Cecil Rhodes

Am staying at the campus of University of Cape Town. It’s a spectacular place right in the shadow and lower slope of Devil’s Peak.

One name dominates the history of this part of Cape Town; Cecil Rhodes. He was born in England but spent most of his adult life in Southern Africa (the countries were different in those days) during second half of 19th century.

He was an imperialist and colonialist which are seen in a negative light these days. Let’s put that to one side, I’ll write about immigration in a later post. Rhodes lived a remarkable life though.

  • He was the founder of De Beers mining and made his fortune in the diamond mines of Kimberley
  • He was the founder of Rhodesia which of course no longer exists today as a country. Zimbabwe and parts of Zambia may be best approximation
  • The proceeds of his will established the Rhodes Scholarship for international students to study at Oxford since Rhodes himself had been so impressed by his time spent there (at Oriel College)
  • Some well known recipients of the Rhodes Scholarship include:
  • William Jefferson Clinton – 42nd President of USA – it was over in Oxford that he famously tried Marijuana but ‘didn’t inhale’
  • Edwin Hubble – astronomer – Hubble Telescope named after him
  • Bob Hawke – colourful ex PM pf Australia
  • Norman Manley – national hero of Jamaica   
  • Bill Bradley – NBA Hall of Famer & former Democratic Senator for New Jersey

Rhodes loved Cape Town and bought up property here on the slopes of Table Mountain which expanded and became the Groote Schuur Estate. Rhodes left the land to the South African Government upon his death and it is now a conservation area, thereby preventing ugly urban spawl. The whole estate is no longer intact in one piece but the area includes:

  • the Cape Town Residence of the South African President (currently Jacob Zuma)
  • the campus of UCT (there are reminders of Rhodes everywhere; roads, sports grounds, halls of residence etc.)
  • the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens – everyone has heard about the views from Table Mountain so it’s difficult to add to that. Kirstenbosch though is a less well know gem and a great way to spend half a day in Cape Town. Will be writing about flora & fauna later but the diversity & splendour of it is breathtaking (quite literally breathtaking as you’re basically walking up and down the foothills of Table Mountain)

Back at the UCT Campus I heard about the Rhodes Memorial up in the foothills of Devil’s Peak. The generosity of a complete stranger who gave me a lift to Upper Campus, plus a quick but steep 10 mins hike brought me up to this peaceful oasis. 

A truly wonderful panoramic vista of Cape Town extends in one direction, the stunning backdrop of Devil’s Peak in the other direction and a beautiful granite carved memorial, based on a Greek Temple sits in the middle.

The memorial itself was designed by Sir Herbert Baker, a British born architect who did most of his well known work in South Africa and also together with Sir Edwin Lutyens in Delhi. Baker did so some work in England (South Africa House, Rhodes House in Oxford) but is unfortunately known as the architect who remodelled the Bank of England building and ‘destroyed’ the beauty of Sir John Soanes’ work there.

The memorial features 49 steps, one for each year of Rhodes’ life, and displays a stanza by Rudyard Kipling. Both Baker & Kipling were friends of Rhodes. It also features a huge bronze sculpture called ‘Energy’ by G.F. Watts, the English Victorian painter and sculptor. If you can’t get all the way out to Cape Town you can see the same sculpture in Kensington Gardens overlooking the Serpentine. If you a fan of G.F. Watts you also may enjoy the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice in Postman’s Park in London (between St Pauls and the Barbican)

Rhodes was laid to rest in the hills about 22 miles south of Bulawayo in what was then Rhodesia and is today Zimbabwe. An eventful life, in many ways a great man, and his legacy both in terms of his properties and his scholarship lives on today.

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