More than thirty years before the outbreak of the Second Boer War a Dutch child in the Hopetown District of Cape Colony found, while playing carelessly near the left bank of the Orange, a pretty pebble that was destined to mould the History of South Africa.
He took the bagatelle home to his father's farm, where a neighbour, one Van Niekirk, saw it and was struck by its brilliancy. It chanced that the Irishman O'Reilly was passing that way and to him it was entrusted to take to Colesberg for expert opinion upon its value. Here certain Jews declared that it was but a white topaz not worth one shilling and it was disdainfully cast out into the road, from which it was with difficulty recovered by O'Reilly, whose belief in it though shaken was not wholly abandoned. Through a mutual friend, Lorenzo Boyes, Acting Civil Commissioner of the District, the pebble came to the notice of an expert mineralogist named Atherstone at Grahamstown, but it was held so lightly in esteem by the sender that it reached Atherstone as an enclosure in an ordinary unregistered letter. Atherstone examined it, and when it had not only spoilt all the jeweller's files in the town but had also passed an examination by polarized light, pronounced that it was a diamond worth £500. His certificate to its character, which had been so ignorantly disparaged, was the origin of the Diamond industry of South Africa. Another diamond was soon picked up near Hopetown which without difficulty or misadventure rose to its own plane in mineralogy. Its career was short and its destiny happy. It was purchased by the first Earl of Dudley for the adornment of his second wife.
When it was noised abroad with the customary exaggeration that the monopoly of Golconda and the Brazils was at an end and that diamonds grew wild on the South African veld, a wide extent of country was explored and the precious crystallized carbon was found in districts separated by many hundreds of miles. In certain places, one of which became known as the town of Kimberley, it was ascertained to recur in a constant proportion of the contents of the "pipes" or volcanic tubes which rose through the surface strata.
The pioneers of Kimberley took possession of the diamondiferous grounds without ascertaining to whom they belonged, and when their value became positive the question of ownership arose. The boundaries of the districts administered by the Cape Colony, the Orange Free State, and the Transvaal respectively were, as regards territory, supposed to be of little account, vague, ill-defined, and unsurveyed; and the districts themselves were occupied by native tribes of nomad habits. About the middle of the XIXth century a Hottentot chief named Waterboer came up out of the West and squatted in the districts lying between the Orange and the Vaal. His rights, such as they were, were assumed or acquired by the Cape Government, which soon became involved in controversy with the Orange Free State as to their extent and nature. Finally the British Empire secured a good title to the estate by the payment of £90,000. But the Orange Free State not unnaturally, when the value of the Diamond Fields increased day by day, soon began to think that it had parted with a profitable possession for an inadequate return. The feeling rankled; and the confident expectation of recovering Kimberley sold for a song tempted Bloemfontein into the fatal alliance with Pretoria.
In 1871 a sickly youth named Cecil Rhodes came from England to South Africa in search of health, which after a short sojourn in Natal he found at Kimberley. The prospects of the place favourably impressed him, and he soon laid in it the foundations of his fortune; but six years later the future of Kimberley was still precarious and the discovery of gold in a remote district of the Transvaal sucked thither the greater proportion of the citizens, who, however, found that they had not bettered themselves by the change and returned to the pipes: and soon nearly a hundred companies, syndicates, and private adventurers were groping for diamonds over an area of less than two hundred acres. The waste of energy was manifest to Rhodes, who in 1888 completed, with the help of the Rothschilds, the task upon which he had been engaged for some years, the amalgamation of the conflicting and overlapping diamond interests under the name of the De Beers Consolidated Mines. It was soon found that the new industry was insufficiently protected by the existing criminal law and a new felony was created by the Illicit Diamond Buying Act.
