After the Raid, faithful to his usual tactics of making others responsible for his own misdeeds, Cecil Rhodes grew to hate with ferocity all those whose silence and quiet disapproval reminded him of the fatal error into which he had been led. He was loud in his expressions of resentment against Mr. Schreiner and the other members of the Afrikander party who had not been able to conceal from him their indignation at his conduct on the memorable occasion which ruined his own political life. They had compelled him—one judged by his demeanour—to resign his office of Prime Minister at the very time when he was about to transform it into something far more important—to use it as the stepping-stone to future grandeurs of which he already dreamt, although he had so far refrained from speaking about them to others. Curious to say, however, he never blamed the authors of this political mistake, and never, in public at least, reproached Jameson for the disaster he had brought upon him.
What his secret thoughts were on this subject it is easy to guess. Circumstances used to occur now and then when a stray word spoken on impulse allowed one to discern that he deplored the moment of weakness into which he had been inveigled. For instance, during a dinner-party at Groote Schuur, when talking about the state of things prevailing in Johannesburg just before the war, he mentioned the names of five Reformers who, after the Raid, had been condemned to death by President Kruger, and added that he had paid their fine of twenty-five thousand pounds each. "Yes," he continued, with a certain grim accent of satire in his voice, "I paid £25,000 for each of these gentlemen." And when one of his guests tactlessly remarked, "But surely you need not have done so, Mr. Rhodes? It was tacitly admitting that you had been a party to their enterprise!" he retorted immediately, "And if I choose to allow the world to think that such was the case, what business is it of yours?" I thought the man was going to drop under the table, so utterly flabbergasted did he look.
It is, of course, extremely difficult to know what was the actual part played by Rhodes in the Raid. He carried that secret to the grave, and it is not likely that his accomplices will ever reveal their own share in the responsibility for that wild adventure. My impression is that the idea of the Raid was started among the entourage of Rhodes and spoken of before him at length. He would listen in silence, as was his wont when he wished to establish the fact that he had nothing to do with a thing that had been submitted to him. Thus the Raid was tacitly encouraged by him, without his ever having pronounced himself either for or against it.
Rhodes was an extremely able politician, and a far-seeing one into the bargain. He would never have committed himself into an open approval of an attempt which he knew perfectly well involved the rights of nations. On the other hand, he would have welcomed any circumstance which would result in the overthrow of the Transvaal Republic by friends of his. His former successes, and especially the facility with which had been carried out the attachment of Rhodesia to the British Empire, had refracted his vision, and he refused—or failed—to see the difficulties which he might encounter if he wanted to proceed for the second time on an operation of the same kind.
On the other hand, he was worried by his friends to allow them to take decisive action, and was told that everyone in England would approve of his initiative in taking upon himself the responsibility of a step, out of which could only accrue solid advantage for the Mother Country.
Rhodes had been too long away from England, and his sojourns there during the ten years or so immediately preceding 1895 had been far too short for him to have been able to come to a proper appreciation of the importance of public opinion in Great Britain, or of those principles in matters of Government which no sound English politician will ever dare to put aside if he wishes to retain his hold. He failed to understand and to appreciate the narrow limit which must not be overstepped; he forgot that when one wants to perform an act open to certain well-defined objections there must be a great aim in order eventually to explain and excuse the doing of it. The Raid had no such aim. No one made a mistake as to that point when passing judgment upon the Raid. The motives were too sordid, too mean, for anyone to do aught else but pass a sweeping condemnation upon the whole business.
If he did not, Rhodes ought to have known that the public would most certainly pass this verdict on so dark and shameful an adventure, one that harmed England's prestige in South Africa far more than ever did the Boer War. But though perhaps he realised beforehand that this would be the verdict, he only felt a vague apprehension, more as a fancy than from any real sense of impending danger. He had grown so used to see success attend his every step that his imagination refused to admit the possibility of defeat.
As for the people who engaged in the senseless adventure, their motives had none of the lofty ideals which influenced Rhodes himself. They simply wanted to obtain possession of the gold fields of the Transvaal and to oust the rightful owners. President Kruger represented an obstacle that had to be removed, and so they proceeded upon their mad quest without regard as to the possible consequences. Still less did they reflect that in his case they had not to deal with a native chief whose voice of protest had no chance to be heard, but with a very cute and determined man who had means at his disposal not only to defend himself, but also to appeal to European judgment to adjudge an unjustifiable aggression.
