Rhodesia and its annexation was but the development of a vast scheme of conquest that had its start in the wonderful brain of the individual who by that time had become to be spoken of as the greatest man South Africa had ever known. Long before this Cecil Rhodes had entered political life as member of the Cape Parliament. He stood for the province of Barkly West, and his election, which was violently contested, made him master of this constituency for the whole of his political career. The entry into politics gave a decided aim to his ambitions and inspired him to a new activity, directing his wonderful organising faculties toward other than financial victories and instilling within him the desire to make for himself a name not solely associated with speculation, but one which would rank with those great Englishmen who had carried far and wide British renown and spread the fame of their Mother Country across the seas.
Rhodes' ambitions were not as unselfish as those of Clive, to mention only that one name. He thought far more of himself than of his native land in the hours when he meditated on all the advantages which he might obtain from a political career. He saw the way to become at last absolutely free to give shape to his dreams of conquest, and to hold under his sway the vast continent which he had insensibly come to consider as his private property. And by this I do not mean Rhodesia only—which he always spoke of as "My country"—but he also referred to Cape Colony in the same way. With one distinction, however, which was remarkable: he called it "My old country," thus expressing his conviction that the new one possessed all his affections. It is probable that, had time and opportunity been granted him to bring into execution his further plans, thereby to establish himself at Johannesburg and at Pretoria as firmly as he had done at Kimberley and Buluwayo, the latter townships would have come to occupy the same secondary importance in his thoughts as that which Cape Colony had assumed. Mr. Rhodes may have had a penchant for old clothes, but he certainly preferred new countries to ones already explored. To give Rhodes his due, he was not the money-grubbing man one would think, judging by his companions. He was constantly planning, constantly dreaming of wider areas to conquer and to civilise. The possession of gold was for him a means, not an aim; he appreciated riches for the power they produced to do absolutely all that he wished, but not for the boast of having so many millions standing to his account at a bank. He meant to become a king in his way, and a king he unquestionably was for a time at least, until his own hand shattered his throne.
His first tenure of the Cape Premiership was most successful, and even during the second term his popularity went on growing until the fatal Jameson Raid—an act of folly which nothing can explain, nothing can excuse. Until it broke his political career, transforming him from the respected statesman whom every party in South Africa looked up to into a kind of broken idol never more to be trusted, Rhodes had enjoyed the complete confidence of the Dutch party. They fully believed he was the only man capable of effecting the Union which at that time was already considered to be indispensable to the prosperity of South Africa. Often he had stood up for their rights as the oldest settlers and inhabitants of the country. Even in the Transvaal, notwithstanding the authority wielded then by President Kruger, the populace would gladly have taken advantage of his services and of his experience to help them settle favourably their everlasting quarrels with the Uitlanders, as the English colonists were called.
Had Cecil Rhodes but had the patience to wait, and had he cared to enter into the details of a situation, the intricacies of which none knew better than he, it is probable that the annexation of the Transvaal to the British Empire would have taken place as a matter of course and the Boer War would never have broken out. Rhodes was not only popular among the Dutch, but also enjoyed their confidence, and it is no secret that he had courted them to the extent of exciting the suspicions of the ultra-English party, the Jingo elements of which had openly accused him of plotting with the Dutch against the authority of Queen Victoria and of wishing to get himself elected Life President of a Republic composed of the various South African States, included in which would be Cape Colony, and perhaps even Natal, in spite of the preponderance of the English element there.
That Rhodes might have achieved such a success is scarcely to be doubted, and personally I feel sure that there had been moments in his life when the idea of it had seriously occurred to him. At least I was led to think so in the course of a conversation which we had together on this subject a few weeks before the Boer War broke out. At that moment Rhodes knew that war was imminent, but it would be wrong to interpret that knowledge in the sense that he had ever thought of or planned rebellion against the Queen. Those who accused him of harbouring the idea either did not know him or else wished to harm him. Rhodes was essentially an Englishman, and set his own country above everything else in the world. Emphatically this is so; but it is equally true that his strange conceptions of morality in matters where politics came into question made him totally oblivious of the fact that he thought far more of his own self than of his native land in the plans which he conceived and formulated for the supremacy of England in South Africa. He was absolutely convinced that his election as Life President of a South African Republic would not be in any way detrimental to the interests of Great Britain; on the contrary, he assured himself it would make the latter far more powerful than it had ever been before in the land over which he would reign. By nature something of an Italian condottieri, he considered his native land as a stepping-stone to his own grandeur.
