Queen Victoria's Empire : The Changing Empire : Rhodes
Hulton Getty Picture Archive
Rhodes plans for the advancement of British interests in southern Africa were made possible by his vast wealth. He had come by his fortune through his precocious activities as a diamond miner and entrepreneur. Rhodes had taken over his brother Herbert's three claims in the de Beers mine in Kimberley when he was 17. He proved an outstanding businessman and in 1872 when the other miners felt they had hit rock bottom and there were no further diamonds to mine, Rhodes purchased as many claims from despairing miners as he could in the Kimberley mines. Such bold decisions were to become his hallmark. He was not frightened to buck the trend and he believed that there were more diamonds as they were forced up from below. His gamble paid off.
Rhodes' mines went from strength to strength and in 1888, through a combination of persuasion, bullying and sharp business practice he convinced the owners of the other Kimberley mining companies to amalgamate and form Rhodes De Beers Consolidated Mines. It was the leading diamond company in the world, owning all the South African mines and thus 90% of global diamond production. This added to the major share Rhodes had acquired in the gold industry after the Witwatersrand gold strike in Transvaal in 1886.
Rhodes on Veldt
Such wealth was the means to a glorious end for Rhodes. In 1881 he became a member of the Cape Parliament. Rhodes had stated, "Africa is still lying ready for us. It is our duty to take it." By 1890 he was Prime Minister of Cape Colony and his ambitions for the Anglo Saxon rule of southern Africa had moved towards Zambesia. Rhodes' British South Africa Company obtained mining ad farming rights in Mashonaland, having successfully duped the Matabele King, Lobengula. By 1896 Rhodes' company forces had put down all resistance to his advances and a new addition to the British Empire was aptly named Rhodesia after its founder.
The only stumbling block to Rhodes' dream of British supremacy in South Africa was the protectionist Boer Republic of Transvaal. Following the discovery of a vast gold reef on the Witwatersrand Transvaal was becoming increasingly wealthy and powerful. Rhodes answer to this problem was a coup de main in which Rhodesian and Bechuanaland gendarmerie would enter Transvaal in support of an uitlander uprising in Johannesburg. What became known as the Jameson Raid was botched from the start and the raiders were easily intercepted and captured by the Boers. Rhodes' shady part in the fiasco led to his retirement from public life. The ramifications of the raid were far reaching as it was seen as the first round of a contest between Britain and Transvaal, which ultimately culminated in the Boer War between 1899 and 1902.
Rhodes death led to prolonged mourning. He was ruthless, amoral and instinctively acquisitive yet he had single-mindedly followed his plan "to make the world English." He had added Northern and Southern Rhodesia to the Empire and he was a truly useful instrument for the preservation and extension of Britain's influence in southern Africa at a time when it was in jeopardy. "So little done. So much to do," were the words falsely attributed as Rhodes last. However, the sentiments were entirely appropriate to this most resourceful and visionary icon of Empire.
Back to the top of this article