Painting the map red

William Boyd

  • The Randlords: The Men who made South Africa by Geoffrey Wheatcroft
    Weidenfeld, 314 pp, £12.95, July 1985, ISBN 0 297 78437 4

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.’

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