After nine years as a British Crown Colony, Griqualand West was incorporated in 1880 as a new province of the Cape Colony. No longer were British officials directly responsible for its administration. In place of a local council, the electorate was entitled to send four members to the Cape parliament, two representing the constituency of Kimberley and two representing Barkly West district.
Standing as a candidate in Kimberley for election in March 1881, at the height of the bubble boom, the mining magnate J. B. Robinson campaigned for stricter enforcement of laws to control black labour - a popular issue in the white community. ‘One of the first lessons to be instilled into them will be respect for the laws of meum and tuum’ he said.
Cecil Rhodes, at the age of twenty-seven, chose to stand in Barkly West, formerly known as Klipdrift. It was a raw rural constituency, where most of the voters were Boer farmers who shared little of Rhodes’ preoccupation with the needs of the mining industry. Rhodes’ purpose was to get the Cape government to build a railway line linking Kimberley to the ports to alleviate mining costs. The Barkly West constituency afforded him the opportunity to gain a seat in parliament without having to compete against Robinson in Kimberley or another popular figure, Dr Josiah Matthews. Only one other candidate showed an interest in representing Barkly West, so Rhodes was duly elected unopposed as one of its two members.
Rhodes made an immediate impact on his arrival in parliament in April 1881, if only by dressing ‘without the least consideration for fashion’, causing consternation among its conservative members. ‘I am still in Oxford tweeds,’ he declared defiantly, ‘and I think I can legislate as well in them as in sable clothing.’ He also earned a rebuke from the Speaker by referring to other members by their names instead of their constituencies. A parliamentary reporter described his maiden speech as ‘bluff and untutored in style, with no graces of oratory’ and noted that Rhodes was ‘boyishly nervous and uncouth in gesture’. His constant fidgeting drove other members to distraction. ‘He is in a continued state of restlessness, whether sitting in his seat or standing on his legs,’ one observer remarked. ‘He is never still from the time he enters the House until he leaves it.’
Thomas Fuller, then one of the leaders of the parliamentary opposition, remembered Rhodes in 1881 as a ‘tall, broad-shouldered man, with face and figure of somewhat loose formation’:
His hair was auburn, carelessly flung over his forehead, his eyes of bluish-grey, dreamy but kindly. But the mouth - aye, that was the ‘unruly member’ of his face. With deep lines following the curve of the moustache, it had a determined, masterful and sometimes scornful expression. Men cannot, of course, think or feel with their mouths, but the thoughts and feelings of Cecil Rhodes soon found their way to that part of his face. At its best it expressed determined purpose - at its worst, well, I have seen storms of passion gather about it and twist it into unlovely shapes.
Rhodes openly expressed impatience with the speeches of other members. During long-winded discussion, he became restless, sitting on his hands and bouncing up and down to the embarrassment of other members. When speaking himself, he went straight to the point, weighing in with dogmatic pronouncements, not bothering with an introduction, his voice breaking every now and then into a high falsetto. He used few gestures, noted Fuller:
He often kept his hands behind him, or thrust one forward towards the person or persons he was especially addressing, or passed it over his brow in a pausing way. When he considered his argument especially convincing, he would conclude by flopping down on the seat with an expressive jerk, as much to say, ‘Answer that if you can!’
To ensure that his speeches were well reported and hoping to influence public opinion, Rhodes bought a controlling interest in the Cape Argus, the main newspaper in the Colony. The deal cost him £6,000, and was concluded in the utmost secrecy. Rhodes wanted the Argus to support him but to retain the semblance of an independent newspaper. In negotiations with the editor, Francis Dormer, Rhodes made clear his own views on editorial policy. ‘The bargain was concluded, with firmly fixed resolves on my part,’ Dormer disclosed years later, ‘but not, I fear, without certain mental reservations on the part of my young and eager friend.’
With a free and easy manner, Rhodes became a familiar figure in Cape Town society, relishing the talk and arguments of politicians who gathered at the Civil Service Club or at Poole’s for lunch. He befriended the new governor and high commissioner, Sir Hercules Robinson, who had been chosen to inaugurate a less adventurous policy than Sir Bartle Frere, and cultivated him as a potential ally. He also struck up a close friendship with Captain Penfold, the harbour master, sharing quarters with him in Adderley Street; under Penfold’s tuition, he became an enthusiastic yachtsman in Table Bay.
