30

THE RHODES CONSPIRACY

The conspiracy was hatched at Groote Schuur. In June 1895, Rhodes invited Beit there to discuss his plan for a coup d’état in the Transvaal. Rhodes needed the support of Beit and the Corner House to help finance and organise an uprising in Johannesburg. Beit had hitherto kept his distance from Rhodes’ political schemes, but, along with Jameson, he remained one of Rhodes’ most devoted followers.

Beit was once asked by a colleague, Percy FitzPatrick, about how he dealt with Rhodes’ increasingly rude and overbearing manner. ‘You must have found him difficult at times?’ Fitzpatrick suggested:

Beit snapped back instantly. ‘Not at all; never! It is true,’ he added, ‘that you have to know him, but when you know him he is perfectly splendid. Some people take offence at his manner. Sometimes he is rude and sounds dictatorial, but that only means he is very much in earnest and convinced and hates to waste time. He does not suffer fools gladly; but then one cannot do that and do the enormous work he’s got on hand. But in all the big things he is wonderful, and he is one of the most generous and kind-hearted of men. I have found him the best in the world to work with, and I think he is satisfied too. We get along splendidly.’

On this occasion, however, Beit had deep misgivings about the project. Nevertheless, he agreed to help Rhodes finance the purchase of arms and equipment.

The circle of conspirators slowly widened. Rhodes invited Lionel Phillips, the chairman of Rand Mines and president of the Chamber of Mines, and Charles Leonard, chairman of the national union, to Groote Schuur to seek their involvement. He appointed his brother, Colonel Frank Rhodes, a former cavalry officer, as manager of Gold Fields in Johannesburg, intending he should act as military director of the operation. His consulting engineer, John Hays Hammond, joined the conspiracy. Rhodes also arranged for his old friend Sir Hercules Robinson to be reappointed British high commissioner in Cape Town, knowing his help would be needed.

Rhodes assumed that, given the extent of uitlander grievances, an uprising in Johannesburg was bound to happen at some stage - talk of it was commonplace. His idea of helping to organise an uprising took root during a journey of inspection that Rhodes, Jameson and Hammond made of Matabeleland and Mashonaland in September 1894 to ascertain the real mineral potential of the area. Hammond’s conclusion, like that of previous experts, was that although mineral deposits were rich in places, they were too limited to offer much of a bonanza; certainly, there was no second Rand to be found. The total gold produced in Mashonaland over four years was no more than 4,400 ounces - less than the Witwatersrand was then producing per day. Hammond emphasised that the Rand was likely to be unique; the gold there would last for decades. As well as enriching the mining companies, it would fortify the Boer state. During the long rides and evenings spent around the camp-fire, the conversation often dwelt less on the prospects of Matabeleland and Mashonaland than on the future of the Witwatersrand and the grievances of the uitlanders. ‘Unless a radical change is made,’ Hammond predicted, ‘there will be a rising of the people of Johannesburg.’ Jameson visited Johannesburg in October 1894 and again in March 1895 reaching the same verdict. The plan that Rhodes and Jameson devised was to support an uprising in Johannesburg with an armed invasion from the Bechuanaland Protectorate, led by Jameson and using Rhodes’ private army, the BSA Company’s paramilitary police, as a fighting force.

The journalist Francis Dormer met Rhodes in his office in July 1895 and endeavoured to persuade him to adopt a more conciliatory approach to the Transvaal issue. A former editor of the Johannesburg Star, he was no admirer of Kruger but argued for a political solution. ‘I am all for tackling Mr Kruger,’ he told Rhodes, ‘but I am not for tackling the Transvaal.’ There was a strong Progressive party in the Volksraad, said Dormer. ‘If we go the right way about the business, some man of liberal tendencies will become President at the next election. Then we shall get all that is necessary in the way of reforms.’ Rhodes, however, was not prepared to listen to any of this:

‘But I don’t want your reforms, or rather your reformed Republic,’ was his quick response. ‘The ideal system is that of a British colony . . . I also do not like the idea of British subjects becoming burghers, and that is why I prefer that burghers should become British subjects . . .’

