The semi-desert coastline of south-west Africa offered few attractions to colonists. Britain considered it to be of no value at all. When Sir Bartle Frere had suggested extending British control there, Carnarvon permitted him merely to annex Walfisch Bay, the only significant harbour between the Cape Colony and Portuguese Angola. Carnarvon was adamant that no further territory need be taken. ‘Walfisch Bay and no more,’ he decreed.

Apart from a trickle of missionaries, hunters and traders, few whites ventured into south-west Africa. In 1883, however, a young German adventurer, Heinrich Vogelsang, arrived in Angra Pequena, a small harbour 150 miles north of the Cape border, with dreams of establishing a German colony. Acting on behalf of Adolf Lüderitz, a leading merchant in the old Hanseatic port of Bremen, Vogelsang persuaded a local chief to exchange a cession of the harbour and the surrounding 215 square miles for £100 worth of gold and 60 rifles. Having gained his enclave in 1883, Lüderitz pressed the German chancellor, Prince Otto von Bismarck, for a monopoly of trade in the area and the ‘protection’ of the German flag.

Bismarck at the time had no interest in establishing German colonies in Africa. He made enquiries with the British government in London to ascertain the status of German traders in south-west Africa, suggesting that Britain itself might like to extend its ‘protection’ to them. The British replied that, although they considered the area part of the British ‘sphere of interest’, they had no official rights there and were thus not inclined to offer protection. No one in London saw any cause for concern. Bismarck duly instructed the German consul in Cape Town to accord Lüderitz all ‘assistance’ and to extend his consular ‘protection’ to Angra Pequena.

Cape trading firms, however, regarded the German presence as a potential threat to their business. In August 1883, the Cape decided to send its own gunboat to the area to investigate; the gunboat returned with the disturbing news that German traders at Angra Pequena were demanding annexation by the Reich or at least Reich ‘protection’. Cape politicians insisted that the area traditionally had been under the Cape’s control, though they could produce little evidence to support their claim. Apart from annexing some off-shore islands near Angra Pequena in 1866 to obtain guano deposits, the Cape’s activities had been confined to trade. But while Cape politicians were keen to assert their rights to south-west Africa, they also wanted to avoid bearing the financial cost of administering the coast and hoped that Britain would annex it for them. The prime minister, Thomas Scanlen, remarked privately in November 1883: ‘With our small population, [and] the impossibility to maintain forces necessary to ensure obedience and respect for our orders, a large expanse of territory is a source of weakness and humiliation. And just now our financial burdens and diminishing revenue forbid the incurring of grave risks. If the Imperial Government would aid, something might be done.’

Bismarck meanwhile, prompted by German commercial interests, began to adopt a bolder approach. In the autumn he sent a series of increasingly forceful despatches to London asking for an unequivocal statement on the status of any British or Cape rights to Angra Pequena and its adjacent territory. The British replied, as before, in vague terms. ‘Although Her Majesty’s Government have not proclaimed the Queen’s sovereignty along the whole country, but only at certain points such as Walfisch Bay . . . they consider that any claim to sovereignty or jurisdiction at latitude 18° and the frontier of the Cape Colony, would infringe their legitimate rights.’ Unaware that Bismarck was beginning to change his mind over the merit of ‘overseas projects’, British ministers continued to assume that his primary concern was not colonies but protection for his traders and saw no reason to oppose the development of a German commercial enclave at Angra Pequena. ‘I do not myself see why we should object to Germany . . . occupying other parts of the coastline,’ said a senior British official. ‘It is a long way from everywhere.’

What Britain hoped was that the Cape would annex south-west Africa and bear the cost involved. On 3 February 1884, the colonial secretary, Lord Derby, cabled the Cape government inviting it to annex the coast as far as Walfisch Bay. But the only answer he received was: ‘Ministers ask matter to be kept open, pending Cabinet meeting here. Premier away.’ No other reply was sent for months. According to one account, Scanlen read the official telegram while in Cradock, pocketed it and then promptly forgot it. The British too dawdled over the issue. Not until 7 May did the Colonial Office repeat the cable of 3 February. Again there was no reply, this time because Scanlen’s government had fallen.

Infuriated by the months of obfuscation and delay, Bismarck became convinced that the British were preparing to thwart Germany and steal Angra Pequena for themselves, and decided to take unilateral action. In the first step towards establishing a German colony, he declared a Reichshutz on 24 April 1884, giving Lüderitz’s commercial company the right to govern Angra Pequena under imperial charter.