After parliament adjourned in July, Rhodes returned to Kimberley, but he did not stay long. With the fall-out from the diamond bubble under way, he took the opportunity to head for Oxford to complete his final term and obtain a degree - although, by now, he had lost all interest in gaining a professional qualification. The excitement of business deals, money-making and, more recently, political intrigue had forged different ambitions. But Rhodes still aspired to possess an Oxford degree. It was the cachet of an Oxford degree, the sense of belonging to an elite group with the advantageous contacts to be made, that Rhodes had always sought, rather than the wider benefits of an Oxford education. ‘Have you ever thought how it is that Oxford men figure so largely in all departments of public life?’ he once remarked. ‘The Oxford system in its most finished form looks very unpractical, yet, wherever you turn your eye - except in sciences - an Oxford man is at the top of the tree.’ After seven weeks of ‘dogged effort’, he passed examinations for an ordinary B.A. degree, then returned to the Cape.
Back in parliament in Cape Town, Rhodes joined Robinson in pressing for new legislation to suit the needs of mine-owners. As well as campaigning for a railway linking Kimberley to the Cape, they sought measures to ensure both a constant supply of black labour for the mines and greater control over black workers once they had been recruited. They also demanded tough legislative curbs on illicit diamond dealing, claiming that between one-third and one-half of all diamonds were being stolen and smuggled out of the mines by illicit diamond buyers (I.D.B.s). Unless this evil was crushed, warned Robinson, ‘the mining industry will be swept away altogether’. In April 1882, Rhodes was appointed chairman of a parliamentary committee to investigate the I.D.B. issue.
The outcome was the Diamond Trade Act of 1882 containing draconian provisions: suspects were presumed guilty until proven innocent; a special court was established to try offenders without a jury system; penalties were raised to include prison terms of up to fifteen years; and the police were given powers to search without warrants and to engage in ‘trapping’ operations, using agents provocateurs. Rhodes admitted that trapping operations were ‘obnoxious’, but argued that they were an essential weapon in dealing with diamond theft. He also fought hard to secure an additional punishment of flogging, but was thwarted by other members, including Dr Matthews. In Kimberley, Rhodes was acclaimed a hero; Matthews was eventually hounded out of office.
Kimberley’s mine-owners also gained government approval for a new system of searching that affected both black and white workers. All workers below the rank of manager were required to pass through search houses on entering the mines and leaving them. Separate search houses were set up for black and white workers. Blacks were ordered to strip naked and were subjected to degrading body searches. Whites did not have to take off their clothes and underwent only a limited visual inspection. They nevertheless regarded the new regulations as an assault on the respectability and dignity of their occupations. Many had previously been small claim-holders or share workers, now forced by changing circumstances to take up wage employment as overseers or skilled artisans. Searching placed them in the same category as black labourers. They were further aggrieved when the mine-owners decided to enforce an additional regulation requiring whites to change their clothes in search houses and don uniforms. Initially, only blacks had been ordered to wear uniforms - in their case, grain sacks. The new regulation was denounced as being in effect a ‘stripping clause’ for whites. In October 1883, white overseers went on strike, bringing the mines to a standstill. After a week, the mine-owners capitulated.
Six months later, in another attempt to impose industrial discipline on white workers, mine-owners reactivated the ‘stripping’ order, issuing instructions for search inspectors to examine the open mouths and boots of all white workers. Five employees - two overseers, a miner, an engine driver and a fitter in Kimberley mine - who refused to open their mouths for a finger search or to remove their boots were arrested and sent for trial. Others who refused to comply were dismissed.
A full-scale strike ensued. Led by a 28-year-old overseer, Frederick Holmes, a crowd of white and black workers marched on Kimberley mine to shut down the pumping gear. They were met by an armed contingent of police and special constables barricading the road with overturned trucks. Holmes sought to negotiate, calling out: ‘Don’t fire on us. We are not here to do any harm. Allow me to speak.’ But the special constables opened fire, killing Holmes and five other whites. The strike petered out.
