From their base at Fort Salisbury, Rhodes’ pioneers scattered across Mashonaland in search of gold. They possessed only limited equipment - picks, shovels, pans and sieves - but their optimism remained high. One pioneer recorded: ‘Such was the faith in the gold country that the officials thought that soon we would have several reefs eclipsing the Johannesburg main reef, and that the next season the country would be swarming with a population and we - equally sanguine - were scouring the country in search of these reefs.’

With similar expectations, scores of syndicates were formed to undertake mining operations in Mashonaland. Within three months of the arrival of the pioneer column in Fort Salisbury in September 1890, twenty-two syndicates were launched in Kimberley alone. By February 1891, some 7,000 claims had been marked off in Mashonaland. The same bout of gold fever affected investors in Britain, attracted by lavish advertisements about the potential of the Mashonaland goldfields. The journalist Edward Mathers added to the excitement with a book published in 1891 with the title:Zambesia: England’s El Dorado in Africa.

The optimism of the pioneers, however, soon began to falter. They found plenty of evidence of old gold workings, but few signs of surface gold that they could exploit. The land of Ophir, it turned out, was no more than a myth. Torrential summer rains added to their woes. In December, the supply route from Kimberley, 800 miles away, was cut by flooded rivers and impassable wagon tracks, threatening starvation. Pioneers survived on maize and pumpkins traded with local Shona, but had few goods to offer in exchange. Their makeshift grass huts provided scant protection from the rain. Clothes and blankets were constantly sodden; footwear disintegrated. Malaria struck hard. The plight of Fort Salisbury was made worse by being sited close to a swamp. Newcomers trapped between swollen rivers succumbed to malaria and starvation. ‘At the Lundi there were over forty graves,’ wrote one traveller, ‘and between that river and the Tokwe we counted forty more victims of fever and dysentery.’ When supplies eventually got through, the price of goods was astronomical, provoking further disillusionment and anger.

Rhodes’ British South Africa Company was itself in acute difficulty. By March 1891, most of the cash it had raised from the sale of shares - £600,000 - had been spent; expenses included £90,000 on the pioneer column; £200,000 on a paramilitary police force; £70,000 to ‘square’ rival concession-holders; and £50,000 on telegraph lines. Rhodes had hoped that syndicates would finance the development of mining, but many were no more than speculative ventures. Facing mounting criticism from his London directors, he was obliged to cut back expenditure; the police force was reduced first to one hundred men, then to forty.

Despite the absence of any significant gold finds, Rhodes continued to pump into the press rosy reports of the company’s fortunes, desperate to keep the share price from collapse. The Fortnightly Review and the Financial News regularly published articles extolling the wealth of Mashonaland. Witnesses friendly to the company were cited favourably; adverse remarks were discounted.

Hoping for further favourable coverage, Rhodes encouraged Lord Randolph Churchill, an influential British politician, to visit Mashonaland. A former chancellor of the exchequer, Churchill had bought shares in the Chartered Company and was a friend of several of its London directors. Rhodes met him in March 1891 to discuss the idea. Churchill planned to write a series of articles for the Daily Chronicle and Rhodes assumed he could be relied upon to promote the company’s cause. His lavish expedition was financed by two exploring syndicates. It included a mining engineer, Henry Perkins, and a military surgeon.

A notably cantankerous figure, Churchill arrived in Cape Town in May 1891, and travelled first to Kimberley to inspect the diamond mines, descending deep underground. On being shown a parcel of diamonds, he remarked: ‘All for the vanity of women!’ To which a woman in his party retorted: ‘And the depravity of man!’ He proceeded next to Johannesburg and Pretoria, filling his reports to the Daily Chronicle with abusive remarks about the Transvaal Boers. ‘I turned my back gladly on this people, hastening northwards to lands possessed I hope of equal wealth, brighter prospects, reserved for more worthy owners entitled to happier destinies.’

Churchill’s caustic observations continued to figure prominently in his reports. The lowveld, he wrote, had fertile soils but suffered from two ‘fatal disadvantages’: malaria and horse-sickness. The highveld between Fort Victoria and Fort Charter he described as ‘unsuitable and grievous either for man or domestic beast’; the climate was ‘capricious and variable’; the soil was too sandy to cultivate. ‘Where, then, I commenced to ask myself, is the much-talked-of fine country of the Mashona? Where is the promised land?’

Churchill arrived in Fort Salisbury in August and spent two months exploring the region. He was impressed by the bustle of the place. A settlement of 300 white residents, it had ‘a thriving, rising, healthy appearance’. Walking around on the day after his arrival, he counted a hotel with clean napkins laid out on its tables; three auctioneers’ offices; several stores; the hut of a surgeon-dentist, another of a chemist, a third of a solicitor - ‘and last, but not least among the many signs of civilization, a tolerably smart perambulator’. He also noted that basic goods, like food and clothing, were ‘costly in the extreme’. Bread, meat, butter and jam had risen ‘to impossible prices’.

