A longside his business interests, Rhodes’ political horizons began to expand. As a youth, in common with many young men, he harboured grand dreams of power and glory. What was unusual in his case was the extent to which he held on to them. He grew up in an age when Victorian Britain regarded itself as the standard-bearer of civilisation, sending its colonists, missionaries, officials and engineers abroad to open up new continents, develop markets for its industrial products and spread the gospel of Christ. The expansion of empire was seen both as an economic necessity and a moral duty to the rest of humanity. In the words of David Livingstone, the missionary-explorer who became one of Victorian Britain’s archetypal heroes, there were ‘two pioneers of civilisation: Christianity and commerce’. Livingstone’s lonely death in central Africa in 1873 while searching in vain for the source of the Nile unleashed a burst of imperial sentiment that mixed a world power’s responsibility for trusteeship with a strong dose of economic opportunism. Disraeli’s surge of imperial activity during the 1870s - acquiring Cyprus, Fiji and a large bulk of shares in the Suez Canal - won popular support. In a pamphlet written in 1876, Edwin Arnold, editor of the Daily Telegraph, used the phrase ‘from the Cape to Cairo’ to demonstrate the scale of imperial ambition. Queen Victoria herself was particularly pleased when, at her own suggestion, Parliament in 1877 bestowed on her the title of Empress of India.
That same year, at the age of twenty-four, after completing his first full year at Oxford, Rhodes drew up what he later called ‘a draft of some of my ideas’, giving it the title ‘Confession of Faith’. It was a strange, rambling document, full of fantasies and grievances, summing up in juvenile fashion his views of the ills afflicting mankind and his solutions for them. But Rhodes considered it sufficiently important to pass it on in 1891 to the London journalist W. T. Stead so that it could eventually be published. ‘You will see,’ he told Stead, ‘that I have not altered much as to my feelings.’
In part, the ‘confession’ reflected his interest in the work of authors he admired: Aristotle’s Ethics; Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations; Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But Rhodes was also influenced by two more recent publications: One was a book published in 1872, The Martyrdom of Man by Winwood Reade, an obscure British Darwinian who argued that man had no hope of an after-life or posthumous reward; the only reward to be found was in improving the human race. ‘To develop to the utmost our genius and our love, that is the only true religion,’ wrote Reade. Rhodes described The Martyrdom of Man as a ‘creepy book’, but added, mysteriously, that it ‘made me what I am’.
The other publication, an inaugural lecture by John Ruskin as Slade Professor at Oxford, delivered in 1870, was brimful of imperial fervour:
There is a destiny now possible to us, the highest ever set before a nation to be accepted or refused. We are still undegenerate in race; a race mingled with the best northern blood. We are not yet dissolute in temper, but still have the firmness to govern and the grace to obey . . .
Will you youths of England make your country again a royal throne of kings, a sceptred isle, for all the world a source of light, a centre of peace; mistress of learning and of the Arts, faithful guardian of time-tried principles . . .?
This is what England must either do or perish: she must found colonies as fast and as far as she is able, formed of her most energetic and worthiest men; seizing every piece of fruitful waste grounds she can set her foot on, and there teaching these her colonists that their chief virtue is to be fidelity to their country, and their first aim is to be to advance the power of England by land and sea . . .
All that I ask of you is to have a fixed purpose of some kind for your country and for yourselves, no matter how restricted so that it be fixed and unselfish.
Rhodes’ own ‘draft of ideas’, written in June 1877, drew heavily on such exhortations. Starting in an Aristotelian manner, he wrote:
It often strikes a man to inquire what is the chief good in life; to one the thought comes that it is a happy marriage, to another great wealth, to a third travel, and so on, and as each seizes on the idea, for that he more or less works for its attainment for the rest of his existence. To myself, thinking over the same question, the wish came to make myself useful to my country . . .
I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. I contend that every acre added to our territory means the birth of more of the English race who otherwise would not be brought into existence. Added to which the absorption of the greater portion of the world under our rule simply means the end of all wars.
