To return to the subject of the negotiations which undoubtedly took place between Rhodes and the leaders of the Afrikander Bond during the war, I must say that, so far as I know, they can rank among the most disinterested actions of his life. For once there was no personal interest or possible material gain connected with his desire to bring the Dutch elements in South Africa to look upon the situation from the purely patriotic point of view, as he did himself.
It would have been most certainly to the advantage of everybody if, instead of persisting in a resistance which was bound to collapse, no matter how successful it might appear to have been at its start, the Boers, together with the Dutch Afrikanders, had sent the olive branch to Cape Town. There would then have been some hope of compromise or of coming to terms with England before being crushed by her armies. It would have been favourable to English interests also had the great bitterness, which rendered the war such a long and such a rabid one, not had time to spread all over the country. Rhodes' intervention, which Sir Alfred Milner could not have refused had he offered it, backed by the Boers on one side and by the English Progressive party in the Colony on the other, might have brought about great results and saved many lives.
No blame, therefore, ought to attach to Cecil Rhodes for wishing to present the Boer side of the case. It would, indeed, have been wiser on the part of Mr. Hofmeyr and other Bond leaders to have forgotten the past and given a friendly hand to the one man capable of unravelling the tangled skein of affairs.
At that period, whilst the siege of Kimberley was in progress, it is certain that serious consideration was given to this question of common action on the part of Rhodes and of the two men who practically held the destinies of the Transvaal in their hands—de Wet and General Botha, with Mr. Hofmeyr as representative of the Afrikander Bond at their back. Why it failed would for ever remain a mystery if one did not remember that everywhere in South Africa lurked hidden motives of self-interest which interfered with the best intentions. The fruits of the seed of distrust sown by the Raid were not easy to eradicate.
Perhaps if Mr. Rhodes had stood alone the attempt might have met with more success than was actually the case. But it was felt by all the leading men in the Transvaal that a peace concluded under his auspices would result in the subjection of the Boers to the foreign and German-Jew millionaires. This was the one thing they feared.
The Boers attributed to the millionaires of the Rand all the misfortunes which had fallen upon them, and consequently the magnates were bitterly hated by the Boers. And not without reason. No reasonable Boer would have seriously objected to a union with England, provided it had been effected under conditions assuring them autonomy and a certain independence. But no one wanted to have liberty and fortune left at the mercy of adventurers, even though some of them had risen to reputation and renown, obtained titles, and bought their way into Society.
Unfortunately for him, Rhodes was supposed to represent the class of people referred to, or, at any rate, to favour them. One thing is certain—the great financial interests which Rhodes possessed in the Gold Fields and other concerns of the same kind lent some credence to the idea. All these circumstances prevented public opinion from expressing full confidence in him, because no one could bring himself to believe what nevertheless would have come true.
In the question of restoring peace to South Africa Rhodes most certainly would never have taken anyone's advice; he would have acted according to his own impulse, and more so because Doctor Jameson was not with him during the whole time Kimberley was besieged. Unfortunately for all the parties concerned, Rhodes let slip the opportunity to resume his former friendship with Mr. Hofmeyr, the only man in South Africa whose intelligence could measure itself with his own. And in the absence of this first step from Rhodes, a false pride—which was wounded vanity more than anything else—prevented the Bond from seeking the help of Rhodes. This attitude on the part of each man would simply have been ridiculous under ordinary circumstances, but at a time when such grave interests were at stake, and when the future of so many people was liable to be compromised, it became criminal.
In sharp contrast to it stood the conduct of Sir Alfred Milner, who was never influenced by his personal feelings or by his vanity where the interests of his country were engaged. During the few months which preceded the war he was the object of virulent hatred on the part of most of the white population of the Colony. When the first disillusions of the war brought along with them their usual harvest of disappointments the personality of the High Commissioner appeared at last in its true light, and one began to realise that here was a man who possessed a singularly clear view on matters of politics, and that all his actions were guided by sound principles. His quiet determination not to allow himself to be influenced by the gossip of Cape Town was also realised, and amid all the spite shown it is to his honour that, instead of throwing up the sponge, he persevered, until at last he succeeded in the aim which he had kept before him from the day he had landed in Table Bay. He restored peace to the dark continent where no one had welcomed him, but where everybody mourned his departure when he bade it good-bye after the most anxious years he had ever known.
