The Secret of Bishop’s Stortford

Dan Jacobson

It was not a pilgrimage that took us to Bishop’s Stortford, but simply a search for lunch. Once in the little town, however, we were reminded of what we had known and then forgotten: that it was the birthplace of Cecil John Rhodes. Moreover, we were told that the house in which Rhodes was born had been turned into a museum. Since my wife had been born in Rhodesia, and I had grown up in Kimberley, we felt we had no choice in the matter: we had to go and visit it.

To grow up in Kimberley in the Thirties and Forties was to see Rhodes’s portrait – in the sepia colours of Victorian photographs, or in oils, or in metal – everywhere. It looked down from the walls of the Kimberley Public Library; it looked up from the pages of history textbooks; it hung twenty feet high above an equestrian statue in the Victoria Crescent, a focal point of the town’s traffic; it appeared among the pictures of forgotten cricket teams and visiting royalty outside the headmaster’s office at school; every memoir of ‘the good old days’ which was published in the Diamond Fields Advertiser included a picture of the memorialist lounging with Rhodes under a thorn tree, or sitting next to him in a wood and leather chair, at a shining table, under a four-bladed fan. True-blue, patriotic, imperialist, English-speaking Kimberley had been his town. All its diamond mines and mine-dumps, all its headgear, all its waste spaces fenced with barbed-wire, all its trams, even all its sports facilities, had then belonged to the De Beers Consolidated Mines, which had belonged to him; sometimes the same seemed to be true of its heat, its sand, its tin-roofed houses. The convent school, three blocks away from my house, had been the hotel in which he had lived while Kimberley was besieged, during the Anglo-Boer War; a doctor’s surgery opposite the Kimberley Club had once been his home; the offices of what had been the original De Beers company, before Rhodes’s amalgamation of all the Kimberley mines, could be peeped into on the way to the swimming-bath nearest my father’s place of work. There, too, one was confronted by an elaborately-framed portrait. Down-turned moustache, above a small, pouting mouth, also down-turned; penetrating, pale-looking eyes and weary cheeks; something brutal, neurotic and calculating within the gaze; neatly arranged hair, almost finicking in its oiled exactitude, which did not diminish the effect of size and authority and great age.

He died, in fact, at the age of 49, a year younger than I am now. But then, he had been an entrepreneur at 18; a millionaire in his twenties; a prime minister in his thirties; a man revered and in disgrace in his last decade. These were just a few of the vicissitudes of his life. One thinks of his illnesses, and of the energies those illnesses released, until they finally killed him; of the degree he took at Oxford when he had already made his fortune on the diamond fields (travelling in the long vacations to and from Kimberley, a journey of several weeks’ duration each way, in order to look after his business interests); of the handsome young men he befriended, kept around him, and exploited; of the women he avoided; of the Jews he favoured as partners in business; of the ever-growing megalomania of his political designs. Just as the fortune he made from diamonds became a means to further his political ambitions, so he was eventually to use the premiership of the Cape Colony to try to build an empire that stretched far beyond Southern Africa. Dragging behind him a protesting Cape government and an unwilling Colonial Office in London, spending his own money and that of his shareholders pretty much as he pleased, he organised the British occupation of Bechuanaland (now Botswana); of Southern Rhodesia (soon to become Zimbabwe); of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia); of Nyasaland (now Malawi). He instigated the Jameson Raid to overthrow Paul Kruger’s Boer republic in the Transvaal; he helped to develop the Witwatersrand goldfields; he returned again and again to the idea of setting up a ‘secret society’, which would bring about the domination of the world by ‘the Anglo-Saxon race’.

The house of his birth is a wide, white, stuccoed place, of early 19th-century construction, handsomely proportioned and imposingly pedimented above its main doorways. Behind it is a larger brick structure, built in 1963 as a ‘Commonwealth Centre’, containing big, bare rooms, upstairs and down, like dance-halls or convention-rooms in a newish provincial hotel. Equipped with the inevitable public-address systems and stack-away chairs, these halls are not used for the transaction of Commonwealth business: the posters on the wall showed that they are rented out for local discos and bring-and-buy sales. (What made the builders imagine, as late as 1963, that the newly ‘liberated’ Commonwealth countries of Africa and elsewhere would wish to meet in the house of Rhodes, the arch-imperialist?) On the Friday afternoon of our call – and we spent a good hour or more there – we were its only visitors; the woman in charge had to unlock the doors for our benefit; the visitors’ book showed that the last callers had been there days before us.