He pledged himself to work for: ‘The furtherance of the British Empire, for the bringing of the whole uncivilised world under British rule, for the recovery of the United States, for the making of the Anglo-Saxon race into one Empire.’ He was particularly exercised by the ‘loss’ of the United States, blaming it on ‘two or three ignorant pig-headed statesmen’ in the eighteenth century. ‘Do you ever feel mad, do you ever feel murderous? I think I do with these men.’ Nevertheless, there was Africa. ‘Africa is still lying ready for us [and] it is our duty to take it . . . more territory simply means more of the Anglo-Saxon race, more of the best, the most human, most honourable race the world possesses.’
To accomplish this feat of empire-building, Rhodes proposed the formation of a secret society, similar to the Jesuit order, a society with ‘members in every part of the British Empire working with one object and one idea’; in effect, a ‘Church for the extension of the British Empire’. He described the kind of men who would make suitable recruits and outlined how they would work to ‘advocate the closer union of England and her colonies, to crush all disloyalty and every movement for the severance of our Empire’. He also proposed that the society should purchase newspapers, ‘for the press rules the mind of the people’.
These ideas found their way into a will that Rhodes drew up in Kimberley in September 1877 - one of many wills that he was to write. Nominating as executors of his entire estate the secretary of state for the colonies (then Lord Carnarvon) and Sidney Shippard, then attorney-general of Griqualand West, he instructed them to establish a secret society ‘the true aim and object whereof shall be the extension of British rule throughout the world, the perfecting of a system of emigration from the United Kingdom and colonization by British subjects of all lands . . . especially the occupation by British settlers of the entire Continent of Africa’, together with large parts of the rest of the world. A copy of this will was also passed to Stead in 1891 in a sealed envelope with instructions that it should not be opened until Rhodes’ death.
Rhodes broached some of these ideas in open conversation, even with strangers. On a visit to Kimberley in 1877, Joseph Orpen, an Irish-born surveyor, magistrate and politician, recorded remarks Rhodes made at a dinner party he gave at his two-roomed corrugated iron cottage. Sitting at the head of the table, Rhodes began: ‘Gentlemen, I have asked you to dine . . . because I want to tell you what I want to do with the remainder of my life.’ He intended, he said, to devote it to the defence and extension of the British Empire. ‘I think that object a worthy one because the British Empire stands for the protection of all the inhabitants of a country in life, liberty, property, fair play and happiness . . . Everything is now going on happily around us. The Transvaal is much happier [since annexation] and much better off than it was and is quietly settled under government. The Free State is perfectly friendly and can join us when and if it likes. It is mainly the extension of the empire northward that we have to watch and work for in South Africa.’
When he took up his seat in parliament in April 1881, Rhodes was preoccupied mainly with mining matters, in particular the need to get a railway built to Kimberley. But it was not long before he was drawn into his first foray into the problems of Africa - a crisis in Basutoland, once ruled by the legendary king, Moshoeshoe.
Fearful of the steady encroachment of Free State settlers into Basutoland, Moshoeshoe repeatedly asked for the protection of Queen Victoria, imploring that his people might be considered ‘fleas in the Queen’s blanket’. The British government eventually agreed to annex Basutoland in 1868, but three years later, keen to reduce imperial commitments and ignoring fierce protests among the Sotho, it decided to hand over responsibility for control to the Cape Colony.
As a result of the spate of insurrections in the Cape in 1877 and 1878, the prime minister, Gordon Sprigg, a vain and ambitious politician who favoured an aggressive approach to dealing with troublesome African territories, embarked on a policy of disarmament of black tribes. After a minor rebellion in the Quthing district of Basutoland in 1879, he decided to apply the same policy there. Addressing a Sotho pitso - council meeting - in 1879, he lectured his audience in abusive terms. ‘The Government feels that, like the rest of the natives in South Africa, you possess very much the character of children, and the Government knows that children cannot at all times trust themselves.’ Any attempt at resistance to disarmament, he warned, would simply be crushed. ‘You know that the tribes which have gone to war with the Government in the Colony have been destroyed. The Gcalekas and Gaikas [Xhosa peoples] - where are they today? . . . In every case where the black man has attacked the white man, he has ultimately . . . gone before him.’
