RHODES, CECIL JOHN (1833-1902), British colonial and Imperial statesman, was born on the 5th of July 1853, at Bishop Stortford, in Hertfordshire. His father was a clergyman, but he claimed descent from yeoman stock. Cecil John Rhodes was the fifth son in a large family of sons and daughters. At the time of his birth his father held the living of Bishop Stortford. The boy was educated at Bishop Stortford grammar school with the intention of preparing for the Church; but at the age of sixteen his health broke down, and in the latter part of 1870 he was sent to join an elder brother, then engaged in farming in Natal. In that year diamonds were discovered in the Kimberley fields. By the end of 1871 Mr Rhodes and his brother were among the successful diggers. The dry air of the interior restored Mr Rhodes's health, and before he was nineteen he found himself financially independent, physically strong and free to devote his life to any object which commended itself to his choice.
Rhodes has left behind him an interesting record of the manner in which he was affected by the situation. He determined to return to England, and to complete his education by reading for a degree at Oxford; but before doing so, he spent eight months in a solitary journey through the then little known parts of the country lying to the north of the Orange and Vaal rivers. He went through Bechuanaland to Mafeking, thence to Pretoria, Murchison, Middelburg and back through the Transvaal to Kimberley. The journey, made in an ox-wagon at a rate of progression of some 15 to 20 miles a day, represented a walking tour of eight months through the vast spaces of rolling veld which at that time filled those regions of Southern Africa. He saw one of the healthiest countries in the world barely occupied. He knew the agricultural possibilities of Natal. He knew its mineral wealth. The effect of the combined influences on his mind, in the circumstances in which he found himself, was profound.
The idea took passionate possession of him that the fine country through which he moved ought to be secured for occupation by the British race, and that no power but Great Britain should be allowed to dominate in the administration of South Africa. When he brought his self-imposed pilgrimage to an end, he had found an object to which he proposed to devote his life. It was nothing less than the governance of the world by the British race. A will exists written in Mr Rhodes's own handwriting a couple of years later, when he was still only twenty-two, in which he states his reasons for accepting the aggrandizement and service of the British empire as his highest ideal of practical achievement. It ends with a single bequest of everything of which he might die possessed, for the furtherance of this great purpose. Five-and-twenty years later his final will carried out, with some difference of detail, the same intention.The share which he allotted to himself in the general scheme was the extension of the area of British settlement in Africa, but he did not attempt to address himself immediately to public work. He returned, in accordance with his first resolve, to Oxford, where he matriculated at Oriel. In 1873 his health again failed, and he was sent back to South Africa under what was practically a death sentence. Years afterwards he saw the entry of his own case in the diary of the eminent physician whom he consulted, with a note, “Not six months to live.” South Africa again restored him to health. Three years later he was back at Oxford, and from 1876 to 1878 he kept his terms. During this period he spent the Long Vacation each year in South Africa, where his large financial interests were daily increasing in importance. He was a member of the Cape ministry when, after a further lapse of years, he kept his last term and took his degree. He did not read hard at Oxford, and was more than once remonstrated with in the earlier terms for non-attendance at lectures. But he passed his examinations; and though he was never a student in the university sense of the term, he was to the end of his life a keen devourer of books.
