Among those with whom Rhodes had been intimate from almost the first days of his establishment in Cape Town and his entrance into political life was a lady who, for something like half a century, had been enjoying an enviable position throughout almost the whole of South Africa. Mrs. van Koopman was a Dutchwoman of considerable means and of high character. She was clever, well read, and her quick intelligence allowed her to hold her own in discussion upon any subject against the most eminent men of her generation. She had never made a secret of her Dutch sympathies, nor of her desire to see her countrymen given equal rights with the English all over South Africa. She was on excellent terms with President Kruger, and with President Steyn, whose personality was a far more remarkable one than that of his old and crafty colleague.
The leading South African political men used to meet at Mrs. van Koopman's to discuss the current events of the day. It is related that she was one of the first to bring to the notice of her friends the complications that were bound to follow upon the discovery of the gold fields, and to implore them to define, without delay, the position of the foreign element which was certain to move toward Johannesburg as soon as the news of the riches contained in that region became public property.
If the English Government had considered the matter at once the complications which arose as soon as companies began to be formed would have been less acute. The directors of these concerns imagined themselves to be entitled to displace local government, and took all executive power into their own hands. This would never have happened if firm governmental action had been promptly taken. The example of Kimberley ought to have opened the eyes of the Mother Country, and measures should have been taken to prevent the purely commercial domain of the gold fields from assuming such strident political activities, and little by little dominating not only the Transvaal Republic, but also the rest of South Africa.
Mrs. van Koopman had cherished a great affection for Rhodes. Her age—she was in the sixties—gave an almost maternal character to the tenderness with which she viewed him. He had made her his confidante, telling her all that he meant to do for the welfare of the land which she loved so dearly. She thought he looked upon South Africa with the same feelings of admiration as she did.
The strength of her belief led Mrs. van Koopman to interest all her friends in the career of the young Englishman, who appealed to her imagination as the embodiment of all that was great and good. Her enthusiasm endowed him with many qualities that he did not possess, and magnified those which he really had. When he consulted her as to his future plans she entered closely into their details, discussed with him their chances of success, advised him and used all her influence, which was great, in winning him friends and adherents. She trusted him fully, and, on his part, whenever he returned to Cape Town after one of his yearly visits to Kimberley, or after a few months spent in the solitudes of Rhodesia, his first visit was always to the old and gentle lady, who welcomed him with open arms, words of affection, and sincere as well as devoted sympathy. She had always refused to listen to disparagement of her favourite, and would never allow any of the gruesome details connected with the annexation of Rhodesia to be recited in her presence.
In Mrs. van Koopman's eyes there was only a glorious side to the Rhodesian expedition, and she rejoiced in the renown which it was destined to bring to the man who had conceived and planned it. She fully believed that Rhodes meant to bring English civilisation, English laws, the English sense of independence and respect for individual freedom into that distant land. The fact that lucre lay at the bottom of the expedition never crossed her mind; even if it had she would have rejected the thought with scorn and contempt.
Although the attacks upon Cecil Rhodes increased day by day in intensity and in bitterness, Mrs. van Koopman never wavered in her allegiance. She attributed them to jealousy and envy, and strenuously defended his name. Mrs. van Koopman, too, rejoiced at any new success of Rhodes as if it had been her own. She was the first to congratulate him when the dignity of a Privy Councillor was awarded to him. After the Matabele Rebellion, during which occurred one of the most famous episodes in the life of Rhodes, Mrs. van Koopman had been loud in her praises of the man whom she had been the first to guess would do great things.
The episode to which I refer, when he alone had had the courage to go unattended and unarmed to meet the savage chiefs assembled in the Matoppo Hills, had, by the way, done more than anything else to consolidate the position of the chairman of De Beers in South Africa.
During the first administration of Cape Colony by Mr. Rhodes, when his accession to the premiership had been viewed with a certain suspicion by the Dutch party, Mrs. van Koopman made tremendous efforts to induce them to have full confidence in her protégé. And the attempt succeeded, because even the shrewd Mr. Hofmeyr had at last succumbed to the constant entreaties which she had poured upon him. Thenceforward Mr. Hofmeyr became one of Mr. Rhodes' firm admirers and strong partisans. Under the able guidance of Mrs. van Koopman the relations between the Dutch party and their future enemy became so cordial that at last a singular construction was put upon both sides of the alliance by the opponents of both. The accusation, already referred to, was made against Rhodes that he wished to make for himself in South Africa a position of such independence and strength that even the authority of the Queen might find itself compromised by it. As has been pointed out, the supposition was devoid of truth, but it is quite certain that the then Premier of Cape Colony would not have objected had the suzerainty been placed in his hands by England and British rule in South Africa vested solely in his person.
During a brief interval in his political leadership Rhodes pursued his work in Rhodesia. In those days the famous British South Africa Company, which was to become known as the Chartered Company, was definitely constituted, and began its activity in the new territories which had come under its control. Ere long, though, the tide of events brought him again to the head of the Government. This time, however, though his appointment had been considered as a foregone conclusion, and though very few had opposed it, he no longer met the same sympathetic attention and co-operation which had characterised his first administration of public affairs. The Colony had begun to realise that Mr. Rhodes alone, and left free to do what he liked, or what he believed was right, was very different from Mr. Rhodes under the influence of the many so-called financiers and would-be politicians who surrounded him.
