It is impossible to speak of South Africa without awarding to Cecil Rhodes the tribute which unquestionably is due to his strong personality. Without him it is possible that the vast territory which became so thoroughly associated with his name and with his life would still be without political importance. Without him it is probable that both the Diamond Fields to which Kimberley owes its prosperity and the Gold Fields which have won for the Transvaal its renown would never have risen above the importance of those of Brazil or California or Klondyke.
It was Rhodes who first conceived the thought of turning all these riches into a political instrument and of using it to the advantage of his country—the England to which he remained so profoundly attached amid all the vicissitudes of his life, and to whose possessions he was so eager to add.
Cecil Rhodes was ambitious in a grand, strange manner which made a complete abstraction of his own personality under certain conditions, but which in other circumstances made him violent, brutal in manner, thereby procuring enemies without number and detractors without end. His nature was something akin to that of the Roman Emperors in its insensate desire to exercise unchallenged an unlimited power. Impatient of restraint, no matter in what shape it presented itself, he brooked no resistance to his schemes; his rage against contradiction, and his opposition to any independence of thought or action on the part of those who were around him, brought about a result of which he would have been the first to complain, had he suspected it—that of allowing him to execute all his fancies and of giving way to all his resentments. Herein lies the reason why so many of his schemes fell through. This unfortunate trait also thrust him very often into the hands of those who were clever enough to exploit it, and who, more often than proved good to Rhodes' renown, suggested to him their own schemes and encouraged him to appropriate them as his own. He had a very quick way of catching hold of any suggestions that tallied with his sympathies or echoed any of his secret thoughts or aspirations.
Yet withal Rhodes was a great soul, and had he only been left to himself, or made longer sojourns in England, had he understood English political life more clearly, had he had to grapple with the difficulties which confront public existence in his Mother Country, he would most certainly have done far greater things. He found matters far too easy for him at first, and the obstacles which he encountered very often proved either of a trivial or else of a removable nature—by fair means or methods less commendable. A mining camp is not a school of morality, and just as diamonds lose of their value in the estimation of those who continually handle them, as is the case in Kimberley, so integrity and honour come to be looked upon from a peculiar point of view according to the code of the majority.
Then again, it must not be forgotten that the first opponents of Cecil Rhodes were black men, of whom the European always has the conception that they are not his equals. It is likely that if, instead of Lobengula, he had found before him a European chief or monarch, Rhodes would have acted differently than history credits him to have done toward the dusky sovereign. It is impossible to judge of facts of which one has had no occasion to watch the developments, or which have taken place in lands where one has never been. Neither Fernando Cortez in Mexico nor Pizzaro Gonzalo in Peru proved themselves merciful toward the populations whose territory they conquered. The tragedy which sealed the fate of Matabeleland was neither a darker nor a more terrible one than those of which history speaks when relating to us the circumstances attending the discovery of America. Such events must be judged objectively and forgiven accordingly. When forming an opinion on the doings and achievements of Cecil Rhodes one must make allowance for all the temptations which were thrown in his way and remember that he was a man who, if ambitious, was not so in a personal sense, but in a large, lofty manner, and who, whilst appropriating to himself the good things which he thought he could grasp, was also eager to make others share the profit of his success.
Cecil Rhodes, in all save name, was monarch over a continent almost as vast as his own fancy and imagination. He was always dreaming, always lost in thoughts which were wandering far beyond his actual surroundings, carrying him into regions where the common spirit of mankind seldom travelled. He was born for far better things than those which he ultimately attained, but he did not belong to the century in which he lived; his ruthless passions of anger and arrogance were more fitted for an earlier and cruder era. Had he possessed any disinterested friends capable of rousing the better qualities that slumbered beneath his apparent cynicism and unscrupulousness, most undoubtedly he would have become the most remarkable individual in his generation. Unfortunately, he found himself surrounded by creatures absolutely inferior to himself, whose deficiencies he was the first to notice, whom he despised either for their insignificance or for their mental and moral failings, but to whose influence he nevertheless succumbed.
