The refugees were a continual worry and annoyance to the English community at the Cape. As time went on it became extremely difficult to conciliate the differing interests which divided them, and to prevent them from committing foolish or rash acts likely to compromise British prestige in Africa. The refugees were for the most boisterous people. They insisted upon being heard, and expected the whole world to agree with their conclusions, however unstable these might be. It was absolutely useless to talk reason to a refugee; he refused to listen to you, but considered that, as he had been—as he would put it—compelled to leave that modern paradise, the Rand, and to settle at Cape Town, it became the responsibility of the inhabitants of Cape Town to maintain him. Table Mountain echoed with the sounds of their vain talk. They considered that they were the only people who knew anything about what the English Government ought to do, and who criticised it the most, threatening at every moment that they would write to their influential friends—even the poorest and most obscure had "influential friends"—revealing the abominable way in which English interests were neglected in Cape Colony, where the Government, according to them, only helped the rebels, and considered their wants and requirements in preference to those of their own people.
At first, when they were not known as they deserved to be, some persons fresh from the Mother Country, to whom South African morals and intrigues were unknown, took to heart the position as well as the complaints of those refugees. Hearing them continually mention cases in which rebel Dutch had, in this way or that, shown their want of allegiance to the British Government, conclusions were jumped at that there must exist a reason for these recriminations and allegations, and that British officials were in reality too anxious to conciliate the anti-English elements in the Colony, to the detriment of the loyalists, whose feelings of patriotism they considered, as a matter of course, required no reward and scarcely any encouragement. These people, unequipped with the truth, took up with a warmth which it certainly did not deserve the cause of these loyalists, sought their advice, and formed a totally wrong and even absurd opinion both as to South African politics and the conduct of the representatives of the Queen in Cape Town.
All the misrepresentation and misunderstanding which took place increasingly, led to animosity on the part of the Dutch. Rightly or wrongly, it was taken as a matter of course that Rhodes favoured the idea of a total annihilation of the Cape Dutch. And as he was considered a kind of demigod by so many the idea was widely circulated, and became at last deeply rooted in the minds of most of the white population of South Africa, who, without being able to say why, considered it in consequence a part of its duty to exaggerate in the direction of advocating severity toward the Dutch. This did not contribute to smoothen matters, and it grew into a very real danger, inimical to the conclusion of an honourable and permanent peace. Federation, which at one time had been ardently wished for almost everywhere, became a new cause for anxiety as soon as it was known that Rhodes was in favour of it. People fancied that his ambitions lay in the direction of a kind of dictatorship exercised by himself over the whole of South Africa, a dictatorship which would make him in effect master of the country.
This, however, was the last thing which the financiers on the Rand wished. Indeed, they became quite alarmed at the thought that it might become possible, and hastened to explain to Sir Alfred Milner the peril which such a thing, if it ever happened, would constitute for the community at large. Their constant attendance upon Sir Alfred, however, gave rise to the idea that these financiers wanted to have it all their own way with him and with the Cabinet at home, and that they meant to confiscate the Transvaal to their own profit.
The presence of the moneyed class at the Cape had also another drawback: it exasperated the poorer refugees, who could not forgive those who, too, had fled the Rand, for having so successfully saved their own belongings from the general ruin and remained rich, when so many of those who had directly or indirectly helped them to acquire their wealth were starving at their door. In reality the magnates of the Rand spent huge sums in the relief of their poorer brethren in misfortune. I know from personal experience, having often solicited them in favour of, say, some unfortunate Russian Jew or a destitute Englishman who had lost all his earthly belongings through the war. These millionaires, popularly accused of being so hardhearted, were always ready with their purses to help those who appealed to their charity. But the fact that they were able to live in large and luxurious houses whilst so many others were starving in hovels, that their wives wore diamonds and pearls, and that they seemed still to be able to gratify their every desire, exasperated the multitude of envious souls congregated at the Cape.
A general feeling of uneasiness and of unpleasantness began to weigh on the whole atmosphere, and as it was hardly possible for anyone to attack openly those who had inexhaustible purses, it became the fashion to say that the Dutch were responsible for the general misfortune, and to discover means of causing them unpleasantness.
