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Rhodes Empire Builder

Updated on September 10, 2011

Cecil Rhodes of Africa

 The 21st June, 1870, two weeks before his seventeenth birthday a young sickly boy sailed on the ship Eudora for Durban, Natal, Africa. Cecil Rhodes had been a sickly child and his parents had decided that the best thing for him was an ocean voyage to his brother, Herbert in Africa. [1]Before his twentieth birthday he had earned his first fortune and was back in Britain at Oriel University, Oxford, reading for his degree.[2] By March 26, 1902 the day of his death, Cecil John Rhodes had become one of the richest men in the Western World and a man of considerable power in his adopted land of Africa.[3] In the last 108 years since Rhodes death, he has been presented as a caricature of pure evil, a man who loved The Empire and a shrewd businessman. Still there remains the question, were his actions those of a man bent on personal power and gain or a man fighting for the future of an Empire in which he truly believed and lived for? There were so many contradictions that you have to sit down and study not just the actions of the man but the man himself. There are many, many biographies written about Cecil Rhodes and few of them actually agree on who the man actually was. Hero or Pure Evil?

Rhodes was a hard working, inventive young man from the very beginning. He arrived in South Africa within a year of the finding of diamonds at Colesberg Kopje. The first year while his brother was in the diamond fields Cecil stayed at the cotton farm his brother owned and fought the insects and Baboons to bring in the crop. He did but the price had fallen on the raw cotton so he packed up and went in search of Herbert in the Diamond Fields.[4]

By 1873, Cecil had accumulated a reasonable fortune in the diamond fields but still his thirst for knowledge compelled him to go back to Britain and to Oxford in search of that goal. According to a friend at the time he is reported to have said, “I dare say you think I am keen about money; I assure you I wouldn’t greatly care if I lost all I have tomorrow, it’s the game I like.”[5] I think that we can already see here that it is not the wealth itself that he is after but the challenge of acquiring it.

In the fall of 1873 he began his studies at Oriel College, Oxford. He was not a particularly good student but he did work at achieving his goals. It was here at Oriel College, from 1873 to 1881, that he “dedicated his life to furthering colonial interests in southern Africa.”[6] Strong men of the time, such as Disraeli and Gladstone influenced him greatly in his view of the colonies. It is thought also that he was strongly influenced by Ruskin, a high-minded socialist. Ruskin in his famous Inaugural Lecture at Oxford stated; “This is what England must either do or perish: she must found colonies as fast and as far as she is able, formed of her most energetic and worthiest of men; seizing every piece of fruitful waste ground she can set her feet on, …”[7] There were talks of forming a Secret Society during this time. One of Rhodes goals that he fixed on at this time was the building of a railroad from South Africa to Cairo in Egypt. Although he never finished it, remnants of what was finished are still being used by all today.[8]

DeBeers Mining Company was launched in 1880 and Rhodes’ income grew even larger as he was one of the founding members of the company and still a mere boy of 22 years. During this time he probably rewrote his “Confession” again. These were a series of papers that basically spelled out his plans for The Empire.[9]These papers changed gradually over the years but always had pretty much the same goals.[10] In the event of his death, all of his money and possessions were to go to the government for the extension of British rule throughout the world and ultimately recovery of the United States of America as an integral part of the British Empire.[11] Rhodes lamented the loss of the United States blaming it on “two or three ignorant pigheaded statesmen of the last century, at their door lies the blame.”[12]Miles Shore in his psychological profiling of Cecil John Rhodes seems to feel that a lot of what Rhodes did had to do with the way he felt about his own father.[13]I think that Mr. Rhodes was responsible for a lot and that to blame it all on his father is a cop out. Rhodes would have been the first to take responsibility for all of his own actions.

Rhodes was always active, during the 1870s seriously working in diamonds but also making ice, pumping water and traveling back and forth to Oxford. He worked hard to build his fortune in diamonds by acquiring all of the claims in the De Beers Mine and forming De Beers Mining Ltd. with Stowe and others. [14]

In 1881 as he reached his 28th birthday he gave up his pursuit of a profession in Britain and embraced colonial politics. Having grown up in the Victorian Britain, which considered itself the standard bearer of civilization, Rhodes felt it his duty to work for:”the furtherance of the British Empire, for the bringing of the whole uncivilized world under British rule, for the recovery of the United States, for the making of the Anglo-Saxon race in to one Empire.” [15] He proclaimed in 1877 in Kimberly at a dinner party attended by Joseph Orpen, an Irish-born surveyor, magistrate and politician; “Gentlemen, I have asked you to dine…because I want to tell you what I want to do with the remainder of my life.” He intended, he said, to devote it to the defense and extension of the British Empire.[16] It has been said that he wanted wealth and power to realize Britain’s destiny and his own burning desire to civilize and Anglicize inner Africa.[17] One thing is certain, he surrounded himself with men, many of whom became lifelong friends, who were politically and financially in the position to be of the most help to him and his enterprises.[18] Rhodes early business career had been held together by Charles Rudd; the mastermind behind the amalgamation of the diamond mines in Kimberley was not Rhodes but Alfred Beit to whom he turned for solutions; his drive to the north was facilitated by Hercules Robinson; his triumph in winning the support of the British establishment for a chartered company was due to the work of Gifford and Cawston in London on Rhodes behalf; and finally he managed to obtain a royal charter for his company only because it suited the interest of Lord Salisbury who was preoccupied with the need to keep Britain ahead in the Scramble for Africa among European powers. Salisbury saw a means to extend British influence at no cost to the public exchequer.[19]