It has been for several centuries the practice of Great Britain to entrust to private companies the imperial responsibilities which she is reluctant to assume and to let out to contractors, who can be repudiated if they fail and expropriated if they succeed, the job of expanding an Empire. Of this policy the most prominent instance is the East India Company, a commercial venture which obtained from Queen Elizabeth a charter empowering it to trade with the East and which, though connected with Great Britain only by the slender thread of an ocean track of 12,000 miles, maintained itself for two centuries and a half with ever increasing territory and authority until it became a great military Empire. Other examples of lower degree are the Hudson's Bay Company and the Borneo Company. The De Beers Company provided out of its abundance large sums for exploration and settlement in South Africa and for the furtherance of the Imperial idea, and it is said that Rhodes spent the whole of one night in arguing with some of the materialistic magnates of Kimberley, before he could induce them to consent to the employment of the resources of the Company in the advancement of his schemes of Empire. He found, however, that these could not be satisfactorily promoted by a Company whose primary interests were commercial rather than imperial; and in 1888 he obtained a charter for the British South Africa Company, an offshoot of the De Beers Company, formed for the purpose of extending the British Empire towards the Equator.
The question of the defences of Kimberley engaged the attention of the De Beers Company some years before the outbreak of the war. Its vulnerability to attack from the Orange Free State, the border of which ran close to the town, was obvious; and in 1896 a depot of arms and ammunition was formed. A military plan of the place was sent to the Imperial authorities and a defence force was also organized. This, however, had in 1899 ceased to exist owing chiefly to the action of Mr. Schreiner, at that time the Premier of the Cape Colony, who in June refused, with complacent optimism, to furnish it with arms, saying that, "there is no reason for apprehending that Kimberley is in danger of attack," and that "the fears of the citizens are groundless and their anticipations without foundation." A battery of artillery was, however, surreptitiously brought up from King Williamstown.
The policy of Schreiner during the months preceding the war is obscure. While refusing help to Kimberley he was allowing munitions of war, which were way billed as pianos and hardware, to pass through the Cape Colony to the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. He does not appear to have been actively disloyal to the Imperial Government and in his own way he probably did his best to keep the peace. His mind was cast in a mould which is not uncommon in the British Empire but which is rarely found outside it. He was more anxious to stand well with its enemies, and like the Unjust Steward to have a claim to a place in their houses, if they were successful, than to work for its security. It was with great difficulty that Sir A. Milner as late as September 18 obtained his consent to the dispatch of a few regulars to Kimberley to form the backbone of a defensive force. He seems to have retained almost to the end, in spite of all indications to the contrary, the belief that the war would be averted or at least that the Orange Free State would not join in it. Yet in this he erred in good company. Mr. Balfour said that if on September 28 he had been asked whether war with the Orange Free State was a probable contingency he would have replied that war with Switzerland was one equally probable; and Lord Lansdowne declined before September 23 to discuss with Lord Roberts the question of operations in the Free State. Buller, with surer insight, had foreseen the alliance as far back as 1881.
The War Office, however, as to a certain extent on the alert and distrusted the optimism of Schreiner and of a high military official who had been for some years in South Africa. Officers were sent to Kimberley to organize a scheme of defence, but having regard to the susceptibility of the Capetown Government it was done secretly and confidentially and Schreiner was outwitted. By October 7 the town, which was under the command of Colonel Kekewich, was secure against a coup de main though not against a vigorous and sustained siege. Little more than an eighth of the garrison was composed of regular troops; the artillery was out of date; rifles and ammunition were deficient. On October 13 Rhodes threw himself into Kimberley and became for better or worse a power in the town. As soon as the siege began the relative value of the chief products of the mines was inverted: water, the most generous gift of nature and hitherto an embarrassment in the workings, became for the time being more valuable than the diamonds.
On October 12 the curtain of the great drama was raised and the first scene presented. It showed the capture of an armoured train on the railway between Kimberley and Mafeking. Kimberley under any circumstances was a prize worth winning. But Kimberley taken with Rhodes as a prisoner of war, the man who had curbed and checked on every side the expansion of the Republics, who had taken Matabeleland on the north and Bechuanaland on the west into the fold of the British Empire, would be more than a prize, would be a triumph. Rhodes metaphorically in chains, and actually paraded as a captive in the streets of Bloemfontein and Pretoria was an alluring prospect.
Great, however, as were the advantages to be gained by the early capture of Kimberley, the object was not pursued with energy and determination. When the siege began on November 6 the situation was in favour of the attack. The Boers were in possession of the railway from Orange River Station to Mafeking: Kimberley was ill-supplied with the munitions and weapons of war and was defended by a force mainly composed of irregulars; it was encumbered with a large native population; and the civil and military authorities were not working in harmony.
