In 1890, at the age of thirty-seven, Rhodes reached a pinnacle of wealth and power. As prime minister of the Cape Colony, he had command of an effective administration and the support of the Afrikaner Bond, the only organised political party in the country. As chairman of De Beers, he controlled a virtual monopoly of both diamond production and markets. As managing director of the British South Africa Company, he was empowered to act with ‘absolute discretion’ over a vast stretch of the African interior and allowed a private army - the British South Africa Police - to enforce his plans.
It was a dazzling feat of empire-building that won him many admirers. Rhodes regarded his achievements as evidence of his own unique genius. But, like other empire-builders, his success had depended on the work and talent of many key figures. His early business career had been held together by Charles Rudd; indeed, their partnership for several years was commonly known as Rudd and Rhodes, in that order. The mastermind behind the amalgamation of the diamond mines in Kimberley was not Rhodes but the self-effacing Alfred Beit - ‘Little Alfred’ - to whom he invariably turned for solutions. His drive to the north was facilitated by Hercules Robinson, a Cape imperialist who shared similar aims; it was Robinson’s decisiveness that led to the Moffat Treaty, incorporating Matabeleland within Britain’s sphere of interest. His triumph in winning the support of the British establishment for a chartered company was due as much to the work of Gifford and Cawston in London as to Rhodes’ own efforts. Finally, he managed to obtain a royal charter for his company only because it suited the interests of Lord Salisbury; preoccupied with the need to keep Britain ahead in the Scramble for Africa among European powers, Salisbury saw a means to extend British influence on the cheap, at no cost to the public exchequer.
In harnessing allies to his cause, Rhodes displayed remarkable powers of persuasion. But what was equally influential was the power of his money. Many hitched themselves to Rhodes’ band-wagon lured by the prospect of making their own fortunes. When he encountered resistance or scepticism, Rhodes was adept at providing incentives, bribes, share options, directorships and other positions, convinced that every man had his price. Politicians, journalists and churchmen in Britain and in southern Africa, even those with distinguished records, had few qualms about signing up as paid supporters for Rhodes’ cause. The Anglican Bishop of Bloemfontein, Dr Knight-Bruce, once so outspoken in his condemnation of Rhodes, was soon silenced by being offered the post of first Bishop of Mashonaland. Earl Grey, the paladin of his generation, was similarly converted, reasoning to himself that he might be able to do more good from within the British South Africa Company than by remaining an outside critic.
In his memoirs, the Cape lawyer James Rose Innes gave a graphic description of Rhodes at work, infecting the body politic, as he put it:
He offered to members of parliament, and other prominent persons the opportunity of subscribing at par for parcels of chartered shares then standing at a considerable premium. It was delicately put; the idea was to interest the selected recipients in northern development. Of course the recipient paid for his shares, but equally of course they were worth far more than he paid. In effect it was a valuable gift, which could not, one would think, be accepted without some impairment of independence. Yet there were acceptances in unexpected quarters.
Rose Innes was one of the few who declined Rhodes’ offer.
Lauded by the press, the Rhodes phenomenon caught the public imagination. With the Scramble for Africa reaching a climax, empire-builders in Africa were regarded as popular heroes. Rhodes was seen as upholding the tradition set by David Livingstone, General Gordon and, more recently, the Welsh-born journalist-explorer Henry Morton Stanley, blazing a trail that would bring civilisation to a benighted continent. Stanley’s account of one of his epic journeys through the jungles of the Congo - In Darkest Africa - had just been published to widespread acclaim. Rhodes’ plans to build railways and telegraphs into the interior and to develop mineral and agricultural resources were held up as examples of what needed to follow.
The Scramble for Africa added a sense of urgency, justifying the kind of decisive action that Rhodes was willing to take. In August 1888, an ardent young imperialist, Harry Johnston, after spending the weekend at Lord Salisbury’s residence at Hatfield, wrote an article for the London Timesadvocating an end to Britain’s ‘magnificent inactivity’ in colonising Africa. While conceding that other European powers had ‘legitimate’ interests in Africa - the French and the Italians in north Africa, for example - he argued that it was essential for the sake of British commerce that Britain should extend its control ‘over a large part of Africa’. Picking up Edwin Arnold’s original idea for a ‘Cape-to-Cairo’ policy, he urged the linking of Britain’s possessions in southern Africa with its sphere in east Africa and the Egyptian Sudan ‘by a continuous band of British dominion’.
