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Summary Article: Rhodes, Cecil John
From The Columbia Encyclopedia

(sĕs'ĭl, rōdz), 1853–1902, British imperialist and business magnate.

Business Career

The son of a Hertfordshire clergyman, he first went to South Africa in 1870, joining his oldest brother, Herbert, on a cotton plantation in Natal. In 1871 the brothers staked a claim in the newly opened Kimberley diamond fields, where Cecil was to make most of his fortune. He returned to England in 1873 and entered Oxford, but his studies were repeatedly interrupted by visits to South Africa and he did not receive his degree until 1881. His power in the diamond-mining industry developed until, in 1880, he formed the De Beers Mining Company, which was second only to that organized by Barney Barnato.

In 1888 he tricked Lobengula, the Ndebele (Matabele) ruler, into an agreement by which Rhodes secured mining concessions in Matabeleland and Mashonaland. He exploited these through the British South Africa Company (organized 1889), which soon established complete control of the territory. In 1888, Rhodes had also secured a monopoly of the Kimberley diamond production by the creation (with Barnato) of the De Beers Consolidated Mines, which reputedly had the largest capital in the world.

Rhodes left nearly all his fortune of £6 million to public service. One of his chief benefactions was the Rhodes Scholarships to Oxford, administered by the Rhodes Trust and now only partly funded by his original bequest. Scholarships are now awarded each year to students worldwide; originally only students from the (now former) British colonies, the United States, and Germany qualified.

Political Career

A trip in 1875 through the rich territories of Transvaal and Bechuanaland apparently helped to inspire Rhodes with the dream of British rule over all southern Africa; later he spoke of British dominion “from the Cape to Cairo.” In 1881, Rhodes entered the Parliament of Cape Colony, in which he held a seat for the remainder of his life. In Parliament he stressed the policy of containing the northward expansion of the Transvaal Republic, and in 1885, largely at his persuasion, Great Britain established a protectorate over Bechuanaland.

Rhodes became the prime minister, and virtual dictator, of Cape Colony in 1890. He was responsible for educational reforms and for restricting the franchise to literate persons (thereby reducing the African vote). His personal and business sympathies with the Uitlanders [Afrik.,=foreigners] in the Transvaal, who were mostly British and the victims of discrimination, brought him to conspire for the overthrow of the government of Paul Kruger. The result was the Jameson Raid (1895; see Jameson, Sir Leander Starr). Although Rhodes did not approve the timing of the raid, he was so clearly implicated that he was forced to resign as prime minister in 1896.

In 1897 a committee of the British House of Commons pronounced him guilty of grave breaches of duty as prime minister and as administrator of the British South Africa Company. Thereafter he devoted himself primarily to the development of the country that was called Rhodesia (since 1980, Zimbabwe) in his honor. In the South African War he commanded troops at Kimberley and was besieged there for a time. He died in South Africa and is buried in Zimbabwe.

  • See biographies by J. G. Lockhart and C. M. Woodhouse (1963), J. Marlowe (1974), and R. Rotberg (1988).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018

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