If there is one man permanently etched in the history of Southern Africa for his grand imperialist designs, it must be Cecil John Rhodes. His wild ambitions inspired by British imperialism resulted in the region being turned upside down for the simple reason that the white man was supposed to benefit from Africa’s riches.
The colonial crimes he committed against the local people who were leading their lives without much disturbance make him one of the vilest men to ever walk the face of the earth. The legacy of Cecil Rhodes was colonialism, brutality, destruction, selfishness, and plunder.
When the scramble for Africa was raging, the continent presented vast opportunities for the white capitalists. White men who decided to expand their capital traveled to Africa for their business “adventures” and displaced the African way of life that was prevalent on the continent. The African way of life was supplanted by a European lifestyle that now encompassed forced labor and a forced religion (Christianity). The white capitalists masked their colonial ambitions meant to expand their profits by preaching the misleading and misrepresentative message of “civilizing” Africa and “spreading commerce.” The way of life led by the Africans was termed barbaric and according to the imperialists, the African was lucky to be a beneficiary of British benevolence hinged on the propagation of “civilization and education.”
One of the men who carried this ideology with renewed and strengthened zest was Cecil John Rhodes. To him, the African was supposed to be saved from his barbaric ways through the “fine British civilization” – for he considered the Anglo-Saxon race to be the first and most advanced in the world. Cecil Rhodes was born in the small town of Bishops Stortford, Hertfordshire in England on 5 July 1853, and he was the son of a priest. He spent most of his childhood being sickly and was sent to South Africa because of its better weather compared to England. It was believed the good weather in South Africa would be friendly to his weak heart. His brother was already in Natal, South Africa, and Cecil Rhodes joined him with early business ventures in cotton – a venture that did not yield desirable profits for Cecil Rhodes. The minerals were Rhodes’ passion. He arrived in South Africa when he was only 17, motivated, and inspired by the prospect of business profits.
Rhodes first came to South Africa with only £3000 that his aunt had lent him, and he used some of that money to invest in diamond diggings in Kimberly since the cotton venture was not yielding the desired profits. Rhodes followed his brother to the diamond fields in 1871 and immediately established links with Charles D. Rudd as a business associate (of the infamous Rudd Concession that resulted in the colonization of Zimbabwe).
Charles D. Rudd went on to become Rhodes’ partner when they created the De Beers Mining Company and later the British South Africa Company (BSAC). Through the cruel treatment of black workers, De Beers became the largest diamond company in the world and still retains that status in the 21st century.
In 1873, Rhodes went to England to pursue tertiary studies at Oriel College Oxford, but was only there for one term, returning for a second term in 1876. His time at Oxford aroused in him a spirit of spreading British civilization all over the world, with untamed plans of creating a secret society of British men who would be able to lead the world. All that mattered to Rhodes was the furtherance of the British empire and bringing of the whole uncivilized world under British rule.
Being such an ardent imperialist with an unstoppable zeal of enriching himself at the expense of the local people, Rhodes set out to achieve his dreams by pursuing a career in politics. He was a member of parliament for the Cape Colony, representing Barkly West – a rural area predominantly inhabited by Boers – which he held to the time of his death. When Rhodes became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in 1890, he pushed black people from their lands to make way for industrial development through the Glen Grey Act. In Rhodes’ view, warped by his imperialistic impulses, black people had to be forced off their land “to stimulate them for labor” and change their habits. To him, black people were supposed to be condemned to manual labor for the rest of their existence.
Some black people in the Cape had managed to be eligible for voting, but Rhodes raised the franchise property requirements and many black people were disenfranchised. The amount of land that the black person could own was severely cut, and so many black men were removed from the voting list since they could not meet the property requirements for voting. His principle of limiting the amount of land that could be owned by the black man was the forerunner of the Natives Land Act of 1913. He condescendingly called black people “natives” and said that the natives were to be treated as children with no right to vote, treated with the utmost despotism as that exhibited in India. Some of his policies were pivotal in the enactment of the Hut Tax, which was a tax imposed by the British colonialists payable on a hut/household basis.
While his imperialist agenda laid a solid foundation for apartheid in South Africa to flourish, the viciousness of Rhodes as regards profits was seen in the colonization of Zimbabwe. The British South Africa Company, led by Cecil Rhodes, employed deception to claim territory in modern-day Zimbabwe. They used brutal force to make sure the territory belonged to them and they did whatever they wanted with the land, suppressing and repressing its people in the process. Rhodes did not want the Colonial Office in London interfering in the business of the colonies; he wanted the settlers, local politicians, and governors to run the colonies. He used money from the British South Africa Company to thwart the influence of the Colonial Office. He financed the colonial projects himself. This proved useful to him as this power enabled him to counter the interests of rival European powers including the Portuguese, Germans, and the Boers.
The BSAC had its own paramilitary force to satisfy the imperial impulses of the company, headed by Cecil Rhodes. By 1888, the focus was turned to the north of Limpopo (present-day Zimbabwe and Zambia) for more minerals. In that same year, the Ndebele king Lobengula was tricked to sign the Rudd Concession, which gave Rhodes and his pioneers all the rights to the minerals in his land. Misled by the dubious legality of the Rudd Concession, Lobengula gave away all the mineral and land rights in his kingdom. The Concession resulted in the Queen granting Rhodes a charter – leading to an influx of white settlers in present-day Zimbabwe. In 1893, hostilities between the Ndebele and white settlers reached a climax and war broke out. The First Matabele War of 1893 was devastating as it resulted in more territory and riches being taken by the company.
By October 1893, the BSAC was armed with a new deadly invention – the Maxim gun. The BSAC troops swept through the territories in a ruthless and callous manner. Under the instructions of Rhodes and Leander Starr Jameson, the Ndebele were murdered mercilessly. According to an eyewitness at the Battle of Shangani, the BSAC troops were “mowing them [Ndebele fighters] down literally like grass” – about 1,500 Ndebele men perished, while the BSAC had only 4 deaths. After the battle, Rhodes wrote a boastful, racist letter to the Cape colony’s prime minister, Sir Gordon Sprigg stating: “The shooting must have been excellent, it proves the white men were not only brave, but cool, and did not lose their heads, though surrounded with the hordes.”
The crushing battles forced Lobengula to flee, and he died from smallpox in January 1894. The Ndebele warriors were subdued by the superior firepower of the company and the remaining leadership submitted to company rule. All the actions of the company were guided by Rhodes – whose leadership was acknowledged by the white settlers when the place was renamed “Rhodesia” on May 3, 1895. The war to vanquish the Matabele cost around £66 000, and most of this came from Rhodes Consolidated Goldfields Company, which was maximizing profits from the deeper-lying goldfields.
Rhodes’ colonial crimes in Southern Africa can never be forgotten. Rhodes laid a foundation for the colonization process in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, and Malawi – all for-profit and the glory of British imperialism. His remains are at Matopos Hills near Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. A South African university – Rhodes University in Grahamstown – is named after him. His legacy is treasured by the white people who benefitted from his wars of plunder and destruction. A towering statue in Kimberly celebrates Rhodes. Through his will, Rhodes created a scholarship fund for students from the British colonies, Germany, Britain, and the US to study at Oxford University. His intention was the “furtherance of the British Empire” by educating male students at Oxford.
There have been loud calls to pull down statues of Rhodes, but some raise the argument of the erasure of history in saying that his statues must stand. But this is a man who brought havoc and destruction to African lives. His history is ample, and the pulling down of his statues does not lead to any erasure of history. Statues of valiant African heroes should replace those of Rhodes in Africa.