Cecil Rhodes did much to shape the world we live in — yet even well-educated people in the U.S. and the UK scarcely know his name. Perhaps they’re aware of Rhodes Scholarships or have heard that there was a campaign to remove his statues in South Africa because of his legacy of racial division and oppression. But they’re unlikely to know why the statues of the man were erected in the first place.
My own discovery of the diamond magnate and arch-imperialist grew out of a fascination with the frontier history of Southern Africa, over which he loomed like a colossus. The frontier nation of Rhodesia was his creation and bore his name until a 20th Century insurgency turned Rhodesia into Zimbabwe.
But Rhodes was much more than a wealthy frontier speculator and schemer. In his truncated lifetime, he laid down the foundations for a “secret elite” that would wield tremendous influence on the shape of the 20th Century. Rhodes’ legacy is nothing less than the network of finance that has pulled the economic and political strings of the Atlanticist world for more than a century.
If that sounds like conspiracy theory… well, it is and it isn’t. We’ll delve into that in a future post. For now, let’s look at beginnings of the remarkable story of a sickly English teenager who became one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world — and who dreamed of an Anglo-American Imperium that would dominate the globe.
Cecil John Rhodes was born in 1853, the son of an English vicar. His family sent him out to South Africa as a teenager to join his older brother, in the hopes that the climate would improve his health, which was impaired by some kind of congenital heart condition.
Brother Herbert was a restless soul, passionate about hunting and other sport, lacking in any particular ambition or persistence. Cecil Rhodes, on the other hand, was driven. His failing heart imbedded in his soul a sense of urgency; every beat was the tick-tock of a clock that he knew would wind down all too quickly. The sword of Damocles that hung over him drove him relentlessly to press his ambitions with extraordinary speed — and an utter lack of scruples.
The discovery of diamonds on a Boer farm on the interior of the Northern Cape Colony in South Africa set him on the road to colossal wealth. He joined his brother in the diamond fields of Kimberley in 1871, at the age of 18. In 1872, he suffered what was apparently a small heart attack. He returned to England for a fateful stint at Oxford, where he fell under the spell of a professor named John Ruskin, who instilled in his students an idealistic, if ethnocentric, sense of the civilizing mission of the Anglo-Saxon race.
When he returned to South Africa, young Rhodes set about consolidating diamond mining claims operations in Kimberley, and by 1888 he and his partner Charles Rudd had succeeded in creating a monopoly — De Beers Consolidated Mines —which (As The De Beers Group of Companies) controls the diamond market to this day. Brother Herbert had drifted off into the African wild, where he would die in a shooting accident, a fate that reaffirmed Cecil’s sense that time was always short.
A key move in Rhodes’ great diamond consolidation was securing the partnership of another mining magnate (and character) named Barney Barnato. Barnato’s description of Rhodes’ overwhelming powers of persuasion and strange charisma offers insight into the nature of the diamond king’s success in mobilizing other men to pursue his feverish dreams:
“When you have been with him half an hour you not only agree with him, but come to believe you have always held his opinion. No one else in the world could have induced me to into this partnership. But Rhodes had an extraordinary ascendancy over men: he tied them up, as he ties up everybody. It is his way. You can’t resist him; you must be with him.”
Rhodes would exercise his powers of persuasion — and his financial resources — in future years to stir men to epic endeavors to pioneer a settler nation and to attempt a coup to overthrow a Boer republic.
With the creation of De Beers, Cecil Rhodes became monumentally wealthy. But even in that Gilded Age, mere acquisitiveness was never a motivator for Rhodes. For a Robber Baron, he lived quite simply. Not for him the golden palace — and certainly not the allure of beautiful women. Cecil Rhodes sought influence and power — power to extend the dominion of the Anglo-Saxon race. His gaze turned to the north, where he envisioned British dominion over a swath of the African interior running all the way to Egypt.
Rhodes’ massive wealth would be deployed to further a vision that he laid down in 1877, in what he called his “Confession of Faith.” The confession was his statement of mission and purpose, and he never deviated from it:
“I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence, look again at the extra employment a new country added to our dominions gives.”
And the young man in a hurry had another Imperial vision:
“Why should we not form a secret society with but one object the furtherance of the British Empire and the bringing of the whole uncivilised world under British rule for the recovery of the United States for the making the Anglo-Saxon race but one Empire.”
Coming from just about anyone else, such a notion would seem a grandiose vanity of youth. But Cecil Rhodes was a special breed, one that would have been readily recognized by another intense, driven, eccentric young Englishman, one T.E. Lawrence, who observed:
“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”