When I began my South Africa theme for this round of ABC Wednesday, I always intended that my letter R would be Cecil Rhodes because he was such a colossal figure in the history of the continent – and not just because I share the same surname!
However, Rhodes was a complex character who achieved so much in his short life and was both revered and reviled while alive and in death, so all I can offer is a resumé of his career.
Cecil John Rhodes was born in England in 1853, the fourth son of Louisa Peacock and the Reverend Francis William Rhodes whose great claim was that he never preached a sermon that lasted longer than ten minutes.
Cecil was his mother’s favourite and the only one of her nine surviving children that she called ‘my darling’. Rhodes always remembered her with tenderness. affection and a tinge of awe. He certainly never loved another woman enough to marry.
But Rhodes was a sickly child and his father decided that he should be sent abroad in the hope that a long sea voyage and a better climate might improve his health.
So in 1870, the 16 year old found himself bound on the 70 day voyage to Durban, South Africa, and then on from there to join his brother, Herbert, who was a planter in Natal.
The two worked a cotton farm in the Umkomazi valley, but the land was unsuitable and the crop a complete failure. It was a failure that was to lead Rhodes to the first of several fortunes.
The brothers travelled to the Kimberley diamond fields and in the 17 years that followed, Rhodes bought up the smaller mining operations in the area. By 1889, he had a monopoly in the diamond market and established the De Beers Mining Company.
Rhodes used his wealth to invest in other businesses, including the Niger Oil Company, and he was also responsible for establishing the fruit farming that is so important to the South African economy today.
But if his monopolies made Rhodes the Bill Gates of his day, it was his entry into South African politics that was to cement his place in history.
He had great faith in his Englishness and felt that the world would benefit and find peace through British laws, systems and institutions, but he was not an imperialist as is often claimed.
Rhodes was a colonialist, rather than an imperialist (there is a difference), who believed that the colonies should enjoy self-rule as part of the wider British family, rather like the modern-day Commonwealth.
He had a vision of linking Cairo and the Cape by rail and telegraph passing through a continuous line of British territories along the east coast of Africa, as depicted in the Punch cartoon above.
His dream brought him into conflict with the government in London and with other groups in Africa, leading to the Second Matabele War and the Second Boer War.
The ill-health that had dogged his life finally took it in 1902 when he died of heart failure aged just 48. Rhodes’ body lay in state at Cape Town cathedral and the obituary verses were read by Rudyard Kipling who had written them in his friend’s honour.
Rhodes was buried at World’s View, a hilltop south of Bulawayo in what was then Rhodesia and thousands of Matabele tribesmen came to honour him, their royal salute – ‘Bayete!’ – ringing out from hill to hill.
His great wealth was placed in trust to be used for the public benefit and his home at Groote Schuur in Cape Town was left as an official residence for future prime ministers of a united South Africa.
But he is perhaps best remembered through the Rhodes Scholarship Trust that allows outstanding students from around the world to study at Oxford University.
Famous past Rhodes scholars include former US president, Bill Clinton, astronomer, Edwin Hubble, and musician, Kris Kristofferson.
There is so much I would like to have written about Cecil Rhodes – his love of the simple life, his fair treatment of his servants, his unforgiving nature when slighted, his support for Irish nationalism and his alleged homosexuality,
His library of expensive, bound handwritten translations of the classics, the part my great-granduncle played in opposing Rhodes’ plans to use migrant labour that inadvertently lead to apartheid, or even that L Ron Hubbard believed he was Cecil Rhodes reincarnated.
The quotations about Rhodes, my favourite being by Mark Twain: ‘I admire him, I frankly confess it; and when his time comes I shall buy a piece of the rope for a keepsake.’
Or the quotes attributed to him: ‘Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life.’ Although this was most likely written for him by Kipling.
But I shall leave the last words on Rhodes and his love of Africa to Kipling:
The immense and brooding spirit still
Shall quicken and control.
Living he was the land and dead
His soul shall be her soul.