Rhodes, Dormer recorded, ‘seems to think far more of giving Kruger a fall than dealing with these difficulties in the manner of a prudent statesman’.

Dormer described how much Rhodes had changed since their first encounter in Cape Town fifteen years before:

He is peremptory where he used to be open to reason, impatient where he was formerly content to accommodate his pace to that of the most halting and hesitating Boer, and he has clearly become possessed of the idea that, if there are some whom money cannot ‘square’, there are none who are able to withstand its might when brought to bear upon them by a genius such as his.

At the end of their meeting, Rhodes suggested to Dormer that on his return to Johannesburg he should get in touch with Jameson, who was there ‘prospecting’ on behalf of Gold Fields. Dormer duly met Jameson at the Rand Club.

Jameson was even less convincing than Rhodes [wrote Dormer] . . . Jameson appears to think the place is ‘seething with rebellion’ and ‘ripe for anything’. Boer fighting qualities are ‘the biggest bubble of the century.’ They are less to be dreaded than even those of Lo Bengula. Prick the bubble once and it’s all over!

I tried hard to persuade the dear doctor that he had made a wrong diagnosis. There was discontent, to be sure, but not discontent of the kind or degree that would induce prosperous men to take their lives in their hands and engage in mortal combat with their oppressors. It was ridiculous to dream of a revolution while a ‘boom’ was in full swing, and every man an actual or potential millionaire . . .

‘You underrate the patriotism of the Boer, and you overrate the discontent of the uitlanders [Dormer told Jameson]. Revolutions are not affected by the kind of men you have taken into your counsels . . . So my advice to you is to leave it alone.’

Rhodes and Jameson were now involved in several monumental miscalculations. One was that, having captured Matabeleland, the overthrow of Kruger’s regime would be similarly straightforward; another, that the uitlander population was ready and willing to participate actively in an uprising; and a third, that white settlers in Rhodesia would be safe from African revolt once the company police had been withdrawn to take part in a Transvaal coup.

Nothing, however, was to deflect Rhodes from his objective, so accustomed was he to getting his own way. He put increasing pressure on the new colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, to agree to the rapid transfer of the Bechuanaland Protectorate into the hands of the BSA Company, sending his confidential agent, Dr Rutherfoord Harris, to London in July to argue the case. Rhodes needed a military base on the Bechuanaland border if the coup was to succeed. The Bechuanaland border was only 170 miles from Johannesburg, a ride of three or four days. The alternative of a base on the Rhodesian border 400 miles distant was too far away for a filibustering expedition. ‘The Protectorate is essential,’ Rhodes wrote to Beit in London in August. ‘I assure you if we have the Protectorate I do not feel one atom of doubt as to matter. As a last resort, if everything else fails go yourself and see Chamberlain. You are more convincing than most people and show him the whole position of England in the South depends on it and that next year may be too late.’ He added: ‘I am told Chamberlain is a strong man and a far seeing man and we can give Africa to England if he will only take one step.’

A prosperous businessman, once a radical member of Gladstone’s cabinet, Chamberlain had moved across the political spectrum becoming an ardent imperialist in Lord Salisbury’s Conservative- Unionist coalition government. He was commonly known as ‘Pushful Joe’. Like Rhodes, he regarded the British ‘race’ to be the greatest of all governing races, but he favoured imperial control rather than colonial control. Imperial federation, he argued, was essential both to maintain Britain’s role as a world power and to ensure its economic prosperity. ‘Is there a man in his senses,’ he asked the London Chamber of Commerce in 1888, ‘who believes that the crowded population of these islands could exist for a single day if it were cut adrift from the great dependencies which now look to us for protection and which are the natural market for our trade?’ The development of imperial trade became one of his growing preoccupations. He regarded the Transvaal both as an anomaly and as a possible threat to British supremacy, an independent state within Britain’s sphere of interest willing to embrace Germany; with its gold reserves and German support, it had the potential to become the leading state in southern Africa. In 1895, nearly sixty years old, after spending ten years in the political wilderness, Chamberlain was impatient to make his mark.

