The story of the South African gold and diamond fields and of the men who rose to wealth and notoriety as a result of their exploitation has stimulated writers since the 1870s, when diamonds were first discovered. And yet amongst the millions of words there are curious lacunae, particularly in the area of biography. The key figures are Cecil Rhodes, Barney Barnato, Alfred Beit, J.B. Robinson, Solly Joel and Julius Wernher. None has a definitive biography, and on someone such as Beit there is an almost complete silence. This is even more true of the minor figures, such as Rhodes’s henchman Rutherfoord Harris, his partner Charles Rudd, or even Leander Starr Jameson. Paradoxically, there exists a first-rate scholarly account of Rhodes’s involvement with the annexation of Bechuanaland – yet no similar treatment of his life. Even the most recent biography (by J. Flint, 1976) is inadequate on certain areas of his life. If one wants to learn about Neville Pickering, his first private secretary and the great love of his life (Rhodes, in his second will, left his estate to Pickering), one must turn to Brian Roberts’s Cecil Rhodes and the Princess, where, for the first and only time, Pickering’s early life and background are accurately delineated. Other murky areas – Rhodes’s dealings with Lobengula and the Matabele, the formation of the British South Africa Company, the widespread concession racketeering – still await their chroniclers.
As a result, no study of the period or of its protagonists can do without a process of assiduous weeding and winnowing of all manner of sources, from rambunctious Victorian travel books to dry works of Bantu topography. Wheatcroft is particularly good on the financial machinations that went into the making of the vast fortunes achieved at Kimberley and on the Rand. For the history of the gold and diamond fields – superficially a glamorous, adventurous one of strikes and rushes, booms and slumps – is, at a more profound level, a chilly illustration of the working of monopoly capitalism at its most forthright and ruthless. The early diggers were drawn by the lure of quick wealth for a little hard work; those that survived and stayed on were concerned with consolidation. They were essentially financiers and speculators interested solely in profit. What distinguished the men of Kimberley and Johannesburg from the grey souls who populate the world’s stock-exchanges was a robust, frontier insouciance – no veneer of bland decorum had yet had time to form.
People like Beit and Wernher devoted their lives to making phenomenal amounts of money for themselves, and after a while this process ceases to be all that interesting. I had expected that Wheatcroft’s book would fill in the gaps, particularly on Beit, but there is nothing about him in The Randlords that we cannot find elsewhere. It now seems to me that this is not so much a deficiency in Wheatcroft’s research as a shallowness in Beit’s character. He was a timid, portly, extraordinarily hard-working man with superb financial acumen. He associated himself with Rhodes early on in his career and Rhodes came to rely heavily on his judgment. Perhaps there is nothing more to say. Others, such as Barney Barnato and J.B. Robinson, were more flamboyant – almost Gogolian – characters. Barnato was a Cockney Jew who arrived in the early days of the diamond fields with assets consisting of forty rather bad cigars. He became a multi-millionaire with – almost obligatory this, for the South African magnates – a Park Lane mansion. He never lost his accent and was never truly accepted by the high society of the day. Towards the end of his life he became afflicted by paranoias and depressions, and committed suicide by jumping overboard from an Atlantic liner. One story about Barney, which Wheatcroft doesn’t mention, occurred in his heyday. He bought a Millais called Joseph and the Sheep which he hung with due prominence in his Park Lane house. At a reception Barney was loudly asked by an aristocratic society grande dame (presumably to effect some social discomfiture) why he had bought the picture and what was it that made it appealing to him. Barney, goaded and irritated, replied with equal volume: ‘I bought it, madam, because one of the poor fuckin’ sheep looks just like me.’
Barney Barnato, sometimes accused of being a shady operator, was nevertheless a popular figure in the minefields. J.B. Robinson, on the other hand, inspired nothing but hate. After his death in 1929, the Cape Times published an obituary which must rank as one of the most vitriolic ever written. His will, the obituary said, was ‘scandalously repugnant ... it stinks, too, against public decency.’ What provoked the ire was the fact that Robinson’s will set up no trust funds nor benefited the country in any way. Robinson, the Cape Times went on, should serve as a warning: ‘those who in future may acquire great wealth in this country will shudder lest their memories should come within possible risk of rivalling the loathesomeness of the thing that is the memory of Sir Joseph Robinson.’ It is ironic now to reflect that when Rhodes died he was regarded as a national hero. His funeral train passed through the solemn and mourning country as if he were some great monarch being laid to rest. Robinson’s legacy was one of personal bitterness and repugnance. Rhodes’s bequest to his adopted country was altogether more complex and damaging. Rhodes was not only a corrupt and ruthless capitalist who used his ostensible imperialist aims to win large fortunes for himself (he made at least a million pounds out of the creation of Rhodesia): he also laid the foundations of apartheid with his racial legislation when he was Prime Minister of the Cape; and he was directly responsible for the Boer War and all its repercussions, thanks to the fiasco of the Jameson Raid. It is harder to calculate the long-term effects of his actions on the Matabele tribe, and the results of his colonisation north of the Zambezi. It is perhaps sufficient to observe that he and his agents (the good Dr Jameson again) adopted methods no less severe than the United States did in their wars against the plains Indians in the 1870s: the smallpox weapon, the reservation policy, found an echo in Rhodesia.