Apart from all these considerations, which ought to have been seriously taken into account by Doctor Jameson and his companions, the whole expedition was planned in a stupid, careless manner. No wonder that it immediately came to grief. It is probable that if Rhodes had entered into its details and allowed others to consult him, matters might have taken a different turn. But, as I have already shown, he preferred to be able to say at a given moment that he had known nothing about it. At least, this must have been what he meant to do. But events proved too strong for him. The fiasco was too complete for Rhodes to escape from its responsibilities, though it must be conceded that he never tried to do so once the storm burst. He faced the music bravely enough, perhaps because of the knowledge that no denial would be believed, perhaps also because all the instincts of his, after all, great nature caused him to come forward to take his share in the disgrace of the whole deplorable affair.
Whether he forgave Doctor Jameson for this act of folly remains a mystery. Personally I have always held that there must have un cadavre entre eux. No friendship could account for the strange relations which existed between these two men, one of whom had done so much to harm the other. At first it would have seemed as if an individual of the character of Cecil Rhodes would never have brought himself to forgive his confederate for the clumsiness with which he had handled a matter upon which the reputation of both of them depended, in the present as well as in the future. But far from abandoning the friend who had brought him into such trouble, he remained on the same terms of intimacy as before, with the difference, perhaps, that he saw even more of him than before the Raid. It seemed as if he wanted thus to affirm before the whole world his faith in the man through whom his whole political career had been wrecked.
The attitude of Rhodes toward Jameson was commented upon far and wide. The Dutch party in Cape Town saw in it a mere act of bravado into which they read an acknowledgment that, strong as was the Colossus, he was too weak to tell his accomplices to withdraw from public sight until the ever-increasing difficulties with the Transvaal—which became more and more acute after the Raid—had been settled in some way or other between President Kruger and the British Government. Instead of this Rhodes seemed to take a particular pleasure in parading the trust he declared he had in Doctor Jameson, and to consult him publicly upon almost all the political questions which were submitted to him for consideration. This did not mean that he followed the advice which he received, because, so far as I was able to observe, this was seldom the case.
To add to the contrariness of the situation, Rhodes always seemed more glad than anything else if he heard someone make an ill-natured remark about the Doctor, or when anything particularly disagreeable occurred to the latter. An ironic smile used to light up Rhodes' face and a sarcastic chuckle be heard. But still, whenever one attempted to explain to him that the Raid had been an unforgivable piece of imprudence, or hazarded that Jameson had never been properly punished for it, Rhodes invariably took the part of this friend of his younger days, and would never acknowledge that Doctor Jim's desire to enter public life as a member of the Cape Parliament ought not to be gratified.
On his side, Doctor Jameson was determined that the opportunity to do so should be offered to him, and he used Rhodes' influence in order to obtain election. He knew very well that without it his candidature would have no chance.
Later on, when judging the events which preceded the last two years of Rhodes' life, many people expressed the opinion that Jameson, being a physician of unusual ability, was perfectly well aware that his friend was not destined to live to a very old age, and therefore wished to obtain from him while he could all the political support he required to establish his career as the statesman he fully believed he was. In fact, Doctor Jameson had made up his mind to outlive the odium of the Raid, and to become rehabilitated in public opinion to the extent of being allowed to take up the leadership of the party which had once owned Rhodes as its chief. By a strange freak of Providence, helped no doubt by an iron will and opportunities made the most of, Jameson, who had been the great culprit in the mad adventure of the Raid, became the foremost man in Cape Colony for a brief period after the war, while Rhodes, who had been his victim, bore the full consequences of his weakness in having permitted himself to be persuaded to look through his fingers on the enterprise.
Rhodes never recovered any real political influence, was distrusted by English and Dutch alike, looked upon with caution by the Cape Government, and with suspicion even among his followers. The poor man had no friends worthy of the name, and those upon whom he relied the most were the first to betray his confidence. Unfortunately for himself, he had a profound contempt for humanity, and imagined himself capable of controlling all those whom he had elected to rule. He imagined he could turn and twist anyone according to his own impulses. In support of this assertion let me relate an incident in which I played a part.