Chamberlain’s initial response at the first of a series of meetings with Harris, Earl Grey and other associates of Rhodes that began on 1 August was to insist on a proper consideration of all the issues, including the rights of Tswana chiefs. Chamberlain’s attitude, Harris subsequently reported to Rhodes, was ‘without compromise and decisive’. However, when Harris mentioned Rhodes’ plan for extending the Bechuanaland railway to Bulawayo, Chamberlain became more amenable and suggested the idea of handing over a ‘strip of land’ in Bechuanaland for railway construction, in advance of a more general decision. At this point, Harris, according to his own testimony, made a ‘guarded allusion’ to Rhodes’ real motive for wanting to take control of the Protectorate with some degree of urgency: ‘the desirability of there being a police force near the border at Gaberones’, to render assistance ‘in the event of a rising in Johannesburg’. Chamberlain, according to Harris, at once demurred at this turn of conversation. ‘I stopped him at once,’ Chamberlain claimed. ‘I said: “I do not want to hear any confidential information; I am here in an official capacity. I can only hear information of which I can make official use.”’ Earl Grey then intervened, took Harris out of the room and returned alone to discuss the matter with Chamberlain.

Grey subsequently described details of this encounter in a letter he sent to Chamberlain on 10 December 1896. ‘I told you privately that the . . . rising of the Uitlanders to secure for themselves the common rights of free men would shortly take place, and that being so it was desirable that an armed force should be stationed on the Transvaal border available for use if required.’ In a cable that Harris and Grey sent to Rhodes on 2 August, the day after the meeting with Chamberlain, they gave a similar version of events:

We decided therefore to inform Secretary of State for Colonies guardedly reason why we wish to have base at Gaberones and advisable our presence in Protectorate. Secretary of State for Colonies heartily in sympathy with C. J. Rhodes’s policy but he would not on this ground alter decision with regard to Protectorate, but offered as alternate [sic] to justify residence B.S.A.Co in Protectorate to consider favourable at once application for large land grant [in] Protectorate in exchange for Railway extension north.

Another of Rhodes’ associates, James Maguire, a BSA Company director, met Chamberlain on 13 August and gained the same impression that he favoured the plot. Harris cabled to Rhodes on 13 August: ‘Chamberlain will do anything to assist except hand over the administration Protectorate provided he officially does not know anything of your plan. He does consider Rhodes’s ingenuity resource can overcome any difficulty caused by refusal Protectorate now.’

Chamberlain subsequently tried to deny any prior knowledge of the plot. But his friend Earl Grey was adamant about it. In a record of an interview with Grey, the historian Basil Williams wrote in his notebook: ‘Grey said Chamberlain certainly knew about the force intended to go into TV [Transvaal]. Grey said that for the honour of England it should not come out, just as it was not blurted out by any of the people at the time. The great difficulty was R. Harris - it took a lot of trouble to try and silence him.’

Harris and Grey went to see Chamberlain again on 20 August, after which Chamberlain sent a cable to Robinson in Cape Town instructing him to obtain from the Tswana chief Bathoen a grant of land in the Gaberones area for the use of the BSA Company - the area that Rhodes had in mind as his military base for the invasion of the Transvaal. To Rhodes’ fury, Bathoen refused to cooperate. Rhodes thus turned to two other Tswana chiefs, persuading them to place their forty square miles of territory around Pitsani Potlugo, north of Mafeking, under the company’s jurisdiction. On 18 October, with Chamberlain’s consent, Robinson issued a proclamation handing over this strip of territory to the company. On the same day, he appointed Jameson ‘resident commissioner’ there. Immediately afterwards, detachments of company police began to move from Bulawayo to Pitsani. The pretext was that they were needed to protect the construction of a new railway from dissident natives. But there was no railway construction for them to protect.