Impressed by Johnston’s zeal, Salisbury appointed him as consul in Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique). His remit was to secure for Britain territory in the interior which Salisbury was interested in acquiring by signing treaties with African chiefs before the Portuguese or the Germans or the Belgians got there. But, faced as ever with a tight-fisted Treasury, Salisbury was able to provide Johnston with only limited funds.
It was Rhodes who solved Johnston’s predicament during his 1889 visit to London in pursuit of a royal charter. They met at the Marylebone apartment of John Verschoyle, deputy editor of the influential Fortnightly Review, and continued talking through the night at Rhodes’ suite at the Westminster Palace Hotel. Rhodes wrote Johnston a cheque for £2,000 for a treaty-making expedition and promised him more - £10,000 a year - for the occupation and administration of a swathe of territory in central Africa ‘between the Zambesi and the White Nile’. And he took up the cause of a Cape-to-Cairo policy as his personal crusade.
Returning to London in 1891 with the occupation of Mashonaland under his belt, Rhodes was accorded star status, acclaimed a man of action with the Midas touch boldly leading the advance of civilisation. He was flooded with invitations from politicians, journalists and financiers, among them Salisbury and Gladstone. Queen Victoria invited him to dine at Windsor Castle. She asked him whether it was true that he was a woman-hater, to which Rhodes replied graciously: ‘How could I possibly hate a sex to which Your Majesty belongs?’
Among the visitors who came to his suite at the Westminster Palace Hotel was the Irish nationalist leader, Charles Parnell, seeking the second instalment of £5,000 that Rhodes had promised him in return for political support. Rhodes sent his private secretary, Harry Currey, to Hoare’s Bank to withdraw £5,000 in cash. Facing challenges to his leadership, Parnell often sought Rhodes’ company. ‘He used to call frequently about six in the evening and wait patiently in my room until Rhodes was disengaged,’ recalled Currey:
One evening he told Rhodes, ‘I shall lose’, and Rhodes asked ‘Why do you say that?’ Parnell replied, ‘Because the priests are against me.’ Rhodes, walking up and down the room, as he was wont, suddenly turned and asked, ‘Can’t we square the Pope?’
Rhodes also had a long conversation with the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, W. T. Stead, spilling out his ideas for a union of the English-speaking world and indulging in other fantasies. Stead quotes him as saying, ‘If there be a God, I think that what He would like me to do is to paint as much of the map of Africa British red as possible.’
Having moved his headquarters from Kimberley to Cape Town, Rhodes went in search of a residence that would provide him with a permanent home. For twenty years, he had been accustomed to living simply in spartan accommodation - tents, wagons, tin huts, boarding houses and hotel rooms - caring little for home comforts, frequently on the move. When he became prime minister, his Cape Town quarters were noisy rooms he shared with Captain Penfold, the harbour master, above a bank in Adderley Street, the main thoroughfare in Cape Town, which ran downhill from parliament to the harbour.
In early 1891, he took a lease on Groote Schuur, a residence that British governors had used as a summer retreat. It stood beneath Devil’s Peak, the outlying shoulder of Table Mountain, a few miles from the eastern edge of Cape Town. The original building there had been constructed in the seventeenth century for use as a government granary - the Great Granary; but it had then been converted into a residence with Cape Dutch architectural features. Little remained of the early house; after a fire in 1866, the traditional thatched roof had been replaced by Welsh slates, but the site, with views stretching away to the mountains around Stellenbosch, was magnificent. Rhodes subsequently bought the property’s freehold and then set about acquiring surrounding farms, assembling an estate of 1,500 acres of oak, pine and indigenous forest on the slopes of Devil’s Peak.
Once he had moved in, Rhodes conceived the idea of rebuilding Groote Schuur in its original Cape Dutch style. By chance, at a dinner party, he encountered Herbert Baker, a young architect from England with an interest in colonial architecture, and asked him to take on the assignment. Rhodes gave Baker few instructions. ‘I was surprised that such a man, the chairman of great business corporations, should give me no details or defined instructions of what he wanted,’ wrote Baker in his memoir. ‘He just gave me in few words his idea - his “thoughts” - and trusted me to do the rest.’
