The occult power exercised by the League on the inner politics of South Africa could not fail to impress Sir Alfred Milner most unpleasantly. Frank himself, it must have often been absolutely repulsive to him to have to do with people whom he feared to trust and who believed that they could bring into political life the laxities of the mining camp. Though not aware of it, even before he landed in Cape Town the Progressives had made up their minds to represent him as determined to sweep the Dutch off the face of the earth.
Believing Sir Alfred to be the confederate of Rhodes, the Boers, too, would have nothing to do with him. Whilst the Bloemfontein Conference was going on President Kruger, as well as the leaders of the Afrikander Bond, were overwhelmed with covert warnings to distrust the High Commissioner. Whence they emanated is not a matter of much doubt. Sir Alfred was accused of wanting to lay a trap for the Boer plenipotentiaries, who were told to beware of him as an accomplice of Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, whose very name produced at Pretoria the same effect as a red rag upon a bull. Under these circumstances the Conference was bound to fail, and the High Commissioner returned to Cape Town, very decidedly a sadder and most certainly a wiser man.
Now that years have passed since the Boer War it is possible to secure a better perspective, in the light of which one can question whether it would have been possible to avoid the conflict by an arrangement of some kind with the Boer Republics, Personally, I believe that an understanding was not out of the question if the strong financial interests had not opposed its accomplishment; but at the same time a patched up affair would not have been a happy event for either South Africa or for England. It would have left matters in almost the same condition as they had been before, and the millionaires, who were the real masters on the Rand, would have found a dozen pretexts to provoke a new quarrel with the Transvaal Government. Had the Boer Executive attempted to do away with the power of the concerns which ruled the gold mines and diamond fields, it would have courted a resistance with which it would have been next to impossible to deal. The war would still have taken place, but it might have occurred at a far less favourable moment. No arrangement with President Kruger, even one most propitious to British interests, could have done away with the corruption and the bribery which, from the first moment of the discovery of the gold fields, invaded that portion of South Africa, and this corruption would always have stood in the way of the establishment of the South African Union.
Sir Alfred Milner knew all this very well, and probably had an inward conviction, notwithstanding his efforts to prevent the war, that a conflict was the only means of breaking these chains of gold which shackled the wheels of progress. At so critical a time the support of Rhodes and his party would have been invaluable. And Sir Alfred would have welcomed it. Cecil Rhodes, of course, had declared himself officially in accord with the High Commissioner, and even praised him to a degree of fulsomeness. But the ulterior motive was simply to excite the Dutch party against him. The reputation of Sir Alfred Milner as a statesman and as a politician was constantly challenged by the very people who ought to have defended it. Rhodes himself had been persuaded that the Governor harboured the most sinister designs against his person. The innuendo was one of the most heinous untruths ever invented by his crowd of sycophants.
An opportunity came my way, by which I was able to convince myself how false was the belief nourished by Rhodes against Milner. During the course of a conversation with Sir Alfred, I boldly asked him whether he was really such an enemy of Rhodes as represented. I was surprised by the moderate tone in which he replied to my, after all, impertinent question. The remarks which we then exchanged filled me with the greatest admiration for the man who so nobly, and so worthily, upheld British prestige in South Africa under the most trying circumstances. Milner was an entirely honest man—the rarest thing in the whole of Cape Town at that anxious period—and after one had had the advantage of discussing with him the political situation, one could only be filled with profound respect for him and for his opinions, actions and conduct. Far from working against Rhodes, as Sir Alfred had been represented to me as doing, I convinced myself that he was keenly anxious to be on good and, what is more important, on sincere terms with him. Sir Alfred had not the slightest feeling of animosity against the Dutch. On the contrary, he would have liked them to become persuaded of his desire to protect them against possible aggression by the Jingoes, whose offensive conduct none more than himself assessed at its true value.
But what was the real situation? He found his every action misconstrued; whatever he did was interpreted in a wrong sense, and those who should have shared his aims were plotting against him. The position was truly tragic from whatever side it was viewed, and a weaker or less honest man would assuredly have given up the struggle.