When the Boer War showed symptoms of dragging on for a longer time than expected, some Englishmen proposed that Rhodes should be asked to stand again for Prime Minister, to do which he resolutely refused. Opinions, however, were very much divided. Some people declared that he was the only man capable of conciliating the Dutch and bringing the war to a happy issue. Others asserted that his again taking up the reins of Government would be considered by the Afrikander Bond—which was very powerful at the time—as an unjustifiable provocation which would only further embitter those who had never forgiven Rhodes for the Raid.
A member of the Upper House of Legislature, whom I used to see often, and who was a strong partisan of Rhodes, determined to seek advice outside the House, and went to see an important political personage in Cape Town, one of those who frequented Groote Schuur and who posed as one of the strongest advocates of Rhodes again becoming the head of the Government presided over by Sir Alfred Milner. What was the surprise of my friend when, instead of finding a sympathising auditor, he heard him say that he considered that for the moment the return of Rhodes at the head of affairs would only complicate matters; that it was still too soon after the Raid; that his spirit of animosity in regard to certain people might not help to smooth matters at such a critical juncture; and that, moreover, Rhodes had grown very morose and tyrannical, and refused to brook any contradiction. Coming from a man who had no reason to be friendly with Rhodes, the remarks just reported would not have been important, but proceeding from a personage who was continually flattering Rhodes, they struck me as showing such considerable duplicity that I wrote warning Rhodes not to attach too much importance to the protestations of devotion to his person that the individual in question was perpetually pouring down upon him. The reply which I received was absolutely characteristic: "Thanks for your letter. Never mind what X― says. He is a harmless donkey who can always make himself useful when required to do so."
The foregoing incident is enlightening as to the real nature of Cecil Rhodes. His great mistake was precisely in this conviction that he could order men at will, and that men would never betray him or injure him by their false interpretation of the directions which it pleased him to give them. He considered himself so entirely superior to the rest of mankind that it never struck him that inferior beings could turn upon him and rend him, or forget the obedience to his orders which he expected them to observe. He did not appreciate people with independence, though he admired them in those rare moments when he would condescend to be sincere with himself and with others; but he preferred a great deal the miserable creatures who always said "yes" to all his vagaries; who never dared to criticise any of his instructions or to differ from any opinions which he expressed. Sometimes he uttered these opinions with a brutality that did him considerable harm, inasmuch as it could not fail to cause repugnance among any who listened to him, but were not sufficiently acquainted with the peculiarities of his character to discern that he wanted simply to scare his audience, and that he did not mean one single word of the ferocious things he said in those moments when he happened to be in a particularly perverse mood, and when it pleased him to give a totally false impression of himself and the nature of his convictions in political and public matters.
It must not be lost sight of when judging Mr. Rhodes that he had been living for the best part of his life among people with whom he could not have anything in common except the desire to make money in the shortest time possible. He was by nature a thinker, a philosopher, a reader, a man who belonged to the best class of students, those who understand that one's mind wants continually improving and that it is apt to rust when not kept active. His companions in those first years which followed upon his arrival in South Africa would certainly not have appreciated any of the books the reading of which constituted the solace of the young man who still preserved in his mind the traditions of Oxford. They were his inferiors in everything: intelligence, instruction, comprehension of those higher problems of the soul and of the mind which always interested him even in the most troubled and anxious moments of his life. He understood and realised that this was the fact, and this did not tend to inspire him with esteem or even with consideration for the people with whom he was compelled to live and work.
Men like Barney Barnato, to mention only this one name among the many, felt a kind of awe of Cecil Rhodes. This kind of thing, going on as it did for years, was bound to give Rhodes a wrong idea as to the faculty he had of bringing others to share his points of view, and he became so accustomed to be considered always right that he felt surprised and vexed whenever blind obedience was not given. Indeed, it so excited his displeasure that he would at once plunge into a course of conduct which he might never have adopted but for the fact that he had heard it condemned or criticised.
