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Cecil John Rhodes

Cecil John Rhodes (1853 - 1902) was a mining magnate, Cape politician and arch-imperialist in southern Africa. Born in Britain, his father was a Church of England vicar and Rhodes was brought up in fairly affluent surroundings. After school, he was sent in 1871 to South Africa to join his brother Herbert, who was farming cotton in Natal at the time. When he arrived in Natal Rhodes found that Herbert had left for the recently discovered Diamond Fields, in what is now Kimberley. After a short unsuccessful attempt at cotton farming, Rhodes travelled to the Diamond Fields himself, where soon afterwards Herbert left him in charge of his claims while he returned to Britain. Within a relatively short time, Rhodes’s mining activities prospered and by 1873 he had amassed a fortune of £10,000. At the Diamond Fields Rhodes made a number of important friends, including Charles Rudd, who later came to prominence with the northwards expansion done by Rhodes-controlled Chartered Company’s, and also the Cape liberal politician John X. Merriman. By 1874 Rhodes was developing his mining interests in the Kimberley area and by 1879 Rhodes and Rudd’s De Beers was the region’s largest diamond mining concern.

During the mid-1880s De Beers was able to take advantage of the depression then occurring and buy up and absorb smaller competing diamond mining concerns. Rhodes brought Alfred Beit, Kimberley’s leading diamond merchant, onto the De Beers board of directors, and also bought out Barney Barnato’s rival company to form De Beers Consolidated Company. As well as ruthlessly pursuing his business interests, Rhodes was also a passionately ruthless advocate for British imperial expansion, and in order to advance both interests Rhodes entered politics. In 1880 he was elected a member of the Cape parliament for Barkly West amid allegations of corruption and vote buying. He was to remain the MP for Barkly West until his death in 1902. Around this time Rhodes also bought the Cape’s most prominent newspaper, the Cape Argus, a practice he continued with other newspapers, co-opting them to represent his viewpoints and interests. During the 1880s Rhodes consolidated his political position, and when he was not especially successful in exploiting the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886, he turned his attention to the territories north of the Transvaal, where he believed he could uncover further mineral wealth and also expand Britain’s southern African imperial interests.

After Rhodes had himself failed to secure a deal for expansion into Matabeleland from the Ndebele leader Lobengula, Rhodes used Charles Rudd and the missionary John Moffat to effectively trick Lobengula into signing away his territory. The resultant Rudd Concession enabled Rhodes in 1889 to obtain a charter from the British government for his British South Africa Company, usually referred to as Rhodes’ Chartered Company, to expand into and rule under frontier circumstances the area north of the Limpopo River, which led to the establishment of Rhodesia. It was the activities of the Chartered Company in the region, particularly their brutal and bloody repression of the 1896 Ndebele and Shona uprising, which were the subject of Schreiner’s 1897 Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland.

Rhodes’s political career continued to advance and he was particularly careful to cultivate the support of the Afrikaner Bond in the Cape, not least by the careful distribution of BSAC shares. In fact, “It is clear
that a working agreement between Rhodes and Hofmeyr [leader of the Bond] was in existence before the fall of Sprigg’s Government in July 1890” (Davenport 1966: 131). Once in power Rhodes set about supporting and implementing legislation aimed at benefitting the mining industry, and ‘big business’ interests generally. He was instrumental in passing laws aimed at controlling the movement of black labour, most notoriously the Glen Grey Act of 1895, which sough to restrict African land ownership and impose taxes on Africans which would force them into the labour market. Rhodes’s ‘native’ policy further endeared him to the retrograde elements within the Afrikaner Bond. Although the Logan contract scandal in 1893 had led to the dissolution of his first ministry, Rhodes won the 1894 elections and formed a second ministry with greater Bond representation. He was to become increasingly estranged from the so-called Cape ‘liberals’, composed by Will Schreiner, Merriman, Sauer and Rose Innes. 

By 1895 Rhodes had become increasingly convinced that the Transvaal government posed a threat to his vision of an imperial federation in southern Africa, and so with the secret backing of Joseph Chamberlain, the colonial secretary, Rhodes began to plot the overthrow of Kruger’s Transvaal government. Rhodes hoped to make use of the political grievances of the uitlanders (‘foreigners’ living and working in the Transvaal) and the mining industry in the Transvaal to stage a coup. Dr Leander Starr Jameson, a close friend and agent of Rhodes, bungled the raid and when his troop column entered the Transvaal at the end of 1895, it was promptly defeated and the men in it arrested by Kruger’s forces at Doornkop. For Schreiner this was a pivotal moment in arresting the advancement of capitalist imperialism in southern Africa, and she looked back on it in several letters as a defining moment in the history of the region, including her forecast that it would change all the existing political groupings and relationships. As a result of the Raid, Rhodes was forced to resign as Prime Minister and a Cape parliamentary committee of inquiry subsequently found him guilty of complicity in the Raid. By 1898, however, Rhodes had recovered his position to some degree, and he unofficially led a new grouping of Progressives in the Cape parliament, although this was entirely opportunistic and should not be read as indicative of Rhodes as a liberal or a progressive. However, when the Bond supported Will Schreiner and he became Cape Prime Minister in 1898, Rhodes was left lacking any real political space. When the South African War broke out in 1899, Rhodes returned to Kimberley where he remained for the duration of the siege. He died in 1902 after some years of ill-health from heart disease.