The most prominent objects in the foyer were a pair of couches, made of a distinctively African wood, which had been presented ‘by the Citizens of Kimberley in Memory of a Great Fellow Citizen and Fellow South African’. On the landing upstairs was another couch of similar construction: this one had been presented by the citizens of Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia. Then we went through a door into the vestibule of the museum proper, which contained a large glass case full of African bric-à-brac of the kind everyone at home used to collect in a random fashion: an assegai or two, wooden ornaments and knobkerries, pieces of beadwork and crudely carved ivory, a plate with Rhodes’s face upon it, commemorating the 1953 Rhodes Centenary Exhibition, a typewritten poem extolling Rhodes’s achievements. Immediately beyond the vestibule was a room dominated by a magnificent four-poster bed. In it the wife of the vicar of Bishop’s Stortford had given birth to her nine sons and one daughter. The basket-cradle in which the future empire-builder had swung to and fro stood at the foot of the bed, next to one of the twisted barley-sugar posts that held up the canopy.

At that point the lady who had admitted us saw that we were going to make a long stay, and left us to our own devices. We went through all the rooms, each one of which (roughly speaking) is devoted to a particular phase in his career, from his days as a schoolboy cricketer in the local grammar school to his burial at the site he had chosen for his grave, in the Matopos Hills outside Bulawayo. (Characteristically enough, the site was given the name ‘World’s View’.) There are scores of photographs on the walls: Rhodes digging for diamonds; Rhodes camping; Rhodes negotiating; Rhodes orating; Rhodes statesmanlike; Rhodes rough-and-ready; Rhodes in Cape Town gazing northwards into the uttermost distances of Africa; Rhodes in Cairo likewise, facing south this time. There are photocopies of letters and other documents; there are rather feeble dioramas, with buttons that pointlessly light up things like the site of Lobengula’s kraal in Bulawayo, and the tent nearby in which Rhodes emissaries were camped. There are also various pictures and little biographies of his collaborators and enemies, the people with whom he negotiated treaties and concessions which were intended to settle for centuries, if not forever, the disposition of vast tracts of Africa.

Inevitably, I spent the longest time in the rooms devoted to Kimberley: both the Kimberley of Rhodes’s time and of today. (Well, of 1963, to be more exact.) Where else in Britain could I see, among much else, a three-dimensional scale model of the town, or a blow-up of an aerial photograph in which I could pick out landmarks that remain more deeply familiar to me than any others have since managed to become? The city is not the same place today as it was during my boyhood, let alone as it was in Rhodes’s day: for one thing, the despised Boers have more or less inherited it, for the time being anyway, and the English language is not all that often heard within it. But many of its streets and public buildings remain unchanged, and so do the gaping holes of the mines, and so does the scorched, empty veld that stretches endlessly away from it in every direction.

It was a dislocating experience to come upon all this so unexpectedly, in an English market-town I had had no intention of visiting: the face, the landscapes, the documents, the recognisable, threadbare styles of political and even architectural rhetoric which had become part of my earliest recollections, before I could know that I was accumulating them. In the meantime my wife lingered in the Rhodesian rooms, though for her the connection between what was represented on the walls and what she could recall was a more tenuous one – more a matter of names and myths than of vivid, iconic memories. The last document I looked at was a copy of one of Rhodes’s many wills, in which he spoke of the destiny of the Anglo-Saxon race, not merely to occupy ‘the whole of Africa’, but to assume the management of the entire globe; and of the importance of setting up his secret society to achieve this aim, after the manner, as the document puts it, of ‘the Romish church’.

Then we had to call the lady in charge to unlock the doors and let us out. In the late autumn sunshine which fell upon the rather mean streets of grey brick houses around the museum (with an immense gasometer immediately behind it), the Anglo-Saxon citizens of Bishop’s Stortford, together with a sprinkling of folk from other racial stocks, went about their business. No doubt the grandparents and great-grandparents of these Anglo-Saxons had admired Rhodes, and some perhaps had fought in the campaigns he had staged, ostensibly on their behalf. But it was not easy to discern among them the ambition to rule the world.

When he had fallen into disgrace after the failure of the Jameson Raid, Rhodes consoled himself with the thought that not one of his enemies had a country named after him, as he had. I remembered this on the following day, travelling back to London on the motorway, when we were passed on the outermost lane by a convoy of five black government limousines, all of them moving at high speed, all of them carrying various dark dignitaries and a police escort. I cannot be sure of it, but I suspect that what we had seen racing past us was one of the delegations to the London conference on the future of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. How much of the future of that territory will in fact be determined by the conference it is impossible to guess. All we can be sure of is that in a hundred years’ time the ambitions of the participants in the congress, and the ideologies which fill their heads, whatever they may be, will seem as implausibly grandiose and as deviously self-serving as those of Rhodes do today. We can also be pretty sure that whatever may have kept the delegates busy that Saturday afternoon, it had not been a visit to the Rhodes museum.