On the other hand, as the war went on and showed no signs of subsiding, the resources of those who, with perfect confidence in its short duration, had left the Rand at a moment's notice, began to dwindle the more quickly insomuch as they had not properly economised in the beginning, when the general idea was prevalent that the English army would enter Pretoria for the Christmas following upon the beginning of the war, and that an era of unlimited prosperity was about to dawn in the Transvaal. I do believe that among certain circles the idea was rooted that once President Kruger had been expelled from the Rand its mines would become a sort of public property accessible to the whole community at large, and controlled by all those who showed any inclination for doing so.
The mine owners themselves looked upon the situation from a totally different point of view. They had gathered far too much experience concerning the state of things in South Africa to nurse illusions as to the results of a war which was bound to put an end to the corruption of the Transvaal Republic. They would have preferred infinitely to let things remain in the condition into which they had drifted since the Raid, because they understood that a strong British Government would be interested in putting an end to the abuses which had transformed the Rand into an annexe of the Stock Exchange of almost every European capital. But, as the war had broken out, they preferred that it should end, in the establishment of a regular administration which could neither be bought nor persuaded to serve interests in preference to the public. They did not relish the possible triumph of a single man, backed by a powerful financial company, with whom they had never lived upon particularly affectionate terms.
Rather than see South Africa continue under the influence which had hitherto held it in grip, the magnates preferred to associate themselves with Sir Alfred Milner to bring about as soon as possible a Federation of the different South African States, where there would be no place for the ambition of a single individual, and where the domination of one financial company would become an impossibility. These magnates were reasonable people after all, quite content, after they had taken the cream, to allow others to drink. The fever for gold had left them. The fact was that these people were not at all anxious to remain at Johannesburg; they preferred to gather dividends in London rather than to toil in South Africa; the merry, merry days of the Rand had come to an end.
Altogether, indeed, things were beginning to slow down at Johannesburg, in spite of the fictitious agitation by the Rhodesian party. The war had come as a relief to everybody, and afforded the magnates the opportunity which they had been longing for, to enforce order and economy upon a stringent scale in their mines and to begin modelling their concerns after a European fashion, closing the door upon adventurers and cutting off the "financial fringe." The times when new fields of exploitation were discovered every day were at an end; the treasures which the Transvaal contained in the way of precious metals and stones had all been located; and very few surprises could be expected in that direction. It was time for the pioneers to retire upon their laurels and to give to themselves, as well as to their fortunes, the sedate appearance which they required in order to be able to take a place amid the most elegant and exclusive society of Europe. Had Rhodes remained alive he would have proved the one great obstacle which the magnates of the Rand would have to take into consideration, the disturbing element in a situation that required calm and quiet.
If Cecil Rhodes had been allowed to decide alone as to the best course of action to pursue he also might have come to the same conclusion as these magnates. During those moments when he was alone with his own thoughts and impulses he would have realised his duty toward his country. He was conscious, if others were not, of how utterly he had lost ground in South Africa, and he understood that any settlement of the South African difficulties could only become permanent if his name were not associated with it. This, though undeniable, was a great misfortune, because Rhodes understood so perfectly the art of making the best of every situation, and using the resources to hand, that there is no doubt he would have brought forward a practical solution of the problems which had cropped up on every side. He might have proved of infinite use to Sir Alfred Milner by his thorough knowledge of the Dutch character and of the leaders of the Dutch party with whom he had worked. But Rhodes was not permitted to decide alone his line of conduct: there were his supporters to be consulted, his so-called friends to pacify, the English Jingoes to satisfy, and, most difficult of all, the Bond and Dutch party to please. Moreover, he had been indulging in various intrigues of his own, half of which had been conducted through others and half carried out alone, with what he believed was success. In reality they proved to be more of these disappointments he had courted with a carelessness which would have appeared almost incredible if one did not know Cecil Rhodes. The Rhodesians, who with intention had contrived to compromise him, never left him a moment to his own thoughts. Without the flatterers who surrounded him Rhodes would undoubtedly have risen to the height of the situation and frankly and disinterestedly put himself at the disposal of the High Commissioner. But they managed so to irritate him against the representative of the Queen, so to anger him against the Dutch party to which he had belonged formerly, and so to persuade him that everybody was jealous of his successes, his genius and his position in South Africa, that it became relatively easy with a man of Rhodes' character to make him smart under the sense of non-appreciation. Thus goaded, Rhodes acted often without premeditation.