While these machinations were under way, a tariff war broke out between the Transvaal and the Cape over railway charges to Johannesburg. For several years, until the completion of the Delagoa Bay line and the Durban line, the Cape line had held a monopoly on rail traffic to Johannesburg; in 1895, its share of traffic was still 85 per cent, but steadily declining. To boost its share, the Cape government started undercutting the other two lines. The Transvaal retaliated, trebling its rates on the 51-mile section of the line between the Vaal River and Johannesburg. To sidestep these charges, the Cape government arranged for freight to be offloaded at the Vaal River border and transported to Johannesburg at competitive rates by ox-wagon. On 1 October, Kruger struck back by closing the drifts or fords across the Vaal River to ox-wagon traffic. The Cape government appealed to Chamberlain. Chamberlain gave Kruger an ultimatum to withdraw his proclamation and ordered British troops on their way to India to divert to the Cape. On 7 November, Kruger backed down and let wagons across the Vaal. The ‘Drifts crisis’, as it was called, added to the pile of grievances held by both sides and heightened tensions all round. It also provided Rhodes with further justification for pressing ahead with his plot.

In Johannesburg, the main topic of conversation centred on when the ‘revolution’ would come. ‘Little else was talked of,’ wrote James Bryce, ‘not in dark corners, but at the club where everybody lunches, and between the acts at the play.’ Most people believed that an insurrection was imminent.

Yet despite all the talk of grievances and the constant attacks the Johannesburg press made on Kruger’s government, there appeared to be little popular enthusiasm for an uprising. ‘The inhabitants of Johannesburg are not a seditious, rebellious, quarrelsome set of men,’ reported the LondonTimes correspondent, Captain Francis Younghusband, in December. ‘They are money-makers. Rebellion and money-making do not go together.’ The ordinary miners, business employees and clerks were all enjoying high wages; while willing to agitate for reform, they had no appetite for an uprising. ‘They none of them want to see the British flag hoisted here,’ reported Younghusband. ‘They none of them want to see the present Republic done away with. There is not a sign among the Uitlanders of the Transvaal of any agitation in that direction. There is no wish to turn out the Boers.’ In a letter to Beit and Wernher in London, Lionel Phillips remarked candidly: ‘As to the franchise, I do not think many people care a fig about it.’

The Randlords themselves had divided views. Barney Barnato had always tried to remain on friendly terms with Kruger, happy to gossip with him on the front veranda at his home when visiting Pretoria. J. B. Robinson thought that the agitation against Kruger was factitious, that uitlander grievances were exaggerated and that any attempt at a coup was doomed to failure. The German entrepreneurs Adolf Goerz, George Albu and Sigismund Neumann were also hostile.

Nor did the conspirators have any coherent view of what ultimately they wanted to achieve. To attract support for the conspiracy, Rhodes gave different explanations of his objectives to different people. During November, Rhodes discussed his intentions with two key Johannesburg figures, Charles Leonard, the leader of the national union, and Lionel Phillips, president of the Chamber of Mines, who had travelled to Cape Town to ascertain his precise aims. What Leonard favoured was a ‘reformed republic’. He wanted assurances from Rhodes that the Union flag would not be used as the symbol of the uprising and that the Transvaal would not be forced into a federation. Rhodes appeared to agree. According to Leonard:

We read to him the draft of our declaration of rights. He was leaning against the mantel-piece smoking a cigarette, and when it came to that part of the document in which we refer to Free Trade in South African products, he turned round suddenly and said: ‘That is what I want. That is all I ask of you. The rest will come in time. We must have a beginning, and that will be the beginning. If you people get your rights, the Customs Union, Railway Convention and other things will all come in time.’

But Rhodes had no interest in a reformed republic. Nor had Chamberlain. When Chamberlain wanted reassurance that Rhodes was ‘working for the British Flag’, Harris in London was quick to stress this was the case. To make sure, Harris cabled Rhodes: ‘We have stated positive that results of Dr Jameson’s plans include British flag. Is this correct?’ Rhodes replied: ‘I of course would not risk everything as I am doing except for British flag.’ He remarked afterwards: ‘You might be sure that I was not going to risk my position to change President Kruger for President J. B. Robinson.’ Yet Rhodes was equally determined to ensure that the Transvaal did not fall under imperial control. What he really wanted was his own South African empire under the banner of a British flag.

