Cecil John Rhodes was born the son of a vicar of the Church of England (Anglican) in Bishop’s Stortford in Hertfordshire in 1853. Rhodes coincidentally was born in the year that the eighth Kaffir War, between the British and Africans of the Xhosa tribe, came to a conclusion.
These wars were a prolonged battle by the African people against the intrusion of Europeans, finally ending with the annexation of the Xhosa territories by the Cape Colony, as well as the incorporation of the Xhosa people.
After the deposition of the Xhosa paramount, Sandile, in 1851, this territory was reserved, apart from the British military outposts, for occupation by Africans. Resentments in British Kaffraria, however, resulted in the eighth and most costly of the wars.
Once again the Xhosa resistance was immensely strengthened by the participation of Khoisan tribesmen, who rebelled at their settlement of Kat River. By 1853 the Xhosa had been defeated, and the territory to the north of British Kaffraria was annexed to the Cape Colony and opened to white settlement.
Rhodes was afflicted with poor health most of his life but seemed to compensate with a mighty will. The army or navy were obviously out of the question because of his diminished physical capabilities. Like many young Victorian men, he went out to the colonies to seek his fortune, as many Americans of his generation went to the Wild West. Rhodes went to join his oldest brother, Herbert, in Natal, in eastern South Africa.
Natal Province had been settled centuries earlier by the Zulu people, as part of the great Bantu migrations, which had been caused by the growing desertification of the sub-Saharan region of Africa. Cattle herders, the Bantu sought the grasslands of southern Africa for their home. They fought bitter wars with the Boers, descendants of Dutch settlers who arrived in what became Cape Town in the 17th century.
In Natal, Herbert and Cecil Rhodes attempted cotton farming, but like the British who settled in the high country of Kenya in East Africa some 50 years later with the expectation of establishing vast coffee plantations, met with mixed success.
With their plans for cotton farming proving a failure, the two Rhodes brothers decided to seek out the diamond fields. The next 15 years saw a tremendous increase in South African diamonds. More stones were recovered in this period than had been mined in the previous 2,000 years in India.
Coincidentally, this outpouring of wealth came at a time when Brazilian deposits were starting to be depleted. The rise in wealth around the world, particularly in the United States, ensured that diamond prices stayed steady, something they had not done when Brazil overproduced diamonds for the demand in the 1730s.
By 1869 diamonds were found far from any stream or river, first in yellow earth and below in hard rock called blueground, later called kimberlite after the mining town of Kimberley. In the 1870s and 1880s Kimberley, encompassing the mines that produced 95 percent of the world’s diamonds, was home to great wealth and fierce rivalries, most notably that between Rhodes and Barney Barnato, English immigrants who consolidated early 31-foot-square prospects into ever larger holdings and mining companies
While Cecil and Herbert Rhodes became involved in the growing diamond industry around Kimberley, Cecil made continual trips back and forth to England. He managed to be awarded a degree from Oxford in his younger years and went on to become perhaps the best-known spokesman for imperialism in his time.
Although very much a believer in free enterprise, he realized the need for the imperial factor. Essentially, he needed the imperial government to protect his holdings and interests in the diamond fields.
Although intent on building his private empire within the British Empire, Rhodes also became convinced that Ireland, England’s oldest colony, ought to have home rule, a degree of autonomy from the home government of London. In this he followed the policies of William Gladstone, the head of the Liberal Party.
Rhodes’s views on the native Africans were equally complex. His treatment of the indigenous people was often contradictory. On one hand, in his speech he was often derogatory of Africans and essentially created the apartheid system that separated his African workers from white society and the rest of the world.
On the other hand, Rhodes appears to have had significant interest in both the languages and cultures of the native people, an interest and respect that was surprisingly liberal for the time.
Back in South Africa, Rhodes singlemindedly pursued his consolidation of his hold on the Kimberley diamond bonanza. Upon his return, Rhodes formed DeBeers Consolidated Mines Limited in March 1888. Rhodes controlled the company with some of the diamond barons he had formerly considered rivals. These served as life governors of the company.
By March 1890 DeBeers made a substantial profit on diamond sales, with estimates reaching as high as £50 of profit on every £100 pounds sold. By 1891 DeBeers had created a monopoly on the production of diamonds in Kimberley and, because of this, controlled virtually every other commercial venture and activity in the entire South African region.
Not content with his effective monopoly on South African diamond production, Cecil Rhodes continued to look for new opportunities for wealth and power. In 1890, mainly due to his economic position in the Cape Colony, Rhodes became the colony’s premier. Of the many projects he envisioned, the one that was his most publicized was the creation of a railway to run from Cape Colony through the entire African continent, ending in Cairo.
His premiership of Cape Colony allowed him to pursue goals such as this on a much grander scale. As premier, he lobbied for the annexation of Bechuanaland, a goal that was rebuffed due to a general lack of will in the Colonial Office.
Prevented from this goal by political means, Rhodes instead created a new company in an effort to claim lands in the African interior. The British South Africa Company gained a royal charter in 1889. Following this, the company managed to gain access to the lands of the Matabele and the Mashona, as well as other indigenous people.
In his drive for empire, Rhodes created what is today Zimbabwe when the British South Africa troops under Major Patrick Forbes raised the flag of the company over Bulawayo in November 1893, having defeated the Ndebele people. The region was first called Rhodesia in 1891.
With Rhodes’s backing, Jameson, the administrator of the conquered Mashonaland, invaded the Transvaal. Rhodes cautioned Jameson to delay, but Jameson, disregarding the request, sent as many as 600 men on horseback into the Transvaal.
This force was defeated at Krugersdorp on January 1, 1896, and the next day, surrendered. Jameson was handed over to the British by the Boers; he was tried in London, convicted, and served several months in prison. The others in the raiding party were held for a time by the Boers, and were eventually released, thanks to a large payment.
The diplomatic repercussions from the raid were significant. Rhodes was forced to resign his premiership of the Cape Colony. Undaunted, in 1896, Rhodes rode alone and unarmed into the Matopo Hills. There he spoke with the Matabele chiefs who had rebelled.
This effort forestalled another war, at least for a few years. Within three years, the Second Boer, or Second South African, War began in 1899, as a direct result of the tensions that had been growing from Jameson’s ill-fated expedition. Rhodes helped to coordinate the defense of Kimberley when it was besieged by Boer forces.
However, Rhodes would not live to see the end of the war, for he died of heart disease and was buried in April 1902 in the Matopo Hills. His estate initiated the Rhodes scholarships that educate aspiring scholars from all over the English-speaking world at Oxford University.