The son of a vicar, Rhodes was born at Netteswell House, Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire. Growing up in Hertfordshire, he was a sickly child. He was sent to South Africa by his family when he was 17 years old in the hope that the climate might improve his health. He entered the diamond trade at Kimberley in 1871, when he was 18, and over the next two decades gained near-complete domination of the world diamond market. His De Beers diamond company, formed in 1888, retains its prominence into the 21st century. Rhodes entered the Cape Parliament at the age of 27 in 1880, and a decade later became Prime Minister. After overseeing the formation of Rhodesia during the early 1890s, he was forced to resign as Prime Minister in 1896 after the disastrous Jameson Raid, an unauthorised attack on Paul Kruger's South African Republic (or Transvaal).
One of Rhodes's primary motivations in politics and business was his professed belief that the Anglo-Saxon race was, to quote his will, "the first race in the world". Under the reasoning that "the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race", he advocated vigorous settler colonialism and ultimately a reformation of the British Empire so that each component would be self-governing and represented in a single parliament in London. Ambitions such as these, juxtaposed with his policies regarding indigenous Africans in the Cape Colony—describing the country's native black population as largely "in a state of barbarism", he advocated their governance as a "subject race", and was at the centre of actions to marginalise them politically—have led recent critics to characterise him as a white supremacist and "an architect of apartheid".
Historian Richard A. McFarlane has described Rhodes "as integral a participant in southern African and British imperial history as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln are in their respective eras in United States history." After Rhodes's death in 1902, at the age of 48, he was buried in the Matopos Hills in what is now Zimbabwe.