In contrast to this impatience and the sense of unsatisfied vanity, the coolness and greatness of character of Sir Alfred Milner appeared in strong contrast, even though many friends of earlier days, such as W.T. Stead, had turned their backs upon Sir Alfred, accusing him of being the cause of all the misfortunes which fell upon South Africa. But those who thus condemned Sir Alfred did not understand the peculiar features of the situation. He was credited with inspiring all the harsh measures which were employed on occasion by others, measures which he had stridently disapproved. Rhodes, in his place, would have killed somebody or destroyed something; Sir Alfred went slowly on with his work, disdained praise as well as blame, and looked toward the future. I leave it to the reader to decide which of the two showed himself the better patriot.
The refugees did not take kindly to the High Commissioner. They had been full of illusions concerning the help they fondly imagined he would be glad to offer them, and when they discovered that, far from taking them to his bosom, he discouraged their intention of remaining in Cape Town until the end of the war, they grumbled and lied with freedom. Sir Alfred gave them very distinctly to understand that they had better not rely on the British Government to feed and clothe them. He said that they would be well advised to try to find some work which would allow them to keep themselves and their families. But especially he recommended them to go back to Europe, which, he gravely assured the refugees, was the best place for them and their talents. This did not please those refugees who posed as martyrs of their English patriotism and as victims of the hatred of Kruger and of the Dutch. They expected to be petted and flattered as those looked up to as the saviours of the Empire.
All the foregoing applies to the middle-class section of the refugees. The poorer ones grumbled also, but in a different manner, and their irritation was rather directed towards the military authorities. As for the millionaires, with a few exceptions they also did not care for the High Commissioner for reasons elaborated in earlier pages of this volume. They even considered that it would be prejudicial to their interests to allow Rhodes to be upon too intimate terms with Sir Alfred Milner, so they kept a faithful watch at Government House as well as at Groote Schuur, and in doing so added to the tension which, up to the last moment of Sir Alfred's tenure of office at Cape Town, existed between him and Cecil Rhodes. Too courteous to tell his redoubtable adversary that he had better mind his own business, convinced, on the other hand, of the latter's great capacities and great patriotism, Sir Alfred was constantly doing all that he could do in reason to pacify him. Cecil Rhodes used to make most bitter and untrue remarks as to the stupidity of the Imperial Government at home and the incapacity of the men in charge of its armies in South Africa. All this was repeated right and left with the usual exaggeration, and reached, as perhaps was intended, those whom it concerned. The result was that Rhodes found himself tabooed at Pretoria. This he said was due to the great fear which his influence over public opinion in South Africa inspired among those in command there.
The big trouble with Rhodes was that he would never own himself in the wrong. He quibbled, he hesitated, he postponed replies to questions submitted for his consideration. He wearied everybody around him with his constant prevarications in regard to facts he ought to have accepted without flinching if he wanted to regain some of his lost prestige. Unfortunately for himself and for the cause of peace in South Africa, Rhodes fancied himself immensely clever at "biding his time," as he used to say. He had ever lurking somewhere in his brain the conviction that one day the whole situation at Cape Town and Pretoria would become so entangled that they would have to send for him to beg him as a favour to step round and by his magic touch unravel all difficulties. His curious shyness, his ambition and his vanity battled with each other so long that those in authority at last came to the sad conclusion that it was far better to look elsewhere for support in their honest efforts at this important moment in the existence of the African Continent.
One last attempt was made. It was backed up by people in London, among others by Stead. Stead liked the Great Imperialist as well as one man can like another, and had a great and justified confidence in Rhodes' good heart as well as in that indefinable nobility which manifested itself at times in his strange, wayward nature. Moreover, being gifted with a keen sense of intuition, the famous journalist realised quite well the immense work that might have been done by England through Rhodes had the latter consented to sweep away those men around him who were self-interested.
But Rhodes preferred to maintain his waiting attitude, whilst trying at the same time to accumulate as many proofs as possible that people wanted him to assert himself at last. It was the fact that these proofs were denied to him at the very minute when he imagined he held them already in his hands which led to his suddenly turning once more against the persons he had been almost on the point of propitiating. It led him to begin the movement for the suspension of the Constitution in Cape Colony, out of which he expected so much and which he intended to use as his principal weapon against the enemies whom he suspected. That was the last great political venture in his life; it failed, but merciful Providence allowed him not to see the utter collapse of his latest house of cards.