Rhodes’ ‘thoughts’ said as much about his own character as his taste in architecture. ‘The big and simple, barbaric, if you like’; ‘nothing petty or finikin’; and ‘I like teak and whitewash,’ he told Baker. ‘He abhorred the small and mean and any commercial things made with the machine and not with the hands and brain,’ wrote Baker. He insisted on tearing out all deal joinery and replacing it with teak. ‘I had also to replace all imported ironmongery, the things he hated, such as hinges and metalwork for doors and windows - even the screws in those places where they could be seen; and craftsmen had to be found and taught to hammer in iron or cast in brass and bronze, as in the golden days of the crafts before the hostile influences of machinery.’
Baker installed a new front to the house, added a long stoep at the back and a block for kitchens and staff, and constructed a new wing containing a ground-floor billiard room and a second-storey master bedroom above, with a large bay window facing Devil’s Peak. He also restored a thatched roof. While the renovation was under way, Rhodes was content to sleep in a small room in an outbuilding that had once been part of slave quarters. The house’s most distinctive feature was the stoep at the back, with a floor of black and white chequered marble and a view of Devil’s Peak. Rhodes used it for many of his meetings and receptions. Inside the house, Baker created a spacious hall, framed by solid teak pillars and a massive fireplace.
When it came to furnishing the house, Rhodes took the opportunity during his London visit in 1891 to organise a delivery of modern furniture. Harry Currey was given the task of finding a suitable store and making a selection. Currey was directed to Maples in Tottenham Court Road but, overwhelmed by the range on offer, arranged for Maples to send round to Rhodes’ hotel ‘three of a kind’ of everything that Rhodes required - chairs, rugs, wardrobes, salt cellars, table napkins. One of the hotel’s main reception rooms was converted into a showroom and a convoy of vehicles arrived to deliver the furniture. Rhodes, however, had no interest in the matter and left Currey to make the choice. Groote Schuur was furnished ‘from cellars to attic’, according to Currey, ‘in about quarter on an hour’.
Guided by Baker, Rhodes began to take an interest in traditional Cape furniture. When Baker showed him a plain wardrobe of stinkwood that he had found in a pawnbroker’s shop in Cape Town, its colours of gold and brown darkened by age, Rhodes instantly wrote out a cheque for it. It marked the beginning of his collection of old colonial furniture. ‘He had, I think, an inherently true, though perhaps crude and primitive, taste - a searching for the truth - and could quickly distinguish the good from the bad when both were put before him,’ wrote Baker. ‘But at first when acting on his own impulse and bad advice he made mistakes.’
The London furniture soon disappeared. As his enthusiasm for Cape items grew, Rhodes became a knowledgeable collector. He was particularly delighted to obtain chairs and benches made by Boer hunters on the frontier, with dates and initials inlaid in bone or ivory. He purchased Dutch glass and Chinese and Japanese porcelain imported by merchants from the Dutch East India Company. When no old furniture was available, Baker commissioned local craftsmen to produce replicas. In the hall, Rhodes displayed African shields and spears and hunting trophies. His library he filled with books, documents, journals, manuscripts and maps about the exploration and history of Africa. The centrepiece of his bathroom was an eight-foot-long bath hollowed out of a solid block of granite and transported forty-five miles from Paarl; shaped like a sarcophagus, it was decorated with lion-head spouts reminiscent of imperial Rome. On the stoep floor, he placed old kists, the ship chests of settlers, bound and studded with pierced and engraved brass locks, plates and hinges.
In the surrounding gardens, Rhodes demanded ‘masses of colour’. At one end of the house there was a profusion of roses, ‘bewildering to the eye’. A hollow within sight of the stoep was filled with a blue ‘lake’ of hydrangeas. Huge clumps of scarlet and orange cannas, bougainvilleas and fuchsias grew in semi-wildness. ‘You can’t overdo the massing of flower in a garden,’ he said. ‘In South Africa everything must be done in masses.’ Herbert Baker observed: ‘The activities of Rhodes in gardening and planting suffered often by the defects of his qualities, his “foible of size.”’ On the higher slopes of Devil’s Peak, he established an enclosure for antelopes, zebra, eland, wildebeest, ostriches and other African wildlife. He also kept a few lions in cages, intending one day to build a grand edifice for them with portico and marble courts.