In parliament, Rhodes appealed to his colleagues not to investigate the shooting. The dispute, he argued, was not between capital and labour, or a contest between whites, but rather ‘white men supported by natives in a struggle against whites’ - white men, moreover, who were resisting measures to stop diamond theft. In other words, white strikers were not only thieves, they were betrayers of their race. Parliament duly voted by a wide margin not to investigate the shooting.
As well as helping to force workers into line, Rhodes used his political position to advance the interests of large mining companies like De Beers and weaken their smaller competitors. In 1883, he secured a change in the legislation governing mining boards to accord representation on the boards on the basis of the size of the holdings of mining companies. This effectively enabled large mining companies to take control of the boards; hitherto, no company, regardless of the size of its holdings, had been permitted to have more than one representative on each board. Now, with control of the boards, large companies were able to determine what areas were given priority for reef-removal work, invariably deciding to concentrate the work on their own properties, thus ensuring the demise of smaller competitors. In the case of the De Beer’s mine, the De Beers Company used its position on the board to restrict water and reef removal to its own holdings, forcing several competitors into bankruptcy and then purchasing their properties at bargain prices.
Kimberley in these years was sunk in gloom. The depression, starting in 1882, lasted through to 1885. The price of diamonds on the London rough market over that period fell by 42 per cent. Output valued at £4 million in 1882 was worth only £2.5 million in 1885. The total capitalisation of the mines was reduced from £9.6 million to £7.8 million. Mining profits scarcely reached 4 per cent of total capital. Most of the profits were made by only ten companies. To survive, mining companies shed thousands of workers, white and black; white employment fell by 61 per cent to 1,210; black employment by 47 per cent to 9,000. Unemployed whites faced destitution; those still in work faced company attempts to force down their wages. Unable to collect dues from their members, the mining boards collapsed.
A spate of suicides hit the town. Hardly a week passed without the local press reporting the death of a prominent businessman. So many suicides occurred that newspaper editors lost all sympathy when reporting them. ‘This mania for suicide taints the whole moral atmosphere, ’ complained theDiamond Times, ‘and it is questionable whether it is good for the safety and morality of Society that such acts be recorded with tenderness.’ In a letter Rhodes wrote to John Merriman in Cape Town in April 1883, he lamented: ‘The suicidal mania is seizing the community here . . . The doctors say it is almost like an epidemic.’
Two smallpox epidemics added to the malaise. The first, spreading northwards from Cape Town in 1882, was contained by a young, energetic Afrikaner doctor, Hans Sauer, newly graduated from Edinburgh University. He set up a quarantine camp at a crucial crossing point on the Modder River, thirty miles south along the main road from the Cape, and insisted that travellers were examined, vaccinated, fumigated and, if necessary, placed into quarantine. At times, Sauer’s camp held as many as 1,800 detainees.
Sauer was employed by Kimberley’s sanitary inspector and given a police detachment to help him, but, as he admitted, he possessed no legal authority to force travellers to comply. In his memoirs, he wrote:
There were, of course, many who objected violently, but force was always employed to make them submit, with the result that at one time I had as many as nineteen actions for assault, battery and interference with persons on the Queen’s highway, but somehow none of these actions came to anything; they all mysteriously faded away and died out.
Sauer subsequently discovered that behind the scenes Rhodes had acted to ‘square’ every case before it came to court:
It was Rhodes, and Rhodes alone, who had conceived the plan, and who had persuaded all the important factors on the Fields to back the adventure. As always, Rhodes displayed his extraordinary ability for pulling the strings while keeping entirely out of sight.
The second outbreak, starting in October 1883, turned into disaster, however. Instead of dealing openly with the epidemic, Kimberley’s mine-owners and other leading businessmen conspired to deny its existence, fearing that news of the outbreak would lead to mass desertion by the black labour force and require expensive countermeasures.
