Print

The intrigues which made Groote Schuur such a disagreeable place were always a source of intense wonder to me. I could never understand their necessity. Neither could I appreciate the kind of hypocrisy which induced Rhodes continually to affirm that he did not care to return to power, whilst in reality he longed to hold the reins again. It would have been fatally easy for Rhodes, even after the hideous mistake of the Raid, to regain his political popularity; a little sincerity and a little truth were all that was needed. Unfortunately, both these qualities were wanting in what was otherwise a really gifted nature. Rhodes, it seemed by his ways, could not be sincere, and though he seldom lied in the material sense of the word, yet he allowed others to think and act for him, even when he knew them to be doing so in absolute contradiction to what he ought to have done himself. He appeared to have insufficient energy to enforce his will on those whom he despised, yet allowed to dictate to him even in matters which he ought to have kept absolutely under his own control.

I shall always maintain that Rhodes, without his so-called friends, would most certainly have been one of the greatest figures of his time and generation. He had a big soul, vast conceptions, and when he was not influenced by outward material details—upon which, unfortunately for himself as well as for his reputation in history, he allowed his mind to dwell too often—his thoughts were always directed toward some higher subject which absorbed his attention, inspired him, and moved him sometimes to actions that drew very near to the heroic. He might have gone to his grave not only with an unsullied, but also with a great reputation based on grounds that were noble and splendid had he shaken off the companions of former times. Unhappily, an atmosphere of flattery and adulation had become absolutely necessary to him, and he became so used to it that he did not perceive that his sycophants never left him alone for a moment. They watched over him like a policeman who took good care no foreign influence should venture to approach.

The end of all this was that Rhodes resented the truth when it was told him, and detested any who showed independence of judgment or appreciation in matters concerning his affairs and projects. A man supposed to have an iron will, yet he was weak almost to childishness in regard to these flattering satellites. It amused him to have always at his beck and call people willing and ready to submit to his insults, to bear with his fits of bad temper, and to accept every humiliation which he chose to offer.

Cecil Rhodes never saw, or affected never to see, the disastrous influence all this had on his life.

I remember asking him how it came that he seldom showed the desire to go away somewhere quite alone, if even for a day or two, so as to remain really tête-à-tête with his own reflections. His reply was most characteristic: "What should I do with myself? One must have people about to play cards in the evening." I might have added "and to flatter one," but refrained. This craving continually to have someone at hand to bully, scold, or to make use of, was certainly one of the failings of Rhodes' powerful mind. It also indicated in a way that thirst for power which never left him until the last moment of his life. He had within him the weakness of those dethroned kings who, in exile, still like to have a Court about them and to travel in state. Rhodes had a court, and also travelled with a suite who, under the pretence of being useful to him, effectually barred access to any stranger. But for his entourage it is likely that Rhodes might have outlived the odium of the Raid. But, as Mrs. van Koopman said to me, "What is the use of trying to help Rhodes when one is sure that he will never be allowed to perform all that he might promise?"

The winter which followed upon the relief of Kimberley Rhodes spent almost entirely at Groote Schuur, going to Rhodesia only in spring. During these months negotiations between him and certain leaders of the Bond party went on almost uninterruptedly. These were either conducted openly by people like Mr. David de Waal, or else through other channels when not entrusted to persons whom it would be relatively easy later on to disavow. Once or twice these negotiations seemed to take a favourable turn at several points, but always at the last minute Rhodes withdrew under some pretext or other. What he would have liked would have been to have, as it were, the Dutch party, the Bond, the English Colonists, the South African League, President Kruger, and the High Commissioner, all rolled into one, fall at his feet and implore him to save South Africa. When he perceived that all these believed that there existed a possibility for matters to be settled without his intervention, he hated every man of them with a hatred such as only very absolute natures can feel. To hear him express his disgust with the military authorities, abuse in turns Lord Roberts, whom he used to call an old man in his dotage, Lord Kitchener, who was a particular antipathy, the High Commissioner, the Government at home, and the Bond, was an education in itself. He never hesitated before making use of an expression of a coarseness such as does not bear repeating, and in his private conversations he hurled insults at the heads of all. It is therefore no wonder that the freedom of speech which Rhodes exercised at Groote Schuur added to the difficulties of a situation the brunt of which not he, but Sir Alfred Milner, had to bear.

More than once the High Commissioner caused a hint to be conveyed to Cecil Rhodes that he had better betake himself to Rhodesia, and remain there until there was a clearer sky in Cape Colony. These hints were always given in the most delicate manner, but Rhodes chose to consider them in the light of a personal affront, and poured down torrents of invective upon the British Government for what he termed their ingratitude. The truth of the matter was that he could not bring himself to understand that he was not the person alone capable of bringing about a permanent settlement of South Africa. The energy of his young days had left him, and perhaps the chronic disease from which he was suffering added to his constant state of irritation and obscured the clearness of his judgment in these post-raid days.