With a new government in place, led by Thomas Upington, the Cape belatedly stirred itself. ‘Yours 3rd February and 7th May,’ cabled the high commissioner, Robinson, on 29 May. ‘Ministers have decided to recommend Parliament to undertake control and cost of coast line from Orange River to Walfisch Bay.’ The British government was delighted. Derby, still misunderstanding Bismarck’s intentions, blithely informed him Britain would now be able to offer protection ‘to any persons, German as well as English, who may have duly acquired concessions or established [factories] on the coast’.

The jubilation was short-lived. In June, Bismarck sent his son Herbert on a special mission to London to tell Gladstone in blunt terms to keep his hands off Angra Pequena. In a speech to the Reichstag, Bismarck announced that he had decided that Germany should build its own empire in Africa, throwing in for good measure a warning that Britain and its colonial governments would be ill-advised to block German claims, unless they could prove their own sovereignty. Rather than provoke confrontation over a barren and worthless coastal enclave ‘a long way from everywhere’, the British government backed down over Angra Pequena. But its retreat caused fury in the Cape. Taking its own initiative, the Cape government cabled London on 17 July announcing that it had annexed the whole coast from the Orange River northwards to the Angola border - including Angra Pequena. Britain, however, refused to give it support.

Bismarck’s next move shocked the British government and produced uproar in the Cape. On 7 August 1884, Germany declared Angra Pequena to be its sovereign territory. It followed this with an announcement that it had annexed the whole of south-west Africa, other than Walfisch Bay. Within the space of six months, a small commercial outpost had ‘ballooned’ into a huge semi-desert colony. Whereas, at the beginning of 1884, Britain had regarded Africa south of the Limpopo as its rightful sphere of interest, now, in Gladstone’s words, the ‘German spectre’ had arisen.

On his way north in August as the newly appointed commissioner of Bechuanaland, Rhodes was accompanied by Frank Thompson, a native administrator who spoke Setswana and who had been engaged to act as his secretary and interpreter. The two stopped briefly at Thompson’s farm on the northern border of Griqualand West for refreshment and a change of horses. Thompson, an admirer of Rhodes, recorded the incident in his autobiography:

Rhodes stepped into my wife’s sitting room, and taking a kit-bag swept into it as many of her books as he could find.

‘Something to do if I am faced with a weary and boring wait in the veld,’ he said.

My wife, I remember, expostulated. He had a habit of reading a few chapters and then, if the book pleased him, tearing off the part he had finished and handing it on to me, while he read the rest. He said this would make the book more interesting as we could share the pleasure of the story, and the discussions would be more intelligent. It was the action of a future millionaire, but hardly good for my wife’s little library.

With fresh mounts, they set off for Stellaland. ‘I often laughed at the sight of Rhodes on horseback,’ wrote Thompson. ‘He never learnt to ride well . . . He was too loosely knit to make a good ride, had a very careless seat, and no horse was fast enough for him.’

Rhodes’ plan was to offer the Boer freebooters title for land they occupied on condition that they accepted Cape rule and dispensed with the Stellaland republic. While Rhodes waited at a camp outside the main Boer laager at Commando Drift, Thompson went on ahead to engage the Boers in preliminary discussions. After two days of heated argument, according to Thompson, they agreed provisionally to take British title.

Rhodes’ account of what happened, told later to his constituents in Barkly West, cast himself in a more heroic light, as he was accustomed to do. Entering the Boer encampment at Commando Drift, he said, he found Adriaan de la Rey - a Transvaaler known as ‘Groot’ Adriaan because of his size and strength - frying chops over an open fire. De la Rey said nothing, and Rhodes sat down opposite him in silence. Eventually De la Rey looked up from the frying pan and declared, ‘Blood must flow!’ ‘No,’ said Rhodes, ‘give me my breakfast, and then we can talk about blood.’ According to Rhodes, he stayed at Commando Drift for a week, became godfather to De la Rey’s grandchild and secured a settlement.

However it happened, a settlement giving Stellaland’s Boers rights to land they had seized as booty was signed by Rhodes and Thompson on 8 September 1884. Tswana rights to the land were ignored. ‘The occupation of Stellaland had gone too far to have been disturbed,’ Rhodes subsequently explained.

From Stellaland, Rhodes and Thompson moved on to the republic of Goshen, travelling via the Transvaal to get there so as to avoid any incident. The Boers of Goshen - aided and abetted by Kruger, despite the London convention - were far more hostile to the idea of British or Cape rule. Even as Rhodes and Thompson approached their ‘capital’ at Rooi Grond - a collection of mud huts close to the Transvaal border - they were engaged in running battles with Montshiwa around Mafikeng.