A few days after my conversation with Sir Alfred Milner, which took place during the course of a dinner at Government House, I took opportunity to mention it to Rhodes. I tried to clear his mind of the suspicions that I knew he entertained in regard to the High Commissioner. Cecil Rhodes listened to me with attention, then asked me in that sarcastic tone of his, which was so intensely disagreeable and offensive, whether I was in love with Sir Alfred, as I had so suddenly become his champion. Then he ended, "You are trying to make me believe the impossible." I did not allow him, however, to ruffle me, as evidently was his desire, but replied that when one came to know better those whom one had only met occasionally, without ever having talked with them seriously, it was natural to amend one's opinion accordingly. I told him, too, that my earlier misapprehension had been intensified by a certain lady who posed as Rhodes' greatest friend, and who had been loud in her denunciations of the High Commissioner, long before I had ever met him. But now, I added, I had come to the conclusion that Sir Alfred had been terribly maligned.
At this point Rhodes interrupted me with the remark: "So you think that he is a paragon. Well, I won't contradict you, and, besides, you know that I have always defended him; but still, with all his virtues, he has not yet found out what he ought to do with me."
"What can one do with you, Mr. Rhodes?" I asked with a smile.
"Leave me alone," was the characteristic reply, in a tone which was sufficient for me to follow the advice, as it meant that the man was getting restive and might at any moment break out into one of those fits of rage which he so often used as a means to bring to an end a conversation in which he felt that he might not come out as victor.
A few days later a rabid Rhodesian who happened to be staying at Groote Schuur approached me. "You have been trying to convert Mr. Rhodes to Sir Alfred," he remarked.
"I have done nothing of the kind," I said. "I am not a preacher, but I have been telling Mr. Rhodes that he was mistaken if he thought that he had an enemy in the High Commissioner."
"Had you any reason to suppose that he considered him one?" was the unexpected question.
"Well, from what I have seen it seemed to me that you have all been doing your best to persuade him that such was the case," I retorted, "and why you should have done so passes my comprehension."
The conversation dropped, but the incident confirmed me in my opinion that strong forces were at work to sow enmity between Rhodes and Sir Alfred Milner for fear the influence of the High Commissioner might bring Rhodes to look at things differently. As things stood at the moment, Rhodes was persuaded that the High Commissioner hated him, was jealous of him, wanted him out of his path, and never meant to allow him under any circumstances whatever to have any say in the settlement of South African affairs. This conviction, which was carefully nourished from the outside, evoked in his mind an absurd and silly rage to which no man of common sense, unblinded by vanity, could have fallen victim. I would not be so foolish as to deny to the famous Life Governor of De Beers either abundant common sense or outstanding intelligence, but here was a man gifted with genius who, under the impulse of passion, could act and speak like a child.
Rhodes looked upon the High Commissioner as a nuisance unfortunately not to be set aside. What exasperated him, especially in regard to the High Commissioner, was the fact that he knew quite well that Sir Alfred Milner could assume the responsibility for concluding peace when that time arrived. Rhodes always hoped that his personal influence on the English, as well as among the Bond party, would enable him to persuade the leaders of the rebel movement in Cape Colony to lay down their arms and to leave their interests in his hands. Should such a thing have happened, Rhodes thought that such a success as this would efface the bad impression left by the Raid. He grudgingly admitted that that wild adventure had not pleased people, but he always refused to acknowledge that it was the one great and unredeemable mistake of his life. I remember once having quoted to him the old French motto which in the Middle Ages was the creed of every true knight:
"Mon âme à Dieu,
Mon bras au roi,
Mon coeur aux dames,
L'honneur à moi!"
"Ah, yes! In those times one could still think about such things," he simply remarked, which proved to me that he had no comprehension of the real sense of the beautiful words. The higher attributes of mind did not trouble him either in the hours of his greatest triumphs or in the moments when Fortune ceased to smile upon him. He thought he had something far better: ambition, love of domination, the desire to eclipse everybody and everything around him. I do not mention money, because Rhodes did not care for money intrinsically.
Yet the man was great in spite of all his defects. Particularly in the rein he gave to his thoughts during nights spent in the solitude of the karroo, when the stars were almost the only things which he could look upon, their immensity the only companion worthy of himself. One could almost believe Cecil Rhodes was possessed of a dual personality. At one moment he lived in the skies in regard to his own future prospects and the great deeds he wished to perform, about which he never ceased to think. The next he was on this earth, dabbling in the meannesses of humanity, taking a vicious pleasure in noticing the evil about him and too frequently succeeding, somehow, in wounding the feelings of those who liked him best, and then wondering how it happened that he had so few friends.
