Birth - Death
1853 - 1902
Head of State
Cecil Rhodes was one of the giants in the early history of the development of the newly explored continent of Africa in the nineteenth century, both in terms of business and politics. His name today is attached to a series of educational and other institutions to such an extent that it has become globally recognized.
Born in England, Rhodes’ first trip to Africa was as a sickly young boy sent to the continent by his father in an attempt to improve his health through a better climate. Expected to help his brother in agriculture, Rhodes instead sought work in the recently discovered diamond fields, interspersed with a year at the University of Oxford (from which he graduated in 1881). Over a period of 17 years, Rhodes acquired the principle diamond mines in Africa until he had accumulated a monopoly position. At the same time he founded Gold Fields of South Africa in 1887, the largest gold miner on the continent.
During this period, Rhodes decided to enter politics of the Cape Colony (as South Africa was then called). He was elected in 1881. After successful re-election, he became Prime Minister in 1890. An ardent Imperialist, Rhodes began enacting policies to advance the aim of the British Empire to expand its territories and influence on the continent. Most notable among these were his efforts to remove the black population from their tribal lands.
These efforts lead to the second Boer War of 1899-1902. The failure of a key attack in this war forced Rhodes to resign as Prime Minister. Nevertheless, he continued to use his vast wealth to advance the aim of British Imperialism. He looked northward and entered into a series of agreements and concessions with native tribes to give himself control over a vast area that was renamed Southern Rhodesia (currently Zimbabwe) and Northern Rhodesia (currently Zambia).
Throughout this period of his life, Rhodes developed an ingrained philosophy on British Imperialism. His thought process led him to believe in a superiority of white elites around the world that would rule and govern for the good of mankind. It is known that he even harboured an internal belief that the American colonies would be recovered by the British Empire.
Rhodes’ ill health dogged him throughout his life. He succumbed to heart failure at the young age of 48. At his death, he was one of the wealthiest individuals in the world. In his will, he left funds for the now famous Rhodes Scholarship – the first international study scholarship to the University of Oxford. In addition, Rhodes University in South Africa was established in 1904.
Rhodes never married. Although he never publicly discussed his sexual orientation and destroyed much of his personal correspondence before his death, it is well known that Rhodes had numerous personal and intimate relationships with men. He created an all-male environment in his home, entertaining only men and employing only male servants. The first deep relationship he had was with Neville Pickering, and they lived together from 1882-1886. Rhodes abandoned his business dealings for weeks to attend to Pickering’s ailing health and was struck by deep grief for weeks after his death.
Other intense and personal homosexual relationships followed. Included among these were relationships with Harry Currey and Philip Jourdan.
Rhodes’ personality has always been a study of contrasts. On one hand he was known as an ardent Imperialist, ruthless businessman, architect of apartheid, and bully. On the other hand, he was also known as a personable leader who appreciated, respected, and encouraged the culture and languages of indigenous Africans – he did set up a system of native administration in his colonies in 1894. As a political ruler, Rhodes fought for self rule of the region (by the resident white population), despite setting up a charitable education foundation that had the express purpose of enabling academic elites of Britain, Germany, and America to expand the British rule by way of the Empire.
Were these conflicting personalities a reflection of the internal conflicts that developed with his secretive sexual orientation? That, of course, is difficult to assess, but it is a common characteristic of homosexuals of his generation.