Cecil John Rhodes was born in 1853 in Hertfordshire, England, the sixth of nine children of an Anglican Vicar. He first traveled to South Africa in 1870 at the age of seventeen, when his family’s doctor diagnosed him with a tubercular lung condition and recommended a move to a warmer, drier climate. There, Rhodes joined his elder brother Herbert, who had already established a cotton farm in Natal, and the following year both brothers trekked inland to Kimberley to try their luck in the diamond rush there. Over the next decade, Rhodes built his fortune in diamond mining while also traveling back and forth to England to study at Oxford University, eventually completing his degree in 1881. The mining company he founded, De Beers, continues to dominate the diamond industry to this day. Rhodes also became a member of the Cape Parliament in 1881, and was elected Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in 1890.
Rhodes’s commercial and political pursuits were both aspects of his broader ambition to extend British rule “from the Cape to Cairo” and throughout the world. He founded the British South Africa Company (BSAC) and, having secured mining concessions from the Ndebele king Lobengula, obtained a charter from the British Government to acquire territory from the Limpopo River to Lake Tanganyika. The BSAC took control of Mashonaland and Matabeleland, establishing the colony of Rhodesia, where the company functioned as both a business monopoly and a local government (analogous to the East India Company in India). Rhodes became more directly involved in running Rhodesia in 1895, after his involvement in a failed attempt to depose the Boer government in the Transvaal forced him to resign as Prime Minister. Meanwhile, the Ndebele and then the Shona had risen against the Rhodesian government. In 1896, in what some have called his finest hour, Rhodes personally negotiated with the Ndebele leaders, riding unarmed to their stronghold in the Matopo Hills and remaining there for eight weeks until peace was established.
Rhodes died of heart failure in 1902, aged 48, at his seaside cottage near Cape Town. In accordance with his will, his body was buried in the Matopo Hills in Matabeleland. Although his legacy is largely one of colonial violence, racism, and ruthless capitalism, he did make one undeniably positive contribution by endowing the Rhodes Scholarships, which enable foreign students to pursue postgraduate study at Rhodes’s alma mater, Oxford.