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Cecil Rhodes: 115 years since his death

PUBLISHED: 09:35 28 March 2017 | UPDATED: 09:35 28 March 2017

Cartoon depicting the 'Rhodes Colossus' (Photos.com/Getty Images)

Cartoon depicting the 'Rhodes Colossus' (Photos.com/Getty Images)

© Getty Images

A sickly vicar’s son from Bishop’s Stortford went on to be one of the most influential and controversial figures of the Victorian age. With the 115th anniversary of Cecil Rhodes’ death this month, Stephen Roberts looks at his remarkable life

French satirical magazine Le Rire depicting Rhodes trapped in Kimberley during the Boer War, emerging from a tower clutching papers and a champagne bottle (Thinkstock)French satirical magazine Le Rire depicting Rhodes trapped in Kimberley during the Boer War, emerging from a tower clutching papers and a champagne bottle (Thinkstock)

It’s a conundrum, how a sickly lad from Hertfordshire became a leading figure in South African politics, one of the world’s wealthiest men, and helped expand the British Empire by 450,000 square miles.

A controversial figure to say the least, then and now, Cecil John Rhodes was born in Bishop’s Stortford in 1853, fifth son of the vicar of St Michael’s, and one of nine children. Unlike his brothers, who were sent to public school, Cecil was educated at the town’s grammar school in the High Street most likely because of his asthma. Home life was comfortable with 10 servants.

Today’s Bishop’s Stortford Museum is housed in Cecil’s birthplace Netteswell House, a three-storey late-18th-century semi, in South Road. The room he was born in is adorned with a tablet on the outside wall, stating: ‘The Right Hon’ble Cecil John Rhodes, the founder of Rhodesia, was born in the room within July 5th 1853’. After Cecil’s birth, the family moved next door to Thorley Bourne.

Growing up, Cecil wandered around Bishop’s Stortford, usually alone, or sat musing in the family garden. He also attended regular services at his father’s church, where a bronze tablet today summarises his life. It was aged 16 that events shook Cecil from his wistful, quiet existence. Rather than going to college he was sent to Natal, the coastal South Africa British colony, in a bid to help his asthma. Joining his brother Herbert in Natal, he helped him run a cotton plantation. His sojourn in warmer climes soon proved beneficial for other reasons than asthma, however, as he and Herbert developed an interest in the diamond market – far more lucrative than cotton.

Memorial to Rhodes on the slopes of Devil's Peak, Cape Town (africanpix/Getty Images/iStockphoto)Memorial to Rhodes on the slopes of Devil's Peak, Cape Town (africanpix/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Still with an eye on England, having amassed enough money working in Natal to purchase a proper education, Rhodes returned to Bishop’s Stortford in 1873 and went up to Oriel, Oxford. Reportedly socially awkward at university, his studies were interrupted by ill health, although he did manage to take his degree. He returned to South Africa for the long Oxford vacations from 1873-1878. It was 1878 that saw his final visit to his home town, a place he never discussed again after his father died. The reasons are not clear, but ‘pater’ did apparently quarrel with St Michael’s churchwardens.

In South Africa Rhodes saw money making opportunities for the risk-taker. He became involved in local politics, becoming an MP in the Cape Legislature in 1880, a position he held until 1902.

As early as 1883, Rhodes saw Bechuanaland (today’s Botswana) as key to the trading route between the Cape and hinterland – ‘the Suez Canal of the interior’, as he called it. He devised a hugely ambitious ‘Cape to Cairo’ railway, stretching the length of the continent. Rhodes foresaw ‘ultimate supremacy in Southern Africa’, seeing the Cape as the lynchpin of the sea route east, and the vast African interior providing a land route north, right up to the Mediterranean. Africa, rich in resources, could become the British Empire’s hub of trade. His vision was not only economical and political, it was based on a ‘dream’ of elite Anglo-Saxons ruling Africa, and further, to the Middle East and beyond.

Seeing control of land the key factor in establishing his plans, Rhodes became a leading light in the extension of British territory from the Cape, beginning with Bechuanaland, which became a protectorate in 1885. This was followed by the eponymous Rhodesia (modern Zimbabwe and Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi) in the following decade. British Imperialism caused tensions with the Dutch Boer farmers, who had established republics of their own, the Orange Free State and Transvaal. These tensions exploded in the Boer War of 1899-1902.

