Cecil Rhodes was one of the late 19th and early 20th centuries’ most ambitious empire-builders. He is primarily known for his role as prime minister of the Cape Colony in South Africa, his organization of the De Beers diamond company, and his establishment of the Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University. It is said that he uttered the words, “Africa is still lying ready for us. It is our duty to take it.”
Rhodes was born in July 1853 in England to a vicar and his wife. Unlike his brothers who were sent off to prestigious schools and the army, he suffered from poor health and remained at home and was educated locally. When he came of age in 1870, he did not go off to university but was sent to South Africa to work on a cotton farm. Working with his brother Herbert, Cecil tried to make the farm in Natal successful. However, the two brothers were overcome by the desire to mine for diamonds and moved to Kimberley to pursue that ambition. It was difficult there and Herbert returned home. Cecil stayed on but returned to Oxford frequently. At Oxford he was not particularly popular; other students found him strange, particularly in his fervent, near-mystical embrace of imperialist ambitions. He said of the British: “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."
He helped found De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd. With C.D. Rudd; it was named after the De Beers mining claims that were held by Rhodes. By 1888 after a tense battle he took possession of the Kimberley mine as well. By 1891 De Beers owned 90% of the world’s production of diamonds.
Rhodes decided to enter politics in 1881 by running for Parliament in Cape Colony. This position relied on Boer support (the Dutch who lived in South Arica). Rhodes was sympathetic to the natives’ situation and also tried to boost the power of the Colony in the face of heightened competition for the interior of Africa on the part of Germany, Belgium, and Portugal. His time in Parliament saw the expansion of the British Empire in South Africa. Mining grants secured from the King of the Ndebele would give Rhodes a claim to what would later be Rhodesia. In 1889 Rhodes pressured the British to form the British South Africa Company. In 1890 Rhodes became the premier of the Cape and had support from the white and black voters as well as the Afrikaners, the Dutch descendants.
In 1895 Rhodes suffered a setback due to the disastrous Jameson Raid, which was a failed attempt to encourage the Johannesburg outlanders to revolt against the Boer government of Transvaal. Rhodes resigned his premiership and spent the rest of his life developing Rhodesia and working on extending the railway. When the Boer War began in 1899 he went to Kimberley and helped aid the British in their defense and sanitation efforts.
After suffering years of ill health, Rhodes died of heart failure on March 26th, 1902 not long after returning to the Cape after a visit to England. Kipling wrote a poem dedicated to Rhodes that was read at his funeral; the two were great friends and Leander Starr Jameson, the subject of Kipling's "If", was introduced to Kipling by Rhodes. Money was set aside in his will to establish the Rhodes scholarships which allowed students from the United States, British colonies and Germany to study at Oxford. Rhodesia, previously split into northern and southern regions, later became Zambia (north) and Zimbabwe (south).