When Sir Alfred accepted the post of Governor of the Cape Colony and English High Commissioner in South Africa, he had intended to study most carefully the local conditions of the new country whither fate and his duty were sending him, and then, after having gained the necessary experience capable of guiding him in the different steps he aspired to take, to proceed to the formidable task he had set for himself. His great object was to bring about a reconciliation between the two great political parties in the Colony—the South African League, with Rhodes as President, and the Afrikander Bond, headed by Messrs. Hofmeyr (the one most in popular favour with the Boer farmers), Sauer and Schreiner.
In the gigantic task of welding together two materials which possessed little affinity and no love for each other, Sir Alfred was unable to be guided by his experience in the Motherland. In England a certain constitutional policy was the basis of every party. At the Cape the dominating factors were personal feelings, personal hatreds and affections, while in the case of the League it was money and money alone. I do not mean that every member of the League had been bought by De Beers or the Chartered Company; but what I do maintain is that the majority of its members had some financial or material reason to enrol themselves.
In judging the politics of South Africa at the period of which I am writing, one must not forget that the greater number of those who then constituted the so-called Progressive party were men who had travelled to the Cape through love of adventure and the desire to enrich themselves quickly. It was only the first comers who had seen their hopes realised. Those who came after them found things far more difficult, and had perforce to make the best of what their predecessors left. On the other hand, it was relatively easy for them to find employment in the service of one or the other of the big companies that sprang up, and by whom most of the mining and industrial concerns were owned.
When the influence of the De Beers increased after its amalgamation with the other diamond companies around Kimberley, and when Rhodes made up his mind that only a political career could help him to achieve his vast plans, he struck upon the thought of using the money and the influence which were at his disposal to transform De Beers into one of the most formidable political instruments the world had ever seen. He succeeded in doing so in what would have been a wonderful manner if one did not remember the crowd of fortune-seeking men who were continually landing in South Africa. These soon found that it would advantage them to enrol under Rhodes' banner, for he was no ordinary millionaire. Here stood a man who was perpetually discovering new treasures, annexing new continents, and who had always at his disposal profitable posts to scatter among his followers.
The reflex action upon Rhodes was that unconsciously he drifted into the conviction that every man could be bought, provided one knew what it was he wanted. He understood perfectly well the art of speculating in his neighbours' weaknesses, and thus liked to invite certain people to make long stays at his house, not because he liked them, but because he knew, if they did not, that they would soon discover that the mere fact of being the guest of Mr. Rhodes procured for them the reputation of being in his confidence. Being a guest at Groote Schuur endowed a man with a prestige such as no one who has not lived in South Africa can realise, and, furthermore, enabled him to catch here and there scraps of news respecting the money markets of the world, a proper understanding and use of which could be of considerable financial value. A cup of tea at Groote Schuur was sufficient to bring about more than one political conversion.
Once started the South African League soon became a power in the land, not so strong by any means as the Afrikander Bond, but far more influential in official, and especially in financial, circles. Created for the apparent aim of supporting British government in Cape Colony, it found itself almost from the very first in conflict with it, if not outwardly, at least tacitly. After his rupture with the Bond consequent upon the Raid, Rhodes brought considerable energy to bear upon the development of the League. He caused it to exercise all over the Colony an occult power which more than once defied constituted authority, and proved a source of embarrassment to British representatives with greater frequency than they would have cared to own. Sir Alfred Milner, so far as I have been able to see, when taking the reins, had not reckoned upon meeting with this kind of government within a government, and in doing so perhaps did not appreciate its extent. But from the earliest days of his administration it confronted him, at first timidly, afterwards with persistence, and at last with such insolence that he found himself compelled to see what he could do to reduce to impotence this organisation which sought to devour him.