It has been said that every rich man is generally surrounded by parasites, and Cecil Rhodes was not spared this infliction. Only in his case these parasites did not apply their strength to attacks upon his purse; they exploited him for his influence, for the importance which it gave them to be considered by the world as his friends, or even his dependants. They appeared wherever he went, telling the general public that their presence had been requested by the "Boss" in such warm terms that they could not refuse. It was curious to watch this systematic chase which followed him everywhere, even to England. Sometimes this persistency on the part of persons whom he did not tolerate more than was absolutely necessary bored him and put him out of patience; but most of the time he accepted it as a necessary evil, and even felt flattered by it. He also liked to have perpetually around him individuals whom he could bully to his heart's content, who never resented an insult and never minded an insolence—and Rhodes was often insolent.
Another singular feature in a character as complex as it was interesting was the contempt in which he held all those who had risen under his very eyes, from comparative or absolute poverty, to the status of millionaires possessed of houses in Park Lane and shooting boxes in Scotland. He liked to relate all that he knew about them, and sometimes even to mention certain facts which the individuals themselves would probably have preferred to be consigned to oblivion. But—and here comes the singularity to which I have referred—Rhodes would not allow anyone else to speak of these things, and he always took the part of his so-called friends when outsiders hinted at dark episodes which did not admit of investigation. He almost gave a certificate of good conduct to people whom he might have been heard referring to a few hours before in a far more antagonistic spirit than that displayed by those whom he so sharply contradicted.
I remember one amusing instance of the idiosyncrasy referred to. There was in Johannesburg a man who, having arrived there with twenty-five pounds in his pockets—as he liked to relate with evident pride in the fact—had, in the course of two years, amassed together a fortune of two millions sterling. One day during dinner at Groote Schuur he enlarged upon the subject with such offensiveness that an English lady, newly arrived in South Africa and not yet experienced in the things which at the time were better left unsaid, was so annoyed at his persistency that she interrupted the speaker with the remark:
"Well, if I were you, I would not be so eager to let the world know that I had made two millions out of twenty-five pounds. It sounds exactly like the story of the man who says that in order to catch a train at six o'clock in the morning he gets up at ten minutes to six. You know at once that he cannot possibly have washed, whilst your story shows that you could not possibly have been honest."
I leave the reader to imagine the consternation produced among those present by these words. But what were their feelings when they heard Rhodes say in reply:
"Well, one does not always find water to wash in, and at Kimberley this happened oftener than one imagines; as for being honest, who cares for honesty nowadays?"
"Those who have not lived in South Africa, Mr. Rhodes," was the retort which silenced the Colossus.
This man of the get-rich-quick variety was one of those who had mastered the difficult operation of passing off to others the mines out of which he had already extracted most of the gold, an occupation which, in the early Johannesburg days, had been a favourite one with many of the inhabitants of this wonderful town. One must not forget that as soon as the fame of the gold fields of the Transvaal began to spread adventurers hastened there, together with a few honest pioneers, desirous of making a fortune out of the riches of a soil which, especially in prospectuses lavishly distributed on the London and Paris Stock Exchanges, was described as a modern Golconda. Concessions were bought and sold, companies were formed with a rapidity which savoured of the fabulous. Men made not only a living, but also large profits, by reselling plots of ground which they had bought but a few hours before, and one heard nothing but loud praises of this or that mine that could be had for a song, "owing to family circumstances" or other reasons which obliged their owner to part with it.
The individual who had boasted of the intelligent manner with which he had transformed his twenty-five pounds into two solid millions had, early in his career, invested some of his capital in one of these mines. Its only merit was its high-sounding name. He tried for some time without success to dispose of it. At last he happened to meet a Frenchman, newly arrived in Johannesburg, who wanted to acquire some mining property there with the view of forming a company. Our hero immediately offered his own. The Frenchman responded to the appeal, but expressed the desire to go down himself into the shaft to examine the property and get some ore in order to test it before the purchase was completed. The condition was agreed to with eagerness, and a few days later the victim and his executioner proceeded together to the mine. The Frenchman went down whilst Mr. X― remained above. He walked about with his hands in his pockets, smoking cigarettes, the ashes of which he let fall with an apparent negligence into the baskets of ore which were being sent up by the Frenchman. When the latter came up, rather hot and dusty, the baskets were taken to Johannesburg and carefully examined: the ore was found to contain a considerable quantity of gold. The mine was bought, and not one scrap of gold was ever found in it. Mr. X― had provided himself with cigarettes made for the purpose, which contained gold dust in lieu of tobacco, and the ashes which he had dropped were in reality the precious metal, the presence of which was to persuade the unfortunate Frenchman that he was buying a property of considerable value. He paid for it something like two hundred thousand pounds, whilst the fame of the man who had thus cleverly tricked him spread far and wide.