Rhodes' grave in Matobo, Zimbabwe (MalgorzataDrewniak, Getty Images)Rhodes' grave in Matobo, Zimbabwe (MalgorzataDrewniak, Getty Images)

Alongside his imperial ambitions, Rhodes was making a fortune in diamonds. Firstly at the Kimberley mines and then by succeeding in amalgamating various diamond concerns into the De Beers Consolidated Mines Company in 1888, which, under his guidance, had a virtual monopoly in the industry.

In 1889 Rhodes was key in setting up the charter for the British South Africa Company, to develop the Zambezi valley. This later became known as Rhodesia in his honour. The ultimate aim was to create a federal South African dominion under the British flag, but it had the effect of hemming in the Transvaal and increasing pressure on it come to an accommodation.

The construction of a great British South African entity was a Rhodes mission and he worked hard on Transvaal President Paul Kruger, to lure him in. The Afrikaners though wanted a southern Africa of their own and Kruger was obstructive. British policy, championed by Rhodes, was aggressive and aimed at the denial of Afrikaner separation and destruction of the Transvaal.

In 1890 Rhodes was elected Prime Minister of Cape Colony, a position he would hold until 1896. Gold had also been discovered in southern Transvaal and Rhodes was actively financing and organising the industry, his company Consolidated Goldfields soon controlled a large share of the business. In 1894 Rhodes visited Kruger, trying to persuade him to closer union. He failed and resorted to fomenting agitation in Transvaal and financing a revolutionary movement against its government.

'May I take it for granted you have no objection to our line running through your property?' Cartoon of Rhodes and the German Emperor discussing Rhodes' Cape to Cairo plan (Photos.com/Getty Images)'May I take it for granted you have no objection to our line running through your property?' Cartoon of Rhodes and the German Emperor discussing Rhodes' Cape to Cairo plan (Photos.com/Getty Images)

Rhodes resigned the Cape premiership due to the fallout from an unauthorised foray into the Transvaal. What became known as the Jameson Raid of December 1895 was a bungled attempt to oust Kruger by precipitating revolt in Transvaal among gold prospectors who were denied full citizenship. Led by Leander Starr Jameson’s ‘irregulars’, they were rounded up, and handed Kruger a propaganda coup. British embarrassment was amplified when the German Kaiser sent Kruger a congratulatory telegram.

Cecil Rhodes died on March 26, 1902, aged just 49, having suffered a recurring heart problem. Facing his final illness, he had planned to return to his homeland. He never made it. He lies buried in the beautiful hills of Matobo National Park in Zimbabwe.

In trying to defend Rhodes’ reputation 115 years after his death, one can play the ‘man of his time’ card. Yes, he was an imperialist, but that concept was advanced by many at the time. He was also an ‘Anglo-Saxon racialist’, but again, he was not alone in thinking England best. A medley of motivations drove the British imperial project and desire for colonies. For Rhodes, not averse to a bit of bribery and corruption, perhaps it was most about, as one writer said, a ‘buccaneering love of money and power’.

Rhodes’ will and testament was remarkable for its beneficence, bestowing largesse on Cape Colony and founding Oxford scholarships. There are still 95 Rhodes scholars created each year, the most famous being US President, Bill Clinton. We can only presume those exhibiting symptoms of ‘Rhodes Rage’ in Oxford – students supporting the Rhodes Must Fall campaign who wanted to pull down his statue at Oriel College last year – were not those receiving his scholarships. While the Oxford campaign failed, in South Africa, efforts in 2015 by students and members of the public succeeded in having a statue of Rhodes removed from the University of Cape Town.

Birthplace of Rhodes in 1853, now housing Bishop's Stortford MuseumBirthplace of Rhodes in 1853, now housing Bishop's Stortford Museum

Back in Bishop’s Stortford the subject of a Rhodes memorial divided opinion long ago. In the end, the money raised was used to erect the Drill Hall in 1906. Times do change – it’s now home to an Italian restaurant.

The Bishop’s Stortford Museum has a large collection of documents, archives and artefacts relating to Cecil Rhodes including his 1877 military uniform, birth-bed, Bible and a watercolour he painted.

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