The discovery of diamonds in Griqualand precipitated a tussle between Britain, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal for control of the territory. Hitherto a backwater of little interest to any of its neighbours, its borders and status had remained ill-defined. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the area had been colonised by groups of mixed-race emigrants from the Cape Colony who proudly called themselves ‘Bastaards’ and who attempted to set up their own statelets north of the Orange River and establish their authority over the local inhabitants, indigenous Kora Khoikhoi and the Tswana-speaking Tlhaping. In order to maintain their credentials as a Christian community, they invited British missionaries to their capital at Klaarwater, asking them to build a mission station there. It was at the behest of the missionaries that they agreed to change their name to Griquas and to rename their capital Griquatown.

In a treaty signed in 1834, the Cape Colony accorded due recognition to the Griqua kaptyn, Andries Waterboer, as an independent chief and agreed to pay him a salary of £100 a year for protecting the colonial frontier, warning the authorities of possible attacks and sending back fugitives. A similar treaty was signed in 1843 with another Griqua leader, Adam Kok, who had established a statelet based on Philippolis, a mission station to the east of Waterboer’s territory.

But Griqua lands were soon threatened by the arrival of hundreds of Boer emigrants from the Cape Colony. The Philippolis area, lying in the path of the main Boer exodus, soon passed into the hands of Boer owners and became part of the Orange Free State; the Griqua population there moved eastwards, establishing a new territory near Natal known as Griqualand East. Boer farmers also began to obtain farm leases in Waterboer’s territory of Griqualand West, registering their titles there in the Free State. Waterboer’s authority steadily waned. His son, Nicholas Waterboer, became embroiled in a complex land dispute with the Free State government which claimed for itself a large part of Griqualand West known as the Campbell Lands. In the 1860s, British officials in the Cape Colony were drawn into the dispute, asked to act as arbitrators.

When the rush to the alluvial diggings on the Vaal River began in 1869, a host of claims were made about ownership of the area. On the south bank of the Vaal, missionaries at the Berlin Mission station at Pniel maintained that they had bought the district from Kora Khoikhoi and tried to charge diggers licence fees. Other claims to the south bank were announced by Waterboer and by a Tlhaping chief, Mahura. The Orange Free State, for its part, proclaimed sovereignty - not just over the Vaal River diggings but over the whole of the Campbell Lands which stretched beyond. To demonstrate the point, President Johannes Brand appointed a landrost to preside at Pniel. The task was given to Olof Truter, a Swede with experience of the goldfields of Australia and California and a former policeman who proved well able to handle ‘the rougher elements of the community’. A school, a courthouse and a prison were built at Pniel. The Free State Volksraad passed legislation regulating diggers’ activities. When the dry diggings subsequently opened at Dutoitspan, Truter moved there to supervise diggers’ committees and collect a portion of licence fees.

Although the river diggings lay well outside the Transvaal’s recognised boundaries, President Marthinus Wessels Pretorius also claimed rights there and sent mounted police and a magistrate to the north bank. The diggers themselves were divided between supporters of the Transvaal’s claims and those who favoured autonomy. But Pretorius, an inept, impetuous man who had acquired his own stake in the diamond fields, then tried to force the issue. In 1870 he provoked uproar by seeking to award an exclusive concession at the diamond fields to three of his friends. Diggers at the mining settlement at Klipdrift, on the north bank of the Vaal, declared an independent republic, choosing as president Stafford Parker, a former able seaman and owner of the local music hall. A flamboyant figure, with magnificent whiskers and a penchant for elegant clothes and dark glasses, Parker kept order by enforcing a bizarre set of punishments: diamond thieves were flogged; prostitutes and drunks were put in stocks; and card cheats were ducked in the river. More serious offenders were spreadeagled on the ground, tied to stakes and left under a searing sun to the mercy of the flies. Taxes were often collected at gunpoint.

Britain’s interest in the diamond fields was equally keen. Officials in Cape Town welcomed the prospect of a new source of revenue and economic activity that the diamond trade would bring to the impoverished Cape Colony. But they were also concerned about the territorial ambitions of the Free State and the Transvaal that the diamond discoveries had inspired. Griqualand and, in particular, the Campbell Lands lay across the only ‘road to the north’ outside the two Boer republics that colonial hunters and traders used to gain access to the African interior. The volume of trade with the interior was substantial. In exchange for ivory, ostrich feathers and animal hides, traders sold to tribesmen guns and ammunition worth £75,000 a year. There was a danger that if the Free State acquired the Campbell Lands, the road to the north and its trade would be lost. Furthermore, British hegemony would be threatened by the growing power of neighbouring states.