Black labourers arriving from Delagoa Bay in the north were suspected of carrying smallpox. They were immediately isolated at a quarantine station set up on a farm nine miles from Kimberley. A team of six doctors visited the quarantine station, three of them reporting that the disease was not smallpox but an aggravated form of chicken-pox. An Edinburgh-trained doctor, Edmond Sinclair Stevenson, was summoned from Cape Town to give his opinion. ‘If it was smallpox, a quarantine would be called, the result being that the comparatively large population, mostly niggers and others, would be thrown out of work,’ Sinclair Stevenson wrote in his memoirs. ‘Needless to say we pronounced it chicken-pox, otherwise it might have led to serious trouble.’ Pink slips were handed out to the town’s residents, signed by doctors, stating that the disease was not smallpox but ‘a bulbous disease of the skin allied to pemphigus’ - an extremely rare skin disease.
But Hans Sauer, returning from a long hunting trip in the Transvaal, was convinced the disease was smallpox and claimed the outbreak was being covered up. He was roundly condemned by all and sundry. ‘It was not only the diamond magnates who were hostile,’ wrote Sauer in his memoirs, ‘but the vast majority of the population, who were in the same galley as the magnates, for should the mines shut down on account of this disease, they would starve just as certainly as the magnates would lose their profits.’
While the wrangling continued, the disease took hold. Sauer was initially refused permission to inspect mine housing areas and had to turn to parliament in Cape Town for support. Parliament eventually passed a new Public Health Act, enabling Sauer to prove his diagnosis was correct, but he was still vilified for his efforts. The new law, he wrote, ‘made me the most unpopular man on the Diamond Fields. High Society turned its back on me, and as for the ruck of the population, it simply spat when I passed.’
Proof of the disease, however, came too late for many of Kimberley’s residents. The epidemic raged for two years before mass vaccinations and quarantine measures finally eradicated it. Officially, some 700 people died, including 51 whites; some 2,300 were infected. But the real figures were far higher and were deliberately obscured by officials trying to conceal the full extent of the epidemic.
Rhodes’ life in Kimberley was meanwhile shaped by new friendships. Though Rhodes readily took part in social activity and had a large number of acquaintances, he did not make friends easily and appeared to remain aloof, disliking intimacy and preferring to keep people at a distance. His partnership with Charles Rudd was first and foremost a business arrangement. During the late 1870s, he ‘messed’ with a group of bachelors known as the ‘Twelve Apostles’ but regarded them as associates rather than as close friends. Nor did he have any women friends, openly expressing an aversion to marriage. Writing to an acquaintance in Kimberley from Oxford in 1876, he remarked: ‘I hope you won’t get married. I hate people getting married. They simply become machines and have no ideas beyond their respective spouses and offspring.’
But with a young Scottish doctor, Leander Starr Jameson, who arrived in Kimberley in 1878, Rhodes established a friendship that endured even through times of great personal disaster that Jameson brought upon him. It was a friendship, according to Jameson’s biographer, Ian Colvin, that became ‘as strong as a marriage bond’. Five months older than Rhodes, short, slim and boyishly handsome, Jameson had trained at University College, London and seemed set on a glittering career as a London surgeon. But possessing a restless and reckless temperament, he threw it all up to join a medical practice in Kimberley. He quickly became a popular figure there, admired for his skill and charm as well as his love of poker and gambling. Though he never married, he greatly enjoyed the company of women.
‘Hardly a more popular notability resided on the Diamond Fields than clever, well-fashioned Dr Jameson,’ recorded Louis Cohen in his characteristically scurrilous prose. ‘No matter what happened to be the trouble with matron, maid, or widow, a visit from the dextrous Doctor would always set things right.’ Cohen related how he had advised one man who complained that he was childless to consult Dr Jameson, ‘with the result that, hey presto! Before the year was out, and on the first of April too, he became the proud pater of bouncing twins. The Doctor was, indeed, a life-giver.’
Jameson was none too scrupulous in other ways. During the smallpox epidemic, he was one of the doctors who, in line with the mine-owners’ and businessmen’s wishes, readily asserted that the disease was only chicken-pox. Like Rhodes’ brother Herbert, Jameson was galvanised by the chance of adventure. And it was Rhodes’ talk of his ‘big schemes’ that he found so attractive. Years later, he recalled, ‘I soon admitted to myself that for sheer natural power I had never met a man to come near Cecil Rhodes.’