And yet this man died an imperial hero. If ever there was a case for a revisionist biography, Rhodes positively cries out for one. Wheatcroft makes no attempt to rehabilitate, but holds back from attempting a full analysis. Speculating about the absence of a satisfactory ‘Life of Rhodes’, he asks: ‘Is it because, as hinted in Chapter Nine, and to borrow Gertrude Stein’s words in another context, “there is no there there”? The looming gap between his deeds and his unfathomable personality remains.’ That ‘hinted at’ is revealing, and I think that to preserve ideas of ‘mystery’ and ‘unfathomableness’ does Rhodes too great a favour and lends him an air of glamorous potency. There were, it is true, baffling sides to Rhodes, but in many crucial respects he seems to me entirely transparent.
Wheatcroft illuminates one significant fact early on. ‘Even in a rough age,’ he observes, ‘standards of financial morality on the diamond fields were low.’ This is almost a euphemism. The key to Rhodes’s character lies in the fact that his education – unusually for a boy of his class – was in the polyglot graft and corruption of the diggings. Rhodes left school at 16, moreover; unlike the other Englishmen of his class, he was not a public schoolboy. He did not possess that protective veneer which years in a single-sex boarding school provide. When he finally entered the English educational system – Oxford – it was as a mature young man with several years in the diggings behind him. He had, in fact, more in common with the working-class financiers – Barnato, Joel – than with the English ‘gents’ he messed with. We are inclined to see Rhodes as typically middle-class (father a vicar, brothers at Eton and Winchester, Oxford education), but it is more instructive to see him as an East End wide boy in disguise. He was street wise. The history of his career is of a man who gets what he wants by whatever means is most effective. Sometimes it was charm, sometimes guile, sometimes main force, sometimes bribery and corruption. ‘Tell me a man’s ambitions,’ he said, ‘and I will tell you his price.’
Wheatcroft refers to a bribery case of 1876. The facts are more complex than he has space to make them. At that time, the diamond fields were in one of their slumps. Rhodes and his partner Rudd were very nearly broke, and they diversified into ancillary professions. The price of diamonds was low, mining was often impossible for months on end because of massive mud slides and cave-ins. Diggers were leaving Kimberley in their hundreds. Rhodes hung on, selling ice-creams in the market square. Then he decided to attempt to gain pumping contracts from the various mining boards. First he needed a pump. He used charm. He spent a week persuading a Boer farmer to part with a new pump he had just installed on his farm. The man refused to sell, but through bull-headed persistence and by promising more and more money (which he did not have) Rhodes got his way. Again and again he was to persuade people into courses of action to which they were implacably opposed. It was his greatest skill.
Having secured his pump, he got a contract in one of the smaller mines. He then bribed a mining engineer in charge of the pumps in De Beers’ mine to damage them – thereby allowing Rhodes and Rudd to come to the rescue. This skulduggery came inadvertently to light during the deliberations of an official committee of inquiry into miners’ grievances. At the time it made a huge scandal. Rhodes effectively silenced it by suing the engineer (a Mauritian called Heuteau) for perjury. The case was called in court, then the charge was suddenly dropped. As Wheatcroft implies, this was achieved by collusion between Rhodes and the public prosecutor, Sidney Shippard – later, significantly, executor of Rhodes’s will. At the time of the trial, Rhodes and Shippard were living in the same mess. Heuteau’s allegation had been neutered by being transferred from a court of inquiry to a court of law. There, with Shippard conniving, the matter was swiftly settled. Rhodes dropped his case against the hapless Mauritian (who never raised the matter again). Shippard was well rewarded for his aid. Rhodes was tarnished, but free to operate, and, eventually, got the De Beers pumping contract. The same modus operandi appears again and again in his short but very busy life. To take an example not generally known: when Rhodes was negotiating with Lobengula, king of the Matabele, for a mining concession and the king was proving intractable, Rhodes drew up a contract with one Frank Johnson (an adventurer who was to lead the pioneer column to found Rhodesia) for the killing of Lobengula. Johnson revealed this in his autobiography, Great Days, and reproduced the contract. But the relevant chapter was withdrawn from the published manuscript, though the typescript still resides in a state archive in Harare. It is an astonishing document and reads like something from a CIA covert-operations file. (One has constantly to remember that this was the beginning of the British South Africa Company – lengthy negotiations with the Colonial Office eventually secured Rhodes a Royal Charter.) Johnson writes in the chapter:
I had an open mind as to the procedure after securing the king and his entourage. We might make a complete job of it by killing Lobengula and smashing each military kraal ... The contract went on to promise me the sum of £150,000 (a vast sum – multiply by 25 to get some idea of its contemporary value) if I succeeded. If I failed (and presumably was killed) I got nothing but provision for my widow. I was also to have my BE shares exchanged for Chartered company shares ... I still believe the coup would have succeeded – I had the support of such splendid men – but, alas!, it had to be dropped like a hot potato.