The Cape’s then colonial secretary, Richard Southey, was a fervent advocate of British expansion. He had arrived in the Colony as a boy, with his parents, along with other 1820 Settlers, and had since risen to become one of the most influential figures in the Cape administration. Known for his overt dislike of the Boers, Southey was determined that Britain should gain possession of the diamond fields. Acting in collusion with Waterboer’s agent, David Arnot, an ambitious Cape Coloured (mixed race) lawyer with large land interests, Southey prompted Waterboer to appeal to the Cape government for ‘protection’. The Cape government duly responded, agreeing to take up his case, issuing a statement of support for British subjects on the diamond fields and despatching a magistrate to Klipdrift to take control from Stafford Parker.

In London, the Colonial Office, mindful of past experience, viewed the dispute as part of the Boer tradition of expanding their own territory at the expense of native inhabitants. ‘Her Majesty’s Government,’ the colonial secretary, the Earl of Kimberley, wrote to Cape Town officials in November 1870, ‘would see with great dissatisfaction any encroachment on Griqua territory by those republics, which would open to the Boers an extended field for their slave-dealing operations.’ What Kimberley favoured was the annexation of Griqualand and its diamond fields not by the British government but by the Cape Colony, which would thus be obliged to bear the burden and costs of administering it.

On a tour of the diamond fields in February 1871, the new British high commissioner and governor of the Cape, Sir Henry Barkly, a brisk authoritarian, quickly realised that what was at stake was not just a frontier dispute over land ownership but the whole issue of political leadership in southern Africa. He resolved that Waterboer’s claims to the diamond fields needed to be supported, regardless of their merit, so as to ensure the supremacy of British interests. ‘It was quite clear,’ he reported to the Earl of Kimberley in March, ‘that any appearance of faltering on my part would only encourage the Free State and Transvaal in upholding their claims.’

To decide the matter of ownership, Barkly proposed arbitration by the governor of Natal, Robert Keate. After considerable wrangling, Pretorius accepted the proposal, but Brand insisted on independent foreign arbitration and refused to participate. The Transvaal case was palpably weak and poorly presented. In September, Keate ruled in favour of Waterboer’s claims and Waterboer promptly asked Barkly to take over the territory. Without waiting for approval from London, Barkly proclaimed the annexation of Griqualand West on 27 October 1871, not by the Cape Colony but in the name of the British Crown. Griqualand’s eastern border with the Orange Free State was realigned to ensure that the whole of the diamond fields fell within its jurisdiction.

In London, Kimberley was furious that Barkly had annexed Griqualand West as a British colony without waiting until arrangements could be made for it to be incorporated into the Cape Colony. ‘I never doubted,’ Kimberley wrote, ‘that Sir Henry Barkly made a mistake in annexing the diamond fields before the Cape Parliament had passed the Bill. He exceeded his instructions and departed from the line of policy which I believe would have succeeded, but which requires more patience than he seems to possess. However, we had no alternative but to approve his conduct.’

On the diamond fields, diggers’ reaction to the announcement of British rule was mixed. A local newspaper reported ‘much éclat and rejoicing’ in the mining camps, but many seemed indifferent; some worried that British rule might bring new restrictions to their activities. A prisoner held by the Free State police claimed protection from the new British authorities and was removed from their custody by Cape police, whereupon the Free State magistrate, Olof Truter, solemnly arose from his bench, vigorously protested against such interference and closed down his court.

Resentment about Britain’s annexation of Griqualand festered for years. In the Transvaal, the Volksraad blamed Pretorius for accepting arbitration in the first place, forced his resignation, and refused to consider itself bound by Keate’s award. In Bloemfontein, President Brand issued a counter-proclamation and continued to protest year after year at the dispossession of territory he considered rightly belonged to the Free State. As a sop to the Free State, the British government eventually agreed in 1876 to make a payment of £90,000, but the issue still rankled.

Under British control, the diggers continued to ride a rollercoaster of mixed fortunes. Blue ground, initially feared to herald the end of mining, was found to be not rock-hard but friable, decomposing rapidly once exposed to weather. Moreover, it contained an even higher density of diamonds than yellow ground. But the hazards of mining deep pits reaching down without support more than eighty feet below ground-level became increasingly severe; roadways linking the pits to the mine edge frequently collapsed, leaving claims buried under tons of soil.

Cecil Rhodes, however, persevered, showing dogged persistence and gaining a reputation for managing his claims with vigour. His brother Herbert returned briefly to Colesberg Kopje in 1872, bringing with him another brother, Frank, who recalled: ‘We found Cecil down in the claim, measuring his ground with his lawyer and in a tremendous rage with another man in the next claim to him, who had encroached on his ground.’

