Cecil John Rhodes: Five fast facts about the controversial imperialist

Cecil John Rhodes is a name that has become synonymous with “hate” over the past few years. Be it the hashtag #RhodesMustFall or the physical removal of a statue, most South Africans have no love in their hearts when it comes to the man.

With a long history of imperialism and race-related issues, let’s look at five facts about the man who played a key role (good or bad) in shaping South Africa’s history.


Young Cecil: The son of a priest

Cecil John Rhodes was born in the small town of Bishops Stortford in England on 5 July 1853. He was the son of a priest and fell ill with lung issues shortly after completing school. His family decided it would be best for him to visit his brother in Natal, South Africa.

Rhodes believed the business opportunities in South Africa would be more promising and therefore agreed to move. He arrived in South Africa at just 17 years old on 1 September 1870.

The first diamond powerhouse


When arriving in South Africa, Rhodes brought with him a £3000 loan from his aunt. He used the money after moving to Kimberly to invest in diamond diggings.

Once there, he met Charles D Rudd, who later became his business partner as the pair launched De Beers mining company. De Beers went on to be the “world leader” in the diamond market and still plays a key role in the industry today.

An undeniable imperialist and racist

While Rhodes may have gone on to effectively “rule” the British South African empire, the man was power hungry and viewed native black South Africans as “despicable”.

Rhodes spoke constantly throughout his life of his total devotion to the extension of the British Empire. He believed that the Englishman was the greatest human specimen in the world and was born to rule as much of the world as possible.

The man himself had a lifelong dream to see a “ribbon of red” across the entire African continent. In short, he wanted to see the continent under complete British rule. Rhodes also wanted a railway line that ran all the way from the Cape to Cairo in Egypt.

He wasn’t just a standard racist though, in an 1877 paper for Oxford, he spoke openly about how it would be “good” for black Africans to be brought under British rule.

“I contend that we [white Englishmen] are the first 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 specimen of human being, what an alteration there would be in them if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence…if there be a God, I think that what he would like me to do is paint as much of the map of Africa British Red as possible…”

The 7th Prime Minister of British South Africa

Rhodes joined the Cape parliament just ten years after arriving in South Africa. He spent a further ten years building up his political career before becoming the 7th Prime Minister of British South Africa, or as it was known at the time, the Cape Colony.

He lasted six years in the job before being forced to resign after embarrassingly underestimating the Boer resistance.

Rhodes attempted to overthrow the Transvaal government but his police officers retreated at the first sign of resistance. He had assumed that ordinary citizens would join the raid but the few involved were easily chased away.

A country, scholarships and a university

For there to be a hashtag such as #RhodesMustFall, there had to be a lot of a Cecil John Rhodes empire to fall. The country now known as Zimbabwe was named Rhodesia after Rhodes in 1985. The territory had recently been captured from locals after multiple bloody wars.

He combined the area into one country known as Rhodesia. The country eventually achieved independence from the British in 1965.

Rhodes was a big fan of education and founded two scholarships with Oxford University in 2012.

As per Rhodes’ will, the goal of the scholarships was to promote leadership among “young colonists with the moral force of character and instincts to lead for the furtherance of the British Empire.”

Only men were allowed to apply.

“For the bringing of the whole uncivilised world under British rule, for the recovery of the United States, for the making the Anglo-Saxon race but one Empire”

In the years since, multiple scholarships have since been started with Rhodes name and include women and people of colour.

Rhodes University in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, was also named after Rhodes due to a grant from his trust.