For a good many years he had chosen his best friends among Dutchmen of influence in the Cape Colony and in the Transvaal. He flattered, courted and praised them until he quite persuaded them that nowhere else would they find such a staunch supporter of their rights and of their claims. Men like Mr. Schreiner,1 for instance, trusted him absolutely, and believed quite sincerely that in time he would be able to establish firm and friendly relations between the Cape Government and that of the Transvaal. Though the latter country had been, as it were, sequestrated by friends of Rhodes—much to their own profit—Mr. Schreiner felt convinced that the Colossus had never encouraged any plans which these people might have made against the independence of the Transvaal Republic. Rhodes had so completely fascinated him that even on the eve of the day when Jameson crossed the Border, Mr. Schreiner, when questioned by one of his friends about the rumours which had reached Cape Town concerning a projected invasion of the Transvaal by people connected with the Chartered Company, repudiated them with energy. Mr. Schreiner, indeed, declared that so long as Mr. Rhodes was Prime Minister nothing of the kind could or would happen, as neither Jameson nor any of his lieutenants would dare to risk such an adventure without the sanction of their Chief, and that it was more to the latter's interest than to that of anyone else to preserve the independence of the Transvaal Republic.
Talking of Mr. Schreiner reminds me of his sister, the famous Olive Schreiner, the author of so many books which most certainly will long rank among the English classics. Olive Schreiner was once upon terms of great friendship with Mr. Rhodes, who extremely admired her great talents. She was an ardent Afrikander patriot, Dutch by sympathy and origin, gifted with singular intelligence and possessed of wide views, which strongly appealed to the soul and to the spirit of the man who at that time was considered as the greatest figure in South Africa.
It is not remarkable, therefore, that Rhodes should fall into the habit of confiding in Miss Schreiner, whom he found was "miles above" the people about him. He used to hold long conversations with her and to initiate her into many of his plans for the future, plans in which the interests and the welfare of the Cape Dutch, as well as the Transvaalers, used always to play the principal part. His friendship with her, however, was viewed with great displeasure by many who held watch around him. Circumstances—intentionally brought about, some maintain—conspired to cause a cooling of the friendship between the two most remarkable personalities in South Africa. Later on, Miss Schreiner, who was an ardent patriot, having discovered what she termed and considered to be the duplicity of the man in whom she had so absolutely trusted, refused to meet Cecil Rhodes again. Her famous book, "Trooper Peter Halkett of Mashonaland," was the culminating point in their quarrel, and the break became complete.
This, however, was but an incident in a life in which the feminine element never had any great influence, perhaps because it was always kept in check by people anxious and eager not to allow it to occupy a place in the thoughts or in the existence of a man whom they had confiscated as their own property. There are people who, having risen from nothing to the heights of a social position, are able to shake off former associations: this was not the case with Rhodes, who, on the contrary, as he advanced in power and in influence, found himself every day more embarrassed by the men who had clung to him when he was a diamond digger, and who, through his financial acumen, had built up their fortunes. They surrounded him day and night, eliminating every person likely to interfere; slandering, ridiculing and calumniating them in turns, they at last left him nothing in place of his shattered faiths and lost ideals, until Rhodes became as isolated amidst his greatness and his millions as the veriest beggar in his hovel.
It was a sad sight to watch the ethical degradation of one of the most remarkable intelligences among the men of his generation; it was heartrending to see him fall every day more and more into the power of unscrupulous people who did nothing else but exploit him for their own benefit. South Africa has always been the land of adventurers, and many a queer story could be told. That of Cecil John Rhodes was, perhaps, the most wonderful and the most tragic.
Whether he realised this retrogression himself it is difficult to say. Sometimes one felt that such might be the case, whilst at others it seemed as if he viewed his own fate only as something absolutely wonderful and bound to develop in the future even more prosperously than it had done in the past. There was always about him something of the "tragediante, comediante" applied to Napoleon by Pope Pius VII., and it is absolutely certain that he often feigned sentiments which he did not feel, anger which he did not experience, and pleasure that he did not have. He was a being of fits and starts, moods and fancies, who liked to pose in such a way as to give others an absolutely false idea of his personality when he considered it useful to his interests to do so. At times it was evident he experienced regret, but it is doubtful whether he knew the meaning of remorse. The natives seldom occupied his thoughts, and if he were reminded in later years that, after all, terrible cruelties had been practised in Mashonaland or in Matabeleland, he used simply to shrug his shoulders and to remark that it was impossible to make an omelette without breaking some eggs. It never occurred to him that there might exist people who objected to the breaking of a certain kind of eggs, and that humanity had a right to be considered even in conquest.