From the accounts given later by friends and acquaintances of Rhodes at Colesberg Kopje, he emerges as a shy, awkward youth, occasionally talkative - given to speaking abruptly in short, staccato bursts - but otherwise a dreamer, frequently preoccupied with his own thoughts and often to be seen supervising black labourers while sitting on an upturned bucket reading a volume of the classics, deaf to the noise about him. He was regarded as somewhat eccentric, notably careless about his dress.

Before deciding on a career as an artist, Norman Garstin spent a year at the diamond fields. On the day of his arrival there in 1872, while searching for a friend amid the maze of tents, wagons and debris heaps that surrounded the mine at Colesberg Kopje, he encountered Rhodes:

After following many distracting directions, I lit upon a little cluster of tents and beehive huts set around an old and gnarled mimosa tree: a Zulu was chopping wood and an Indian cook was coming out of the mess tent with a pile of plates: and here it was I found my friend.

Alongside of him was a tall fair boy, blue-eyed and with somewhat aquiline features, wearing flannels of the school playing field, somewhat shrunken with strenuous rather than effectual washings, that still left the colour of red veld dust.

Garstin pitched his tent next to Rhodes’ and saw much of him in the following months. Years later he strove to recall his first impressions:

As I search my memory for the Rhodes of the early seventies, I seem to see a fair young man, frequently sunk in deep thoughts, his hands buried in his trousers pockets, his legs crossed and possibly twisted together, quite oblivious of the talk around him; then without a word he would get up and go out with some set purpose in his mind which he was at no pains to communicate . . . He was a compound of moody silence and impulsive action. He was hot and even violent at times, but in working towards his ends he laid his plans with care and circumspection . . . The duality of his nature, the contemplative and the executive, had a curious counterpart in his voice, which broke, when he was excited, into a sort of falsetto, unusual in a man of his make; his laugh also had this falsetto note.

Another of Rhodes’ companions at Colesberg Kopje - or ‘New Rush’, as it became known - was William Scully, who had arrived at the diamond fields in 1871 at the age of sixteen just before the Colesberg deposits were discovered. One of the tasks he was given was to herd oxen and, by chance, he often took them to a pasturage in a shallow basin on the site of the Colesberg deposits. ‘Within the perimeter was a low, oblong rise covered with long grass, and at the eastern end of which stood a grove of exceptionally large camel-thorn trees.’ The rise, he noted, was full of holes dug by ant-bears and jackals.

Scully eventually joined Major Drury’s ‘West End’ mess at Colesberg Kopje and spent many months sharing the Rhodes brothers’ tent. He found Rhodes an aloof figure, intolerant in discussion, with solitary habits. Scully wrote:

I can very clearly picture Cecil Rhodes in one of his characteristic attitudes. After dinner it was his wont to lean forward with both elbows on the table and his mouth slightly open. He had a habit, when thinking, of rubbing his chin gently with his forefinger. Very often he would sit in the attitude described for a very long time, without joining in whatever conversation happened to be going on. His manner and expression suggested that his thoughts were far away, but occasionally some interjection would indicate that, to a certain extent, he was keeping in touch with the current topic.

Despite his solitary nature, Rhodes made several lasting friendships at ‘New Rush’. He struck up a close business partnership with Charles Rudd, an English digger educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge, who had arrived at the Vaal River diggings in 1870. Rudd’s first ventures there were not successful. He lived in a ragged tent and spent his time hauling buckets of gravel 300 yards from his claim to the river’s edge to wash and sieve the ‘stuff’, finding few diamonds and eventually succumbing to typhoid. After recovering in Cape Town, he tried his luck at the dry diggings, working both as a digger and diamond-buyer and importing supplies to the diamond fields. Nine years older than Rhodes, once a champion rackets player, he was then described as tall, erect, slender, ‘having fine dark eyes, a wispy moustache, and thick fair hair, with a well-trimmed black beard’, and characteristically dressed in moleskin trousers, flannel shirt and an untidy hat.

Neither Rhodes nor Rudd enjoyed the business of digging. Rudd complained to a friend years later about the hard labour he and Rhodes endured, carrying ‘pay dirt’ in bags, boxes and buckets to the sorting tables for days on end when black labour was scarce; and he described how during this work Rhodes had broken the little finger of his right hand, preventing him from ever again being able to give a firm grip in a handshake.