An atmosphere of favouritism and of flattery had changed Rhodes, whom one would have thought far above such small things. Vague rumours, too, had begun to circulate concerning certain designs of the Chartered Company (one did not dare yet mention the name of its chief and chairman) on the Transvaal. Rhodes was directly questioned upon the subject by several of his friends, amongst others by Mr. Schreiner, to whom he energetically denied that such a thing had ever been planned. He added that Doctor Jameson, of whom the man in the street was already speaking as the man who was planning an aggression against the authority of President Kruger, was not even near the frontier of the neighbouring Republic. The mere idea of such a thing, Rhodes emphatically declared to Mr. Schreiner, was nothing but an ill-natured hallucination to create bad blood between the English and the Dutch. His tone seemed so sincere that Mr. Schreiner allowed himself to be convinced, and voluntarily assured his colleagues that he was convinced of the sincerity of the Prime Minister.
The only person who was really alarmed at the persistent rumours which circulated in Cape Town in regard to a possible attack in common accord with the leaders of the Reform movement in Johannesburg against the independence of the Transvaal Republic was Mrs. van Koopman. She knew Rhodes' character too well not to fear that he might have been induced to listen to the misguided advice of people trying to persuade him that the Rhodesian adventure was susceptible of being repeated on a larger and far more important scale, with as much impunity and as little danger as the other one had been. Alarmed beyond words by all that she was hearing, she determined to find out for herself the true state of things, and, trusting to her knowledge of Rhodes' character, she asked him to call upon her.
Rhodes came a few afternoons later, and Mrs. van Koopman closely questioned him on the subject, telling him of the tales which were being circulated not only in Cape Town, but also at Kimberley and Buluwayo and Johannesburg. Rhodes solemnly assured her that they were nothing but malicious gossip, and, taking her hands in his own, he repeated that all she had heard concerning the sinister designs he was supposed to be harbouring against the independence of the Transvaal had absolutely no foundation. To add force to his words, he continued that he respected her far too much to deceive her willingly, and that he would never have risked meeting her and talking with her upon such a subject had there been the slightest ground for the rumours which were disturbing the tranquillity of the inhabitants of Cape Town. When he left her Mrs. van Koopman felt quite reassured.
Next morning Mrs. van Koopman told her anxious friends that she had received such assurances from Rhodes that she could not disbelieve him, and that the best thing which they could do would be to contradict all statements on the subject of a raid on the Transvaal that might come to their ears. This occurred on an after-Christmas evening of the year 1895.
When the decisive conversation which I have just related was taking place between Mrs. van Koopman and Cecil Rhodes, Doctor Jameson and his handful of eager adventurers had already entered Transvaal territory. The Raid had become an accomplished fact. It was soon realised that it was the most deplorable affair that could have occurred for the reputation of Cecil Rhodes and for his political future. The rebound, indeed, was immediate; his political career came to an end that day.
The person who was struck most painfully by this disgraceful and cryingly stupid adventure was Mrs. van Koopman. All her illusions—and she had nursed many concerning Rhodes—were destroyed at one blow. She never forgave him. All his attempts to bring about a reconciliation failed, and when later on he would fain have obtained her forgiveness, she absolutely refused all advances, and declared that she would never consent willingly to look upon his face or listen to his voice again. The proud old woman, whose ideals had been wrecked so cruelly, could not but feel a profound contempt for a man who had thus deliberately lied to her at the very time when she was appealing to his confidence. Her aristocratic instincts arose in indignation at the falsehoods which had been used to dupe her. She would not listen to any excuse, would not admit any extenuating circumstances; and perhaps because she knew in the secret of her heart that she would never be able to resist the pleadings of the man who had thus deceived her, she absolutely refused to see him.
Rhodes never despaired of being restored to her favour, and would have given much to anyone able to induce her to relent in her judgment as to his conduct. Up to the last he made attempts to persuade her to reconsider her decision, but they all proved useless, and he died without having been able to win a forgiveness which he craved for many years.
I used to know Mrs. van Koopman well and to see her often. I admired her much, not only on account of her great talents and of her powerful intellect, but also for the great dignity which she displayed all through the Boer War, when, suspected of favouring the Dutch cause to the extent of holding communications with the rebels all over the Cape Colony, she never committed any indiscretion or gave cause for any direct action against her. For some time, by order of the military authorities, she was placed under police supervision, and her house was searched for papers and documents which, however, were not found—as might have been foreseen.
All through these trying months she never wavered in her attitude nor in her usual mode of life, except that she saw fewer people than formerly—not, as she used playfully to say, because she feared to be compromised, but because she did not wish to compromise others. More than once during my visits I spoke to her of Mr. Rhodes and tried to induce her to relent in her resolution. I even went so far as to tell her that her consent to meet him would, more than anything else, cause him to use all his influence, or what remained of it, in favour of a prompt settlement of the war in a peace honourable to both sides. Mrs. van Koopman smiled, but remained immovable. At last, seeing that I would not abandon the subject, she told me in tones which admitted of no discussion that she had far too much affection for Rhodes not to have been so entirely cut to the core by his duplicity in regard to her and by his whole conduct in that unfortunate matter of the Raid. She could trust him no longer, she told me, and, consequently, a meeting with him would only give her unutterable pain and revive memories that had better remain undisturbed. "Had I cared for him less I would not say so to you," she added, "but you must know that of all sad things the saddest is the destruction of idols one has built for oneself."
This attitude on the part of the one friend he had the greatest affection for was one of the many episodes which embittered Rhodes.