Once again, Thompson went on ahead, leaving Rhodes at the Transvaal border. He found the ‘president’ of Goshen, Gey van Pittius, in his tent. Thompson told him that he had brought a message from Rhodes, the commissioner of Bechuanaland. ‘And who the hell is Mr Rhodes?’ a Boer asked. Thompson was held prisoner and then released to take a message back to Rhodes telling him that he had no right to style himself commissioner as the land of Goshen had been won by conquest from Montshiwa, and demanding recognition as an independent state. After another round of fruitless messages, Rhodes sent Thompson back to Van Pittius to warn that force would now be used against him.

When darkness fell, Rhodes and Thompson started on their return journey to Stellaland, then rode onward to Barkly West. By changing horses seven times, they covered 120 miles in under ten hours. On arriving at Barkly West, Rhodes went straight to the telegraph office and conversed on the wire with Robinson in Cape Town, sitting there from nine o’clock at night until breakfast the next morning.

Just when British officials were beginning to grapple with the ramifications of Bismarck’s move on south-west Africa, the fate of Bechuanaland suddenly aroused further alarm. On 16 September 1884, in defiance of the London convention, Kruger proclaimed the Transvaal’s annexation of Goshen and of Montshiwa’s remaining territory ‘in the interests of humanity’. On 3 October, the Reverend Stephanus du Toit, who had been employed by Kruger as the Transvaal’s director of education and who had attended the London convention as an official Transvaal delegate, turned up at Rooi Grond, made a fiery speech, renamed the place Heliopolis and hoisted the Vierkleur. Once more, it seemed, the road to the north was threatened.

But it was not only into Bechuanaland that Transvaal Boers were expanding. A similar process of colonisation was under way into northern Zululand from the Transvaal’s eastern border. Boer mercenaries offering their services to rival Zulu factions in return for grants of land claimed vast stretches of Cetshwayo’s former territory. On 16 August 1884, they had declared yet another Boer state, the Nieuwe Republiek - the New Republic - and then laid claim to St Lucia Bay, a coastal inlet above northern Natal on the Indian Ocean. Natal’s governor, Sir Henry Bulwer, warned: ‘The intention of the Boers is to take a strip of land about four farms deep, along the whole length of the [Zulu] Reserve . . . Their real object, no doubt, is to reach the sea, which has always been one of the cherished ideas of the Boers of the Transvaal.’

What British officials now feared possible was an alliance between the Transvaal and Germany, from its base in south-west Africa, that would endanger British supremacy in southern Africa. On 20 September, the London Times reported that Germany wanted to ‘push on into the Transvaal, Bechuana and Zulu countries’ as part of a ‘mittel-Afrika’ strategy. From Durban, Bulwer reported that a German exploring party, led by an officer in Prussian military uniform, was marching openly through the St Lucia Bay area. From Cape Town, Robinson reported: ‘For some time rumours have been circulating as to German designs on St Lucia Bay in Zululand. I need hardly say that a German port in that neighbourhood would be very inconvenient.’ The War Office weighed in with a confidential memorandum warning that, as a result of Boer and German action, Britain’s entire strategic interests in southern Africa were at risk.

Confronted by this array of threats, Britain adopted a new ‘forward’ policy in southern Africa, though with considerable misgivings about the risks and costs of becoming more deeply involved there. In short order, the British government told Kruger his annexation of Goshen was unacceptable and instructed an expeditionary force of 4,000 men to move into the area and clear out the Boer freebooters; it also despatched a warship to St Lucia Bay to plant the British flag there. ‘Both Natal and the Cape Colony would be endangered,’ said the colonial secretary, Lord Derby, ‘if any foreign power chose to claim possession of the coast.’

Command of the Bechuanaland expedition was given to Sir Charles Warren, an irascible and headstrong officer with previous experience of the region. Along with his military role, Warren was appointed special commissioner with political responsibility for working out a new dispensation. At a meeting with Warren, shortly after his arrival in Cape Town in December, Robinson impressed on him the need to accept the settlement that Rhodes had signed in Stellaland in September 1883. Acting in league with Rhodes, Robinson was determined to ensure an outcome that made Bechuanaland secure for white settlement under Cape rule. Warren had a different agenda. He was far more interested in restoring Tswana rights under imperial control. But, without understanding the implications, he agreed to send a telegram to Gerrit van Niekerk, the ‘president’ of Stellaland, pledging himself, in advance, to uphold Rhodes’ 1883 agreement. At Robinson’s suggestion, Warren also agreed to take Rhodes along with him as an adviser and asked Rhodes to go on ahead to Stellaland to establish a British presence and maintain order.

