What was Cecil Rhodes’ legacy?

When Rhodes arrived at the newly established dry diggings in the Kimberley area in 1871(as opposed to the dry diggings of the Vaal valley,) the claim holders managed things themselves, organising ‘Diggers Committees, limiting the number of claims any one person could have and also doing what could be done to limit the activities of blacks in the mines.

When the British took over the dry diggings around the four mines of Dutoitspan, New Rush, De Beers and Bultfontein in 1873, the new Lieutenant Governor was Sir Richard Southey. He arrived dressed in all the paraphernalia of the Empire with plumed hat and embroidered tunic. He was a representative of the liberal government in Cape Town and proceeded to restore the rights of black claim holders. Kangaroo courts were abolished and the 10 pm curfew was abolished as were the residential restrictions the diggers had imposed.

Southey wanted to protect the small claim owners from the way they were being squeezed out through high rents and insecure tenures. He was determined that blacks and coloureds should have the same opportunity as white diggers but they were strongly opposed to his liberal policies. This struggle between the administration and the white diggers was to have a lasting impact on South African society. The Diamond Field newspaper reflected what was to become the majority view amongst diggers: ’Ruin, financial ruin for the whites, moral ruin for the natives, these are the results of the attempt to elevate in one day the servant to an equality with his master’. ‘Class legislation, restrictive laws and the holding in check of the native races till by education they are fit to be our equals, is the only policy that finds favour here.’ The white diggers wanted employees to be forced to keep to a contract, for personal searches to be legal and for there to be a night time curfew. Moreover they wanted to put restrictions on the number of blacks and coloureds who held claims. The white diggers wee to get much of what they wanted in a proclamation in 1872 which amongst other things introduced passes to the diamond fields. Despite this proclamation, unrest amongst claim owners continued particularly against rent increases, and there was even a rebellion in 1875 with dissident groups forming their own militia. Throughout this unrest Rhodes did not involve himself in the politics of the diggings although during one brief rebellion he registered as a special constable to uphold Southey’s laws. His attitude was to change as he and his partner Rudd built up their claims so that they were one of the largest owners of claims in the De beers mine.

When Rhodes first moved to South Africa and was living in Natal trying to make a living from cotton he had a good relationship with native people, employing about 39. He spent much time with them sometimes sleeping in their huts and treated them well, paying them on time and being prepared to offer his workers loans in they needed one.

Once he moved to Kimberley, Rhodes slowly changed and came to align himself with those in the mining industry who wanted there to be a constant and reliable source of labour. By the time he became an MP in the Cape Town Assembly in 1882, Rhodes was working to support the interests of the mining owners and Afrikaner farmers who voted him in. He supported the Diamond Trades Act of 1882 which introduced draconian measures to control black labour in the mines. Suspects of illegal diamond buying were presumed guilty and offenders were tried by special courts. Prison terms could be increased to fifteen years and police could search without warrants. Rhodes campaigned for the introduction of flogging but he was defeated on this issue. With his entry into Parliament had completed his transformation from someone who had an easy going relationship with his black workers to someone who sought to see them as labour to be exploited for the benefit of white mine owners.  If there had been an opportunity for someone of vision to create a society of equals amongst the different races then Rhodes had that opportunity but lacked the vision. He aligned himself increasingly with the interest of the diamond trade and was to use his increasing power to ensure that the diamond trade had a constant source of reliable and cheap labour.

Rhodes’ vision as expressed in his will of 1877 was one based on the ideas of those he heard and read about whilst he was in Oxford in the 1870s, especially John Ruskin and Disraeli in which they called for an expansionist empire and for youth to do their duty to their country by going abroad to help develop these new colonies. Rhodes vision changed over time but there were a number of constant threads and they were the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race and the mission to make the world English. By the time he came his final will he was calling for the Anglo-Saxon race to be the instrument to spread justice, liberty and peace throughout the world.  “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”. “Within the white race, the English speaking man......has proved himself to be the most likely instrument to spread justice, liberty and peace throughout the world”.

As Prime Minister, Rhodes sought to create a federated South African state. To achieve this he needed a consistent labour policy and to reduce the political importance of the black vote. He changed the franchise in the Cape Colony to virtually exclude Africans by increasing the property qualification from £25 to £75 and introducing a literacy clause. This Act introduced to the Cape Parliament by Hofmeyr had a disproportionate effect on the African population. This act was followed up by the Glen Grey Act which introduced the idea of African districts where white men were not able to settle or buy land, and where the notion of communal ownership was replaced by individual forcing family members to leave. Rhodes called the Act a ‘Native Bill for Africa’. The project was intended to provide the colony with a supply of workers who would have no say in the running of the country.

The Glen Grey Act was accompanied by measures designed to enforce the segregation of the races and together they would become the model for apartheid and for a segregated society. Rhodes might have been the man to bring about a free, just and equal society –instead he was the one who introduced a system of apartheid and through his language and the language of his newspaper, created a climate of hostility between the racial groups.

