Rhodes, Cecil


Rhodes, Cecil
(1853–1902)
   A British and South African politician, businessman, and imperial visionary, Cecil Rhodes was the founder of his eponymous colony, Rhodesia, and a major figure in South African and imperial politics in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Rhodes was the son of an Anglican clergyman. He went to Natal at the age of 17 to farm cotton with his elder brother, in part because it was thought that the South African climate would help his always-dubious health. Rhodes and his brother soon decamped to the newly discovered diamond fields near the town of Kimberley, where Rhodes did moderately well as a diamond miner, acquiring a large number of friends among prominent miners, and by 1873 having enough money to take himself off to Oriel College, Oxford.
   On his return from Oxford, Rhodes and his partners formed the company that became De Beers to purchase mining claims in the Kimberley area. By operating on a larger scale than individual claim holders, and also by providing pumping services to others, Rhodes’ company prospered. In the early 1880s, De Beers solidified its control over the diamond fields, forcing out small independent producers. From the 1880 annexation of the diamond-producing region to the Cape Colony, Rhodes represented the area in the Cape legislature, although not without accusations of corrupt electoral practices. Rhodes had absorbed imperialist ideas from his earliest days - his first will of 1872 went so far as to leave all his property to the colonial secretary - and he never wavered in his faith that the Anglo-Saxon peoples should rule the world in the interests of progress. His involvement in South African politics, his mining interests, and his imperial ideology combined to convince Rhodes that Britain needed to expand in Africa. As so often in imperial history, it was the local “man on the spot” who was determined to push the frontiers of empire forward, often against the will of the government in London and even its local officials. In 1886, gold was discovered on the Rand, in the Transvaal. Rhodes largely missed out on the Rand gold rush, but the discovery convinced him that Britain must expand to the north, both to control the growing power of the Transvaal and to preempt annexations by other European powers.
   In 1889, Rhodes obtained from Lord Salisbury’s government a charter for the British South Africa Company, on the basis of a dubious concession from the Matabele king Lobengula, aided by a certain amount of hype about the mineral potential of central Africa and a number of well-connected British aristocrats and other prominent figures on the company board. In 1890, the famous pioneer column of 200 settlers and about 500 British South Africa Company police marched north into the interior, where they founded the settlement of Fort Salisbury, later the capital of Rhodesia. Also in 1890, Rhodes himself became premier of the Cape Colony, putting him in the anomalous position of being both the senior South African politician and the owner of two of the largest commercial operations in the subcontinent, De Beers and the British South Africa Company. Rhodes won the premiership with the backing of an almost equally anomalous coalition of Anglophone liberals and the Afrikaner Bond. As Premier, he put through at the behest of the latter laws limiting the black franchise and native land rights. Simultaneously, the company fought and won a brief but successful war with the Matabele in 1893, securing its control over Rhodesia and eliminating the kingdom of Lobengula. The scandal arising from the Jameson Raid of 1895, in which company forces invaded the Transvaal, brought Rhodes’s contradictory position as statesman and capitalist, and at once exponent of British and Afrikaner interests, to a head. He was forced to resign the cape premiership, and shortly thereafter a Second Matabele War of 1896 - this time requiring the intervention of imperial troops - led to his temporary resignation as director of the British South Africa Company.
   The company’s combination of political connections and stock market manipulation at home with wars of conquest abroad - proceedings compared by Rhodes’s admirers to the conquests of the East India Company - did much to bring capitalist and economically motivated imperialism into disrepute in the minds of many Britons, especially on the left. At the outbreak of the Second Boer War in 1899, Rhodes was in the diamond-mining town of Kimberley, whose defense he helped organize during the Boer siege. His health declining and his attention diverted by personal troubles, he took little further part in the course of the war. He died in 1902, leaving a large bequest to fund the Rhodes scholarships and other imperial causes.
   See also <>; <>.
   FURTHER READING:
    Galbraith, J. S. Crown and Charter: The Early Years of the British South Africa Company . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974;
    Newbury, Colin. The Diamond Ring: Business, Politics and Precious Stones in South Africa, 1867–1947 . Oxford: Clarendon, 1989;
    Rotberg, Robert I. The Founder: Cecil Rhodes and the Pursuit of Power . New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
   MARK F. PROUDMAN

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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