As well as drawing in conspirators, Rhodes confided in Sir Hercules Robinson and in the imperial secretary, Sir Graham Bower, needing their assistance, but swearing them to secrecy. A group of Johannesburg capitalists, he told them in October, had decided to support an uitlander rising. Rhodes claimed that Chamberlain knew of the plan and supported it. Robinson, looking forward at the age of seventy-one to a trouble-free tour of duty and suffering from dropsy and a heart condition, was alarmed by what he heard. ‘He has taken it rather badly,’ Rhodes told Bower. When Bower subsequently broached the subject with Robinson, Robinson stopped him, saying, ‘The less you and I have to do with these damned conspiracies of Rhodes and Chamberlain the better.’

Chamberlain himself was keen to discover more of what was going on and wrote a private letter to Robinson in October asking him about the likelihood of a revolt in Johannesburg ‘with or without assistance from outside’ and what might follow.

After consulting Rhodes and Bower, Robinson replied saying that he considered an outbreak of hostilities inevitable ‘sooner or later’. He expected that, following an uprising, a provisional government would be proclaimed in Johannesburg. As high commissioner, Robinson would insist that both parties should submit to his arbitration. He would leave at once for Pretoria and order the election of a constituent assembly. The electorate would consist of every white male in the Transvaal, leading to an ‘English’ victory at the polls. Most Englishmen, he added, would prefer to live within ‘an Anglicized and liberalized Republic’.

Chamberlain telegraphed back:

Agree generally with your idea in private letter of Nov. 4th . . . I take for granted that no movement will take place unless success is certain, a fiasco would be most disastrous.

He also made it clear that the outcome he wanted was the establishment of a British colony not a liberalised republic. Chamberlain feared that ‘An entirely independent Republic, governed by or for the capitalists of the Rand, would be very much worse for British interests in the Transvaal itself and for British influence in South Africa’.

By December, preparations for a coup were well advanced. Chamberlain, Robinson and Bower were all aware of what was planned. Rhodes had also managed to secure the support of the London Times. Both the manager of The Times, Moberley Bell, and its colonial correspondent, Flora Shaw, had long been admirers of Rhodes and were eager accomplices, acting as a secret link between Rhodes and Chamberlain and ready to orchestrate a press and propaganda campaign on Rhodes’ behalf. Shaw was mesmerised by Rhodes. ‘I have met now most of the English public men of my day, but the impression conveyed to me by Mr Rhodes is one of unselfishness of aim greater and more complete than I have ever recognised before,’ she told her friend Captain Frederick Lugard in November 1895. ‘He appears to me to seek nothing for himself. He cares neither for money, nor place, nor power, except in so far as they are a necessity for the accomplishment of the national idea for which he lives.’ Keen to ensure success, she cabled to Rhodes on 10 December: ‘Can you advise when you will commence the plans, we wish to send at earliest opportunity sealed instructions representative London Times European capitals. It is most important using their influence in your favour.’

Throughout December, the conspiracy gathered momentum at Groote Schuur. At Rhodes’ insistence, Beit joined him from London. Harris also returned from London. Staying as a house guest at Groote Schuur at the time was Hans Sauer, now a resident of Matabeleland, who was recuperating from illness. He noticed the comings and goings but was not privy to the plot. Not once over a period of four weeks did Rhodes make any mention to him of the Transvaal issue:

I usually had tea with Rhodes on the back veranda of his house, and almost always Sir Graham Bower - the Imperial Secretary at the Cape - used to turn up just as we were finishing this pleasant repast. On Bower’s arrival, he and Rhodes would stroll off into the beautiful little valley or Dene where the blue hydrangeas grew, and I used to watch them absorbed in deep and earnest conversation . . .

In the evenings after dinner we usually retired to the billiard-room to smoke, drink our coffee, and play pyramids. Usually, in the middle of our game, Dr Rutherfoord Harris would turn up, having driven out from Cape Town in a Cape cart, which always waited to take him back at some late hour of the night. Immediately on Harris’s arrival, he, Rhodes and Beit would vanish upstairs to Rhodes’s private rooms, as we saw no more of them for the rest of the evening. I did notice once or twice that all three of them looked very preoccupied . . .

Even at that stage, the plot had begun to unravel.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!