Cecil Rhodes was one of the worlds richest men, having acquired his fortune through amalgamating diamond claims in Kimberley, South Africa, to create a monopoly that continues to dominate the trade to this day. He made a second fortune in the world’s richest gold field on the Witwatersrand in the Transvaal.
He was a Robber Baron in a Gilded Age of Robber Barons — but he didn’t live like a Jay Gould.
His Dutch-style home in the Cape Colony, called Groote Schuur, which means Great Granary in Dutch, was stately, but relatively modest considering his status, and he allowed the public to make free of the estate gardens. He dressed in rumpled clothes and, while he smoked heavily and consumed quantities of champagne and whiskey on a Churchillian scale, he wasn’t prone to lighting cigars with $100 bills and other such displays of conspicuous consumption.
It was never about the money for Rhodes. Great wealth was only valued insofar as it facilitated grand imperial dreams.
Those dreams beckoned him north, across the Limpopo River to what he and many other Victorian Age adventurers believed to be the Biblical Land of Ophir, the home of King Solomon’s mines. The lure was gold — and expanding the territories of the British Empire.
In 1889, a European hunter looted a great stone bird from that north country, from the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, an ancient stone complex of mysterious origin. He sold the icon to Rhodes, who mounted it in Groote Schuur and had wooden replicas carved into the staircase to match it. Rhodes grew obsessed with the bird, which he seemed to treat as a mystical talisman.
Cecil Rhodes was a very strange man.
His eccentricities included an aversion to women that can only be defined as misogyny. The magnate surrounded himself with young men, referred to as “lambs” or “angels,” and all of his closest relationships were with bachelor men. To seek marriage to a woman was to be excommunicated from his circle. He considered matrimony and domestic life the ruination of a man. When a young male secretary informed him that he planned to marry, Rhodes threw a towering temper tantrum, screaming hysterically “Leave my house! Leave my house!” He meant it. Like — now.
Rhodes was homosexual — in an age and culture when homosexual acts were illegal. Yet, there was in Victorian Britain and her colonies a deep and extensive subculture of upper class (and working class) homosexuals and bisexuals, connected and connecting in secret. Often the “secret” was pretty open. It seems that this mode of living may have both suited and shaped Rhodes’ approach to life: He was drawn to cliques of men operating behind the scenes to manipulate the strings of politics through social influence and finance, rather than wielding power directly (though he did hold high political office in the Cape for a time).
In 1891, he would formally launch his long-dreamed of Secret Society – aimed at bringing as much of the world as possible under the purportedly benign and beneficial influence of the Anglo-Saxon Imperium.
But first he would make his play for Ophir.
In 1889, Rhodes managed to wrangle a concession for mining minerals in Mashonaland — land that lay under the suzerainty of the amaNdebele, then known as the Matabele. The Matabele were rebel Zulu people who had spent the second half of 19th Century brutally pillaging the Bantu peoples of Southern Africa before moving north of the Limpopo, where they established Matabeleland. They considered the neighboring Mashona to be their subjects, fit only for raiding for cattle, crops and women. And for wetting the blades of their short stabbing spears known as assegai.
Rhodes wasn’t above playing dirty pool to get amaNdebele King Lobengula to grant the concession, which was, of course, just the camel’s nose in the tent. Rhodes fully intended to create a new British colony. Lobengula was no fool and he understood Rhodes’ game perfectly well.
But Lobengula wasn’t exactly a saint — in fact, he ruled his people with a heavy dose of terror and brutality — and he wanted the presents that went with the concession, including guns that Rhodes illegally smuggled in to sweeten the pot. It’s a long and convoluted tale, but it ended up with the great African frontiersman Frederick Courteney Selous scouting out a route for the Pioneer Column that moved into Mashonaland in 1890. The pioneering of what would come to be called Rhodesia was a semi-private commercial endeavor. The work would be done not directly by the crown, which was a reluctant and wary player, but by a Crown-chartered company, the British South Africa Company, usually known simply as the Chartered Company.
The Matabele grudgingly allowed Selous’ road-builders through. King Lobengula was reluctant to get into a conflict with the British. He had seen what had ultimately happened to his Zulu cousins in 1879. After bloody initial battlefield success in the Zulu War, the British crushed and broke up the kingdom. The King restrained militants among the Matabele, who wanted to (and certainly could have) destroyed the Pioneer Column.
Surprisingly, a country believed to be rich in gold did not produce another South African bonanza. There was gold, but it was scattered, not concentrated in readily exploited reefs. Farming and ranching in the wilderness was a tough proposition and it was looking like it would take years to develop real exportable agricultural product.
The Chartered Company heavily spun the news out of Rhodesia, producing copy that “boomed” the country, emphasizing its potential and minimizing all difficulties and disappointments. And the Company cast its covetous eyes toward Matabeleland, where surely the gold must run wide and deep. The Company found a pretext for a war of conquest in a Matablele attack on their subject Mashona. In 1893, the BSA Company took Matabeleland with relative ease, riding on the power of its Maxim guns.
The dream of the north was well in play. And Rhodes already had a deeper game afoot.
“One wintry afternoon in February 1891, three men were engaged in earnest conversation in London From that conversation were to flow consequences of the greatest importance to the British Empire and to the world as a whole. For these men were organizing a secret society that was, for more than fifty years, to be one of the most important forces in the formulation and execution of British imperial and foreign policy.
“The three men who were thus engaged were already well known in England. The leader was Cecil Rhodes, fabulously wealthy empire builder and the most important person in South Africa. The second was William T. Stead, the most famous, and probably also the most sensational, journalist of the day. The third was Reginald Baliol Brett, later known as Lord Esher, friend and confidant of Queen Victoria, and later to be the most influential advisor of King Edward VII and King George V.”
— Professor Carroll Quigley, The Anglo American Establishment
The three founders of this so-called Society of the Elect represented the three pillars of influence that would continue to shape culture and policy long after their leader shuffled off his mortal coil: Finance, Media, and Politics. The society, dedicated to working behind the scenes and, obviously, in secret, would wield profound influence on the course of events of the 20th Century — and would do much to shape the world order that we all still live under: an order which is now falling into disarray and disorder.