He kept always a special liking for certain classic authors. Aristotle was the guide whom as a lad he followed in seeking the “highest object” on which to exercise the “highest activity of the soul.” Marcus Aurelius was his constant companion. There exists at Grote Schuur a copy of the Meditations deeply scored with Mr Rhodes's marks.During this Oxford time, and on to 1881, Mr Rhodes was occupied with the amalgamation of the larger number of the diamond mines of Kimberley with the De Beers Company, an operation which established his position as a practical financier and gave him an important connexion and following in the business world. To many admirers who shared his ideas on public questions his connexion with the financial world and his practical success were a stumbling-block. It was often wished for him that he had “kept himself clear of all that.” But this was not his own view. His ideals were political and practical. To him the making of money was a necessary preliminary to their realization, and he was proud of his practical ability in this direction. He was personally a man of most simple tastes. His immense fortune was spent in the execution of his ideals, and it has been justly said of him that he taught the world a new chapter of the romance of wealth.In 1881 Mr Rhodes entered public life as a member of the Cape assembly. It was the year of the Majuba settlement. South Africa was convulsed with questions which had arisen between the British and the Dutch, and leaders of Dutch opinion at the Cape ventured to speak openly of the formation of a United States of South Africa under its own flag. The British party needed a rallying-ground, and Mr Rhodes took his stand on a policy of local union combined with the consolidation and expansion of Imperial interests. He offered to Dutch and British alike the ideal of a South African Federation governing itself within the empire, and extending, by its gradual absorption of native territories, the range of Imperial administration. Local self-government was, in his opinion, the only enduring basis on which the unity of the empire could be built, and throughout his life he was as keen a defender of local rights as he was of Imperial unity.
There was a period somewhat later in his career when this attitude on his part gave rise to a good deal of misapprehension, and his advocacy of the elimination of direct Imperial interference in local affairs caused him to be viewed in certain quarters with suspicion as a Separatist and Independent. Those who were inclined to take this view were greatly strengthened in their suspicions by the fact that at a critical moment in the struggle for Home Rule in Ireland Mr Rhodes contributed £10,000 to the funds of the Separatist party. The subsequent publication of his correspondence on the subject with Mr Parnell, who was at that time leading the Home Rule party, demonstrated, however, the essential fact that, whatever might have been the secret intentions of the extreme Irish Home Rulers, Mr Rhodes's contribution was made strictly subject to the retention of the Irish members at Westminster. He remained of the opinion that the Home Rule movement, wisely treated, would have had a consolidating and not a disruptive effect upon the organization of the empire.In South Africa the influence which he acquired over the local independents and over the Dutch vote was subsequently an important factor in enabling him to carry out the scheme of northern expansion which he had at heart, and which he had fully developed in his own mind at Oxford in 1878. In 1881 the Bechuana territory was a sort of no man's land through which ran the trade routes to the north. It was evident that any power which commanded the trade routes would command the unknown northern territory beyond. The Pretoria Convention of 1881 limited the westward extension of the Transvaal to a line east of the trade routes. Nevertheless, the reconstituted republic showed itself anxious to encroach by irregular overflow into native territories, and Mr Rhodes feared to see the extension of the British colonies permanently blocked by Dutch occupation. One of his first acts as a member of the Cape assembly was to urge the appointment of a delimitation commission. He served in person on the commission, and obtained from the chief Mankoroane, who claimed about half of Bechuanaland, a formal cession of his territories to the British government of the Cape.
The Cape government refused to accept the offer. In February 1884 a second convention signed in London again denned the western frontier of the Transvaal, Bechuanaland being left outside the republic. With the consent of Great Britain, Germany had occupied, almost at the same time, the territory on the Atlantic coast now known as German South-West Africa. In August 1884 Mr Rhodes was appointed resident deputy commissioner in Bechuanaland, where, notwithstanding the conventions to the contrary, Boers had ousted the natives from considerable areas and set up the so-called republics of Goshen and Stellaland. An old Dutchman who knew the value of the position said privately to Mr Rhodes, “This is the key of South Africa.” The question at issue was whether Great Britain or the Transvaal was to hold the key. It was a question about which at that time the British public knew nothing and cared nothing. Mr Rhodes made it his business to enlighten them. President Kruger, speaking for the government of the Transvaal, professed to regard the Dutch commandoes as freebooters, and to be unable to control them. It devolved upon Great Britain to oblige them to evacuate the territory.