When Cecil Rhodes arrived at Kimberley he was a mere youth. He had come to South Africa in quest of health and because he had a brother already settled there, Herbert Rhodes, who was later on to meet with a terrible fate. Cecil, if one is to believe what one hears from those who knew him at the time, was a shy youth, of a retiring disposition, whom no one could ever have suspected would develop into the hardy, strong man he became in time. He was constantly sick, and more than once was on the point of falling a victim of the dreaded fever which prevails all over South Africa and then was far more virulent in its nature than it is to-day. Kimberley at that time was still a vast solitude, with here and there a few scattered huts of corrugated iron occupied by the handful of colonists. Water was rare: it is related, indeed, that the only way to get a wash was to use soda water.
The beginning of Rhodes' fortune, if we are to believe what we are told, was an ice machine which he started in partnership with another settler. The produce they sold to their companions at an exorbitant price, but not for long; whereafter the enterprising young man proceeded to buy some plots of ground, of whose prolificacy in diamonds he had good reason to be aware. It must be here remarked that Rhodes was never a poor man; he could indulge in experiments as to his manner of investing his capital. And he was not slow to take advantage of this circumstance. Kimberley was a wild place at that time, and its distance from the civilised world, as well as the fact that nothing was controlled by public opinion, helped some to amass vast fortunes and put the weaker into the absolute power of the most unscrupulous. It is to the honour of Rhodes that, however he might have been tempted, he never listened to the advice which was given to him to do what the others did, and to despoil the men whose property he might have desired to acquire. He never gave way to the excesses of his daily companions, nor accepted their methods of enriching themselves at top speed so as soon to be able to return home with their gains.
From the first moment that he set foot on African soil Rhodes succumbed to the strange charm the country offers for thinkers and dreamers. His naturally languid temperament found a source of untold satisfaction in watching the Southern Cross rise over the vast veldt where scarcely man's foot had trod, where the immensity of its space was equalled by its sublime, quiet grandeur. He liked to spend the night in the open air, gazing at the innumerable stars and listening to the voice of the desert, so full of attractions for those who have grown to discern somewhat of Nature's hidden joys and sorrows. South Africa became for him a second Motherland, and one which seemed to him to be more hospitable to his temperament than the land of his birth. In South Africa he felt he could find more satisfaction and more enjoyment than in England, whose conventionalities did not appeal to his rebellious, unsophisticated heart. He liked to roam about in an old coat and wideawake hat; to forget that civilisation existed; to banish from his mind all memory of cities where man must bow down to Mrs. Grundy and may not defy, unscathed, certain well-defined prejudices.
Yet Cecil Rhodes neither cared for convention nor custom. His motto was to do what he liked and not to trouble about the judgments of the crowd. He never, however, lived up to this last part of his profession because, as I have shown already, he was keenly sensitive to praise and to blame, and hurt to the heart whenever he thought himself misjudged or condemned. Most of his mistakes proceeded from this over-sensitiveness which, in a certain sense, hardened him, inasmuch as it made him vindictive against those from whom he did not get the approval for which he yearned. In common with many another, too, Cecil Rhodes had that turn of mind which harbours resentment against anyone who has scored a point against its possessor. After the Jameson Raid Rhodes never forgave Mr. Schreiner for having found out his deceit, and tried to be revenged.
Cecil Rhodes had little sympathy with other people's woes unless these found an echo in his own, and the callousness which he so often displayed was not entirely the affectation it was thought by his friends or even by his enemies. Great in so many things, there were circumstances when he could show himself unutterably small, and he seldom practised consistency. Frank by nature, he was an adept at dissimulation when he thought that his personal interest required it. But he could "face the music," however discordant, and, unfortunately for him as well as for his memory, it was often so.
