Ward's Book of Days.

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What happened on this day in history.

MARCH 26th

On this day in history in 1902, died Cecil Rhodes.

Rhodes was an explorer and a colonial entrepreneur who became the richest man in the world, and founded three African nations.

Cecil John Rhodes was born on 5th July 1853, the son of the vicar of Bishop's Stortford. As a child, his health was poor, and instead of attending Eton, like his brothers, he was kept at home and educated at the local grammar school. His continuing ill health preventing him from going to Oxford University, so he was sent instead to his brother’s cotton farm in South Africa, where it was hoped the climate would improve his well being.

Rhodes had little interest in the cotton farm and left for the diamond fields of Kimberley, in the hope of prospering from the ‘diamond fever’ that was sweeping Southern Africa. Sadly, he found life as a speculative digger harsher than he had expected, and less fruitful than reports had suggested, but he stuck to it for five years, until finally leaving to take a belated degree at Oriel College, Oxford.

At Oxford, he was influenced by lecturers such as John Ruskin, who argued that civilisation depended upon education, and that it was the duty of all educated men to bring a civilising influence to others whose background gave them no advantages in life. Rhodes interpreted this as meaning that Britons, such as himself, had the right, and indeed the duty, to govern impoverished nations, such as Africa, for the benefit of the native peoples. Rhodes was not the first to create the doctrine of imperialism, but he was in the forefront of putting it into practice. In 1881, he took a degree in law, and returned to South Africa.

Arriving back in Kimberly, Rhodes abandoned the idea of digging for diamonds. Using his skill in law, he formed a company, De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd, financed by diamond merchants, which bought up mining claims, which they employed others to exploit. Rhodes was far more successful as a corporate strategist than as a diamond digger, and used his share of the company profits to buy up shares in the company, until in 1891 he owned a majority stake in the company, which now controlled 90% of diamond production. He also incorporated a company, the Gold Fields of South Africa Company, whose objects included mineral development, both in South Africa and northward into the continent.

Rhodes had a vision of expanding the British Empire, what he called ‘painting the map red’, building a railway from the Cape to Cairo, bringing Africa under the British flag, and even recovering the American colonies for the British Empire. In 1881, he was elected to the parliament of the Cape Colony, for a constituency in which he had to depend on Boer support, and which he held for the rest of his life. He befriended his Boer constituents and supported the causes of the natives of Basutoland and Bechuanaland, now Lesotho and Botswana. In 1882, he helped General Gordon put down a native rebellion, which he did not by force, but by organizing discussions with tribal chiefs. Rhodes was impressed by Gordon, particularly with regard to his ability to deal directly with native peoples, leaving coercion as a final option.

Rhodes decided that it was vital to keep open a road leading to the north despite efforts by other imperial powers, Germany, Belgium and Portugal to close it off and to slice out territory for themselves. In 1890, he led a group known as ‘Rhodes's Pioneers’, taking a hazardous journey into Matabeleland, where they set up a fort named Salisbury, now Harare. He set up two new colonies, Nyasaland, now Malawi, and Rhodesia, called after himself, now split into Zimbabwe and Zambia.

In 1890, he was chosen as prime minister of Cape Colony, a post he held for five years. In this position, he carefully balanced the rights of British and Dutch settlers and the native population. He allowed votes for the natives, limited by financial and educational qualifications, and set apart an area exclusively for ‘African development’, land set aside for the natives. This policy was introduced from the highest motives, ‘a Bill for Africa’, as Rhodes proudly called it, but it is viewed in retrospect as the beginning of the South African system of apartheid.

In 1896, while Rhodes was away in London, there was a serious revolt in Matabeleland. Rhodes returned by way of Egypt and brought it under control by holding a peace conference in the Matopo Hills, a site that he called the ‘View of the World’, and decided that this was to be his burial place.

In 1889, Rhodes became ill with heart disease, and retired from public life. Without his guidance, the factions in Southern Africa quarrelled, and the Boer War broke out in 1899. He died on 26th March 1902, at the Cape Colony. By his will, he left his fortune to a scheme to award scholarships at Oxford to young men from the colonies and from the United States, the Rhodes Scholarships. The bursaries were to be awarded to scholars of proven ability, with no disqualification on grounds of race. After the reading of the will, his body was taken in a triumphal procession, for burial in the Matopo Hills.

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