The problem which a situation of the character described thrust upon Sir Alfred was easier to discuss than to solve. The League was a power so wide that it was almost impossible to get rid of its influence in the country. It was controlled by Rhodes, by De Beers, by the Chartered Company, by the members in both Houses who were affiliated to it, by all the great financial establishments throughout South Africa—with but a solitary exception—by the principal industrial and agricultural enterprises in the country. It comprised political men, landowners, doctors, merchants, ship-owners, practically all the colonists in Rhodesia, and most of the English residents of the Transvaal. It controlled elections, secured votes, disposed of important posts, and when it advised the Governor the Legislature had to take its remarks into consideration whether or not it approved of them. Under the regime of the days when the League was formed it had been able to develop itself with great facility, the dangers which lurked behind its encroachment on the privileges of the Crown not being suspected. But Sir Alfred Milner discovered the menace at once, and with the quiet firmness and the tact which he always displayed in everything that he undertook proceeded to cope with the organisation.
Sir Alfred soon found himself confronted by the irritation of Rhodes, who had relied on his support for the schemes which he had nursed in regard to the Transvaal. I must here explain the reason why Rhodes had thrown his glances toward the Rand. One must remember the peculiar conditions in which he was placed in being always surrounded by creatures whom he could only keep attached to his person and to his ambition by satisfying their greed for gold. When he had annexed Matabeleland it had been principally in the expectation that one would find there the rich gold-bearing strata said to exist in that region. Unfortunately, this hope proved a fallacious one. Although thousands of pounds were spent in sinking and research, the results obtained were of so insignificant a nature, and the quantity of ore extracted so entirely insufficient to justify systematic exploitation, that the adventurers had perforce to turn their attention toward other fields.
It was after this disillusion that the idea took hold of Rhodes, which he communicated to his friends, to acquire the gold fields of the Rand, and to transform the rich Transvaal into a region where the Chartered Company and the South African League would rule. Previous to this, if we are to believe President Kruger, Rhodes had tried to conclude an alliance with him, and once, upon his return from Beira to Cape Town, had stopped at Pretoria, where he paid a visit to the old Boer statesman.
It is quite likely that on this occasion Rhodes put in a word suggesting that it would be an advantage to the Transvaal to become possessed of an outlet on the sea-board, but I hardly think that Kruger wrote the truth in his memoirs in stating that when mentioning Delagoa Bay Rhodes used the words, "We must simply take it," thus associating himself with Kruger. Cecil Rhodes was far too cute to do any such tiling, knowing that it would be interpreted in a sense inimical to his plans. But I should not be surprised if, when the President remarked that Delagoa was Portuguese, he had replied, "It does not matter, and you must simply take it." This would have been far more to the point, as it would have hinted to those who knew how to read between the lines that England, which Rhodes was persuaded was incarnated in himself, would not mind if the Transvaal did lay hands on Delagoa Bay. Such an act would furnish the British Government with a pretext for dabbling to some effect in the affairs of the Transvaal Republic.
Such a move as this would have been just one of these things which Rhodes was fond of doing. He felt sometimes a kind of malicious pleasure in whispering to others the very things likely to get them into trouble should they be so foolish as to do them. In the case of President Kruger, however, he had to deal with a mind which, though uncouth, yet possessed all the "slimness" of which so many examples are to be found in South Africa.
Kruger wrote, "Rhodes represented capital, no matter how base and contemptible, and whether by lying, bribery or treachery, all and every means were welcome to him if they led to the attainment of his ambitious desires." But Oom Paul was absolutely wrong in thinking that it was the personage he was thus describing who practised all these abominations. He ought to have remembered that it was his name only which was associated with all these basenesses, and the man himself, if left to his better self, would never have condescended to the many acts of doubtful morality with which his memory will remain associated in history.
I am firmly convinced that on his own impulse he would never, for instance, have ventured on the Raid. But, unhappily, his habit, when something "not quite" was mentioned to him, was to say nothing and to trust to his good luck to avoid unpleasant consequences arising out of his silence. Had he ventured to oppose the plans of his confederates they would have immediately turned upon him, and … There were, perhaps, past facts which he did not wish the world to remember. His frequent fits of raging temper arose from this irksome feeling, and was his way—a futile way—of revenging himself on his jailors for the durance in which they kept him. The man who believed himself to be omnipotent in South Africa, and who was considered so powerful by the world at large, was in reality in the hands of the very organisations he had helped to build.