Largely as the result of Mr Rhodes's exertions the necessary step was taken. The Warren expedition of 1884-85 was sent out. In the presence of British troops upon the frontier President Kruger recovered his controlling power over the Transvaal burghers, and without any fighting the commandoes were withdrawn. Thereupon southern Bechuanaland was declared to be British territory, while a British protectorate was declared over the northern regions up to the 22nd parallel (September 1885).It was the first round in the long duel fought on the field of South Africa between Mr Rhodes, as the representative of British interests, and President Kruger, as the head of the militant Dutch party. The score on this occasion was to Mr Rhodes, and the entrance to the interior was secured. But the 22nd parallel was far short of the limits to which Mr Rhodes hoped to see British influence extend, and he feared lest Germany and the Transvaal might yet join hands in the native territory beyond, and bar his farther progress towards the north. The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886, by adding to the wealth and importance of the Transvaal, gave substance to this fear.The territory to the north of the 22nd parallel was at that time under the domination of Lobengula, chief of the Matabele, a native potentate celebrated alike for his ability and for the despotic character of his rule. There were rumours of Dutch and German emissaries at the kraal of Lobengula, engaged in persuading that chief to cede certain portions of his territory. Portugal also was putting forward shadowy claims to the country. It was in these circumstances that Mr Rhodes conceived the idea of forming a British Chartered Company, which should occupy the territory for trading and mining purposes as far as the Zambezi, and bring the whole under the protection of Great Britain. The idea took shape in 1887, in which year Mr Rhodes's first emissaries were sent to Lobengula. The charter of the British South Africa Company was granted in October 1889. Between the two dates his conception of the possibilities to be achieved by the Company had expanded.
Mr Rhodes no longer limited the sphere of his operations to the Zambezi, but, crossing the river at the back of the Portuguese settlements at its mouth, he obtained permission to extend the territories of the Chartered Company to the southern end of Lake Tanganyika, including within the sphere of its operations the British settlements already made in Nyasaland. He hoped to go farther still, and to create a connected chain of British possessions through the continent which might eventually justify the description, “Africa British from the Cape to Cairo.” The treaty negotiated between Great Britain and Germany in 1890 extended the German sphere of influence from the East Coast to the frontier of the Congo Free State, and defeated this hope. But Mr Rhodes did not wholly renounce the idea.
In 1892, when the question of the retention or abandonment of Uganda hung in the balance at home, he threw all the weight of his influence into the scale of retention, and undertook at his own personal expense to connect that territory by telegraph with British possessions in the south. In the following year, 1893, it was found inevitable to fight the Matabele, and a war, prosecuted with a success that is perhaps unique of its kind, placed the country entirely in British hands. The territory thus added to the British empire covered an extent of 450,000 square miles, of which large portions consist of healthy uplands suitable for white colonization. The pioneer party who constructed the first road and founded the first British stations in the country received their orders to cross the frontier in the end of 1889. By the end of 1899, before the outbreak of the South African War, though the country had passed through the trial of a war, two native rebellions, and the scourge of rinderpest, it had become, under the name of Rhodesia, a well-settled province of the British empire, with a white population of some 12,000 to 13,000 persons.The six years which followed the granting of the charter may be regarded as the most successful of a singularly successful life. In 1890, not many months after the granting of the charter, Mr Rhodes accepted the position of prime minister of the Cape. He was maintained in power very largely by the Dutch vote, which he spared no pains to conciliate; and having the confidence of both political sections of the colony, he found himself practically in a position to play the part of benevolent despot in South Africa. He used the position well so far as the public was concerned. While his scheme of northern expansion was making the rapid progress which has been indicated, he did much to elevate and to enlarge the field of local politics. He frankly declared and worked for the policy of uniting British and Dutch interests in South Africa; he took a keen interest in local education. He also during this period carried through some important reforms in native policy.