But what of gold discoveries? he asked. After making enquiries, he discovered there was scant information available in Fort Salisbury. ‘In my opinion, at the present time all that can be said of Mashonaland from a mining point of view is that the odds are overwhelmingly against the making of a rapid or large fortune by any individual.’

In the weeks ahead, on their tour of mine sites, Churchill and his mining engineer, Henry Perkins, became increasingly convinced that there were no significant gold deposits to be found. The Mazoe Valley, regarded by Selous as one of the most promising areas, had proved disappointing.

Although here and there were reefs of comparatively limited extent and depth, which might yield a small profit to the small individual miner, nothing had yet been discovered, nor did the general formation encourage much hope that there would be discovered in that particular district any reef of such extent, depth and quality as would justify the formation of a syndicate or company, and a large expenditure of capital to purchase and to work it.

Hartley Hills, another favoured spot, offered no better prospects. To emphasise the point Churchill wrote: ‘What I have seen since I commenced my travels . . . has led me to the conclusion that no more unwise or unsafe speculation exists than the investment of money in exploration syndicates.’ His overall conclusion was equally blunt: ‘The truth has to be told,’ he wrote. ‘Mashonaland, so far as is presently known, and much is known, is neither Arcadia nor an El Dorado.’

A similar verdict was reached privately by Beit who was on tour in Mashonaland at the same time as Churchill. ‘I think I will not undertake anything here,’ Beit told a mining colleague. ‘So far I have not seen anything that I think worth putting £100 into.’

Deciding that the company needed new management in Mashonaland, Rhodes took the fateful decision to appoint his friend Starr Jameson as administrator. Jameson’s charm had won him many admirers, but he was an adventurer, an inveterate gambler who enjoyed taking risks and living by his wits; he possessed no administrative experience nor, as it turned out, any administrative ability. But Rhodes had complete confidence in him. ‘Jameson,’ he said in 1890, ‘never makes a mistake.’ He trusted Jameson as he did no other man. His instructions to him were simply: ‘Your business is to administer the country as to which I have nothing to do but merely say “Yes” if you take the trouble to ask me.’

With Jameson installed in Fort Salisbury, Rhodes decided to take a look himself. Before leaving he wrote two long letters to Stead in London, wallowing in adolescent dreams of glory:

I am off to Mashonaland . . . They are calling the new country Rhodesia, that is from the Transvaal to the southern end of [Lake] Tanganyika; the other name is Zambesia. I find I am human and should like to be living after death; still, perhaps, if that name is coupled with the object of England everywhere, and united, the name may convey the discovery of an idea which ultimately led to the cessation of all wars and one language throughout the world, the patent being the gradual absorption of wealth and human minds of the higher order to the object . . . The only thing feasible to carry this idea out is a secret [society] gradually absorbing the wealth of the world to be devoted to such an object.

Rather than travel along the Selous road to Fort Salisbury, Rhodes decided to test the eastern route from the Portuguese settlement at Beira on Pungwe Bay, taking with him two companions, Frank Johnson and David de Waal, a Cape parliamentarian, and a manservant. He was in an agitated state of mind, livid about the reports that Churchill had sent to the Daily Chronicle.

The journey made him even more bad-tempered. He was infuriated when a Portuguese official demanded to inspect his luggage. ‘I’ll take their [expletive] country from them!’ Rhodes screamed repeatedly, according to Johnson. After a journey of sixty miles in a flat-bottomed boat up the Pungwe River, they reached a Portuguese military outpost where a track that Johnson had previously carved out of the bush led up the escarpment to the highveld of Manicaland. Once more, Rhodes lost his temper over delays in unloading horses. Johnson’s track then turned out to be far rougher than he had claimed beforehand. One cart and its entire load were lost in a marsh; another had to be repeatedly unpacked at difficult stretches and was eventually abandoned.

Reaching the Amatonga forest, Rhodes became visibly angry when Johnson decided to light fires around their camp to keep marauding lions at bay. Johnson reminded him that a correspondent from The Times had recently been eaten in the neighbourhood; only his booted feet had been found. ‘I will not be frightened,’ said Rhodes. During the night, Rhodes left their tent and moved beyond the ring of fires, when a lion roared nearby. ‘Almost immediately I saw the strange spectacle of the Prime Minister of the Cape dashing back towards our tent,’ Johnson recalled, ‘with the trousers of his pyjamas . . . hanging down well below his knees.’

After an arduous climb up the escarpment, Rhodes’ party reached the eastern frontier of Chartered territory, where Jameson was waiting with a mule cart to take them to Fort Salisbury. Johnson described their arrival in October 1891:

As we got nearer to the capital, Rhodes became more and more excited. He was just like a schoolboy in his spirits, and was obviously delighted at being in his own country.

