The University of Cape Town sits on one of the most enviable sites in the world thanks to Cecil John Rhodes and his love of Table Mountain. Mr Rhodes has had a lot of bad press over the last century or so but, viewing him through 19th century eyes and not 21st century eyes, perhaps one can reflect his good side.
South African College
In 1829 the University of Cape Town began life as a boys’ high school – South African College. With the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley in 1867 and the consequent need for mining engineers and financiers, followed closely by the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand in 1886, a place of tertiary education was born. In 1918, the tertiary side of South African College was officially called the University of Cape Town but it was another ten years before it moved its campus to Table Mountain – to land bequeathed to the nation by Cecil John Rhodes on his death in 1902.
Cecil John Rhodes and Education
Rhodes strongly believed that civilisation and education were inextricably linked. Rhodes’ scholarship scheme is renowned worldwide, and has sent over 7,000 students to Oxford, including people like Bill Clinton, Kris Kristofferson and James Fulbright. To quote Mr. Rhodes, it was to promote “the union of English-speaking people through the world.”
It was after being elected Prime Minister of the Cape in 1890 that Rhodes began to plan the establishment of a university in Cape Town. He had plans of his Oxford College, Oriel, sent out from England, so he could build ‘his’ university on the same lines. However, his plans were thwarted by opposition from Victoria College in Stellenbosch – renamed the University of Stellenbosch in 1918.
In 1895 Rhodes chose a site for the university on his land on Table Mountain but building didn’t begin due to the scandal of the Jameson Raid. Sadly for Rhodes, he didn’t see the university, as it was only completed 26 years after his death.
Table Mountain, with its familiar ‘tablecloth’, is older than the Himalaya or the Rockies. It rises over a kilometre out of the sea – a tower of granite and sandstone. It is a spectacular sight which never fails to inspire awe into all who see it.
The first European to climb Table Mountain was Antonio de Saldanha in 1503; this was 150 years before the Cape was settled by the Dutch. Table Mountain can be seen up to 200 kilometres out to sea, guiding ships into the shelter of its base and providing them with fresh water and food. Lion and leopard used to roam its slopes but sadly, no more. However, the unique floral kingdom is still there is all its glory for visitors to wonder at.
Cecil John Rhodes and Table Mountain
Love him or hate him, it has to be said that Cecil Rhodes saved a large part of Table Mountain from the developer. Rhodes loved Table Mountain – this was where he built his home and found his ‘church’. He would sit on the mountain for hours, planning how he was going to incorporate the whole of Africa into the British Empire and planning the Cape to Cairo railway.
Rhodes bought up vast tracts of land on Table Mountain to preserve its natural beauty for generations to come. It was on this land that Rhodes chose the site for the University of Cape Town. Rhodes home – Groote Schuur – was designed so that the large windows in his bedroom overlooked the mountain and not the sea. He loved to look at the flowers, hydrangeas and trees which he had planted on the slopes. Rhodes built a series of walks so that various views could be enjoyed, not only by him but also by the Capetonian public. He even opened his gardens at Groote Schuur to the public so that their beauty and the magnificence of the mountain could be enjoyed by all. Rhodes felt that he was merely holding the land in trust and he left it to the people of Cape Town on his death.