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Cecil John Rhodes, a British immigrant to southern Africa, founded the De Beers diamond monopoly, served as prime minister of Britain’s Cape Colony, and colonized Southern and Northern Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe and Zambia). Rhodes was the embodiment of late nineteenthcentury rapacious capitalism and imperialism. His activities did much to shape important objects of social scientific study with respect to southern Africa: monopoly capitalism, migrant labor, and colonialism.
Rhodes was born to an English parson
of modest circumstances. At the age of seventeen, he
emigrated to southern
Africa. Rhodes arrived in 1870, three years after
a diamond-mining rush had begun in an area soon to be annexed
Britain and incorporated into the Cape Colony. The following year, Rhodes left for the diamond fields, where the town of Kimberley
emerged to support the
mines. Diamonds quickly transformed the region’s political economy, becoming the Cape Colony’s largest export by 1875 and leading to calls for confederation of the region’s colonies and settler states.
In 1880 Rhodes and Charles Dunnell Rudd (1844–1916) formed the De Beers Mining Company to pursue amalgamation of claims, by then considered essential to continued profitability of the mines. By the end of the decade, De Beers completely controlled the diamond mines; more than a century later, De Beers remains the world’s largest miner and seller of diamonds and controls the world market in these gems. Amalgamation was intended to remedy major problems of production and marketing. First, as the mines went deeper, enormous amounts of machinery and technical expertise were needed to shore up walls and to cart ore to the surface. Though operations were capital-intensive, they were also labor-intensive, requiring increasing numbers of African men who came to the mines as migrant workers. Second, the huge volume of diamonds being produced from the Kimberley mines meant that it was necessary to limit the numbers reaching the market in order for sales to be profitable. Amalgamation enabled De Beers to solve these problems through centrally organizing flows of capital and labor into the mines and the flow of diamonds out of them. Key innovations, introduced in 1882, were closed compounds to house African workers and legislation to control illicit diamond buying. Closed compounds enabled mining concerns to closely supervise workers, bringing about tighter labor discipline and providing a model for later mining enterprises in southern Africa.
In the late-1880s, prospectors discovered the world’s largest gold deposit on the Witwatersrand (Rand) in the Boer-ruled Transvaal. The city of Johannesburg grew up above the mines, becoming the subcontinent’s largest city. Kimberley capitalists invested heavily in the Rand, but Rhodes was late to do so, securing poor claims. As a result, his interest was drawn in two directions: toward politics and toward possible mineral discoveries in areas then beyond colonial control north of the Limpopo River.
At the end of the 1880s, Rhodes’s agents fraudulently secured from Ndebele king Lobengula (c. 1836–1894) a concession (the Rudd Concession) to exploit all the minerals in his domain. On the strength of this concession, Rhodes obtained a royal charter for his British South Africa Company (BSAC) and sold shares for an enterprise to settle and mine what became Northern and Southern Rhodesia. When the areas the BSAC first exploited failed to produce a “second Rand,” the BSAC provoked war with and swiftly defeated the Ndebele. The politics of the Cape, the Transvaal, and BSAC-occupied territories to the north now became deeply entwined. Rhodes, then the Cape’s prime minister, conspired with others to topple the Transvaal government in order to install a government more conducive to mining and British imperialism. An armed force under Rhodes’s aide, Leander Starr Jameson (1853–1917), launched a hapless invasion from the north in late 1895; its failure forced Rhodes’s resignation as prime minister. Tensions over the Jameson raid helped precipitate war between Britain and the Boer republics (the Transvaal and Orange Free State). The Boer War, later known as the South African War, led to uniting South Africa as a white settler state within the British Empire. Meanwhile, oppressive BSAC policies toward Africans in Rhodesia led to a widespread uprising in 1896 to 1897 that was put down at great cost in African lives.
As he gained wealth and power, Rhodes promoted a broad imperialist vision, summed up in his scheme for a transportation network that would span Africa from the Cape to Cairo and parodied in a contemporary political cartoon that showed Rhodes astride the African continent as the “Colossus of Rhodes.” As the Cape’s prime minister, in 1894 he secured passage of the Glen Grey Act, designed to limit African access to land, force Africans onto the labor market, and reduce African voting strength. His rhetoric and actions thus place him as one of a handful of white power brokers in late nineteenth-century southern Africa who shaped the regimes of alienation of land, exploitation of minerals, and racist regimentation of labor that were to define white-ruled southern Africa for most of the twentieth century. Not yet fifty when he died, Rhodes’s will founded the Rhodes Scholarship program for anglosaxon men from settler societies to study at Oxford University, where he had taken a degree in 1881. He is buried on a hilltop in the Matopos hills of southwestern Zimbabwe, a site sacred to indigenous peoples. His grave thus is a continual reminder of colonial conquest and insensitivity, while its broad vistas give expression to imperial desires to be master of all one surveys.
- Davenport, T. R. H., and Christopher Saunders. 2000. South Africa: A Modern History. 5th ed. Houndmills, U.K.: Macmillan.
- Rotberg, Robert I., with Miles F. Shore. 1988. The Founder: Cecil Rhodes and the Pursuit of Power. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Worger, William H. 1987. South Africa’s City of Diamonds: Mine Workers and Monopoly Capitalism in Kimberley, 1867–1895. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
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