The Sotho, however, refused to hand over their firearms, most of which they had bought with money earned at the Kimberley diamond mines and which they needed in the constant struggle to retain their existing lands.
What followed was the ‘Gun War’ of 1880. It lasted eight months, cost the Cape £3 million and ended in stalemate. It also left the Sotho bitterly divided between ‘loyal’ and ‘rebel’ factions. Cape politicians themselves were at odds over what to do next. Some advocated outright ‘scuttle’, leaving the Sotho to their own devices; some hoped Britain might be persuaded to take back responsibility for the territory. Rhodes spoke in favour of imperial annexation. ‘It is not as if white colonists could be settled in those territories,’ he told parliament. ‘The policy of the Imperial Government would not allow that. The Parliament would never allow Basutoland to be confiscated; no colonist could go there; the land would simply be peopled with the native races. How could this weak colony retain those territories?’ The Cape, he said, lacked the necessary resources, reminding his colleagues that its white population was no greater than that of a ‘third-rate English city, spread over a great country’.
Desperate to resolve the Basutoland quagmire, the Cape government recruited the services of General Charles Gordon, one of the foremost heroes of the Victorian age. A decorated veteran of the Crimean War and commander of the Chinese army that had crushed the Taiping rebellion in 1863-4, Gordon had spent six years in Khartoum during the 1870s serving as governor of Equatoria province in southern Sudan. Gordon saw himself as God’s instrument and believed he possessed mesmeric power over primitive people. The British political establishment regarded him as half mad - ‘inspired and mad’, according to Gladstone. Despite his formidable record, on his return to London he was packed off to Mauritius, in his words to supervise ‘the barracks and drains’ there. He was thus keen for a new adventure.
After helping to reorganise the Cape’s colonial army, Gordon ventured to Basutoland in 1882, arranging a series of pitsos with Sotho chiefs. Rhodes too ventured to Basutoland in 1882. He had agreed to serve on an official mission set up to evaluate claims for compensation from ‘loyal’ Sotho. In a memorable fragment of imperial history, Rhodes met General Gordon at a magistrate’s headquarters at Thlotsi Heights, north of Maseru, and struck up a warm friendship with him.
They often went for long walks together. Gordon, twenty years older than Rhodes, chided the younger man for his independent opinions. ‘You always contradict me,’ he said on one occasion. ‘I never met such a man for his own opinion. You think your views are always right and everyone else wrong.’ On another occasion, Gordon complained, ‘You are the sort of man who never approves of anything unless you have had the organising of it yourself.’
Gordon told Rhodes the story of how, after he had subdued the Taiping rebellion, the Chinese government had offered him a roomful of gold.
‘What did you do?’ asked Rhodes.
‘Refused it, of course,’ replied Gordon. ‘What would you have done?’
‘I would have taken it,’ said Rhodes, ‘and as many roomfuls as they would give me. It is no use for us to have big ideas if we have not got the money to carry them out.’
Gordon was sufficiently impressed with Rhodes to ask him to work with him in Basutoland, but Rhodes declined. ‘There are very few men in the world to whom I would have made such an offer. Very few men, I can tell you; but of course you will have your way. I never met a man as strong for his opinion; you think your views are always right.’
Gordon soon fell out with the Cape government and returned to England. The Cape government itself, weakened and impoverished by the Gun War, soon tired of responsibility for Basutoland and passed it back to Britain. Gordon, however, did not forget Rhodes. When he was given a new assignment in Khartoum - this time to evacuate Egyptian troops threatened by the advance of the Mahdi’s Dervish army - Gordon asked Rhodes to join him. Once again, Rhodes declined. When Rhodes heard the news of Gordon’s death in 1885 on the steps of the governor’s residence in Khartoum, dreaming of posthumous glory for himself he remarked: ‘I am sorry I was not with him.’
By then, however, Rhodes was engaged in a new African adventure, one of far greater significance than Basutoland: a battle to secure ‘the road to the north’.