Cecil John Rhodes the Empire Builder and Capitalist

Rhodes’ huge territorial ambitions

Africa in the 19th century was filled with opportunity, and no less filled with opportunists. The potential to make or break were equally spectacular, and nowhere more so than in South Africa. The great diamond discoveries of Kimberley in 1866 followed by the Witwatersrand Gold Rush of 1886 both helped to establish South Africa as the principal arena of capital adventure and war in the 19th century British Empire.

In 1870, and into this pot-boiler of opportunity, stepped a slight, sickly and unremarkable youth by the name of Cecil John Rhodes. The son of an English parson, Rhodes had been dispatched to the Natal Colony in the hope that a period of time in the tropics would repair his poor health. He began his adventures in South Africa as a cotton farmer in the Umkomanzi Valley before he set off in October 1871 for the diamond fields of Kimberley.

It is hard to imagine a less likely arrival in the rough and ready world of the diamond digger than the young Rhodes, and yet it was here that the curious symmetry of determination, unstoppable persuasiveness and a brilliant grasp of finance saw Rhodes emerge as one of the titans of the diamond industry in South Africa, and his De Beers Consolidated Mines the largest and most influential diamond mining and retailing concern in history.

The Imperative of Empire

It was, however, in politics that Rhodes arguably left his deepest imprint. Rhodes was a member of a clique of academics, scholars and capitalists of the Victorian period who saw the expansion of the British Empire as less a political and economic imperative and more as a matter of global mission. The English speaking peoples were heir to a manifest destiny upon which they bore a duty to mankind to spread the undeniable merits of their civilization. Rhodes himself defined it as philanthropy plus 5 percent. This in simple terms meant that the development of empire, particularly in Africa, required both capital and humanitarian contexts in order that the former might facilitate the latter, and the latter might justify the former.

Rhodes as an old man of forty

This was the case in theory, and in principal the liberation and upliftment of the various native people of the Empire certainly did underwrite a large part of it, but many men such as Rhodes became embroiled in the many intrigues and contests of global imperial expansion and forgot the principal of native emancipation.

Rhodes’ weakness was size

In Rhodes’ case the matter was complicated by the fact that he suffered poor health and expected to die young. Thus the frustration of practical politics were often dealt with by sharp practice and corner cutting which he felt, most of the time, would ultimately be justified by the end result. In other words, if the native were to suffer as a consequence of their transition to civilization, they would ultimately be better served as a component of the British Empire and would see the value of the journey once it had been completed.

The Vision

Rhodes’ vision can be captured in a few words. A through route from Cape to Cairo. This simple concept, in various forms, preoccupied him for most of his life. In broader definition it implied the induction of a swathe of Africa from the northern extreme to the south under the Union Jack. In moments of more wide ranging contemplation he saw this as possibly a global union, in more practical moods he recognized that the prevailing global entente would necessitate the moderation of his dream


Lobengula was effectively and duplicitously dispossesed by Rhodes

At stake at that time was the unclaimed mass of central Africa. South Africa up until the line of the Limpopo River was largely claimed, East Africa lay under a British Sphere of influence, as did the Sudan and Egypt. This left the region that would now be Zimbabwe Zambia, eastern Angola, western Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania open to annexation by any power that could claim a request to this effect from a sufficient number of local chiefs and monarchs.

This began the signature phase of Rhodes’ life. The pressures of the situation were profound. His determination to bring this vast region under British control was aided by the force of his character, the scope of his influence and the weight of his vast financial empire. Against him were ranged others of no less financial acumen and reach and nations such as German and Portugal that laid equally valid claims to the same territory.