Schreiner’s relationship with Rhodes was a complex one, and has certainly been the subject of considerable historical speculation and debate. Around the time of her return to South Africa at the end of 1889, Schreiner eagerly anticipated meeting Rhodes, commenting to W.T. Stead in 1890 that Rhodes was “the only big man we have here”, and announcing to Havelock Ellis “I am going to meet Cecil Rhodes the only great man & man of genius S. Africa possesses.” Certainly Schreiner did meet Rhodes on a number of occasions, both in Cape Town and in Matjesfontein. As is evident from her August 1891 letter to him, Schreiner regarded Rhodes as someone “large enough to take me impersonally” and as someone with whom she might therefore engage fruitfully on political and public matters. Colonial society gossiping however could not comprehend of such an association between an man and unmarried woman, and before long Schreiner was having to fend off public rumours that she and Rhodes were engaged to be married.

Over the course of the early 1890s, Schreiner came to take an increasingly critical view of Rhodes and his policies. As early as July 1891 she commented to her sister Ettie that she had to “oppose him [Rhodes] on the native flogging bill”, and in a later letter to Will Schreiner she described the moment she turned away from Rhodes on the station platform at Matjesfontein, when she realised his true venality. It was the Jameson Raid, however, which finally revealed for Schreiner the full extent of Rhodes’s political and moral corruption, and she commented to Stead in the aftermath of the Raid that “if this difficulty results in breaking forever the power of Rhodes & the Chartered Company, it will be an unmixed benefit to the Native, & European population of this country.” Schreiner’s increasingly vocal criticism of Rhodes and his activities put her in a difficult position with regard to her family; Ettie and Theo Schreiner were both fervent supporters of Rhodes, and Rebecca Schreiner was a close friend of Rhodes, exchanging letters and confidences with him. This is an important part of the backcloth to the rifts that developed between members of the Schreiner family in late 1890s.

Schreiner’s most damning indictment of Rhodes came in 1897 with the publication of her Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland, a novella in which she exposed and attacked the brutal atrocities associated with the Chartered Company’s violent suppression of the Ndebele and Shona uprisings of 1896. By this time Schreiner was less concerned with Rhodes as an individual than with the system of ruthless capitalist and imperialist expansionism that he represented. As she commented in a powerful letter to John X. Merriman on 3 April 1897: “We fight Rhodes because he means so much of oppression, injustice, & moral degradation to South Africa; - but if he passed away tomorrow there still remains the terrible fact that something in our society has formed the matrix which has fed, nourished, & built up such a man!” When Rhodes died in 1902, Schreiner referred to him as ‘a great might-have-been’ in a number of letters, expressing her view that, while he was a man of great ambition and even genius, he had actively chosen to direct his energies and talents into morally and politically corrupt concerns. While most early biographies of Rhodes were written firmly in the hagiography tradition, John Flint’s 1976 biography marked a more critical take on Rhodes, and there have been numerous subsequent scholarly studies exploring Rhodes and his legacy.

For further information see:
T.H.R. Davenport (1966) The Afrikaner Bond: The History of a South African Political Party, 1880 - 1911 Oxford: Oxford University Press
Apollon Davidson (1988) Cecil Rhodes and His Time Moscow: Progress Publishers
John Flint (1976) Cecil Rhodes London: Hutchinson
Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido (2004) ‘Rhodes, Cecil John (1853-1902)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/35731 
Paul Maylam (2005) The Cult of Rhodes: Remembering an Imperialist in Africa Cape Town: David Philip
Robert Rotberg (2002) The Founder: Cecil Rhodes and the Pursuit of Power Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball
Liz Stanley and Helen Dampier (2008) “‘She wrote Peter Halket’: Fictive and factive devices in Olive Schreiner’s letters and Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland” in (eds) David Robinson et al Narratives and Fiction Huddersfield, UK: University of Huddersfield Press
Mordecai Tamarkin (1996) Cecil Rhodes and the Cape Afrikaners: The Imperial Colossus and the Colonial Parish Pump London: Cass
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collection icon Bodleian Libraries Special Collections: Schreiner’s few remaining letters to Frank (or Harriet) Colenso, to Alfred Milner and to Cecil Rhodes are part of the l... Show/Hide Collection Letters
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collection icon Bodleian Libraries Special Collections: Schreiner’s few remaining letters to Frank (or Harriet) Colenso, to Alfred Milner and to Cecil Rhodes are part of the l... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon British Library, London: The British Library, London, is one of the world leading locations for archival papers across many periods of time, countries... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon Cory Library, Rhodes University: The Cory Library, Grahamstown, is a rich resource for books and archival papers pertaining in particular to the history of th... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon Cullen Library, Historical Papers, University of Witwatersrand: Historical Papers in the Cullen Library is a leading location for accessing archival papers across many periods, organisation... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon Greene Family: A sub-set of Schreiner’s letters to Alice Greene is held in the private collection of the Greene family heirs, (while o... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin: The HRC, Austin, is one of the world leading locations for archival papers pertaining to literary life and manuscripts across... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon Macfarlane-Muirhead Family: Schreiner’s letters to Robert Muirhead are part of Macfarlane-Muirhead family collection and can be accessed at the Mui... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon National Archives Depot, Pretoria: The National Archives Depot is Pretoria is a leading location for archival papers across a wide time-period, organisations an... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon National English Literary Museum, Grahamstown: The National English Literary Museum is the leading location for collections pertaining to the imaginative and creative writi... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon SCCS Edited Extracts: Four groups of edited extracts from Olive Schreiner's letters can be accessed from here, made by her estranged husband Cronwr... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon National Library of South Africa, Cape Town: Special Collections at the NLSA provide one of the leading locations for archival papers across many periods, organisations a... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon Sheffield City Libraries, Archives & Local Studies: Edward Carpenter Collection, Archives & Local Studies, Sheffield City Libraries: The Edward Carpenter Collection is held ... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon University of Cape Town, Historical Manuscripts: Manuscripts & Archives at the University of Cape Town is a leading location for accessing archival papers across many per... Show/Hide Collection Letters
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