Rhodes was adept at gathering allies and many hitched themselves to Rhodes bandwagon in hopes of making their own fortunes. Rhodes was not above providing incentives, bribes, share options, directorships and other positions, convinced that every man had his price.[20]

In London in 1891 with the occupation of Mashonaland under his belt, Rhodes was acclaimed a man of action with the Midas touch boldly leading the advance of civilization. He was sought after as a guest by politicians, journalists and financiers, among them Salisbury and Gladstone. Queen Victoria invited him to dine at Windsor Castle. Where it is stated that she asked him if it was true that he was a woman-hater, Rhodes replied graciously:”How could I hate a sex to which your Majesty belongs?”[21]

Rhodes became more difficult to deal with as his power grew, along with this his arrogance and aggressiveness became more pronounced. He conducted business in a ruthless manner cutting corners when it suited him, getting his way through bribes, bullying or force if needs be, as in his dealing with chief Lobengula’s overthrow. He regarded himself as virtually infallible, pouring scorn and abuse on anyone who opposed him. The London directors of the British South Africa Company soon discovered they had no means to control him. The Colonial Office came to regard him as reckless and untrustworthy.[22]

Rhodes had bribed the Ndebele king, Lobengula to a give a concession to the mineral rights of his country and the right to settlement of a small area by pioneers in return for a company pension, 1,000 rifles and a gunboat for the Zambesi River. The 1,000 rifles were obsolete Martini-Henrys and the gun boat was never delivered. By the end of 1890, the first settlers around 400 in number arrived, they were heavily armed with machine guns and artillery. Lobengula realized that by making concessions to the company he had weakened his own authority and 1893 attempted to reassert himself by ordering his impis to raid Shona villages close to the white settlements. This played right into the hands of the company and her chief magistrate Dr. Leander Starr Jameson, who now had his excuse for war against Chief Lobengula.[23]Dr. Jameson until his removal to Ndebeland had been Rhodes’ roommate. According to Rhodes (writing to Beit) Jameson had volunteered for the assignment and knew everything and had full powers to deal with Lobengula and the problems that might arise in Ndebeland.[24]

Rhodes push to the north was well on its way now. Not even the Jameson Raid which cost him his political career in Cape Town could stop him now. With the British South Africa Company well in place and granting him the means with which to settle, control and police the territory that he acquired there was no stopping him.[25] Thus were born the two countries which bore his name South and North Rhodesia.

Perhaps the only other woman for whom he ever showed any kind of affection other than his mother was Olive Schreiner, an authoress and celebrity of South Africa and Cape Town society. Schreiner could converse with him on the same level about everything from religion to politics and over the duration of their friendship was known to have lively discussions about various subjects. At one point in their relationship she urged him to break from the kind of men (the Rutherfoord Harrises and Sivewrights) by which he was perpetually surrounded, at this suggestion Rhodes apparently flew into a rage. “Those men my friends! They are not my friends! They are my tools, and when I have done with them I throw them away!”[26] It was not long after this that Schrenier became disillusioned by Rhodes and turned her back on him and in a letter to her sister wrote, “I saw … had deliberately chosen evil and that I could not save him.” She continued: “the perception of what his character really was in its inmost depths was one of the terrible revelations of my life.”[27]Rhodes still invited her to dinners which she refused and when finally he sent Sauer to inquire as to why she was upset. She relied through Sauer that she would fight him on every political issue. Still Rhodes invited her to dinners and she still adamantly declined.[28]

In 1896, Rhodes showed another side of his character when he chose to take on the peacemaking with the Ndebele. He was successful in his endeavors and built a friendship with some of the older leaders of the Nation of Ndebele.[29] It was also at this time that he found on one of his daily rides into the Matopos hills a place that he called “World’s View” and announced “I shall be buried here.” It was also during this time that he acquired property and built his retreat in the land that carried his name, Rhodesia.[30]

Was Rhodes a capitalist using empire building to arrive at his own ends? This is what some historians think, but it seems most unlikely, Rhodes was certainly a capitalist but he was not a worshipper of money for its own sake. He sought the money for the power that it provided to him in his pursuit of his imperial schemes. Why else should he insist that the trust deeds for his mining companies contain provisions which allowed for the expansion of territorial as well as financial empires? Such provisions entailed risk and they reflected the aspirations of a dreamer, rather than a hard-headed business man.[31] The trust deeds to both the De Beers Consolidated Mines and Gold Fields of South Africa Limited were empowered to annex and govern territories, to function as political as well as financial organizations.[32]