The most amusing part of the story consists in its dénouement. The duped Frenchman, though full of wrath, was, nevertheless, quite up to the game. He kept silence, but proceeded to form his company as if nothing had been the matter. When it was about to be constituted and registered, he asked Mr. X― to become one of its directors, a demand that the latter could not very well refuse with decency. He therefore allowed his name to figure among those of the members of the board, and he used his best endeavours to push forward the shares of the concern of which he was pompously described on the prospectus as having been once the happy owner. As his name was one to conjure with the scrip went up to unheard-of prices, when both he and his supposed victim, the Frenchman, realised and retired from the venture, the richer by several hundreds of thousands of pounds. History does not say what became of the shareholders. As for Mr. X―, he now lives in Europe, and has still a reputation in South Africa.
This story is but one amongst hundreds, and it is little wonder that, surrounded as he was with men who indulged in this charming pastime of always trying to dupe their fellow creatures, Rhodes' moral sense relaxed. It is only surprising that he kept about him so much that was good and great, and that he did not succumb altogether to the contamination which affected everything and everybody around him. Happily for him he cherished his own ambitions, had his own dreams for companions, his absorption in the great work he had undertaken; these things were his salvation. Rhodesia became the principal field of Rhodes' activity, and the care with which he fostered its prosperity kept him too busy and interested to continue the quest for riches which had been his great, if not his principal, occupation during the first years of his stay in South Africa.
Although Cecil Rhodes was so happily placed that he had no need to bother over wealth, he was not so aloof to the glamour of politics. He had always felt the irk of his retirement after the Raid, and the hankering after a leading political position became more pronounced as the episode which shut the Parliamentary door behind him after he had passed through its portals faded in the mind of the people.
It was not surprising, therefore, to observe that politics once more took the upper hand amidst his preoccupations. It was, though, politics connected with the development of the country that bore his name more than with the welfare of the Cape Colony or of the Transvaal. It was only during the last two years of Rhodes' existence that his interest revived in the places connected with his first successes in life. Rhodes had been convinced that a war with the Boers would last only a matter of a few weeks—three months, as he prophesied when it broke out—and he was equally sure, though for what reason it is difficult to guess, that the war would restore him to his former position and power. The illusion lingered long enough to keep him in a state of excitement, during which, carried along by his natural enthusiasm, he indulged in several unconsidered steps, and when at last his hope was dispelled he accused everybody of being the cause of his disappointment. Never for a moment would he admit that he could have been mistaken, or that the war, which at a certain moment his intervention might possibly have avoided, had been the consequence of the mischievous act he had not prevented.
When the Bloemfontein Conference failed Rhodes was not altogether displeased. He had felt the affront of not being asked to attend; and, though his common sense told him that it would have been altogether out of the question for him to take part in it, as this would have been considered in the light of a personal insult by President Kruger, he would have liked to have been consulted by Sir Alfred Milner, as well as by the English Government, as to the course to be adopted during its deliberations. He was fully persuaded in his own mind that Sir Alfred Milner, being still a new arrival in South Africa, had not been able to grasp its complicated problems, and so had not adopted the best means to baffle the intrigues of President Kruger and the diplomacy of his clever colleague, President Steyn. At every tale which reached Cecil Rhodes concerning the difficulties encountered by Sir Alfred, he declared that he was "glad to be out of this mess." Yet it was not difficult to see that he passionately regretted not being allowed to watch from a seat at the council table the vicissitudes of this last attempt by conference to smooth over difficulties arising from the recklessness displayed by people in arrogantly rushing matters that needed careful examination.