Rhodes used Groote Schuur not so much as a home as the headquarters of his business and political empire. His routine was to take early morning rides along the mountain slopes, sometimes with a friend or two, breaking prolonged silences with a flood of talk; he often sat brooding alone on a ledge above Groote Schuur where he could gaze at the Indian Ocean to the south and the Atlantic Ocean to the north. But otherwise Groote Schuur was a constant hive of activity. Rhodes was a generous host, keeping open house for a stream of friends, political colleagues, business associates and other visitors. His life at Groote Schuur revolved around a succession of luncheon and dinner parties. At receptions on the stoep, as many as fifty guests would attend.
‘People of all conditions and degrees were welcome at his table,’ wrote Baker, ‘and he would with tact and sympathy put the uncouth, the unkempt and the unexpected at their ease.’ He loved to talk his own ‘shop’ - about the Empire, or the north, or gold and diamonds; but had a horror of gossip and bawdy stories. ‘His conversation would often seem to consist of simple enough platitudes: he reiterated them and hammered them, “rubbing them in like jewels”, as has been said: but it was often to the boredom of the less imaginative and more habitual guests.’ Baker observed that ‘in some ways he retained some of the characteristics of a child’. He was shy of saying goodbye. When absorbed in talk, he would sit around the dinner table often up to ten o’clock, then suddenly break off and steal away to bed.
Among Rhodes’ admirers at the time was the novelist Olive Schreiner. Her book The Story of an African Farm, a brilliant evocation of life in the Karoo, published in 1883, had been widely acclaimed. The daughter of a German missionary and an English mother, she was a woman of strong independent views, almost entirely self-taught, brought up in impoverished circumstances. Her father had been dismissed from the church and gone bankrupt. Much of her youth had been spent staying with other families in the Karoo, taking on domestic tasks and minding children. In December 1872, at the age of seventeen, she had arrived at New Rush in Kimberley to stay with a brother and sister, living, like Rhodes, in a tent and, like him, gazing down into the depths of the crater there, dreaming. She began her first novel, Undine, in Kimberley, depicting the mine not as a hell-hole of dust, toil and sweat, as indeed it was, but in a more romantic light, describing a night visit her heroine paid there.
When the camp below was aglow with evening lights and the noise and stir in its tents and streets became louder and stronger, she rose and walked into the Kop in the bright moonlight. It was like entering the city of the dead in the land of the living, so quiet it was, so well did the high-piled gravel heaps keep out all sound of the seething noisy world around. Not a sound, not a movement. She walked to the edge of the reef and looked down into the crater. The thousand wires that crossed it, glistened in the moonlight, formed a weird, sheeny, mistlike veil over the black depths beneath. Very dark, very deep it lay all round the edge, but high towering into the bright moonlight rose the unworked centre. She crouched down at the foot of the staging and sat looking at it. In the magic of the moonlight it was a golden castle of the olden knightly days; you might swear as you gazed down on it, that you saw the shadows of its castellated battlements, and the endless turrets that overcrowned it; a giant castle, lulled to sleep and bound in silence for a thousand years by the word of some enchanter.
Schreiner stayed no more than ten months in Kimberley before resuming her peripatetic existence, taking up a string of posts as a governess in the Karoo. In 1881 she arrived in England, carrying the manuscripts of three books, and stayed for eight years, relishing intellectual life in London; but, suffering from chronic asthma and doomed love affairs, she returned to the Cape in November 1889, settling in the Karoo outpost of Matjesfontein, a railway halt on the line from Cape Town to Kimberley.
Even before she met Rhodes, she was entranced by him. She had heard reports about him from Stead and others in London, and on returning to the Cape expressed her hope of meeting him. Though living in Matjesfontein, she frequently visited Cape Town, becoming a star of high society there. In a letter to her friend Havelock Ellis, a London psychologist and writer, she complained of the uncultured nature of most of the white population in the Cape - ‘Fancy a whole nation of lower middle-class Philistines, without an aristocracy of blood or intellect or of muscular labourers to save them!’ - but added, ‘There is one man I’ve heard of, Cecil Rhodes . . . whom I think I should like if I could meet him.’ Shortly afterwards, in June 1890, she wrote to Ellis excitedly: ‘I am going to meet Cecil Rhodes, the only great man and man of genius South Africa possesses.’ She told Stead that she felt a ‘curious and almost painfully intense interest’ in ‘the man and his career’.