It was in his eighth will that Rhodes created the magnificent scholarships that were to bear his name. Signed as Rhodes was about to embark on another voyage back to the Cape in mid-1899. He had just completed the financing of the first sections of his Cape to Cairo railway and received an honorary doctorate at Oxford. Rhodes directed his trustees to establish “Colonial Scholarships” for “male students”. He detailed the number of scholarships to be awarded from each colony each year, among these he included and insisted on a scholarship for each of the present states of the United States. He repeated his qualifications: no bookworms, due regard however was to be paid in choosing scholars to their literary and scholastic attainments; their fondness for manly sports; their qualities of “manhood, truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship. He wished also that they should show during their school days a moral force of character and the instincts to lead and take an interest in their schoolmates.[33] He listed fifteen colonies from which sixty scholars from the British Empire were to be drawn; and he added further ninety-six scholarships for students from the United States and upon meeting Kaiser Wilhelm in 1899, he allocated fifteen scholarships to German students.[34]

From his youth Cecil Rhodes had worked hard to bring to fulfillment a dream of a British empire that encompassed Africa and returned the United States to Britain. He had been at the right place at the right time in a number of instances but it was his willingness to labor that won him the day. His mind was quick when it came to finding ways to make money and from early on he knew that he must have money to accomplish his dreams. So he worked hard and he found allies that he used to his advantage almost always. I think that along with the money came the power and along with the power came the corruption of the boy Cecil Rhodes into the man Cecil Rhodes who would stop at almost nothing to reach his goals. Today he is viewed as an Imperialist and that is not seen as a favorable thing in the present day but Rhodes himself thought that he was working for a way to peace in the world[35]. Today all that remains of his legacy are The Rhodes Scholarships, the two countries that bore his name; North and South Rhodesia have been free independent nations for the last twenty-five years or so. Every reminder of his name stricken from the countries.[36]

It is a tribute to a great man that on the day he was buried on top of Malindidzuma –“the dwelling place of the spirits” crowds of Ndebele (who had fought against Rhodes Company) accorded him a royal salute. Rudyard Kipling had composed a poem for the occasion that the Bishop of Mashonaland read:

The great and brooding spirit still

Shall quicken and control;

Living he was the land, and dead

His soul shall be her soul![37]

I think that Cecil Rhodes was first of all a man of his times. He knew what he wanted and that was a world civilized and led by an English speaking world. He went after it using the means at hand, those were wealth and power. I also think that in order to gain those means he became a man that he himself was probably not too fond of. Cecil Rhodes was like unto a two edge sword. He could be seen as a blessing to Africa and then again he was a catalyst for wars. The man who wanted and sought peace for all.

End Notes

[1] (Bates 1976)

[2] (Rotberg 1988)

[3] (Roberts 1987)

[4] (Bates 1976)

[5] (M. Meredith 2007)

[6] (Flores 1999)

[7] (Rotberg 1988)

[8] (Flores 1999)

[9] (Johnson 2003)

[10] (Shore Autumn 1979)

[11] (Bates 1976)

[12] (Shore Autumn 1979)

[13] (Ibid)

[14] (Rotberg 1988)

[15] (M. Meredith 2007)

[16] (Ibid)

[17] (Rotberg 1988)

[18] (Roberts 1987)

[19] (M. Meredith 2007)

[20] Ibid)

[21] (Ibid)

[22] (Ibid)

[23] (James 1994)

[24] (Rotberg 1988)

[25] (Roberts 1987)

[26] (Rotberg 1988)

[27] (Ibid)

[28] (M. Meredith 2007)

[29] (Roberts 1987)

[30] (Ibid)

[31] (Ibid)

[32] (Ibid)

[33] (Rotberg 1988)

[34] (M. Meredith 2007)

[35] (Bates 1976)

[36] (Flores 1999)

[37] (M. Meredith 2007)


Bates, Neil. Cecil Rhodes. East Sussex: Wayland Publishers Ltd., 1976.

Flores, Monica. African Stage: Monica Dispatch. June 30, 1999. (accessed March 20, 2010).

James, Lawrence. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

Johnson, Robert. British Imperilism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Meredith, David. "The British government and Colonial Economic Policy, 1919-1939." The Economic History Review. August 1975. (accessed March 11, 2010).

Meredith, Martin. Diamonds, Gold, And War. New York: Public Affairs, 2007.

Roberts, Brian. Cecil Rhodes; Flawed Colossus. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1987.

Rotberg, Robert I. The Founder. Oxford: Oxford University Press,Inc., 1988.

Shore, Miles F. "Cecil Rhodes and the Ego Ideal." Journal of Interdisciplinary History Vol.10, No. 2, Autumn 1979: pp.249-265.


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