It was not Cecil John Rhodes' will which was paramount in the South African League. Kruger spoke absolutely the truth when he asserted that it was essential "to know something about the Chartered Company before it was possible to realise the true perspective of the history of South Africa during the closing years of the last century." Another of Kruger's sweeping assertions—and one which he never backed by anything tangible—was when he further wrote that Rhodes was "one of the most unscrupulous characters that ever existed, whose motto was 'the end justifies the means,' a motto that contains a creed which represents the whole man." Rhodes by nature was not half so unscrupulous as Kruger himself, but he was surrounded by unscrupulous people, whom he was too indolent to repulse. He was constantly paying the price of his former faults and errors in allowing his name to serve as a shield for the ambitions of those who were in no way worthy of him and who constantly abused his confidence.
The habit became ingrained in the nature of Cecil Rhodes of always doing what he chose without regard to the feelings and sentiments of others. It persisted during the whole of the war, and would probably have proved a serious impediment to the conclusion of peace had he lived until it became accomplished. This characteristic led him, after all his intrigues with the Dutch party and the Bond, to throw himself once more into the arms of the English Progressive party and to start a campaign of his own against the rebel Colonials and the Dutch inhabitants of the Transvaal.
While the siege of Kimberley lasted, even while he was seeking to become reconciled to the British element, Rhodes asserted himself in a strongly offensive manner. He sent to Sir Alfred Milner in Cape Town reports of his own as to the military authorities and dispositions, couched in such alarming tones that the High Commissioner became most uneasy concerning the possible fate of the Diamond City. These reports accused the officers in charge of the town of failing in the performance of their duties, and showing symptoms of abject fear in regard to the besieging Boer army. It was only after an explanation from Sir Redvers Buller, and after the latter had communicated to him the letters which he himself had received from Colonel Kekewich, the commander of the troops to whom had been entrusted the defence of Kimberley, that Sir Alfred was reassured.
The fact was that Rhodes became very impatient to find that his movements were watched by the military authorities, and that sometimes even the orders which he gave for what he considered the greater security of the town, and gave with the superb assurance which distinguished him, were cancelled by the responsible officials. Disgraceful scenes followed. Rhodes was accused of wishing to come to an arrangement with Cronje, who was in charge of the besieging troops, in order to bring the war to an end by his own efforts.
I never have been able to ascertain how much of real truth, if any, was in the various accusations made against Cecil Rhodes by the English General Officers, but they were embodied in the message which was alleged to have been flashed across to Kimberley after the battle of Modder River by Lord Methuen, but which was supposed by those whom it concerned to have been inspired by the Commander-in-Chief:
"Tell Mr. Rhodes," the heliograph ran, "that on my entry into Kimberley he and his friends must take their immediate departure."
Two years later, in November, 1902, Sir Redvers Buller, when speaking at the annual dinner of the Devonians in London, remarked that he must protest against the rumours which, during the siege of Kimberley, had been spread by some of its residents that the Imperial authorities had been in a perpetual state of "funk." The allusion was understood to refer to Mr. Rhodes by his partisans, who protested against the speech. Rhodes, indeed, during his whole life was never in greater disfavour with the English Government than after the siege of Kimberley; perhaps because he had always accused Whitehall of not understanding the real state of things in South Africa. The result of that imperative telegram, and Rhodes' belief as to its source, was bitter hatred against Sir Redvers Buller. It soon found expression in vindictive attacks by the whole Rhodesian Press against the strategy, the abilities, and even the personal honesty of Sir Redvers Buller.
Whether Rhodes, upon his arrival in London, attempted to hurt the General I do not know, but it could be always taken for granted that Rhodes could be a very bad enemy when he chose.
Upon his return to Groote Schuur he seemed more dissatisfied than ever with the Home Government. He was loud in his denunciations and unceasing in his criticisms. Sir Alfred, however, like the wise man he was, preferred to ignore these pinpricks, and invariably treated Rhodes with the utmost courtesy and attention. He always showed himself glad to listen to Rhodes and to discuss with him points which the Colossus thought it worth while to talk over. At that time Rhodes was in the most equivocal position he had ever been in his life. He could not return to Kimberley; he did not care to go to Rhodesia; and in Cape Colony he was always restive.