He had the courage to restrict the franchise, introducing an educational test and limiting the exercise of voting power to men enjoying an income equal to a labourer's wage—thus abolishing, without making any distinction of colour, the abuses of what was known as the “blanket” vote.But his native policy was far from being one of simple restriction. He liked the natives; he employed them by thousands in the mining industry, he kept native servants habitually about his person he seemed to understand their peculiarities and was singularly successful in dealing with them. The first canon of his native policy was that liquor should be kept from them; the second, that they should be encouraged to labour, and guaranteed the full possession of their earnings; the third, that they should be educated in the practical arts of peace. He appreciated the full importance of raising their territorial condition from one of tribal to individual tenure; and while he protested against the absurdity of permitting the uncivilized [indigenous] to vote on questions of highly civilized white policy, he believed in applying to the native for his own native affairs the principle of self-government.
Of these views some received practical embodiment in the much-disputed act known as the Glen Grey Act of 1894. In this connexion it may also be noted that he was one of the warmest and most convinced supporters of Lovedale, the very successful missionary institution for the education of natives in South Africa.The position of benevolent despot has obvious drawbacks. In Mr Rhodes's case the dependence which the populations of Cape Colony were led to place on him had its reaction on the public in a demoralizing loss of self-reliance, and for himself it must be admitted that the effect on the character of a man already much disposed to habits of absolutism in thought and action was the reverse of beneficial. Mr Rhodes felt himself to be far stronger than any man in his own surroundings; he knew himself to be actuated by disinterested motives in the aims which he most earnestly desired to reach. He was profoundly impressed by a sense of the shortness of life, and he so far abused his power as to become intolerant of any sort of control or opposition. The inevitable result followed, that though Mr Rhodes did much of great and good work during the six years of his supreme power, he entirely failed during that period to surround himself, as he might have done, by a circle of able men fit to comprehend and to carry on the work to which his own best efforts were directed. To work with him was practically impossible for those who were not willing to accept without demur the yoke of dogmatic authority.
He had a few devoted personal friends, who appreciated his aims and were inspired by his example; but he was lacking in regard for individuals, and a great part of his daily life was spent in the company of satellites and instruments, whom he used with cynical unconcern for the furtherance of his ends.In 1896 the brilliant period of his premiership was brought to an end by the incident which became famous under the name of the Jameson Raid. The circumstances which led to the Raid belong properly to the history of the Transvaal. It is enough to say briefly here that the large alien population which had been attracted to the Transvaal by the phenomenal wealth of the Johannesburg goldfields, conceiving themselves to have reason to revolt against the authority of the Transvaal government, resolved towards the end of 1895 to have recourse to arms in order to obtain certain reforms. Mr Rhodes, as a large mine-owner, was theoretically a member of the mining population. In this capacity he was asked to give his countenance to the movement. But as prime minister of a British colony he was evidently placed in a false position from the moment in which he became cognizant of a secret attempt to overturn a neighbouring government by force of arms.
He did more than become cognizant. The subsequent finding of a Cape committee, which he accepted as accurate, was to the effect that “in his capacity as controller of the three great joint-stock companies, the British South Africa Company, the De Beers Consolidated Mines, and the Gold Fields of South Africa, he directed and controlled the combination which rendered such a proceeding as the Jameson Raid possible.” He gave money, arms and influence to the movement; and as the time fixed for the outbreak of the revolution approached, he allowed Dr Jameson, who was then administrator of the British South Africa Company in Rhodesia, to move an armed force of some 500 men upon the frontier. Here Mr Rhodes's participation in the movement came to an end. It became abundantly clear from subsequent inquiry that he was not personally responsible for what followed.
