Cecil John Rhodes, first Chairperson of De Beers

Cecil John Rhodes

Cecil John Rhodes, business man, mining magnet, President

Cecil John Rhodes, son of a Hertfordshire clergyman, and one of Great Britain’s main empire builders, was born in Bishop’s Stortford, England on 5 July 1853. Tuberculosis prevented him from entering Oxford University at the age of 17. He then left for Natal province in South Africa in 1870 to recover from the protracted illness. Soon afterwards he took part in the rush to the newly discovered diamond fields at Kimberley. He and his brother were successful in prospecting, which made him financially independent at the age of 19. The healthy climate and active life returned his good health, and he continued his education.

For a period of 8 years he alternated between his studies at Oxford and his work in South Africa.  In those days South Africa was a popular country for those men seeking wealth and power.  In the 1880s and 1890s Cecil John Rhodes found both.  In 1881, just before taking his degree, he was elected to parliament in the Cape Colony, and within a few years (1890) he became its prime minister.

Cecil John Rhodes made a fortune in diamonds and gold. As prime minister of Great Britain’s colony at the Cape of Good Hope he was virtual dictator of all Southern Africa. His ambition was not so much for himself but for Britain, his country of birth. He was responsible for turning Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Bechuanaland (Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana) into British Territories. Rhodes controlled the huge companies that owned most of the gold and diamond fields. By 1888 he managed to firmly establish the De Beers consolidated Mines, Ltd. In 1891 the company owned ninety percent of the world’s diamond mines.

Cecil John Rhodes and Paul Kruger

In 1893 he defeated the king Lobengula and his Matabele tribe, and at the same time schemed against his political rival, Paul Kruger, the leader of the Dutch settlers (Boers), and president of the Transvaal Republic. In 1895 Rhodes’s friend, Leander Starr Jameson, raided the Transvaal, hoping to overthrow Kruger’s government. Jameson failed, and Rhodes was implicated and forced to resign as prime minister and as director of the British South Africa Company.

Rhodes moved to Matabeleland (in Zimbabwe), aiming to develop its natural resources. Once more he had the opportunity to prove his statesmanship. The tribal people of Matabeleland had revolted and could not be suppressed. He held discussions with the chiefs about their grievances, and promised relief – the rebellion ended. In 1898 he was, for a second time, elected to the Cape Colony parliament. He started to resume his former power when the Boer War (1899-1902) started, and he was involved in the defence of Kimberley.

Unfortunately his health broke and he died on 26 March 1902, in Muizenberg near Cape Town. His dream of a South African Union came true in 1910 – a “Cape to Cairo” railroad that would “Paint the Map Red” was his dream for Africa. His Cape Town residence, Groote Schuur, was left as the home for future prime ministers of the Union, now a republic. In his will he left most of his wealth to Oxford University. The nearly three million pounds were used in the creation of the famed Rhodes scholarship. Approximately 70 scholarships are awarded each year. Rhodes scholars are selected from the Commonwealth, Germany, and the United States. Former President Bill Clinton was a Rhodes scholar.