I hope that my readers will not imagine from my reference that I have a grudge of any kind against Doctor Jameson.[1] On the contrary, truth compels me to say that I have seldom met a more delightful creature than this old friend and companion of Cecil Rhodes, and I do believe he held a sincere affection for his chief. But Jameson, as well as Rhodes, was under the influence of certain facts and of certain circumstances, and I do not think that he was, at that particular moment about which I am writing, the best adviser that Rhodes might have had. In one thing Doctor Jim was above suspicion: he had never dirtied his hands with any of the financial speculations which those about Rhodes indulged in, to the latter's detriment much more than his own, considering the fact that it was he who was considered as the father of their various "smart" schemes. Jameson always kept aloof from every kind of shady transaction in so far as money matters were concerned, and perhaps this was the reason why so many people detested him and kept advising Rhodes to brush him aside, or, at all events, not to keep him near him whilst the war was going on. His name was to the Dutch as a red rag to a very fierce and more than furious bull, while the Bond, as well as the burghers of the Transvaal, would rather have had dealings with the Evil One himself than with Doctor Jim. Their prejudices against him were not to be shaken. In reality others about Rhodes were far more dangerous than Jameson could ever have proved on the question of a South African settlement in which the rights of the Dutch elements in the Cape and Orange Free State would be respected and considered.

Whatever might have been his faults, Doctor Jameson was neither a rogue nor a fool. For Rhodes he had a sincere affection that made him keenly alive to the dangers that might threaten the latter, and anxious to avert them. But during those eventful months of the war the influence of the Doctor also had been weakened by the peculiar circumstances which had arisen in consequence of the length of the Boer resistance. Before the war broke out it had been generally supposed that three months would see the end of the Transvaal Republic, and Rhodes himself, more often than I care to remember, had prophesied that a few weeks would be the utmost that the struggle could last. That this did not turn out to be the case had been a surprise to the world at large and an intense disappointment to Cecil Rhodes. He had all along nourished a bitter animosity against Kruger, and in regard to him, as well as Messrs. Schreiner, Merriman, Hofmeyr, Sauer and other one-time colleagues, he carried his vindictiveness to an extent so terrible that more than once it led him into some of the most regrettable actions in his life.

Cecil Rhodes possessed a curious shyness which gave to his character an appearance the more misleading in that it hid in reality a will of iron and a ruthlessness comparable to a Condottiere of the Middle Ages. The fact was that his soul was thirsting for power, and he was inordinately jealous of successes which anyone but himself had or could achieve in South Africa. I am persuaded that one of the reasons why he always tried by inference to disparage Sir Alfred Milner was his annoyance at the latter's calm way of going on with the task which he had mapped out for himself without allowing his mind to be troubled by the outcries of a mob whom he despised from the height of his great integrity, unsullied honour, and consciousness of having his duty to perform. Neither could Rhodes ever see in political matters the necessities of the moment often made it the duty of a statesman to hurl certain facts into oblivion and to reconcile himself to new circumstances.

That he did disparage Sir Alfred Milner is unfortunately certain. I sincerely believe that the war would never have dragged on so long had not Rhodes contrived to convey to the principal Boer leaders the impression that while Sir Alfred Milner remained in South Africa no settlement would be arrived at with the British Government, because the High Commissioner would always oppose any concessions that might bring it to a successful and prompt issue. Of course Cecil Rhodes never said this in so many words, but he allowed people to guess that such was his conviction, and it was only after Sir Alfred had I left the Cape for Pretoria that, by a closer contact with the Boers themselves, some of the latter's prejudices against him vanished.

At last did the sturdy Dutch farmers realise that if there was one man devoid of animosity against them, and desirous of seeing the end of a struggle which was ruining a continent, it was Sir Alfred Milner. They also discovered another thing concerning his political views and opinions—that he desired just as much as they did to destroy the power and influence of those multi-millionaires who had so foolishly believed that after the war's end they would have at their disposal the riches which the Transvaal contained, so that, rather than becoming a part of the British Empire, it would in reality be an annexe of the London and Paris Stock Exchanges.

As events turned out, by a just retribution of Providence, the magnates who had let greedy ambition master them lost most of the advantages which they had been able to snatch from President Kruger. Whether this would have happened had Rhodes not died before the conclusion of peace remains an open question. It is certain he would have objected to a limitation of the political power of the concerns in which he had got such tremendous interests; it is equally sure that it would have been for him a cruel disappointment had his name not figured as the outstanding signature on the treaty of peace. There were in this strange man moments when his patriotism assumed an entirely personal shape, but, improbable as it may appear to the reader, there was sincerity in the conviction which he had that the only man who understood what South Africa required was himself, and that in all that he had done he had been working for the benefit of the Empire. There was in him something akin to the feeling which had inspired the old Roman saying, "Civis Romanum sum." He understood far better than any of the individuals by whom he was surrounded the true meaning of the word Imperialism. Unfortunately, he was apt to apply it in the personal sense, until, indeed, it got quite confused in his mind with a selfish feeling which prompted him to put his huge personality before everything else. If one may do so, a reading of his mind would show that in his secret heart he felt he had not annexed Rhodesia to the Empire nor amalgamated the Kimberley mines and organised De Beers for the benefit of his native Britain, but in order to make himself the most powerful man in South Africa, and yet at the same time shrewdly realised that he could not be the king he wished to become unless England stood behind him to cover with her flag his heroic actions as well as his misdeeds.