At this period all kinds of discussions used to take place concerning the ultimate results of the war and the influence which it would have on the future development of affairs in the Transvaal. The financiers began to realise that after the British flag had once been raised at Pretoria they would not have such a good time of it as they had hoped at first, and now, having done their best to hurry on the war, regretted it more than anybody else. The fact was that everybody in South Africa, with the exception of the Boers themselves, who knew very well their own resources, had believed that the war would be over in three months, and that the Transvaal would be transferred into a Crown Colony where adventurers and gold-seekers would have a fine time.
Rhodes himself had more than once expressed his conviction that the destruction of the Boers would not take more than three months at the most, and this assurance was accepted as gospel by most of the financiers of Johannesburg. An exception was Mr. F. Eckstein, the general manager and partner in the concern of Wernher, Beit & Co., and one of the ablest financiers in that city. From the first he was quite pessimistic in regard to the length of time the war would take.
As the war dragged on without there seeming any chance of its being brought to a rapid conclusion, it became evident that England, after all the sacrifices which she was making, would never consent to leave the leaders of the movement—the ostensible object of which had been to grant to the Uitlanders certain privileges to which they had no right—as sole and absolute masters of the situation. In fact, the difficulties of the war made it evident that, once peace was proclaimed, public opinion at home would demand that the Transvaal, together with the Orange Free State, should be annexed to the British Empire in view of a future federation of the whole of South Africa, about which the English Press was already beginning to speak.
That South Africa should not remain a sphere of exploitation sent shivers down the spines of the financiers. The South African League was observed to become quite active in discovering rebels. Their zeal in this direction was felt all over Cape Colony. Their aim was to reduce the register in order to bring about a considerable falling off of voters for the Afrikander Bond, and thereby substantially influence the results of the next election to the Cape Parliament.
At this period certain overtures were made once again to the Bond party. They proceeded apparently from men supposed to act on their own initiative, but who were known to be in favour at Groote Schuur. These advances met with no response, but when the rumour that they had been made spread among the public owing to an indiscretion, Rhodes hastened to deny that he had been a party to the plan—as was his wont when he failed to achieve. All the same, it is a fact that members of the House of Assembly belonging to the Afrikander party visited Groote Schuur in the course of that last winter which Rhodes spent there, and were warmly welcomed. Rhodes showed himself unusually gracious. He hoped these forerunners would rally his former friends to his side once more. But Rhodes was expecting too much, considering ail the circumstances. Faithful to his usual tactics, even whilst his Afrikander guests were being persuaded to lend themselves to an intrigue from which they had hoped to win something, Rhodes was making himself responsible for another step likely to render the always strong hatred even more acute than ever. More than that, he was advocating, through certain underground channels, the suspension of the Constitution in Cape Colony.
The particulars of this incident were only disclosed after the war was over. The whole thing was thrashed out in Parliament and its details communicated to the public by Mr. David de Waal, one of the truest friends Mr. Rhodes ever had. The discussion took place after Sir Alfred Milner had been transferred to Johannesburg and Sir Walter Hely-Hutchinson had taken his place in Cape Town. The South African League had become more active than ever, and was using all its influence to secure a majority for its members at the next general election. The Bond, on its side, had numerous adherents up country, and the stout Dutch farmers had remained faithful to their old allegiance, so there was no hope that they would be induced, even through the influence of money, to give their votes to the Progressives. The only things which remained were: a redistribution of seats, then a clearing out of the register, and, lastly, a suspension of the Constitution, which would have allowed the Governor a "free" hand in placing certain measures on the statute book. The most influential members among the executive of the South African League met at Cotswold Chambers, and Rhodes, who was present, drew up a petition which was to be presented to the Prime Minister. Sir Gordon Sprigg, who filled that office, was a man who, with all his defects, was absolutely incapable of lending himself to any mean trick in order to remain in power. When Sir Gordon became acquainted with the demands of the League he refused absolutely to take a part in what he maintained would have been an everlasting blot on the reputation of the Government.
