Cecil John Rhodes: Life and Legacy of a British Imperialist

One of the greatest imperialists of the British Empire, Cecil John Rhodes’ legacy is today considered highly problematic.

May 8, 2024By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History

cecil john rhodes life legacy


Cecil John Rhodes is a historical figure who has generated huge amounts of debate, not just in South Africa, where he lived much of his life, but across much of the Anglosphere, where his name continues to bear considerable weight and influence.


He was indeed a powerful man who advanced and industrialized parts of the world, bringing colonial progress, wealth, and success to lands under his influence. However, his legacy in the English-speaking world has come under intense scrutiny as those whose ancestors benefitted from his imperialism are made aware of the dark side of his methods.


He was incredibly racist, and while this was not particularly surprising nor uncommon during his time on earth, his policies resulted in the disenfranchisement and oppression of masses of people who were unlucky enough not to have been born British.


This is the story of his life and legacy.


The Early Life of Cecil John Rhodes

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Cecil Rhodes by William Nicholson. Source: Cleveland Museum of Art

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Cecil John Rhodes was born July 5, 1853 into a family of not inconsiderable middle-class wealth. His father was a clergyman who had inherited valuable estates as a result of a successful brick-manufacturing business.


Cecil was a sickly child and suffered from asthmatic conditions. His father, concerned over the safety of his son, removed him from public school, and he spent much time under the watchful eyes of guardians who took special care of his condition. They believed that he may have contracted tuberculosis. In his teenage years, his father sent him to South Africa, which was popular as a place with a climate better suited to recovering from tuberculosis.


Rhodes Begins His Career in South Africa

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The Big Hole in Kimberley is the result of extensive diamond mining in the 19th century. Source: TripSavvy / Jess Macdonald


Cecil Rhodes started his career in South Africa in the British colony of Natal. He lived off money provided to him by his aunt Sophia and stayed in the town of Pietermaritzburg with Peter Sutherland, the Surveyor-General of Natal. While there, Rhodes became interested in agriculture and, with his brother, Herbert, attempted to grow cotton. Unfortunately for them, the climate was unsuitable, and the venture failed.


In October 1871, both left the Natal Colony and moved to Kimberley in the Cape Colony. This was the heart of the diamond mining industry, and it is where Rhodes’ success began. With funding from N M Rothschild & Sons, he started buying up the smaller diamond mining operations.


As the top layer of diamond-producing ground had been stripped bare, and water began to flood the strip mining operations, the diamond industry had entered a depression, but Rhodes and his business partner, C.D. Rudd, revived the industry by securing contracts to pump out the water. When he realized that the harder “blue ground” contained diamonds, too, Rhodes and Rudd became incredibly wealthy.


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The Rhodes Colossus by Edward Linley Sambourne (1844–1910). Source: Public domain / Store Norske Leksikon


In 1880, Cecil Rhodes entered politics and became a member of the Cape Parliament, representing the predominantly Boer area of Barkly West.


In March 1888, Rhodes and C.D. Rudd founded De Beers Consolidated Mines as an amalgamation of many other smaller claims. The company was named after the De Beers family, who had originally lived on the plot of land where the company began.


By 1890, De Beers held a monopoly over the world’s diamond market. Through an agreement with the Diamond Syndicate based in London, they colluded to maintain high diamond prices by controlling the world supply. This dynamic is still in effect today in the diamond market.


De Beers also launched an aggressive advertising campaign in order to market diamonds to a greater demographic. Before this advertising, engagement rings traditionally held sapphires or rubies. That all changed with the marketing of De Beers, creating a new tradition.


cecil rhodes vanity fair
The Cape, published in Vanity Fair. Source: Public domain / rawpixel.com


In the same year, Rhodes’ political career had led him to great success, and he was elected Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. Thus began his legacy as an oppressive imperialist. He took a dim view of Black people and enacted various policies to drive them off their land, believing that this would “stimulate them to labor.” He argued that Black people needed to be treated like “children” and introduced further policies to disenfranchise them, denying them the opportunity and the means through which to own land. Black people who had become successful under previous administrations had their properties taken, and Rhodes began building the land policies on which Apartheid would later build.


Conflict and Imperial Expansion

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The Charge of the Three Hundred at Doornkop by Captain Thatcher. Source: Creative Commons / Wikipedia / Life Photo Collection on Google Arts & Culture


Britain had imperial ambitions in South Africa beyond the colonies of Natal and the Cape. In the first half of the 19th century, Boers had trekked northwards, out of British-owned territory, and established the Boer republics of the South African Republic (also known as the Transvaal Republic) and the Orange Free State.