That Rhodes' death occurred at an opportune moment cannot be denied. It is a sad thing to say, but for South Africa true enough. It removed from the path of Sir Alfred Milner the principal obstacle that had stood in his way ever since his arrival at Cape Town. The Rhodesian party, deprived of its chief, was entirely harmless. Rhodesian politics, too, lost their strength when he was no longer there to impose them upon South Africa.

One of the great secrets of the enormous influence which the Colossus had acquired lay in the fact that he had never spared his money when it was a question of thrusting his will in directions favourable to his interest. None of those who aspired to take his place could follow him on that road, because none were so superbly indifferent to wealth. Cecil Rhodes did not care for riches for the personal enjoyments they can purchase. He was frugal in his tastes, simple in his manners and belongings, and absolutely careless as to the comforts of life. The waste in his household was something fabulous, but it is a question whether he ever participated in luxuries showered upon others. His one hobby had been the embellishment of Groote Schuur, which he had really transformed into something absolutely fairylike as regards its exterior beauties and the loveliness of its grounds and gardens. Inside, too, the house, furnished after the old Dutch style, struck one by its handsomeness, though it was neither homelike nor comfortable. In its decoration he had followed the plans of a clever architect, to whose artistic education he had generously contributed by giving to him facilities to travel in Europe, but he had not lent anything of his own personality to the interior arrangements of his home, which had always kept the look of a show place, neither cared for nor properly looked after.

Rhodes himself felt happier and more at his ease when rambling in his splendid park and gazing on Table Mountain from his stoep than amidst the luxury of his richly furnished rooms. Sometimes he would sit for hours looking at the landscape before him, lost in a meditation which but few cared to disturb, and after which he invariably showed himself at his best and in a softer mood than he had been before. Unfortunately, these moments never lasted long, and he used to revenge himself on those who had surprised him in such reveries by indulging in the most caustic and cruel remarks which he could devise in order to goad them out of all patience. A strange man with strange instincts; and it is no wonder that, once, a person who knew him well, and who had known him in the days of his youth when he had not yet developed his strength of character, had said of him that "One could not help liking him and one could not avoid hating him; and sometimes one hated him when one liked him most."

Sir Alfred Milner had neither liked nor hated him, perhaps because his mind was too well balanced to allow him to view him otherwise than with impartiality and with a keen appreciation of his great qualities. He would have liked to work with Rhodes, and would gladly have availed himself of his experience of South Africa and of South African politicians. But Sir Alfred refused to be drawn into any compromises with his own conscience or to offend his own sense of right and wrong. He was always sincere, though he was never given credit for being so in South Africa. Sir Alfred Milner could not understand why Rhodes, instead of resolutely asserting that he wanted to enter into negotiations with the Bond in order to win its co-operation in the great work of organising the new existence of South Africa on a sound and solid basis, preferred to cause promises to be made to the Bond which he would never consent to acknowledge.

These tortuous roads, which were so beloved by Rhodes, were absolutely abhorrent to the High Commissioner. When Rhodes started the agitation for the suspension of the Constitution, which occupied his thoughts during the last months of his life—an agitation which he had inaugurated out of spite against Mr. Sauer and Mr. Hofmeyr, who had refused to dance to Rhodes' tune—Sir Alfred Milner had at once seen through the underlying motives of the moment, and what he discerned had not increased his admiration for Rhodes. Sir Alfred had not opposed the plans, but he had never been sanguine as to their chance of success, and they were not in accordance with his own convictions. Had he thought they had the least chance of being adopted, most certainly he would have opposed them with just as much energy as Sir Gordon Sprigg had done. He saw quite well that it would not have been opportune or politic to put himself into open opposition to Rhodes. Sir Alfred therefore did not contradict the rumours which attributed to him the desire to reduce the Cape to the condition of a Crown Colony, but bent his energy to the far more serious task of negotiating a permanent peace with the leading men in the Transvaal, a peace for which he did not want the protection of Rhodes, and to which an association with Rhodes might have proved inimical to the end in view—the ideal of a South African Federation which Rhodes had been the first to visualise, but which Providence did not permit him to see accomplished.

1. Dr. Jameson died November 26th, 1917.

Parent Category: Books
Category: Radziwill: Cecil Rhodes, Man and Empire-maker
Hits: 1576