At last we reached the last ridge in our long journey. I turned to Rhodes saying: ‘Now you’ll see Salisbury in a few minutes.’ Then the ‘town’ lay before his eyes. I could see he was very disappointed. He had pictured some magnificent city, but in its place there appeared a few corrugated iron shacks and some wattle-and-daub huts. We crossed the Makabusi stream and made our way to Jameson’s huts. As we travelled along, Rhodes kept on asking, ‘What building is this?’ ‘What building is that?’ He made no comment, but I could see he felt depressed on his first arrival. It was only when I pointed out to him the foundations of the Jewish Synagogue that he became cheerful once more and quite excited.

‘My country’s all right,’ he kept on exclaiming. ‘If the Jews come, my country’s all right.’

The mood of the settlers, however, was distinctly hostile. Rhodes was presented with a long list of grievances: the high cost of food; the shortage of labour; punitive company taxes; the fact that there was no gold bonanza. When Rhodes tried to win them over by praising the great work they were doing for the Empire and for posterity, a Scottish settler retorted: ‘I’ll have ye know, Mr Rhodes, that we didna come here for posterity.’ Another disgruntled settler, when asked what he thought of the country, replied: ‘Well, if you want my opinion, it’s a bloody fyasco.’

The position of the British South Africa Company had meanwhile grown even more precarious. Churchill’s reports in the Daily Chroniclec caused a slide in the company’s share price, halving its value. A London director told Rhodes that a plan to raise a £200,000 loan to keep the company solvent had been made impossible and he urged Rhodes to travel to London to ‘smash Randolph with the public’. Directors in London even discussed a scheme to rig the market to boost the share price.

A new predator had also appeared on the scene. In April 1891, a German concession-hunter, Edouard Lippert, announced that he had obtained from Lobengula a concession giving him exclusive rights to grant lands, establish banks and conduct trade in the territory of the chartered company, thus trumping the Rudd concession which related only to mineral rights. Lobengula had apparently consented to the concession on the assumption that Lippert was an enemy of the British South Africa Company and would help him undermine it. Rhodes’ first reaction to the Lippert concession was to denounce it as fraudulent and to enlist the support of Loch, the high commissioner, in blocking it. Loch duly issued a proclamation declaring that all concessions not sanctioned by his office were invalid and he banned Lippert and his agent Edward Renny-Tailyour from entering Matabeleland. But Beit urged a more cautious approach, warning that English courts might uphold Lippert’s concession; he recommended negotiation instead.

The outcome was a contract that was kept secret from Lobengula. In exchange for handing Rhodes the Lippert concession, Rhodes agreed to give Lippert £50,000 worth of shares, £5,000 in cash and the right to select an area of seventy-five square miles in Matabeleland with all land and mineral rights there. To complete the deal, Lippert first needed to renegotiate his concession with Lobengula to put it on a firmer legal basis, while leaving Lobengula under the impression that he remained an enemy of Rhodes and implacably opposed to his designs. This piece of deception was approved by Loch who wrote a letter to Lobengula explaining in plausible terms why he had decided to lift the ban on Lippert and Renny-Tailyour from entering Matabeleland. Loch further assisted the plot by ordering John Moffat, the Queen’s representative in Bulawayo, to cooperate. In a letter to Moffat in September 1891, Loch instructed: ‘Your attitude towards Messrs. Lippert and Renny-Tailyour should not change too abruptly, though if consulted by the King you might profess indifference on the subject.’ Moffat found the matter repugnant. ‘I feel bound to tell you,’ he wrote to Rhodes in October, ‘I look on the whole plan as detestable, whether viewed in the light of policy or morality.’ He nevertheless agreed to cooperate.

In Moffat’s presence, Lobengula in November 1891 granted Lippert the sole right for a hundred years to lay out, grant or lease farms and townships and to levy rents in the territories of the chartered company’s operations. Loch swiftly approved the concession; so did the Colonial Office in London. Rhodes now held rights not only to minerals but to land, opening up a vast new area for exploitation and profit.

Nearly thirty years later, the judicial committee of the Privy Council ruled the whole transaction illegal. The concession, it found, had merely made Lippert the agent in land transactions; it had given him no right to use the land or to take its usufruct. Indeed, under customary law, Lobengula had no authority to make any award of Ndebele land, let alone Shona land. But by then, Lobengula was long since dead; and both the Ndebele and the Shona had been stripped of much of their land.

Given a free rein by Rhodes to run Mashonaland as he saw fit, Jameson distributed land on a wholesale basis to syndicates and speculators on promises that they would plough in investment. By 1893, more than two million acres had been designated as white farmland, although few farms were developed. Even church organisations were involved in the scramble. A young assistant working for the Anglican Bishop of Mashonaland, Knight-Bruce, was soon exhausted by his constant demands for more farms. ‘The one thing I strongly object to,’ he wrote to his parents in 1892, ‘is to go looking for more farms, which I hear . . . is the Bishop’s great idea. He already has more than 40!! All over 3,000 acres!’

One consequence was to fuel the grievances of the Shona population. Oblivious of the danger, Jameson turned his attention to Matabeleland.

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