A cipher correspondence, seized and published by the Boers, left the civilized world in no doubt as to Mr Rhodes's share in the previous preparation, and he was for a time believed to be responsible for the Raid itself. Subsequent inquiries held by committees of the Cape parliament and of the British House of Commons acquitted him entirely of responsibility for Dr Jameson's final movement, but both committees found that he had acted in a manner which was inconsistent with his duty as prime minister of the Cape and managing director of the British South Africa Company.He displayed, in the circumstances, characteristic qualities of pluck and candour. He made no concealment of his own share in the catastrophe; he took full responsibility for what had been done in his name by subordinates, and he accepted all the consequences which ensued. He resigned his premiership of the Cape (January 1896); and, recognizing that his presence was no longer useful in the colony, he turned his attention to Rhodesia. His design was to live in that country, and to give all the stimulus of his own presence and encouragement to the development of its resources. The Matabele rebellion of March 1896 intervened to prevent the immediate realization of his plans. In June Imperial troops were sent up, and by the end of July the result of the military operations had driven the natives to the Matoppo Hills, where they held a practically impregnable position.
The prospect was of continued war, with a renewal of a costly campaign in the following year. Mr Rhodes conceived the idea that he might effect single-handed the pacification which military skill had failed to compel. To succeed, it was essential that he should trust and be trusted. He accordingly moved his tent away from the troops to the base of the Matoppo Hills. He lay there quietly for six weeks, in the power of the enemy if they had chosen to attack. Word was circulated among the natives that he had come alone and undefended to hear their side of the case. A council was held by them in the very depths of the hills, where no armed force could touch them. He was invited to attend it. It was a case of staking his life on trust. He displayed no hesitation, but mounted and rode unarmed with the messenger. Three friends rode with him.
The confidence was justified. They met the assembled chiefs at the place appointed. The native grievances were laid before Mr Rhodes. At the end of a long discussion Mr Rhodes, having made and exacted such concessions as he thought fit, asked the question, “Now, for the future is it peace or is it war?” And the chiefs, laying down their sticks as a symbol of surrendered arms, declared, “We give you one word: it is peace.” The scene, as described by one of the eye-witnesses, was very striking. Mr Rhodes, riding away, characterized it simply as “one of the scenes which make life worth living.”His life was drawing towards its end. He had still a few years, which he devoted with success to the development of the country which bore his name. The railway was brought to Bulawayo, and arrangements were made for carrying the line on in sections as far as the south end of Lake Tanganyika, a construction which was part of his pet scheme for connecting the Cape by a British line of communication with Cairo. He also concluded arrangements for carrying a telegraphic land line through to Egypt, and had the satisfaction of seeing the mineral development of the country fairly started. But the federal union of South Africa, to which he had always worked as the secure basis of the extension of British rule in the southern half of the continent, was not for him to see.
The South African War broke out in 1899. Mr Rhodes took his part at Kimberley in sustaining the hardships of a siege; but his health was broken, and though he lived to see victory practically assured to British arms, peace had not been concluded when, on the 26th of March 1902, he died at Muizenberg, near Cape Town.His life's work did not end actually with his death. He left behind him a will in which he dedicated his fortunes, as he had dedicated himself, exclusively to the public service. He left the bulk of his vast wealth for the purpose of founding scholarships at Oxford of the value each of £300 a year, to be held by students from every important British colony, and from every state and Territory of the United States of America. The sum so bequeathed was very large; but it was not for the munificence of the legacy that the will was received with acclamation throughout the civilized world: it was for the striking manifestation of faith which it embodied in the principles that make for the enlightenment and peace and union of mankind, and for the fine constancy of Mr Rhodes's conviction that the unity of the British Empire, which he had been proud to serve, was among the greatest of organized forces uniting for universal good.
The will was drawn up some years before his death. A codicil, signed during the last days of his life, gave evidence of some enlargement of his views as to the association of races necessary in order to secure the peace of the world, and added to the original scheme a certain number of scholarships to be held at the disposal of German students.The publication of the will silenced Mr Rhodes's detractors and converted many of his critics. It set a seal which could not be mistaken upon his completed life. The revulsion of sentiment towards him was complete, and his name passed at once in the public estimation to the place which it is probably destined to take in history, as one which his countrymen are proud to count among the great makers of the British Empire.
Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911