Rhodes Scholarships Are Instituted

The Rhodes Scholarships were created according to the vision expressed in the will of Cecil Rhodes. Many Rhodes Scholars would go on to become well-known and important members of society.

Summary of Event

Cecil Rhodes’s life and legacy read like a Victorian imperial success story. Rhodes, the son of a vicar in Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, England, did not go directly to college or into the military, as did his five brothers; instead, poor health motivated him to move to the Cape Colony (now known as the Republic of South Africa), where he initially worked on a cotton farm. He soon moved to Kimberley, the center of diamond mining in the region, and from 1871 to 1881 he spent approximately half of each year in the Cape Colony, digging for diamonds and purchasing competitors. During the other six months of the year, he pursued studies at Oriel College, Oxford, where he earned a degree in 1881. Rhodes treasured his undergraduate experience at Oxford, although his path through the university was hardly traditional. Rhodes Scholarships
[kw]Rhodes Scholarships Are Instituted (Apr., 1902)
[kw]Scholarships Are Instituted, Rhodes (Apr., 1902)
Rhodes Scholarships
[g]England;Apr., 1902: Rhodes Scholarships Are Instituted[00440]
[c]Education;Apr., 1902: Rhodes Scholarships Are Instituted[00440]
[c]Humanitarianism and philanthropy;Apr., 1902: Rhodes Scholarships Are Instituted[00440]
Rhodes, Cecil

Oxford offers only three eight-week terms per calendar year—there are two six-week vacations between the first two terms, and the “long vacation” stretches from late June to early October. All three breaks, and especially the long vacation, are intended for Oxford students to broaden their studies and engage in reading a wider range of material. While Rhodes might well have taken part in such programmatic reading, he spent most of those vacations in the Cape Colony.

Rhodes participated in local politics in the Cape Colony in 1881, and throughout the remainder of that decade he developed strong political support among both expatriate British and Boer politicians. By 1888, he was the principal shareholder of De Beers Consolidated Mines, which by 1891 owned 90 percent of the world’s diamond mines. From 1890 to 1896, Rhodes served as prime minister of the Cape Colony. As leader, he acted on his imperialist belief in British superiority and hegemony, seeking unsuccessfully to “paint the map [of Africa] red” with a railway from Cairo to the Cape and even suggesting that the American colonies could be returned to the British Empire.

Rhodes died from heart disease on March 26, 1902. His will, probated in April, 1902, left his fortune to Oxford University Oxford University, Rhodes Scholarships to support in perpetuity the funding of scholarships for young men, initially only for unmarried males between the ages of nineteen and twenty-five who were citizens of the United States, the British Commonwealth, or any of its colonies. Women became eligible for the competition in 1976, and candidates from Germany were eligible from 1903 to 1914, from 1930 to 1939, and again after 1970.

The Rhodes Scholarships qualify successful applicants for admission to Oxford, but each applicant also needs to be accepted formally by one of the thirty-nine Oxford colleges. Rhodes Scholars generally spend two years in residence, and most earn either a second bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree, depending on their interests, courses of study, and previous academic preparation. It was the belief of Cecil Rhodes, as articulated in his will, that having young men from English-speaking nations take a degree at one of Britain’s two ancient universities would create Anglophiles who might continue to disseminate Rhodes’s imperialist belief in British superiority.

There are quotas for each qualifying country: Thirty-two scholars chosen from the United States, eleven from Canada, three from New Zealand, and one from Hong Kong, among others. Regardless of country of origin, however, the four general criteria for selection, articulated in Rhodes’s will, have always guided the selecting committees: literary and scholastic achievements; energy to use one’s talents to the full, as exemplified by fondness for and success in sports; truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindness, unselfishness, and fellowship; and moral force of character and instincts to lead and to take an interest in one’s fellow beings. The second criterion is one of the factors that has always distinguished Rhodes Scholars; in addition to being exemplary and superior students, successful applicants also are expected to fulfill the classical ideal of mens sana in corpore sano (a sound mind in a sound body). Although world-class athletes such as former professional basketball player and U.S. senator from New Jersey Bill Bradley have been Rhodes Scholars, more recreational and intramural-quality athletes, such as thirty-ninth U.S. president Bill Clinton—rejected by Balliol College but accepted by University College, Oxford—have been more common.


Admittedly, the first Rhodes Scholarships were limited to men from the English-speaking world; such limiting criteria were of course consistent with Cecil Rhodes’s worldview. Greater significance may lie in the fact that, nearly two decades before the League of Nations and a half century before the formation of the United Nations, the Rhodes Scholarships represented a sense of how people from around the world could come together, joined by a common cause and the belief that they could make the world a better place through study, combined physical exertion, and teamwork. If in fact collegiate studies are intended to provide not only information but also skills to help individuals lead thoughtful and productive lives, then these criteria gauge an individual’s potential. Rhodes believed that a successful life was one that included active use of both the mind and body.

All costs of the two-year residency, including travel to and from Oxford, England, are covered by the Rhodes trust, so that economic background or financial hardship should not disqualify compelling applicants. Although women and married men are now eligible to become Rhodes Scholars, the trust makes no additional accommodations for spouses or family members, seeking instead to remain focused on the particular applicants and their ability to benefit from an Oxford experience. Rhodes Scholarships

Further Reading

  • Aydelotte, Frank. The American Rhodes Scholarships. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1946. Carefully researched overview of the American competitions for the Rhodes Scholarships up to the mid-1940’s.
  • Elton, Lord, ed. The First Fifty Years of the Rhodes Trust and the Rhodes Scholarships. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1955. This text, still generally available though of course somewhat dated, reviews the first five decades of the annual Rhodes competitions.
  • Harrison, Brian, ed. The Twentieth Century. Vol. 8 in The History of the University of Oxford. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1994. This volume of the history of the university focuses on the twentieth century with an early chapter dedicated to the will and legacy of Cecil Rhodes.
  • Kenney, Anthony, ed. The History of the Rhodes Trust, 1902-1999. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2001. Evenhanded study of the first century of Rhodes Scholarships.
  • Lockhart, J. G., and C. M. Woodhouse. Cecil Rhodes. New York: Macmillan, 1963. Standard biography of Rhodes as a builder of financial and political empire, as diplomat, and as benefactor of the Rhodes Scholarships.
  • Roberts, Brian. Cecil Rhodes: Flawed Colossus. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988. Critical biography of Rhodes as the personification of British imperialism in Africa. Draws largely from Rhodes’s personal papers.
  • _______. The Founder: Cecil Rhodes and the Pursuit of Power. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Biographical study of Rhodes’s life that uses modern psychological theories and insights into character. Places special emphasis on his accumulation of wealth in South Africa and the legacy of his will.
  • Schaeper, Thomas J., and Kathleen Schaeper. Cowboys into Gentlemen: Rhodes Scholars, Oxford, and the Creation of an American Elite. Providence, R.I.: Bergahn Books, 1998. Historical study of American Rhodes Scholars, how they were affected by their years at Oxford, and the effects they had on Oxford.

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