Another friendship that Rhodes cultivated was with Alfred Beit, one of Kimberley’s leading experts on diamonds and a financial mastermind. A small, shy and unprepossessing figure with bulbous brown eyes and a receding chin, he had been posted to Kimberley in 1875 as the representative of a diamond merchant company. Born in Hamburg in 1853, six months before Rhodes, he came from a sophisticated German-Jewish family but performed poorly in school and was apprenticed to a diamond-broking firm in Amsterdam where he developed a talent for examining stones.
‘When I reached Kimberley,’ Beit told the journalist Frank Harris,
I found that very few people knew anything about diamonds: they bought and sold at haphazard, and a great many of them really believed that the Cape diamonds were of a very inferior quality. Of course, I saw at once that some of the Cape stones were as good as any in the world; and I saw, too, that the buyers protected themselves against their own ignorance by offering one-tenth part of what each stone was worth in Europe. It was plain that if one had a little money there was a fortune to be made.
Beit’s first fortune, however, came not from diamonds but from property speculation. Responding to the demand for business premises, he bought a piece of land, built a dozen corrugated iron sheds for offices, kept one for himself and let out the rest for a monthly rent of £1,800. Twelve years later he sold the ground for £260,000.
Beit belonged to a group of German bachelors at Kimberley who set up their own ‘German Mess’, similar to Rhodes’ ‘English’ mess. Among its members was Julius Wernher, a young German aristocrat whom Jules Porges had sent to Kimberley in 1873 to look after his company’s interests. Beit and Wernher forged a lasting business partnership, but made an odd couple. Wernher was a huge, handsome, former Dragoon who had served in the Prussian cavalry in the Franco-German war of 1870-71; Beit was a dumpy figure, whose head appeared too large for his body; uncomfortable with strangers, he seemed a mass of nervous mannerisms, tugging at his collar, twisting his moustache and biting the corner of his handkerchief.
Beit’s diamond interests were concentrated on Kimberley mine. Though dabbling in several company ventures there, he focused his attention in particular on the Kimberley Central Company, aiming to build it into a vehicle for expansion. His role in the rise of Kimberley Central impressed Rhodes and he set out to win over Beit ‘on the personal’. Like Jameson, Beit was captivated by Rhodes’ talk of ‘big schemes’. He himself had no particular ambition, even though he was to achieve remarkable success. His tastes were simple. What moved him most, according to Rhodes, ‘was to be rich enough to give his mother £1,000 a year’. When Beit first went back to Germany on a visit, he took his mother for a drive, enquired whether she liked the carriage, the horses and the coachman, and then gave them all to her. ‘Mother,’ he said, ‘when I was a boy I always hoped that one day I should have enough money to give you a carriage and a pair of horses, and now my dream has come true.’ Beit liked to gamble, and to win, but despite his success he remained a gentle, self-effacing magnate, renowned for many acts of kindness. ‘At bottom, Beit was a sentimentalist, ’ reported Frank Harris. ‘This was the fine side of the man, the side through which Rhodes used him.’
Using people who he thought could help further his schemes was Rhodes’ usual motive in pursuing them. But in the case of Neville Pickering, a carefree youth with little personal ambition, Rhodes formed a relationship that differed from all others. The son of a Port Elizabeth parson and four years younger than Rhodes, Pickering had arrived in Kimberley to work for a property company before Rhodes recruited him in 1881 as secretary or chief clerk at De Beers. He was bright, efficient and gregarious with a sunny disposition and was much admired by the young ladies of Kimberley.
Rhodes became devoted to Pickering. Within a few months of his taking up the De Beers appointment, the two of them moved into a small, corrugated iron cottage facing the Kimberley cricket ground. Despite Rhodes’ wealth and position, the cottage was sparsely furnished; it was a place of wooden chairs, bare tables, iron bedsteads and horsehair mattresses that lacked all comfort but suited Rhodes well enough. A Coloured manservant looked after them, acting as house-keeper, cook and valet. For Rhodes, it was a fulfilling experience. In the words of Ian Colvin, Rhodes had found a ‘bosom friend’ and ‘confidant of all his dreams’. ‘They shared the same office,’ wrote Colvin, ‘worked together, played together, rode together, shot together.’
But it was a friendship that was to be cut cruelly short.