Despite his downfall as prime minister, Rhodes continued to haunt the political arena. His critics in the Cape had hoped that henceforth he might focus his energies on the distant reaches of Rhodesia. ‘They have devised all sorts of retreats for me . . .’ he said, ‘a hermit’s cell on the Zambesi.’ But Rhodes still hankered after power in the Cape, ever confident of his ability to manipulate men and events there. ‘I was told that my public life was at an end,’ he said in a speech in Port Elizabeth in December 1896, ‘but the first thing I told them was that it was only beginning.’
Having forfeited the support of the Afrikaner community Rhodes, with characteristic opportunism, sought to establish himself as the champion of English nationalists to provide him with another political base. In the aftermath of the Jameson Raid, as the two communities divided, a new pro-imperial movement gathered pace in the Cape. Formed as the South African League in May 1896, it aimed to strengthen British interests and supremacy in southern Africa and campaigned for a federation under the British flag. The League took root not only in the Cape but developed branches in Natal and the Transvaal, and was supported by a London-based affiliate, the South African Association.
In the Cape, the League’s main objective was to create a ‘British party’ capable of challenging the Afrikaner Bond. In the Transvaal it proclaimed loyalty to the British Crown and aimed openly to unite the Transvaal in ‘a federation of the States of South Africa under the British flag’. Whereas uitlander reformists in the old national union had previously looked to Kruger’s government to redress their grievances, the League appealed directly for support from the British government. British officials, in turn, sought to use the League to advance British interests in the Transvaal but often found the more raucous jingoists among them difficult to restrain. ‘In dealing with the South African League, I am placed in a very delicate position,’ the British Agent in Pretoria, Conyngham Greene, wrote to Milner:
The League is . . . the only body in Johannesburg that has a spark of real Imperial feeling, or a particle of any higher ambition than the worship of mammon . . . It therefore, in a certain sense, deserves sympathy, and looks to me for encouragement. On the other hand . . . it requires careful and constant watching. Up till now I have managed to keep some sort of control over the Executive, notwithstanding that they are, of course, being continually pressed by the mass of the League to resort to more vigorous action.
Taking advantage of the rising tide of jingoism, Rhodes plunged back into the hurly-burly of Cape politics, offering his services as leader of a parliamentary opposition group known as the Progressives.
‘You want me. You can’t do without me,’ Rhodes said in an interview with the Cape Times on 9 March 1898. ‘The feeling of the people - you may think it egoism, but these are the facts - is that somebody is wanted to fight a certain thing for them, and there is nobody else able and willing to fight it.’ Addressing a meeting in Good Hope Hall in Cape Town on 12 March, he told the crowd: ‘The best service I can render to the country is to return here and assist you in your big aims of closer union.’
Along with his change of allegiance, Rhodes adapted his policies to suit a different clientele. Whereas once he had favoured the interests of Afrikaner farmers, he now championed the interests of urban voters. He lent support to proposals for a radical redistribution of parliamentary seats to remove the rural weighting that benefited the Afrikaner Bond. With similar expediency, he tailored his slogan of ‘equal rights for every white man south of the Zambesi’, designed to promote the uitlander cause, to ‘equal rights for every civilised man south of the Zambesi’, hoping to attract the Coloured vote. Asked to explain himself further, he defined a civilised man as someone ‘who has sufficient education to write his name - has some property or works’. His attacks on his former friends in the Afrikaner Bond became increasingly vindictive. He accused Hofmeyr of exercising ‘terrorism’ over Afrikaner farmers in the Cape and claimed that the Bond was bent on ‘oligarchical domination’.
Campaigning in the 1898 general election six months later, Rhodes set out to regain power as prime minister, distributing vast sums to ensure a favourable result. On one occasion, he instructed his banker to pay £11,000 to a parliamentary colleague; on another occasion, a further £10,000. He spent lavishly, not only on financing the campaigns of his allies but on attempts to engineer the defeat of particular rivals like the liberal John Merriman. His former friend Olive Schreiner remarked: ‘He has chosen . . . not only the worst men as his instruments, but to act on men always through the lowest side of their nature, to lead them through narrow self-interest instead of animating them with large enthusiasms.’