The means by which Cecil Rhodes contrived to acquire so unique a position in South Africa would require volumes to relate. Wealth alone could not have done so, nor could it have assured for him the popularity which he gained, not only among the European colonists, but also among the coloured people, notwithstanding the ruthlessness which he displayed in regard to them. There were millionaires far richer than himself in Kimberley and in Johannesburg. Alfred Beit, to mention only one, could dispose of a much larger capital than Rhodes ever possessed, but this did not give him an influence that could be compared with that of his friend, and not even the Life Governorship of De Beers procured for him any other fame than that of being a fabulously rich man. Barney Barnato and Joel were also familiar figures in the circle of wealthy speculators who lived under the shade of Table Mountain; but none among these men, some of whom were also remarkable in their way, could effect a tenth or even a millionth part of what Rhodes succeeded in performing. His was the moving spirit, without whom these men could never have conceived, far less done, all that they did. It was the magic of Rhodes' name which created that formidable organisation called the De Beers Company; which annexed to the British Empire the vast territory known now by the name of Rhodesia; and which attracted to the gold fields of Johannesburg all those whom they were to enrich or to ruin. Without the association and glamour of Rhodes' name, too, this area could never have acquired the political importance it possessed in the few years which preceded, and covered, the Boer War. Rhodes' was the mind which, after bringing about the famous Amalgamation of the diamond mines around Kimberley, then conceived the idea of turning a private company into a political instrument of a power which would control public opinion and public life all over South Africa more effectually even than the Government. This organisation had its own agents and spies and kept up a wide system of secret service. Under the pretext of looking out for diamond thieves, these emissaries in reality made it their duty to report on the private opinions and doings of those whose personality inspired distrust or apprehension.
This organisation was more a dictatorship than anything else, and had about it something at once genial and Mephistophelian. The conquest of Rhodesia was nothing in comparison with the power attained by this combine, which arrogated to itself almost unchallenged the right to domineer over every white man and to subdue every coloured one in the whole of the vast South African Continent. Rhodesia, indeed, was only rendered possible through the power wielded in Cape Colony to bring the great Northward adventure to a successfully definite issue.
In referring to Rhodesia, I am reminded of a curious fact which, so far as I am aware, has never been mentioned in any of the biographies of Mr. Rhodes, but which, on the contrary, has been carefully concealed from the public knowledge by his admirers and his satellites. The concession awarded by King Lobengula to Rhodes and to the few men who together with him took it upon themselves to add this piece of territory to the British Empire had, in reality, already been given by the dusky monarch—long before the ambitions of De Beers had taken that direction—to a Mr. Sonnenberg, a German Jew who had very quickly amassed a considerable fortune in various speculations. This Mr. Sonnenberg—who was subsequently to represent the Dutch party in the Cape Parliament, and who became one of the foremost members of the Afrikander Bond—during one of his journeys into the interior of the country from Basutoland, where he resided for some time, had taken the opportunity of a visit to Matabeleland to obtain a concession from the famous Lobengula. This covered the same ground and advantages which, later, were granted to Mr. Rhodes and his business associates.
Owing in some measure to negligence and partly through the impossibility of raising the enormous capital necessary to make anything profitable out of the concession, Mr. Sonnenberg had put the document into his drawer without troubling any more about it. Subsequently, when Matabeleland came into possession of the Chartered Company, Mr. Sonnenberg ventured to speak mildly of his own concession, and the matter was mentioned to Mr. Rhodes. The latter's reply was typical: "Tell the ― fool that if he was fool enough to lose this chance of making money he ought to take the consequences of it." And Mr. Sonnenberg had to content himself with this reply. Being a wise man in his generation he was clever enough to ignore the incident, and, realising the principle that might is stronger than right, he never again attempted to dispute the title of Cecil John Rhodes to the conquest which he had made, and, as I believe, pushed prudence to the extent of consigning his own concession to the flames. He knew but too well what his future prosperity would have been worth had he remembered the document.