major Boer political party. It was Rhodes's immediate ambition to see the establishment of a locally-governed federation of South Africa under British rule but with Cape Dutch assent, and also the northern expansion of the colony, which was then bounded to the north by the Orange River and, beyond it, Bechuanaland. To this end he worked with the Dutch and with individual Boer leaders, and with their support was elected Treasurer of the Cape Colony, March-May 1884. At the same time he engineered the annexation of the territory of the Tswana people (Bechuanaland). When the Dutch invaded the same territories, founding the republics of Stellaland and Goshen, the British government was slow to react, and it was only the German annexation of South-West Africa in 1884 that led British troops to oust the Dutch, offering a protectorate to the Tswana.
By the mid-1880s, Rhodes's commercial ambitions lay in gaining control of the entire diamond mining operations at Kimberley. Utilising the advice of the German-born financier Alfred Beit, he continued to amalgamate smaller companies. Meanwhile, after acquiring the patronage of the Rothschild family and, through them, the support of Joseph Chamberlain, Colonial Secretary in Lord Salisbury's government, he embarked on a lengthy but successful legal struggle against the Barnato Mining Company. The result was the formation on 13th March 1888 of the De Beers Consolidated Mines Co., with Rhodes, Barnato and Beit on the board. By 1889 Rhodes controlled the South African diamond mining industry, and 90% of world production. In 1886 gold was discovered at Witwatersrand near Johannesburg, Transvaal. Rhodes and Rudd eventually bought deeds to eight or nine good claims and in 1887 set up another company, Consolidated Gold Fields of South Africa.
At the same time, there were rumours of gold north of the Transvaal, in the territories of the Ndebele and Shona peoples (Zimbabwe). The king of the Ndebele, Lobengula was ambivalent towards Europeans. Nevertheless, German emissaries were soon reported in Bulawayo, Lobengula's kraal and, in 1887, Kruger sought his own agreement with the Ndebele ruler. Rhodes was apprised of the developments and persuaded the High Commissioner to take action. John Moffat was sent as an emissary to Bulawayo, and on 11th February 1888 Lobengula entered into a treaty which bound him to alienate no part of his territory without the High Commissioner's prior sanction. After further talks, Lobengula granted Rhodes mining rights. Rhodes used this latter agreement as the legal basis to found a chartered company, the British South Africa Company, on 29th October 1889. The company was roughly modelled on the old East India Company and its powers included the rights to annexe and administer land, raise its own police force and to establish settlements within its own boundaries. The territory immediately under its control was named Rhodesia.
Through skilful use of his resources, influence and the press, Rhodes gained widespread public support for the British South Africa Company and for his own colonial vision. In May 1890 he was elected Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, cultivating a division between Kruger and the Cape Afrikaners concerning a planned railway from Transvaal to Mozambique. Shortly afterwards, he dispatched as his representative Dr. Jameson to Bulawayo, with orders to build a road through Ndebele land. Armed pioneers were sent in support, forts were built in Shona territory, and the Union Jack finally raised in Fort Salisbury (Harare) on 12th September 1890. However, a disastrous tour of southern Africa by Randolph Churchill, rumours of Jameson's administrative incompetence, and the Company's poor financial position led to a minor crisis for Rhodes in the early 1890s.
In November 1891 Lobengula granted Eduard Lippert, a German businessman farming rights in Ndebele territory. The British government arrested Lippert and his new land was receded to the Company. In 1893 to 1894 war broke out between Britain and the Ndebele. After securing victory, Rhodes extended his influence northwards, creating North-West and North-East Rhodesia and a protectorate in Nyasaland. The war received widespread support at home.
Rhodes's other activities during this period included the construction of a railway line from Kimberley northwards to Vryburg in Bechuanaland, the first stretch of his proposed Cape-Cairo railway and accompanying telegraph line. In the Cape he made efforts to develop Afrikaner farms and introduced a system of dues favourable to Dutch farmers. Other domestic acts included the raising of the property franchise to £75 (with the ability to read and write English) and the Glen Grey Act, which divided the Glen Grey area into lots of 8 acres of land to be given to African families while introducing a tax on those who remained landless as a stimulus to work. In June 1895 the legislature formally pronounced the absorption of British Bechuanaland into Cape Colony, while on 2nd February of the same year Rhodes was admitted to the Privy Council.
Still afflicted by heart trouble and unsuccessful in gaining Kruger's co-operation in a system of federal government for the colony, Rhodes secretly sanctioned support for an Uitlander (non-Dutch) uprising in Johannesburg in 1895. The complaints of the Uitlanders, who worked mainly as temporary gold prospectors, included heavy taxation and lack of voting rights. On the 27th December 1895 Dr. Jameson crossed the Transvaal borders with an armed force but was defeated near Krugersdorp. Rhodes acknowledged his compilicity in the initial movement and resigned as Prime Minister on 6th January 1896. A select committee of the Cape Parliament absolved him of any wrong motives though his action itself was condemned, while a select committee of the British House of Commons on 15th July 1897 found him guilty of grave breaches of duty as Prime Minister of the Cape and acting manager of the British South Africa Company.
Thereafter he devoted himself to the improvement of fruit and wine industries in Cape Colony and to the development of Rhodesia. A new settlement was erected at Bulawayo. However, the lack of any sizeable deposits of gold led the influx of colonists to turn to farming. The resulting seizure of African land and cattle, together with the privations of the hut tax, led to an Ndebele revolt. This was harshly suppressed, though Rhodes persuaded the last rebels in the Matopa Hills to end the conflict peaceably, with the promise of land and salaries to various members of the Ndebele aristocracy.
In 1899 the honorary degree of D.C.L. was conferred on Rhodes by Oxford University. In the same period he fostered friendships with Kipling and Kitchener, while discussions with Kaiser Willhelm II over colonial spheres of influence and the planned telegraph line resulted in mutual admiration. Nevertheless, events in Rhodesia and the Transvaal served to diminish his standing and influence. He was a supporter of vigorous action against the Transvaal in the late 1890s at a time of the rising nationalism on both sides which culminated in the South African War of 1899-1902. However, his actions in Kimberley during its siege by the Boers proved unpopular, and by 1902, public opinion at home had turned against the war and against his perceived part in its instigation. At the same time his health deteriorated, and he was the subject of an attempt at fraud by the Russian adventuress, Princess Radziwill. A period of travel through Great Britain and Europe without a cure ended with his death on 26th March 1902 at Muizenberg on the Cape. His will bequeathed the majority of his fortune to public service, including the foundation of 160 scholarships at Oxford, ostensibly for the education of future colonists, and the provision of land near Bulawayo and Salisbury for the establishment of a university.
Album of newspaper cuttings and printed material relating to the life and career of Rhodes in Southern Africa, including a biography (Miniature series) by Ada S. Frost entitled The right hon. Cecil J. Rhodes (London: 1902).
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The library holds a card index of all manuscript collections in its reading room.
Listed as no. 1183 in Manuscript Collections in Rhodes House Library Oxford, Accessions 1978-1994 (Oxford, Bodleian Library, 1996).
Rhodes | Cecil John | 1853-1902 | Imperialist and Benefactor
Frost | Ada S | fl 1902