The first hurdle to be surmounted was the amaNdebele control of the territory north of the Limpopo River and their nominal suzerainty over much of the hinterland known then and Mashonaland. The amaNdebele were a scion of the great Zulu race, and from their Nguni fathers they had inherited a simple economy and a simply philosophy of existence, both of which were premised on violence. The Zulu as a nation has been disposed of by the British a decade earlier, and the amaNdebele, conscious of the great changes underway around them, and under the leadership of a faltering and illiterate monarch, sensed their time was near. The capital of Matabeleland, kuBulawayo, or The Place of Slaughter, was besieged by white petitioners seeking political and economic concessions from King Lobengula. Lobengula, of course, had no clear point of reference on what was being offered, what was required and what was at stake.

Into this difficult diplomatic environment plunged Cecil John Rhodes. By a combination of guile, sleight of hand, threat and inducement he was able to coerce a signature on a concession document from Lobengula, upon which he framed an application for a Royal Charter. This, no less against the odds, and no less in triumph against many who stood in opposition to him within the British political establishment, Rhodes succeeded in obtaining. The next step was the formation of the British South Africa Company, incorporated in 1889, and was to be the vehicle that Rhodes would use to penetrate Mashonaland and alter to wage war on and occupy Matabeleland.

The saga of the formation of Rhodesia, and its short but troubled history, is the subject of my book Rhodesia: Last Outpost of the British Empire, and is adequately covered there.

From this platform Rhodes was then able to press further north, which he did, laying claim to modern day Zambia under the name of Northern Rhodesia. It was there, however, at the southern boundary of the Belgian Congo, that he was halted by diplomatic forces that exceeded even his power and reach. The Belgian Crown retained the Congo, German took control of German East Africa, Mozambique reluctantly accepted the ratification of its claim to the coast and some measure of the interior, and the territory of Nyasaland came under British protection. Thus the matter rested, and thus the map of Africa largely remains composed today.

The Anglo/Boer War

Rhodes’ close associate and friend Leander Starr Jameson

With the frustration of his wider dream of a conglomeration of British territories from the Cape to Cairo, Rhodes then turned his attention to the political crisis in South Africa. In essence the situation in this vast and troubled territory involved the economic and political competition between the Boer or Dutch origin and the British. Politically the landscape consisted of two independent Boer republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, and two British colonies, the Cape Colony and the Natal colony.

Complicating matters further was the situation regarding the gold fields of the Witwatersrand. These were within the Boer Republic of Transvaal, but were dominated by mainly British economic interest. These were known by the Boer as Uitlanders, and by the end of the century they had began to exceed the Boer in population, certainly in economic influence, and calls were becoming increasingly strident for fair political representation. Obviously the Boer, trenchant n their independence, could not countenance this or they would lose practical political control of the Republic.

Within this situation Rhodes sensed an opportunity to provoke an uprising and effectively bring the Republic under British control. It was a simple plan, a filibuster raid launched from the borders of the Transvaal by men of his British South Africa Company Police, led by his principal confidante and associate Leander Starr Jameson. Prior arrangements had been made with representative bodies of the Uitlander community to act upon this and seize government. The entire plot, however, was mismanaged, evidence perhaps of Rhodes’ waning powers, and descended into disaster almost the moment it had begun. The Raiders were engaged outside Johannesburg and taken into custody, and international incident was provoked, and the fall of Rhodes’ political and economic empire almost total.

The End

In the aftermath of the Jameson Raid war did indeed break out in South Africa. Rhodes played a nominal role, but was satisfied in the end with a British victory and the achievement of an inevitable momentum towards British domination of South Africa. A certain amount of his legacy was rescued in the first few years of the new century by educational endowments to Oxford University, the establishment of a vibrant and settled colony on the form of Rhodesia, and the apparently fair treatment of the amaNdebele in a rapidly changing world.

Rhodes died in 1902 at the age of only 49. His failing health and the frenetic pace of his final years brought about an end to a man who had given more of himself to the development of southern Africa than perhaps any others. Rhodes’ legacy is complex. He was by no means an easy man to define, and with question posed about his sexuality, his attitude to race and his general morality, his great achievements – and great they were – have been leavened by the reality of a man burdened by the finite but dreaming of the infinite.