Rhodes was similarly impressed by Schreiner and her writing. He had read The Story of an African Farm in 1887 and was moved by its passion, force and evocative descriptions of the vast spaces of the African interior. They struck up a warm friendship, often meeting at dinner parties and on the station platform at Matjesfontein when Rhodes would use his stopping-off point as an occasion to talk to her. After a dinner with him at Matjesfontein in November 1890, she wrote to Ellis relating how Rhodes reminded her of her character Waldo in An African Farm: ‘the same, curious far-off look, combined with a huge, almost gross body’. She thought of him as a ‘man of genius, as a sort of child’, and felt curiously tender towards him. On another occasion she wrote that her feelings for Rhodes were different than those for any other person. ‘It’s not love, it’s not admiration . . . it’s not that I think of him as noble or good . . . it’s the deliberate feeling, “That man belongs to me.”’ In December, they travelled together when Rhodes went to Bloemfontein to open a rail extension. ‘He is even higher and nobler than I had expected,’ she wrote afterwards, ‘but our friends are so different [that] we could never become close friends. [Yet] he spoke to me more lovingly and sympathetically of An African Farmthan anyone has ever done.’
At Groote Schuur, Rhodes often gave Schreiner precedence over other ladies. Her conversation there, recalled a visiting Irish politician, Swift MacNeil, was ‘as perfect and as sparkling as that of her writings’. Others spoke of her ‘vivid personality’, her ‘wonderful eyes’, and her face ‘alight with intellect and power’. Sir Henry Loch’s young niece, Adela Villiers, who met her in 1890, described her as ‘a symbol, a seer, a teacher with her intellect afire for all that was great and beautiful and her heart aflame with love and pity for those who were despised’.
The gossip in Cape Town was that they were destined to marry. Rhodes spent more time conversing and arguing with Schreiner than with any other woman in his life. Stead and others encouraged the idea of marriage. But Schreiner was well aware of Rhodes’ general disdain for women. ‘I do not wonder at [it],’ she told Stead. ‘If you had known Cape women you would not.’ According to Jameson, one day while walking together on Table Mountain, Schreiner proposed to Rhodes, but Rhodes turned and fled.
In a remark to one of his aides, Philip Jourdan, Rhodes once explained: ‘I know everybody asks why I do not marry. I cannot get married. I have too much work on my hands. I shall always be away from home, and I should not be able to do my duty as a husband towards his wife.’
In fact, Rhodes preferred the company of men almost exclusively and tended to feel uneasy in the presence of most women; indeed, he appeared to fear women. He surrounded himself with agreeable young men, acolytes, sometimes becoming emotionally attached to them, demanding in return unswerving loyalty, even devotion. They formed, said one of them, Gordon le Sueur, ‘a sort of bodyguard’. Invariably, Rhodes was opposed to having married men in his personal entourage. According to Frank Johnson, he often used to say that no one could marry a wife and also keep secrets. ‘You sleep with a woman and you talk in your sleep. A man may be perfectly honest, but he talks in his sleep.’
Marriage he regarded virtually as an act of betrayal. When his faithful secretary, Harry Currey, eventually plucked up the courage to tell Rhodes that he was engaged to be married, Rhodes threw a tantrum. Frank Johnson, who was visiting Groote Schuur at the time, recalled the incident.
Everyone knew that [Currey] was engaged - except Rhodes. Rhodes raved and stormed like a maniac. His falsetto voice rose to a screech as he kept on screaming: ‘Leave my house! Leave my house!’ No small schoolboy, or even schoolgirl, could have behaved more childishly than he did.
When Rhodes had calmed down, he tried inducements, as Currey recalled:
He said that he would miss me very much, that we always got on ‘exceedingly well’ and that had I not proposed to get married we should doubtless have continued to live together until one or another of us dies . . . Then he talked a great deal about his income, both present and prospective, and what he intended doing with it.
On this occasion, Rhodes’ money failed him.