Rhodes duly set out by wagon from the railhead at Kimberley, accompanied by an aide, Harry Currey, and two servants. ‘We drove in the cool hours of the morning and evening,’ Currey recalled, ‘getting out of the wagon to shoot partridges and koorhaan of which there was an abundance.’ On arrival in Vryburg, Rhodes hired a corrugated iron hut, naming it ‘Government House’. It was so small that at night the table had to be moved outside to make way for mattresses. Currey slept in the hut; Rhodes, as was his habit, slept in the wagon.

‘The first thing we did,’ recalled Currey, ‘was to go in search of a pool in which we could bathe. When we found one we put a few natives on to enlarge it and to swim in it morning and evening was a great relaxation after listening to all the [motley crowd of ruffians] who claimed rights in the area in dispute.’ Rhodes ordered supplies of whisky and Guinness stout from Kimberley, both for themselves and to entertain local Boers.

Rhodes found Van Niekerk only too willing to hand over Stellaland, for it had no funds and was close to collapse; he promised in return that all registered land titles would be recognised.

Back in Cape Town, Warren spent a month organising his expeditionary force. It moved slowly northwards towards Bechuanaland, digging deep water-wells every dozen miles, establishing fortified supply lines, setting up military bases, accompanied by three balloons for long-distance observation - never once sighting any ‘enemy’. Most freebooters withdrew into the Transvaal to await Warren’s departure. The more enterprising ones travelled southwards to Kimberley to hire themselves out as transport contractors to the British army, earning £2 a day.

Having established himself in a ‘well-built and sightly fort’ at Barkly West, Warren began to suspect that many of the land claims made by Stellalanders were ‘fictitious’ and proposed that an accurate survey should be carried out. He turned for help to Rhodes’ old adversary John Mackenzie, whom he had first met in Kuruman in the late 1870s, telling Robinson that Mackenzie would be ‘able to give me much information which I have been unable to obtain from other sources’. Robinson pointed out that Mackenzie’s involvement would arouse Boer hostility.

Mackenzie arrived at Barkly West on 20 January. Rhodes came down from Stellaland the next day, in a sulky and taciturn mood. His appearance did not help matters. According to Ralph Williams, a British intelligence officer, he was dressed in ‘a big slouch bush hat, the shabbiest and most ragged of coats, and a very dirty pair of white flannel trousers, with old tennis shoes as his footgear’. When asked his name and business, he merely stated ‘Rhodes’.

Two days later, Warren set off for a meeting that Kruger had requested at Fourteen Streams on the Transvaal border, taking with him a large mounted escort and a screen of scouts, worried by rumours that Boer hotheads were determined to ‘pot’ him. Rhodes and Mackenzie accompanied him, sharing the same coach.

Kruger told Warren that there was no need for his military expedition - using four thousand men to drive out fifty or a hundred undesirables. The ‘flag incident’ at Rooi Grond, he said, had occurred without his consent. All he wanted was law and order.

The meeting achieved little, but was memorable as the first encounter between Rhodes and Kruger. Rhodes was thirty years old at the time, Kruger nearly sixty. Kruger remarked to an aide: ‘That young man will cause me trouble if he doesn’t leave politics alone and turn to something else.’ Kruger compared Rhodes to a race horse: ‘Well, the race horse is swifter than the ox, but the ox can draw the greater loads. We shall see.’

When Warren finally arrived in Vryburg from Fourteen Streams, he and Rhodes dined regularly, but were soon locked in a bitter dispute over the land issue. Warren made clear he intended to repudiate Rhodes’ 1883 agreement and to restore land to the Thlaping and Rolong, despite his previous commitment to Van Niekerk. Rhodes was adamant that his agreement recognising Boer claims and ratified by the colonial secretary had to stand - ‘otherwise Her Majesty’s word is given and broken as occasion requires’. Resigning his post, Rhodes told Warren: ‘The course you have pursued since your arrival in Stellaland has been most prejudicial to the peace not only of this district but of the whole of South Africa.’

Warren’s army went on to take control of Bechuanaland without resistance. Most of the Boer freebooters slipped back across the border, duly warned by Kruger that he would not support them. ‘Let there be no more talk of “Shoot the Englishman” or of “damned Englishmen,”’ he said. ‘Let the burghers of the Transvaal and Land of Goshen guard their tongues as well as their actions; otherwise they’ll pay dearly for their words.’

The British government eventually settled the future of Bechuanaland, deciding on a limited annexation. As a gesture to Tswana chiefs, the southern half, up to the Molopo River, became a crown colony known as British Bechuanaland in 1885, established in the hope that it could soon be transferred to the Cape. The northern half, including Kgama’s Ngwato chiefdom, was declared a British ‘protectorate’. The Germans and the Boers were shut out. The road to the north had finally been secured.

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