Because news of it leaked out and Rhodes (who was Prime Minister at the time) was arraigned before the Governor of the Cape. Rhodes denied everything, and Johnson adds: ‘I was then taken to Government house to confirm Rhodes’s innocence.’ And so, he concludes, the ‘scheme for the forcible occupation of Rhodesia failed, but only for a short time. It was not long before once more, and this time successfully, I became involved in a fresh attempt to capture Rhodes’s hinterland.’
Here we see the thought processes behind the Jameson Raid. We might indeed have had a Johnson’s raid to capture Matabeleland had Rhodes not been pre-empted. It must have seemed like a good idea, and he saved it up for another time. Notice, too, Johnson’s references to shares. Shares were the currency with which Rhodes bought men. Dr Jameson left his lucrative practice (£5000 p.a.) in Kimberley to work for Rhodes, first as negotiator with Lobengula, then as Governor of Rhodesia. Why? For shares in Rhodes’s company, not for any imperialist’s dream. Wheatcroft is very good at illuminating the somewhat arcane workings of the various stock-markets and the financial scams that went on. The most common method was insider dealing – what was known as the ‘ground-floor issue’. Stock of a new company was allocated to friends – the ‘vendor’s allocation’ – the shares were floated, and in the bullish conditions that surrounded South African shares they could be sold again within days for enormous profits.
Rhodes himself was a past master at this. When he eventually secured the mining concession from Lobengula – known as ‘the Rudd Concession’ after Rhodes’s partner – he knew he could gain the Royal Charter he so desperately needed, both to finance his pioneer expedition and to give him the administrative power and licence he required. Delicate negotiations ensued between the British South Africa Company, as Rhodes called his new venture, and the British Government in the form of the Colonial Office. Rhodes lied constantly throughout. He assured the Colonial Office that the BSA owned the Rudd Concession. Without this assurance the Charter would not have been granted. The BSA was a public company, with shares publicly quoted, and the value of those shares consisted precisely in the fact that the BSA owned the Rudd Concession. But it didn’t. The Rudd Concession was owned by a company called the Central Search Company who leased the concession to the BSA in return for 50 per cent of BSA’s profits. Who were the directors of Central Search? Rhodes, Rudd, Beit, Rochefort MacGuire (an Oxford friend who worked for Rhodes), and two men called Cawston and Gifford (rival concession hunters who had been, in Rhodes’s favourite phrase, ‘squared’). Surreptitiously, Central Search became the United Concessions Company. Two years later United Concessions sold the Rudd Concession to BSA for £1 million (Wheatcroft says £2 million – either way multiply by 25). It was a blatant and unscrupulous sequence of frauds: first, and fatally, on Lobengula and the Matabele, second on the City of London Stock Exchange, third on the shareholders of BSA, and finally on the Government of the United Kingdom. Rhodes painted another part of the map red and made a vast profit for himself and his cronies.
His career was a catalogue of similar delinquencies: some of them notorious, as with the collusion with Chamberlain over the Jameson Raid (they both brazenly lied under oath to a Parliamentary Committee), some of them less well-known, such as the falsification of a smallpox epidemic in Kimberley in 1883, where a diagnosed smallpox epidemic was re-diagnosed (on Rhodes’s instructions) by a committee of doctors led by, yes, the good Dr Jameson as ‘a bulbous disease allied to pemphigus’ (no such disease exists). The quarantine camps were taken down, inoculation more or less ceased, and black labour continued to flow into the mines (they would never have come if there was smallpox). There were hundreds of deaths, black and white, before health inspectors managed to have quarantine and innoculation reintroduced.
Some people did see Rhodes as he really was. One was Henry Labouchère, who described Rhodes as ‘a vulgar promoter masquerading as a patriot and the figurehead of a gang of financiers with whom he divided the profits’. Yet there is no denying there was something phenomenal about him that distinguishes him from the other Randlords, and which accounts for the horrible fascination he exerts. In the 1890s he could claim to be the richest man in the world. Quite apart from his assets (De Beers had the virtual monopoly of the world’s diamonds), his salary from the company was £200,000 a year, while from his gold fields of South Africa Company he earned between three and four hundred thousand a year. Share dealings and directorships would have brought his annual income up to a million. Multiply by 25.
After the Jameson Raid, Chamberlain had occasion to reflect on his lucky escape. His heartfelt words still possess an eerie aptness: ‘What is there in South Africa, I wonder, that makes blackguards of all who get involved in its politics?’