And, after all, was this annexation of the dominions of poor Lobengula a conquest? If one takes into account the strength of the people who attacked the savage king, and his own weakness, can one do else but regret that those who slaughtered Lobengula did not remember the rights of mercy in regard to a fallen foe? There are dark deeds connected with the attachment of Rhodesia to the British Empire, deeds which would never have been performed by a regular English Army, but which seemed quite natural to the band of enterprising fellows who had staked their fortunes on an expedition which it was their interest to represent as a most dangerous and difficult affair. I do not want to disparage them or their courage, but I cannot help questioning whether they ever had to withstand any serious attack of the enemy. I have been told perfectly sickening details concerning this conquest of the territory now known by the name of Rhodesia. The cruel manner in which, after having wrung from them a concession which virtually despoiled them of every right over their native land and after having goaded these people into exasperation, the people themselves were exterminated was terrible beyond words. For instance, there occurred the incident mentioned by Olive Schreiner in "Trooper Peter Halkett of Mashonaland," when over one hundred savages were suffocated alive in a cave where they sought a refuge.
Personally, I remain persuaded that these abominable deeds remained unknown to Mr. Rhodes and that he would not have tolerated them for one single instant. They were performed by people who were in possession of Rhodes' confidence, and who abused it by allowing the world to think that he encouraged such deeds. Later on it is likely that he became aware of the abuse that had been made of his name and of the manner in which it had been put forward as an excuse for inexcusable deeds, but he was far too indolent and far too indifferent to the blame of the world, at these particular moments to disavow those who, after all, had helped him in his schemes of expansion, and who had ministered to his longing to have a kingdom to himself. Apart from this, he had a curious desire to brave public opinion and to do precisely the very things that it would have disapproved. He loved to humiliate those whom he had at one moment thought he might have occasion to fear. This explains the callousness with which he made the son of Lobengula one of his gardeners, and did not hesitate to ask him one day before strangers who were visiting Groote Schuur in what year he "had killed his father." The incident is absolutely true; it occurred in my own presence.
At times, such as that related in the paragraph above, Rhodes appeared a perfectly detestable and hateful creature, and yet he was never sincere whilst in such moods. A few moments later he would show himself under absolutely different colours and give proof of a compassionate heart. Generous to a fault, he liked to be able to oblige his friends, or those who passed as such, while the charitable acts which he was constantly performing are too numerous to be remembered. He had a supreme contempt for money, but he spoiled the best sides of his strange, eccentric character by enjoying a display of its worst facets with a "cussedness" as amusing as it was sometimes unpleasant. Is it remarkable, then, that many people who only saw him in the disagreeable moods should judge him from an entirely false and misleading point of view?
Rhodes was a man for whom it was impossible to feel indifference; one either hated him or became fascinated by his curious and peculiar charm. This quality led many admirers to remain faithful to him even after disillusion had shattered their former friendship, and who, whilst refusing to speak to him any more, yet retained for him a deep affection which not even the conviction that it had been misplaced could alter. This is a remarkable and indisputable fact. After having rallied around him all that was honest in South Africa; after having been the petted child of all the old and influential ladies in Cape Town; after having been accepted as their leader by men like Mr. Schreiner and Mr. Hofmeyr, who, clever though they were, and convinced, as they must have been, of their personal influence on the Dutch party and the members of the Afrikander Bond, still preferred to subordinate their judgment to Rhodes'; after having enjoyed such unparalleled confidence, Rhodes had come to be spurned and rejected politically, but had always kept his place in their hearts. Fate and his own faults separated him from these people of real weight and influence, and left him in the hands of those who pretended that they were attached to him, but who, in reality, cared only for the material advantages that their constant attendance upon him procured to them. They poisoned his mind, they separated him from all those who might have been useful to him, and they profited by the circumstance that the Raid had estranged him from his former friends to strengthen their own influence upon him, and to persuade him that those who had deplored the rash act were personal enemies, wishful for his downfall and disgrace.