Cecil John Rhodes

Cecil Rhodes

Cecil Rhodes was a financier and statesman whose personal ambitions were a close second to those he had for British imperialism. It was still possible, in his lifetime, to implement colonialism while acquiring considerable power and accruing personal fortunes. It was the age of the dream of extending as far as possible the territories marked in red (that is, British colonies and dominions) on the world atlas.

Born in July 1853, Cecil Rhodes was one of six sons of a vicar. Due to ill health, he was not sent to Eton or Winchester like two of his brothers, neither did he end up in the army. His poor constitution meant he had to revise his ambitions to become a barrister or a clergyman and study at the local grammar school instead. He had a great love of the country and of agriculture, which came to the fore later in his life when aforestation and rural development became one of his passions in South Africa.

He was sent to Natal to join his brother on a cotton farm in 1870. Their failure to grow the crop successfully and the incurable bite of diamond fever led them to move to Kimberley (in Africa) a year later, where Cecil Rhodes persisted with his dream of wealth in spite of terribly harsh conditions and bad luck, until he turned his fortune and succeeded to make a life of mining.

His young life was spent between Oxford and Kimberley, feeling in the main an odd man out in both places. His academic pursuits, though desultory, were viewed strangely in the mining provinces, and his unusual laugh, oratorial voice and behaviour singled him out in England. But he had an almost mystical inclination to perpetuate imperialism, and would speak at length on the subject, gathering small crowds of admirers. His ill health was an obstacle he stubbornly refused to be distracted by, but he felt its portent, for he made as many as seven wills. In each, his ambitions for furthering the power of the British Empire figured significantly.

Although he never regarded accumulating wealth as a means to itself, Rhodes became quite successful in that regard while attempting to fulfil his dreams which were, apart from 'painting the map red', to build a railway from the Cape to Cairo, to reconcile the Boers and the British under one flag (the Union Jack, of course) and claim the American colonies for the Empire. They led him on a successful political career, with a number of achievements, not least of which being Prime Minister of Cape Colony.

Cecil Rhodes, who always insisted on being called simply 'Mr Rhodes', never married. There was an annoying entanglement with a cunning self-styled adventuress, Princess Radziwill, whose manipulative schemes were more financially than romantically inclined. Her passion for intrigue, power and gain caused the statesman more annoyance than political - or any other - advantage. She forged signatures, counterfeited documents and committed fraud using his name. He was even summoned to her trial and had to travel from Europe to Cape Town to give evidence.

Incurable heart disease brought Rhodes to his end in 1902. He had emerged into the new century hoping for an end to the Boer War, but it outlived him. He was buried in the Matopo Hills early in April of that year, after a funeral cortege by railway which was a memorable procession. The reading of his will later that month increased his reputation as an imaginative farsighted man, due to the creation of a new education grant trust for the now famous Rhodes Scholarships, his main legacy.

(This page originally prepared by the University of Western Australia)

Rhodes Scholarships homepage