The defence throughout was more active than the attack. Reconnaissances and raids against the enemy's positions were made with effect; and the bombardment which followed a rejected summons to surrender did little harm. Communication with the outer world was not seriously impeded. Cattle grazed almost with impunity inside the line of investment and several thousands of the natives escaped.
But the difficulties of Kekewich, who had been in command since September 20, were not confined to those created by the military situation. He was thrown into close association with the man who was one of the indirect causes of the war, and who had little confidence in military men, or sympathy with their ideas and methods. Rhodes had come into his own Kimberley and for the first time he was not master in it. He found himself a sterilized dictator acting in an atmosphere too tenuous to support his vitality but sufficient to preserve it from extinction. He was subject to the authority of the military commandant, a galling position for a distinguished statesman who had not a high opinion of the professional capacity of the British officer. From the age of eighteen he had been his own master except during the intervals which he had spared from South Africa and spent at Oxford, when he was temporarily subject to the lax discipline of a University. While his contemporaries were amusing themselves at college, or performing routine duties in the Army or the Civil Service, or preparing to enter a profession, Rhodes was spending the critical years of his life in outlining the future and scheming for a South African Empire to be erected on the foundation of the Kimberley Mines.
It was inevitable from the nature of the case and from his intimate concern in the fortunes of Kimberley that he could not see South African affairs at large in their true perspective. The sparkle of his diamonds made him curiously colour-blind and out of this defect in his mental vision sprang the mischief. Kimberley, for the time being at least, stood so closely in the foreground that other objects were thrown out of focus. Nor did the disturbing influence of the glare and halation of Kimberley only affect the vision of the diamond men within the town. It closed the eyes of the besiegers without it to a great strategical opportunity which soon passed away.
The figure of Rhodes in Kimberley was the magnet which attracted and detained commandos which could have been more usefully employed elsewhere, and his presence, so far as it had this effect, was of great service to the perilously weak British force during the first few weeks of the war. If the commandos squatting before Kimberley had instead been sent to raid southwards towards the Karroo, and to inflame the Dutch districts in the Cape Colony, they would have met with little resistance, and advancing with daily increasing numbers would have had little difficulty in planting themselves firmly in the heart of the enemy's country. For the moment the war in the west was waged not against Great Britain but against the Man of Kimberley.
The diamond men, with Rhodes at their head, forgetting that the object of the war was the redress of the Outlanders' wrongs in the Transvaal, began to bellow for relief even before the Boers had completed the investment of the town. Telegrams couched in extravagant and almost hysterical language and betraying the egotism and the want of self-control of the senders were repeatedly despatched. One of these, in which on October 19 the De Beers directors asked for information as to the plans of the military authorities at Capetown, "so as to enable us to take our own steps in case relief is refused," was thought not unnaturally by Buller to hint at surrender; and although this was not the intention of the senders it is probable that they did not regret the interpretation that was put upon it.
Fortunately, however, Kekewich was a cool-headed man who did not suffer himself to be hustled. While preserving amicable personal relations with Rhodes, he was careful to let Capetown know that the situation in Kimberley was by no means desperate and that it would be able to hold out for several weeks.
The impetuous and childish letters and telegrams sent out by the diamond men induced Buller, who said afterwards that "although I had every confidence in Colonel Kekewich's military capacity I did not trust the other powers within the city," to send Lord Methuen northwards on November 10 with instructions to help Kimberley by removing unnecessary non-combatants and natives, and "to let the people understand that you have not come to undertake its defence, but to afford it better means of maintaining its defence."
The news of Methuen's approach did not allay the excitement of the townsmen. His movement was not an essential part of the general plan of campaign but only a raid in force with the object of putting men and supplies into Kimberley and enable it to hold on until pressure elsewhere upon the Boers should raise the siege automatically.
The dignity and the self-respect of the diamond men was affronted. Like the Syrian captain Naaman, when offered relief of his leprosy by the prophet Elisha, they resented the simple process by which their own relief was to be effected. They had looked to an Army Corps at least marching on Kimberley with all the pomp of war and speedily enabling it to resume its normal occupation of diamond grubbing; and now they found that the town was not considered of much account in the scheme of the military, who regarded it as a mere besieged place of little strategical importance; which, after some assistance, was to be left dependent for its safety upon its own exertions while the main army advanced through the Free State.