Gold was discovered in 1886 in the Transvaal, and Britain began looking for a casus belli in order to take control of the Boer republics. Central to Rhodes’ policies were the prevalent concerns of miners, and the miners who exploited the gold fields in the Transvaal were predominantly British. Arguing that British citizens were being mistreated, Rhodes set in motion the first attempt to wrest control of the Transvaal Republic from the Boers. This attempt was known as the Jameson Raid (so named for its leader, Leander Starr Jameson), which took place on the New Year weekend of 1895 to 1896 and was a complete disaster.


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Map of Southern Africa 1884–1905. Much of the British expansion was a direct result of the policies, business practices, and political machinations of Cecil Rhodes. Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica


Five hundred police from Rhodes’ British South Africa Company led a raid into the Transvaal, with orders to recruit disenfranchised British miners and provoke insurrection. The action failed, as the British in the Transvaal were not incentivized enough to take up arms. With the raiders captured and the British completely embarrassed by the affair, Cecil Rhodes was pressured into tendering his resignation. The raid also resulted in the imprisonment of Cecil’s brother Colonel Frank Rhodes, who had taken part in the raid.


The raid also had far-reaching consequences in Matabeleland and Mashonaland (now part of Zimbabwe). In 1891, these areas were declared British protectorates. The British South Africa Company, which administered the security of these areas with its own police force, lost control after the Jameson Raid. As the police officers were detained to the south, the Matabele and the Shona tribes rebelled against British control. This rebellion was known as the Second Matabele War, and although it was a victory for the British, it exposed Britain’s lack of control over its territories. Rhodes, who took control of the forces of the British South Africa Company, showed no mercy to his enemies, ordering them to be killed, even if they tried to surrender.


long cecil gun
“Long Cecil” was a gun built by the De Beers mining company. Named after Cecil Rhodes, it was used in the defence of the town of Kimberley during the Second Anglo-Boer War. Source: Creative Commons/ Wikipedia


Despite this disaster, during his time in office, Rhodes greatly expanded British influence over Southern African land by establishing treaties and gaining mineral concessions from local chieftains.


The control of territory under the British South Africa Company stretched from the Limpopo River to Lake Tanganyika. This land had been unofficially called “Rhodesia” by the settlers with whom Cecil Rhodes was hugely popular. The southern part became Southern Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe), and the northern part became Northern Rhodesia (later Zambia).


When the Second Anglo-Boer War broke out, Boer forces immediately besieged Kimberley, and Rhodes moved there to rally the defenses and provide support to the British soldiers and citizens.


Rhodes’ Death

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Rhodes Memorial, which overlooks Cape Town. Source: Tours Africa


As a result of a heart attack, Cecil John Rhodes died on March 26, 1902, at the age of 49. He was staying at his seaside cottage in Cape Town at the time, and after his death, his body was transported by train all the way to Bulawayo in Rhodesia, where it was laid to rest. His imperial ambition of building a railroad from Cape Town to Cairo went unrealized.



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A protester in South Africa. Source: AP/Schalk van Zuydam via studyinternational.com


For many white South Africans, Cecil Rhodes was seen as a benign figure, especially to the English speakers who did not know the extent of Rhodes’ crimes or that they even happened at all. For the Afrikaners, he was viewed with animosity as being part of the British who subjugated them. For Black people, his legacy was that of death and misery.


In recent years, the anti-Rhodes viewpoint has been brought to the foreground, and powerful movements to change how Rhodes is viewed have garnered momentum on an international level. The starting point was the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement in Cape Town. Among scenes of repeated vandalism of statues of Rhodes, students at the University of Cape Town demanded the removal of the statue that stood at the main entrance to the upper campus.


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Statue of Cecil Rhodes being removed from the University of Cape Town upper campus. Source: David Harrison, Mail & Guardian


After significant protests, the statue was removed. This kickstarted a movement in England to have the same treatment applied to statues of Rhodes there. Debates over the removal of statues continue to this day.


Many of these statues exist at university institutions, as Rhodes left much of his estate to fund education systems. It is for this reason that Rhodes University was established in the Eastern Cape in South Africa and that the Rhodes Scholarship exists.


Decapitated statue of Cecil Rhodes at Rhodes Memorial in Cape Town. Source: Nic Bothma/EPA, via The Guardian


The shift in political expression has seen Rhodes turn from hero to villain in the eyes of the world. While focus used to rest on what he had built – an undeniable achievement – modern views have vilified Rhodes as an agent of imperial conquest.


His legacy remains chequered, but no matter the opinion, it is inarguable that he had a huge effect on the history of Southern Africa and beyond.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African history, he has authored over 200 articles. A former English teacher with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town, he excels in academic writing and finds artistic expression through drawing and painting in his free time.