Indeed, Rhodes’ own speeches consisted of little more than boasts of his past accomplishments and personal attacks on his political opponents. Still smarting from humiliation over the Jameson Raid, he accused Hofmeyr and the Afrikaner Bond of supporting ‘everything rotten at Pretoria’ and of ‘simply spreading hatred as hard as they can spread it’. In fighting against the Bond, Rhodes maintained, he was attacking ‘Krugerism’. Without providing any evidence he claimed that the Bond was in receipt of secret funds from the Transvaal government.
Standing against Rhodes was his former attorney-general, William Schreiner, Olive’s brother. Schreiner launched the South Africa Party on a moderate platform, advocating friendly relations with neighbouring states including the Transvaal. Writing to Chamberlain, Milner acknowledged that Schreiner was not hostile either to the British empire or to British interests. What Schreiner was opposed to, said Milner, was ‘the personal domination of Mr Rhodes, to “the Chartered clique” and their corrupt methods of government, “the influence of Mammon in politics”’.
The 1898 election campaign was the most bitterly contested, corrupt and corrosive the Cape had ever known. When the results were declared in September, Schreiner’s South Africa Party emerged with a majority of one and he went on to form a new government with the support of the Afrikaner Bond. It was an outcome that Milner found unsatisfactory. For while Schreiner declared himself to be ‘a loyal colonist’ owing allegiance to Queen Victoria, he also made it clear he was determined to ‘respect and maintain the right of the free republics to work out their own destiny’ and would oppose any move by Britain to go to war against them.
While enjoying his status as hero of the jingo crowd, Rhodes found little that appealed to him about the role of leader of the opposition, despite encouragement from Milner. Milner’s first impressions of Rhodes were not favourable:
He is too self-willed, too violent, too sanguine, and always in too great a hurry. He is just the same man as he always was, undaunted and unbroken by his former failure, but also untaught by it . . . Men are ruled by their foibles, and Rhodes’s foible is size.
When Rhodes tried to manoeuvre himself into office after narrowly losing the 1898 election, Milner complained that it was ‘just the Raid over again’. ‘I mean,’ he wrote, ‘it is the same attempt to gain prematurely by violent and unscrupulous means what you could get honestly and without violence, if you would only wait and work for it.’ Nevertheless, Rhodes and Milner managed to establish a cordial relationship, both of them wedded to the cause of empire.
In parliament, however, Rhodes found himself constantly taunted by critics of the Raid. ‘You deceived the Dutch people,’ a government minister, Jacobus Sauer, jeered. ‘You deceived others who trusted you, with whom you had supped.’
He was, moreover, increasingly preoccupied with his deteriorating health. A series of accidents had taken its toll. A riding accident on the Cape flats in 1891 had left him unconscious for a whole day, with a broken collar-bone. The following year, when his cart overturned on a mountain road, he was tossed out and badly bruised. In 1894, riding near Kokstad, he had another ‘nasty fall’. In 1895, he endured a long bout of influenza, combined with malaria. The cardiovascular disease that eventually killed him also began to have an effect. He sometimes had difficulty in breathing. An 1896 photograph showed him with blotchy skin. After years of heavy eating, drinking and smoking, he had become a portly, ponderous figure. Visitors referred to his ‘enormous bulk’. From the mid-1890s, though still in his forties, he appeared to age rapidly.
Rhodes was often troubled by premonitions of an early death. It prompted him to write a series of wills with grandiose notions intended to ensure his personal immortality. In his first will, drawn up in 1877 while he was a student at Oxford, he instructed his executors to establish a secret society with the aim of extending British rule throughout the world, restoring Anglo-Saxon unity and creating ‘a power so great as to render wars impossible’. His next four wills - in 1882, 1888, 1891 and 1892 - followed much the same theme; in a covering letter to his 1888 will, he suggested to Lord Rothschild that he should use the constitution of the Jesuits as a template for a secret society, inserting ‘English Empire’ in place of ‘Roman Catholic Religion’.
In 1899, at the age of forty-five, sensing he had not long to live, he drew up his seventh and final will, refining his previous ‘great idea’ into something more practical. He made bequests to members of his family and to his Oxford college, Oriel; and he directed that Groote Schuur should be used as the official residence for future prime ministers of a federal South Africa. But his main ‘great idea’ focused on the education of young colonists. He gave instructions for scholarships to be awarded to suitable colonial candidates to study at Oxford, stipulating the qualifications they needed. In the first place, only men were eligible. Discussing other necessary qualifications with W. T. Stead in London, Rhodes envisaged a points system:
You know I am all against letting the scholarships merely to people who swot over books, who have spent all their time over Latin and Greek. But you must allow for that element which I call ‘smug’, and which means scholarship. That is to stand for four-tenths. Then there is ‘brutality’ which stands for two-tenths. Then there is tact and leadership, again two-tenths, and then there is ‘unctuous rectitude’, two-tenths. That makes up the whole. You see how it works.