After Rhodes' death, when the question of the suspension of the Constitution was raised by the Progressives in the House of Assembly, it was discussed in all its details, and it was proved that the South African League, in trying throughout the country to obtain signatures to a monster petition on the matter, had resorted to some more than singular means to obtain these signatures. Mr. Sauer, who was the leader of the Bond party in the Chamber, revealed how the League had employed agents to induce women and sometimes young children to sign the petition, and that at the camp near Sea Point, a suburb of Cape Town, where soldiers were stationed previous to their departure for England, these same agents were engaged in getting them to sign it before they left under the inducement of a fixed salary up to a certain amount and a large percentage after it had been exceeded, according to the number of the names obtained in this way. When trustworthy people of unimpeachable character wrote to the papers denouncing this manoeuvre the subsidised papers in Cape Town, and the Rhodesian Press, refused to publish the affidavits sworn on the subject, but wrote columns of calumnies about the Dutch Colonials, and, as a finishing stroke, clamoured for the suspension of the Constitution.
The speech of Mr. Sauer gave rise to a heated debate, during which the Progressive members indignantly denied his assertions. Then stepped in Mr. David de Waal, that friend of Rhodes to whom I have already referred. He rose to bring his testimony to the facts revealed by Mr. Sauer, who was undoubtedly the most able leader which the Afrikander party possessed, with the exception, perhaps, of Mr. Merriman.
"In February, 1902," he said, "there was a meeting in Cotswold Chambers consisting of the twenty-two members of the House of Assembly who went by the name of 'Rhodes' group.' It was at first discussed and ultimately decided to wait on the Prime Minister and to interview him concerning the expenditure of the war, which had reached the sum of £200,000 monthly. Then, after some further discussion, we came to the conclusion to meet once more. This was done on February 17th. You must remember that war was still raging at the time. At this second meeting it was agreed to formulate a scheme to be submitted to the Government which proposed the suspension of the Constitution in regard to five clauses. The first was to be this very suspension, then a new registration of voters, a redistribution of seats, the indemnity to be awarded to the faithful English Colonials, and, finally, the reestablishment of the Constitution. As to this last I must make a statement, and that is, that if I had known that it was meant to withdraw the Constitution for more than one month I would have objected to it, but I was told that it would be only a matter of a few days."
At this point Mr. de Waal was interrupted by a Progressive member, who exclaimed that Dr. Jameson had denied that such a thing had ever been said or mentioned.
"I know he has done so," replied Mr. de Waal, "but I will make a declaration on my oath. A committee was then appointed," he went on, "which waited on the Prime Minister and presented to him this very same petition. Sir Gordon Sprigg, however, said that he would not be ruled by anyone, because they had a responsible Government. The Committee reported, when it returned, that the Prime Minister was opposed to any movement started on the basis of the petition which they had presented to him, and that he would not move an inch from his declaration, saying energetically, 'Never! I shall never do it!' Sir Gordon Sprigg had further pointed out that the result of such a step would be that the Cape would become a Crown Colony and would find itself in the same position as Rhodesia."
Perhaps this was what Rhodes and the South African League had wished, but the publication of the details connected with this incident, especially proceeding from a man who had never made a secret of the ties which had bound him to Rhodes, and who, among the latter's Dutch friends, had been the only one who had never failed him, drove the first nail into the coffin of Rhodesian politics.
It was common knowledge that de Waal had steadfastly stood by Rhodes even during the terrible time of the Raid. Moreover, he was a man of high integrity, who alone among those who had attached themselves to the destinies of the Empire Maker had never taken part in the financial schemes of a doubtful nature which marked the wonderful career of Rhodes. This declaration opened the eyes of many persons who, to that day, had denied the political intrigues which had been going on at Cotswold Chambers. Afterwards it became relatively easy for Sir Alfred Milner to clear the atmosphere in South Africa and to establish public life on sounder principles than the pure love of gain. It cannot be sufficiently regretted that he should not have done so before Rhodes' death and thus have given Rhodes—and, incidentally, the country for which Rhodes had done so much in the way of material development—the opportunity to shake off his parasites and become a real factor in solidifying the great area in which he was such an outstanding personality.