On account of these characteristics, notwithstanding all his wonderful faculties, Cecil Rhodes will never remain an historical figure like the Count of Egmont during the Revolt of the Netherlands, or Mirabeau at the time of the French Revolution. Undoubtedly he achieved great things, but nothing truly beautiful. I do not think that even the warmest of his admirers can ever say that the organising and amalgamation of De Beers or the conquest of Matabeleland had anything beautiful about them. Still, they were triumphs which no one except himself could have achieved. He undoubtedly erected an edifice the like of which had never been seen in modern times, and he opened to the ambitions and to the greed of the world new prospects, new sources of riches, which caused very many to look upon him as truly the god of material success.
Rhodes can be said to have revolutionised Society by bringing to the social horizon people who, but for the riches he placed within reach of their grasping fingers, would never have been able to emerge from their uncultured obscurity.
People have said to me, "How generous was Rhodes!" Yes, but always with a shade of disdain in the giving which hurt the recipients of his charity. One of the legends in the Cape is that half those whom Rhodes helped had been his victims at one time or the other.
It was no wonder that Cecil Rhodes was an embittered man when one reflects how many curses must have been showered upon his head. The conquest of Matabeleland had not gone by without evoking terrible enmities; and the amalgamation of De Beers, in consequence of which so many people who had spent thousands of pounds in acquiring plots of ground where they had hoped to find diamonds, and who had later to part from them for a mere song, were among the things never forgiven him by those whom the speculations had ruined. Later on came the famous Bill which he caused to be adopted in both Houses of Legislature concerning the illicit buying of diamonds, the I.D.B. Act.
The I.D.B. enactment destroyed one of the fundamental principles in British legislature which always supposes a man to be innocent until he has been proved guilty. It practically put the whole of Cape Colony under the thumb of De Beers. The statute was not wisely framed. It could be invoked to remove persons whose presence in Kimberley was inconvenient. Therefore the I.D.B. Act drew on the head of Rhodes and of his colleagues torrents of abuse. It is, unfortunately, certain that cases happened where diamonds were hidden surreptitiously among the effects of certain persons who had had the imprudence to say too loudly that they meant to expose the state of things existing in Kimberley; and in consequence innocent men were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment.
I heard one story in particular which, if true, throws a terrible light on the state of affairs in the Diamond City. A young man of good connections, who had arrived from England to seek his fortune in South Africa, was engaged in Kimberley at a small salary by one of the big diamond mining concerns. After about three or four months' sojourn he felt so disgusted that he declared quite loudly that as soon as he could put by sufficient money to pay his passage back to Europe he would do so, there to make it the business of his life to enlighten his compatriots as to what was going on in South Africa. He threatened, too, to warn his countrymen against those who used to deluge England with prospectuses praising, in exalted terms, the wonderful state of things existing in South Africa and dilating upon the future prospects of Cape Colony. Old residents warned him he would do better to restrain his wrath until he was out of reach of interested parties; he did not listen to them, with the result that one morning detectives appeared in the house where he lodged, searched his room, and—found some diamonds hidden in a flower pot of geraniums which was standing in his window and which the daughter of his landlady had given him that very morning. No protestations of the unhappy young fellow availed him. He was taken to Cape Town and condemned to seven years' imprisonment, the end of which he did not live to see, as he died a few months after he had been sentenced.
The story was freely current in South Africa; and, true or not, it is unquestionable that a large number of persons suffered in consequence of the I.D.B. Act, no more serious proofs being offered that they had taken or concealed diamonds than the fact that the stones had been found in unlikely places in their rooms. Books without number have been written about the I.D.B. Act, a great number evidently evincing hatred or revenge against Mr. Rhodes and his lieutenants.
The famous De Beers Company acquired a position of overwhelming strength in the social, economical and political life of South Africa, where practically it secured control of everything connected with finance and industry. De Beers built cold storage rooms, a dynamite factory, ice houses, interested itself in agriculture, fruit-growing, farming and cattle-breeding all over the Colony. It managed to acquire shares in all the new mining enterprises whether in the Transvaal or in Rhodesia. Politically it controlled the elections, and there were certain districts in the Cape Colony where no candidate unsupported by De Beers could hope to be elected to a seat in Parliament. The company had its own police, while its secret service was one of the most remarkable in the world, having among its archives a record of the private opinions of all the people enjoying any kind of eminence in the country. In presence of De Beers the Governor himself was overshadowed; indeed, I do not think that if the Home Government had tried to oppose the organisation it would have had much chance of coming out on top.