This climate of hostility was made worse when Rhodes plotted the overthrow of the Kruger regime in Transvaal. Rhodes by 1894 knew that the land north of the Limpopo did not have the gold reserves he had dreamt about and that the only gold in the region was in the Transvaal. If the Boers of the Transvaal were not to dominate south Africa through their industrial strength then the Boer republic would have to become part of the British Empire. The subsequent Jameson Raid was a fiasco which lost Rhodes the support of the Afrikaner Bond in the Cape and set the Transvaal and Britain on the road to war.

Although Rhodes is mostly known for the encouragement of segregationist measures within South Africa and the extension of the British Empire, he did much whilst he was Prime Minister to develop the economy of the Cape Colony. He introduced new vine stock that was more resistant to insects to develop the wine industry. He also saved the woollen industry by making sheep dipping compulsory and he introduced an American ladybird to help control diseases in fruit.

Although after 1895 Rhodes was to play a minor role in politics as Lord Milner became High Commissioner in South Africa he reinvented himself as an Imperial hero and in 1898, at a time when there were worldwide threats to the Empire, Rhodes became the leader of the Progressive Party which became under his leadership a jingoistic party.

Rhodes now was spending more and more time in his Rhodesia and following his death in 1902 the territories of the British South Africa Company (BSAC) came closest to realising Rhodes’ dream. Southern Rhodesia (Matabeleland, Mashonaland and Manicaland) remained under the control of the Company until 1923 when it passed over to settler self government without any period of imperial government whilst Northern Rhodesia (including Barotseland) came under Colonial Office control in 1923. A federation of the former Company territories was effected in1953, an event which would have delighted Rhodes, but it only lasted until 1963 when northern Rhodesia became the independent state of Zambia whilst southern Rhodesia seceded from the Commonwealth in 1965 and was run by the white minority settler population – colonial government free from Imperial interference for which Rhodes had strived for much of the later years of his life.

Rhodes in the last years of his life was able to cast himself as the archetypal imperialist and his early biographers helped to create the image of a man who was a model Englishman – someone who embodied English virtues by working tirelessly for the Empire and developing territories and civilizing ‘savages’, someone who was hard working, honest, who led a simple life and did not dress ostentatiously. Such an image remained the standard view of Rhodes until the decline of the British Empire since when his life has been subject to different interpretations. He is now seen not as the selfless imperialist but as a money-lord who used his wealth to make himself as powerful as possible and create his own state. He was corrupted by power and became intolerant of the ways of democracy, doing deals behind people’s backs and believing everyone had their price.

Although the territories of the former BSAC are now free of imperial and colonial control, the legacy of Rhodes and the British settlers is there. The English language and British parliamentary, judicial and educational systems resemble those introduced by the British to a greater or lesser degree whilst the railway and telegraph systems are those largely built by the British.

Perhaps the longest lasting legacy of Rhodes is the system of scholarships which became available as part of his will. Although the system of apartheid that Rhodes did much to introduce to South Africa has been cast aside with the fall of apartheid, the legacy of his scheme to create an elite of Anglo-Saxon men still lives on but not in the way that Rhodes envisaged. The scheme was intended to select individuals for their character, physical prowess and qualities of leadership to create a kind of Jesuit order that would work for the spread of Anglo-Saxon values but the trustees took a pragmatic attitude to the project. It was soon accepted by many countries that embraced the project that students should have completed two years of university study, and despite Rhodes’ insistence that there be no intellectual criteria to acceptance by Oxford colleges, it was not long before students were generally of a very high academic order. Although Rhodes had intended that students would be male and white, nowadays there is no racial discrimination in the selection of Rhodes scholars.

Rhodes had wanted that excess monies in the scholarship fund be used to support an ‘Imperial party’ and that American students would work towards the overthrow of the Declaration of Independence. He similarly wanted scholars from the dominions to work for less dominion autonomy and for imperial federation. It is thanks to the foresight of the trustees that the Rhodes scholars have not developed ‘an attitude of empire’ but have often played an important role in their country’s government, education and administration.

Rhodes died in March 1902 just months before the end of the Second Anglo-Boer war. Within years the British nation was questioning the role of the British Empire and Britain’s ability to defend herself given her diplomatic isolation and the inefficiency of the British army as shown in South Africa. Imperialism had reached its high point and although the empire continued to play an important role, especially in the two world wars, the time for a federated empire with stronger links between Britain, dominions and colonies was passed. Rhodes though remained a popular figure and was seen by successive generations as the embodiment of empire. It has only been in the last fifty years that his role in history has come under greater scrutiny.  

New Rush in 1872

African labour at Kimberley

The Diamond Trade At of 1882 legitimised compounds like the De Beers, above

Jan Hofmeyr, leader of the Afrikaner Bond, the largest group in the Cape Parliament

Paul Kruger, President of the Transvaal, was a barrier to Rhodes’ plans for a federal South Africa

The British South Africa Company with Rhodes as Managing Director controlled much of South Africa

Rhodes House Oxford, from where the Rhodes’ Scholarships are administered

Rhodes is buried in the Matapos Hills in Zimbabwe


The British Empire