On December 4 Kekewich was instructed to make arrangements for the deportation of a large proportion of the white and coloured population, Methuen hinting that Rhodes himself might be included. Although Rhodes had a few weeks before complained of the difficulties caused by the presence of non-combatants and had even endeavoured to send them away, he now vehemently opposed their removal. His reasons for so doing are not very clear, but they appear to be part of the systematic obstruction which he offered to every proposition of the military authorities which tended to restrict the output of diamonds. His objections were transmitted to Buller, who speedily put the question in its proper light by telegraphing to Kekewich that "what we have to do is to keep the Union Jack flying over South Africa without favour to any particular set of capitalists," and Methuen met his protest with the answer that "Rhodes has no voice in the matter." After the defeat at Magersfontein the plan of deportation had necessarily to be given up.
In his own proper sphere of a civilian working with civilians Rhodes was usefully active and his services were great. He employed the persons thrown out of work by the closing of the mines in labour for the general benefit of the town, and did much to relieve the distress among the poorer inhabitants.
The manufacture of a heavy gun, to which the name of Long Cecil was given, in the De Beers engineering establishment, was soon countered by the Boers, who brought into action a gun throwing a much heavier shell which had been disabled by the Naval Battery at Ladysmith, repaired at Pretoria, and was now mounted before Kimberley. The appearance of Long Tom, supervening on a reduction on the daily rations, caused a panic among the civilians. On February 9 Rhodes threatened to call a public meeting to consider the situation unless he was informed of the plans for the relief of the town: but Kekewich was authorized by Lord Roberts not only to forbid the holding of the meeting, but even if necessary to arrest Rhodes. A private meeting was then held at which a remonstrance was drawn up for transmission to Lord Roberts through Kekewich; and for the second time a communication from the Kimberley men was interpreted as a threat to surrender. It was probably sent with that intent in order to elicit information as to Lord Roberts' plans.
Kekewich meanwhile was finding his position almost intolerable, and his representations convinced Lord Roberts of the necessity of raising the siege of Rhodes without delay and at any cost. It was effected on February 15 by French's brilliant cavalry movement; but at the cost of the convoy of 170 wagons which were snapped up by De Wet at Waterval Drift, and of an Army compelled to march and to fight for nearly four weeks on reduced rations. But the harvesting of the crop of diamonds was resumed, and as far as Kimberley was concerned the war was at an end.
Although the siege lasted for more than three months the casualties were few, only 40 persons being killed and 123 wounded by acts of war. The privations suffered by the inhabitants, especially during the last few weeks, were no doubt great, but certainly not greater than the privations which unhappily are endured by the unemployed in Great Britain during a hard winter. The siege was conducted without much vigour and determination, and the most important operation on the side of the defence was a sortie on November 29 after the news had come in of Methuen's approach.
The relief of Kimberley closed the public career of the most conspicuous figure in the British Empire; and with great dignity and self-restraint, which might well have been imitated by other persons whose conduct during the war was impugned, Rhodes refrained from publishing a Kimberley book.
If the Siege of Kimberley brought out the weak side of his character, his egotism and impatience, his lack of power to adapt himself even temporarily to unaccustomed conditions, it will be remembered that these defects were inherent and that his marvellous success in life had accentuated them. The acts of a public man are so variously regarded by his opponents and his admirers, are seen by them in such different lights, that there can rarely be any general agreement on the question of the ratio between his merits and his failings; but the chief phases of his life afford the raw material out of which each man for himself can form an estimate of his character.