They tried a number of other business ventures. One of them was to order from Britain an ice-making machine. On hot summer days, at one of the corners of the Diamond Market, they did a brisk trade in ice-cream, Rhodes turning the handle of the ice-cream bucket while Rudd sold it from a packing case. They charged sixpence a wineglass, with an extra sixpence for a slab of cake. ‘The machine paid for itself in three months,’ Rudd recalled, ‘and we sold it at the end of the summer for more than it cost.’

Another firm friend of Rhodes was John Xavier Merriman, the son of an Anglican bishop and a serving member of the Cape parliament, an unpaid position that required him to make a living elsewhere. A tall, patrician figure, twelve years older than Rhodes, Merriman loathed the rough camp life of the diamond fields and, despite numerous opportunities there, failed to make much money. He enjoyed Rhodes’ company and warmly praised his business skills. In a letter that Rhodes’ brother Frank wrote home in April 1872, he mentioned Merriman’s high opinion of Cecil. ‘He says Cecil is such an excellent man in business; that he has managed all the business in Herbert’s absence wonderfully well, and that they are all so very fond of him . . . He says most young fellows when they get up here and do well get so very bumptious, but that Cecil was just the contrary.’ The two used to take long rides across the veld together, Rhodes on a rusty-brown pony named Brandersnatch, discussing the affairs of the Fields, the classics and world history.

What many of his contemporaries also remarked upon was Rhodes’ lack of interest in girls. ‘For the fair sex he cared nothing,’ wrote Louis Cohen, who arrived in the diamond fields in 1872. ‘I have many times seen him in the Main Street dressed in white flannels and leaning moodily with hands in his pockets against the street wall. He hardly ever had a companion, and seemingly took no interest in anything but his own thoughts, and I do not believe if a flock of the most adorable women passed through the street he would have gone across the road to see them . . . It is a fact that Rhodes was never seen to give the glad-eye to a barmaid or tripping beauty, however succulent.’

Occasionally, Rhodes would accompany friends to local dances. But it was noticed that he tended to pick out the plainest girl around, perhaps because they were as shy as himself. When his friends teased him about his taste in women, he would blush and flash back: ‘Just an enjoyable exercise . . . just an enjoyable exercise.’

What preoccupied Rhodes at the time, certainly far more than girls but even more than diamonds, was the idea of obtaining a professional qualification. As a schoolboy, his ambition had been to train as a barrister or, failing that, as a clergyman, like his father. His father, Francis Rhodes, the Anglican vicar of Bishop’s Stortford in Hertfordshire, an austere, remote figure, had intended that all seven of his sons should follow him into the church. But Cecil, his fifth son, had left secondary school at the age of sixteen without qualifying for the university education necessary to enter either profession. According to Rhodes’ friend and banker, Lewis Michell, Rhodes’ father ‘recognised that he was unfitted for a routine life in England, and resolved to ship him to one of the Colonies’, like so many thousands of other younger sons. Thus had Rhodes duly set out to join Herbert in Natal provided with the tidy sum of £2,000 by his aunt Sophia.

Despite the wealth he had accumulated from diamonds, Rhodes still hankered for a university education. ‘Many young men would have been content to float on this easy tide of good fortune, but it was not so with Cecil Rhodes,’ Norman Garstin recalled.

I remember his telling me that he had made up his mind to go to the University, it would help with his career; also it might be wise if he were to eat his dinners, the position of a barrister ‘was always useful’. Then in his abrupt way he said, ‘I dare say you think I am keen about money; I assure you I wouldn’t greatly care if I lost all I have tomorrow, it’s the game I like.’

Shortly after his nineteenth birthday, however, Rhodes suffered what was described as a ‘mild heart attack’; it was said to have been brought on by ‘overwork’. In later life Rhodes was indeed troubled by heart problems, but his earlier years were marked more by vigorous activity than by signs of ill-health. Once he had sufficiently recovered, he made a long journey by ox-wagon northwards, accompanying Herbert who was keen to investigate rumours of gold finds in the northern Transvaal. Along the way, Rhodes decided to purchase a 3,000-acre farm in the Transvaal, though shortly afterwards he described it as ‘no earthly good and only sunk money’.

Soon after their return to the diamond fields some four months later, Herbert sold his claims in New Rush and took off once more for the north. The two brothers were never to see each other again. After a three-year spell of prospecting for gold in the eastern Transvaal and a prison term in Mozambique for gun-running, Herbert came to an untimely end on the banks of the Shire River in southern Malawi in 1879 when an ember from his pipe ignited a demi-john of home-brewed gin that he was pouring, setting his clothes alight; he rushed to the river and jumped in but died of his injuries shortly afterwards.

Rhodes meanwhile pursued his own course. In July 1873, leaving his business interests in the hands of his partner, Charles Rudd, he set sail for England, intending to gain admission to Oxford.

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