In the terminology he finally used, Rhodes instructed points to be awarded for: literary and scholastic attainments; success in ‘manly outdoor sports’; ‘qualities of manhood’, including devotion to duty, protection of the weak, and unselfishness; and ‘moral force of character’. He listed fifteen colonies from which sixty scholars from the British Empire were to be drawn; and he added a further ninety-six scholarships for students from the United States. After meeting Kaiser Wilhelm in 1899, Rhodes allocated fifteen scholarships to German students.
Despite his ailments, Rhodes threw himself energetically into an array of projects ranging from railway and telegraph schemes to afforestation and irrigation projects. He devoted much effort to establishing fruit farms, instructing a young English horticulturalist, Harry Pickstone, to buy up the ‘whole Drakenstein Valley’ in the western Cape. Aghast, Pickstone replied that it would cost ‘a million’. He was nevertheless told to proceed and went on to acquire twenty-nine properties. Rhodes also set aside part of his Cape Town estate for the site of a university. He rebuilt Groote Schuur after it was badly damaged by fire. He also built a Cape Dutch cottage in the grounds of Groote Schuur - the Woolsack - for the use of poets and artists, hoping they would be inspired by the grandeur of their surroundings. Rudyard Kipling, the laureate of empire, made it his home for several months each year, writing some of his Just So Stories there - ‘How the Leopard Got its Spots’ and ‘The Elephant’s Child’. It was on an expedition Rhodes arranged for him that Kipling came across ‘the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees’ which he subsequently used as a location to explain how the elephant acquired its trunk.
Having spent a lifetime avoiding entanglements with women, Rhodes was caught up in 1899 in a fateful encounter. Princess Catherine Radziwill was a vivacious, witty and talented socialite, fluent in five languages, a familiar figure at one time in the salons of Berlin and St Petersburg. She was also a fabricator and fantasist, addicted to political intrigue and gossip. The daughter of a Polish count, she had married a Polish prince at the age of fifteen and produced five children, but, estranged from her husband, she had since chosen the life of a journalist, working in Paris and London, where she was introduced to W. T. Stead, Rhodes’ friend and admirer.
Though he had difficulty in recalling the occasion, Rhodes had first met Princess Radziwill at a dinner party at the London home of Moberley Bell, manager of The Times, in 1896. Three years later, when Rhodes was making another visit to London, she wrote to him, purportedly to ask for his advice on investment. Rhodes replied, in rather abrupt terms, that he considered it dangerous to advise friends on money matters but nevertheless suggested she might like to subscribe to Mashonaland Railway debentures.
Radziwill then arranged to book a passage to Cape Town in July on the same ship taking Rhodes back home, contriving on the first night to sit at his table in the dining salon and taking her place there for the rest of the eighteen-day journey. Rhodes at first found her an engaging companion. At the age of forty-one, slim and elegant, her early beauty had begun to fade, but she remained highly attractive. ‘She was a bright and versatile conversationalist,’ recalled Philip Jourdan, his secretary. ‘She appeared to know everyone, and kept us all amused during the whole voyage.’ But Jourdan also remembered an incident that left Rhodes with an ‘absolutely abject look of helplessness on his face’. While sitting beside Rhodes on the main deck, the Princess suddenly fell into his lap in an apparent faint. From then on, according to Jourdan, Rhodes steered clear of the main deck as much as he could.
In Cape Town, she stayed at the fashionable, newly opened Mount Nelson Hotel, running up huge bills. Having acquired a standing invitation to dine at Groote Schuur, she became a regular guest, insinuating herself into Rhodes’ ménage and dropping hints that Rhodes intended to marry her. Rhodes soon found her company tiresome and tried to avoid her, telling his friend James McDonald one morning: ‘On no account leave me alone with her. Never mind what she may say to you or how she may look at you. You must put up with it.’
But Princess Radziwill was not so easily spurned. And Rhodes came to rue the day he had allowed her to infiltrate into his private world.