Like many men who have afterwards become famous in the secular world, Cecil Rhodes was intended for the Church. His health suffered from the rigours of the East Anglian climate and he was sent out to South Africa. His brother's farm in Natal, to which he was consigned, he found derelict on his arrival, but he was soon growing cotton on it, against the advice of the local experts, but with eventual success. At the age of 18 he was prospecting for diamonds at Kimberley, and forming the opinion during a visit to the Transvaal that an insufficient proportion of the South African Continent belonged to the British Empire. In 1872, being then 19 years of age, he went to Oxford, but in a few months his health broke down and another voyage to the Cape became necessary. In 1876 he returned to the University and remained there for two years when South Africa recalled him. As soon as he could be spared he went back to his college and, eight years after matriculation, completed his undergraduate course. It was a high compliment to the value of a Pass Degree at Oxford, where, however, he formed the opinion, which was not publicly divulged until his will was opened twenty-one years later, that Oxford Dons were "children in finance."
His election to the Cape Parliament in 1881 as Member for Kimberley placed him in a favourable position to advance his schemes for the northward extension of the British Empire. When the trespasses and encroachments of the Transvaal Boers beyond the limits assigned to them under the Convention of 1884 made it advisable to incorporate Bechuanaland he was unable to persuade the Cape Government to undertake that responsibility, but with the assistance of Sir Hercules Robinson and the support of Mr. Chamberlain he induced the Imperial Government to take action. President Kruger had connived at the establishment on native territory under British protection of two little republics of raiders, to which the names of Goshen and Stellaland were assigned; and a costly expedition under Sir C. Warren was needed to bring him to his senses. In 1885 Bechuanaland became an integral part of the British Empire.
In 1888 he again opened the flood gates of Imperialism, and secured by means of a treaty with Lobengula the reversion of the native territory north of the Transvaal, at which two European nations were nibbling, and which in his honour received the name of Rhodesia.
He became Premier of the Cape Colony in 1890 by the help of the Dutch vote and from that time gradually sank from the zenith of his success. His good fortune left him when he attained his ambition. The Jameson Raid, for which he was not personally, though he confessed himself morally, responsible, ended his political career. His last good service to the Empire was given during the Matabele rising. He accompanied the troops sent to suppress the rebellion; and when the operations seemed likely to be indefinitely prolonged, he brought it to an end by going fearlessly and almost unattended among the natives, whose confidence he won by meeting them trustfully in council and listening to their grievances.
His physical vitality, always inadequate, was seriously impaired by the strain of the siege. He never fully recovered his strength and he died on March 26, 1902, two months before the Second Boer war was brought to a close by the Vereeniging Treaty.
He was a rich but honest man, and the great wealth which he amassed never led him to attach undue importance to the possession of it. He valued it not for his own advantage, but for its help in advancing his political and imperial schemes. He employed it creditably and without ostentation, and spent none of it in social display in London. By his will he left the greater portion of it to the University of Oxford for the establishment of an amiable if somewhat quixotic system of bringing the various branches of the Anglo-Saxon race into association at a centre of learning and athletics, where they were to be leavened by a Teutonic admixture.
The vision of posthumous reputation allured him, and he delighted in the hope that the name of his own Rhodesia, like the cities which still bear the name of Alexander, would be on the lips of men of generations as far distant from his own as his own was from the days of the Great Macedonian.
He presented a pair of sculptured lions to President Kruger. Almost on the eve of the war he asserted confidently that Kruger would not fight. It is probable that this was not his belief, but that it was said in order to provoke the President into rejecting the overtures of the British Government, and to make inevitable the war which he foresaw was the only way of settling the South African question.
Not a few incidents in his life are difficult to explain. The donation of £10,000 to the funds of the Parnellite Party by an ardent English Imperialist who had never expressed any particular enthusiasm for Home Rule may have been a douceur to prevent the Irish members from attacking him in the British Parliament. He had not forgotten that Parnell inaugurated the policy of obstruction carried to the length of all-night sittings upon the occasion of the discussion of a Cape Colonial question in the House of Commons. Possibly Rhodes was a Home Ruler not in spite of his Imperialism but because of it. Home rule was necessary to it. The function of the Imperial Parliament was the general control of the affairs of the Empire, leaving local politics to be dealt with by local legislatures.
The strong and dominant personality of Cecil Rhodes came to the front at a time when the British Empire was beginning to show signs of lassitude and appeared to be growing tired of itself. Patriotism was being slowly transmuted into a limp and sickly cosmopolitan altruism. He checked this decadence, at least for the time being, but passed away before he was able to subdue it.