Sir Alfred Milner was the first man who saw that it would be impossible for England to have the last word in South Africa unless those who, both in Cape Colony and in the Transvaal, were the real masters of the situation were broken, and financial concerns persuaded to occupy themselves solely with financial matters. Though Sir Alfred was wise enough, and prudent enough, not to allow his feelings on the subject to become public property, Rhodes was shrewd enough to guess that he would encounter a resolute adversary in the person of the High Commissioner. Perhaps had he kept his suspicions to himself instead of communicating them to others he might have been persuaded in time to recognise that there was a great deal in the opinions which Sir Alfred held as to the participation of financial organisations in political matters. If only each could have had a chance for a frank understanding, probably Milner would not have objected to Rhodes continuing to control the vast machine into which the diamond mines amalgamation had grown, so long as it confined its operations to commerce.
If Government is exercised by a single person it is possible for it to possess the elements of justice and equity, and to be carried out with few mistakes of such gravity as would compromise the whole system. But, unfortunately, the South African autocracy meant an army of small autocrats, and it was they who compromised Rhodes and then sheltered themselves behind his gigantic personality from the unpopularity and detestation which their actions aroused in the whole of South Africa.
I feel personally convinced that if, during the period which immediately followed upon the relief of Kimberley and of Lady smith, Rhodes had approached Sir Alfred and frankly told him that he wanted to try his luck with the Dutch party, and to see whether his former friends and colleagues of the Afrikander Bond could not be induced to listen to reason, the High Commissioner would have been only too glad to meet him and to explain his views on the whole question. Instead of doing so, Rhodes, carried away as he always was by this everlasting desire to be the first everywhere, did not even give a thought to the wisdom of confiding to anyone the efforts which he undoubtedly made to induce the Bond leaders to trust him again.
There was a moment when things got very near to an understanding between Rhodes and Sir Alfred. This was when Mr. Sauer himself entertained the thought of letting Rhodes sway the future by making with the English Government conditions of a peace which would not wound to the quick the feelings of the Dutch part of the population of the Colony.
A circumstance, apparently insignificant, destroyed all the hopes that had been entertained by several who wished the Colossus well. Certain papers were brought to Rhodes; these contained information likely to prove of use to him as well as to the English Government. After he had read them he asked that they should be left with him until the following day. The person in charge of the documents had been asked not to part with them even for a single hour, as it was important that no one should be able to copy documents which might seriously compromise certain people. Therefore, she refused. Rhodes thereupon flew into a terrible passion and demanded to know the reason for the apparent distrust. When told that it was not so much a question of distrust as the impossibility of breaking a promise once given, he exclaimed that he would have nothing more to do with the whole business, and started almost immediately afterwards his agitation for the suspension of the Constitution in Cape Colony. But—and this is an amusing detail to note—Rhodes used every possible effort to obtain possession of the papers he had been allowed to see, going so far as to have the house searched of the person who had refused to allow him to keep the documents—a revenge which was as mean as it was useless, because the papers in question had been at once returned to their rightful owners.
The request made by Rhodes to keep these documents produced a very bad impression on those who had begun to entertain hopes that he might be induced to throw the weight of his personality into the scale of a settlement. It confirmed the suspicions held by the Afrikander party ever since the Raid.
They say that everyone is afforded once the chance of one's lifetime. In the case of Rhodes, he certainly missed by that action the one opportunity of reinstating himself once again upon the pinnacle whence the adventure of Doctor Jameson had caused him to fall.
I remember that whilst these events were going on a political man, well acquainted with all details of the endeavour to secure a reconciliation between the Afrikander Bond and Rhodes, came to see me one evening. We talked over the whole situation. He told me that there were people who thought it would be a good thing to inform Sir Alfred Milner of what was going on, in the hope that he might give Rhodes an inkling that he knew that intrigue was rife at Groote Schuur, and at the same time express to Rhodes with what satisfaction he personally would view the good offices of the Colossus to influence both the South African League and the Afrikander Bond. But we agreed that it was quite impossible. Such a course would not inspire the High Commissioner with an exalted idea as to our morality in matters of trust, and, besides, it would not be playing the game in regard to Rhodes and his group. So the matter dropped; but Rhodes suspected, and never forgave us or any of those whose thoughts ran on the same lines.
Whether Sir Alfred Milner ever learned who had been trying to persuade the master of Groote Schuur to seek his co-operation in what would have been the noblest deed of Rhodes' life, I have not been able to ascertain to the present day. To tell the truth, I never tried to do so, the matter having lost all interest except as a matter of history.