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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Cecil Rhodes was born in Hertfordshire, England, in 1853 and died in South Africa in 1902 of heart failure, aged just forty-eight years. He is best known for founding De Beers, a diamond company that once had a ninety per cent share of the world’s diamond market. He was a great supporter of colonialism, founding Rhodesia, now Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Rhodes, the son of a vicar and one of six boys, was a sickly child who had asthma as a teenager. His parents felt he would be better off in a warmer, drier climate. They took him out of Bishop’s Stortford grammar school and shipped him off to the colony of Natal in South Africa. His brother Herbert ran a cotton farm there. He soon developed an interest in agriculture and set up Rhodes Fruit Farms.

The agricultural ventures didn’t fare too well and at age 18, he headed to the Kimberley diamond fields in Northern Cape Province. He and business partner C. D. Rudd soon moved to the old De Beers rural property. Depression was badly affecting the diamond industry in the mid 1870s, but the pair stayed on the fields and consolidated their interests. They won the contract to pump water out of the major mines. In 1880, they founded De Beers Mining Company with capital of 200,000 pounds.

Rhodes split his time between Africa and England, going back to England in 1873. He studied at Oxford for one term in that year and another term in 1876, returning to South Africa in between his studies. A lecture by John Ruskin on colonialism had a lasting impression on him and reinforced his views on and support for British imperialism. He also became a Freemason while at Oxford. The shortcomings he saw in this movement led him to want to set up a secret society that would bring about British worldwide rule. His first will included details of this proposal. He was ruthless in gaining contracts with local farmers to mine the diamond-rich soil. De Beers soon had a virtual monopoly position in the diamond market.

He successfully ran for the seat of Barkly West in the Cape House of Assembly in 1880. It was a rural seat of mainly Boer voters. Rhodes kept the seat until his death 22 years later. He was prime minister of Cape Colony from 1890. He passed laws that favored the owners of mines and industry. His controversial Glen Grey Act removed black people from their own land so it could be developed. He was keen to implement British imperial policies, to the extent that he felt he could oust the Boer government of Transvaal in 1895. He supported an attempted overthrow which became known as the Jameson Raid, but it failed and Rhodes lost the prime ministership of Cape Colony, although he kept his seat. The raid led to the Second Matabele War in 1896-1897 and the Second Boer War in 1899-1902. Rhodes went to the front line during the Boer War but the military regarded him as a nuisance who wanted to run the show rather than take orders.

Before his time as prime minister, Rhodes was using his own wealth and that of others to expand his interests in the area that is now Zimbabwe. He obtained mineral concessions from the local chiefs and convinced British government representatives in the area to set up British protectorates using treaties. This made his mining activities “legal” and allowed him to gain more investors. He wanted British settlers and local politicians to run things rather than the Colonial Office back in London. This didn’t win him many friends in England nor among the British missionaries who preferred to be ruled by London. Rhodes won the day as he had the money to pay to administer the northern territories, something the Colonial Office was unwilling to do.

He used underhanded methods to gain mining concessions in these areas for his British South Africa Company. In 1888, he sent agents to obtain a mining concession from local chief Lobengula of the Ndebele area, telling him that the impact would be minimal. This was contrary to what was in a detailed document that said the mining companies could basically do whatever they liked. The chief signed it. When he found out what was in the contract, he tried to nullify it but the British government wouldn’t do anything. In fact, Rhodes got a charter from the government to acquire new concessions and to rule across a huge territory in the 1890s, from the Limpopo River to the central African great lakes, using the same deceitful methods.

It wasn’t all success for the ruthless Rhodes. When his agent attempted to win a concession in Katanga, he was given his marching orders by Msiri, the area’s chief. Rhodes was also rebuffed by three chiefs in Tswana who went to England and were able to keep the area under the rule of London. His response showed his pro-settler approach and his attitude towards the indigenous African people: “It is humiliating to be utterly beaten by these niggers.”

Rhodes struck trouble in Matabeleland and Mashonaland too, where the tribes rebelled against white settlers. His response was to use his British South Africa Company to defeat them in the Matabele Wars of 1893-94 and 1896-97. Soon after one of the tribal leaders was killed in the second war, Rhodes strolled unarmed into enemy territory and somehow convinced them to lay down arms, ending the war.

His company presided over an area of 440,000 square miles north of the Limpopo River to Lake Tanganyika by the mid 1890s. The name of this region became Rhodesia, due to Rhodes popularity with white settlers. Within a few years, the vast territory was divided into two separate territories: Southern Rhodesia and Northern Rhodesia. In his will, Rhodes stated he wanted to be buried at Matobo Hills in Southern Rhodesia. The spot is now called World’s View. When he died in 1902, the local chiefs attended the burial and gave him the royal salute, which is thought to be the first and only time a white man was honored in this way.

Rhodes’ racist and expansionary views were included in his will: “I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.” His view was that Britain, the United States, and Germany would be the dominant powers and ensure peace. Rhodes had little interest in British politics, except for his support of the nationalist party in Ireland to which he gave much money. In southern Africa, he was supportive of teaching both English and Dutch in Cape Colony schools, and removed legal impediments the English had imposed on the Dutch.

He never married and didn’t seem to keep company with women. His sexuality has been frequently questioned. He has been linked to a number of male companions, but there is no evidence he maintained a sexual relationship with any of them. This was the way in Victorian times, which were far less open than now. The men he associated with were often young, fair, and athletic. He shared a house with an employee, Neville Pickering, in the 1880s. The relationship was described as an “absolutely lover-like friendship”. Pickering died soon after a riding accident and Rhodes was deeply upset. He was known to have friendships with several of his other male workers from time to time.

Strangely, he was stalked in his last years by Catherine Radziwill, a Polish princess. She was already married but claimed that Rhodes was engaged to her, or that the two were having an affair. She actually proposed to him but Rhodes declined her. She wasn’t happy and sought revenge by accusing him of being involved in loan frauds. She even took him to court over the matter but the accusations turned out to be false. The whole episode may suggest she was simply after his riches, one way or another. She would have known of his poor health and that he might not have long to live.

Rhodes died as one of the richest men in the world. He established the Rhodes Scholarships for British residents, countries formerly under British rule, and Germany. Land at Table Mountain that he left to South Africa is divided between a university campus, gardens, and a conservation area. De Beers still commands a forty per cent share of the world’s diamond production.

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