Cecil Rhodes: The Colossus of Africa

Dr Vernon Coleman MB ChB DSc FRSA

He wasn’t fifty when he died but Cecil Rhodes, the Colossus of Africa, had achieved more by then than most men would hope to achieve in a hundred lifetimes. Today, he is regarded with a mixture of disdain and contempt by the narrow-minded, the bigoted and the politically correct, but Rhodes was a man of great vision, enormous ambition and huge amounts of compassion for his fellow men. He was a statesman, businessman, financier and empire builder. Today, his life story reads like something out of a boy’s adventure magazine but it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of his role in the development of Africa, the British Empire and, of course, the mining industry.

He was born in Bishops Stortford, in Hertfordshire, the son of the local vicar; a clergyman whose boast was that he had never preached a sermon that lasted longer than ten minutes. As a boy, Rhodes grew up in the English countryside. No one loved his country more. ‘Remember that you are an Englishman, and consequently won first prize in the lottery of life,’ he once said. He believed that England was the greatest country in the world.

Cecil was a sickly child who suffered from asthma and heart problems and when he was a teenager he was sent by his parents to Natal, South Africa to help Herbert, his older brother, who operated a cotton farm.

In 1871, after just a few years farming, Rhodes obtained finance from Rothschild and Sons and headed to the diamond fields of Kimberley where he proceeded to buy up all the small diamond mines in the area. At about this time, a doctor gave him just six months to live.

As his holdings grew, so Rhodes became increasingly interested in South African politics. In 1884, he became a member of the Cape House of Assembly and quickly took office in the ministry. He was asked by General Gordon to go with him to Khartoum as secretary but declined because of his new political responsibilities in the Cape. Still only in his thirties, but aware that his poor health meant that his life expectation was short, Rhodes had become a major force in Africa. His ardent enthusiasm for his home country meant that he succeeded in extending British territory. In 1884, wanting to expand to the north and to build a railway connecting Cairo and the Cape, he secured Bechuanaland as a British protectorate and in 1889, he took over the territory which was later to become Rhodesia. The British Government chartered the British South Africa Company and put Rhodes in charge. He then extended control to two northern provinces which were eventually named after him as Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). His aim was to establish a federal South African dominion under the British flag.

Meanwhile, as his political power grew, Rhodes was becoming richer and richer. By 1888, Rhodes had virtually obtained a monopoly of the world’s diamond supply and had formed the De Beers Consolidated Mines Company. His own company was mining over 90% of the world’s diamonds. He turned his position of control into a complete monopoly in 1888 by arranging a partnership with the Diamond Syndicate in London. Rhodes agreed to control the supply of diamonds in order to keep prices high.

In 1890, Rhodes became Prime Minister of Cape Colony but he resigned six years later after complications arose as a result of an unofficial raid into the Transvaal which was condemned by the South African Commission and the British Government. However, in the same year, 1896, he succeeded in quelling the Matabele rebellion by personally negotiating with the local chiefs. Although he is today often attacked for his alleged imperialist views, Rhodes advocated more self-government for the Cape Colony and wanted the empire to be controlled by local settlers and local politicians and not by the Government in London. In reality, Rhodes was directly opposed to imperialism in which colonies are controlled from a distant city.

Rhodes was also responsible for founding the modern Cape fruit industry of South Africa. In 1898, he financed a fruit export business on a farm in the Cape area of the country. This grew into the Rhodes Fruit Farms.

In 1899, during the Boer War, he played a major part in defending Kimberley during the siege. He and his company manufactured an armoured train and a super-gun (called ‘Long Cecil’), constructed fortifications and provided water and refrigeration facilities for the defence of the town.

Rhodes’s final years were badly affected when he was stalked by a Polish princess called Catherine Radziwill. The princess asked Rhodes to marry her and then, despite his refusal, falsely claimed that she was engaged to him. She obtained her revenge by falsely accusing him of loan fraud. He was found innocent after a trial but the stress proved too much for him and he died shortly afterwards.

When Rhodes died in 1902, he was one of the richest men in the world. He left a will which gave huge amounts of money to Cape Colony. He left a large area of land on the slopes of Table Mountain to South Africa. He also founded the Rhodes Scholarships at Oxford University for Americans, Germans and colonials. Amazingly, during his short and astonishing career, he had somehow managed to enter Oriel College, Oxford and take a degree. He started his degree in 1873 but ill health meant he had gone back to South Africa. He returned for his second term in.1876 and completed his degree. As a student at Oxford, he was influenced by a lecture given by the ubiquitous John Ruskin. In 1899, Rhodes was made a doctor of civil law by Oxford University. Born in 1853 he died in 1902.

This article was taken from ‘The 100 Great Englishmen and Englishwomen’ by Vernon Coleman, available as an ebook on Amazon.

Copyright Vernon Coleman

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