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Cecil Rhodes by  Ian D. Colvin




[17] AS the months went on, and rush succeeded rush, the diggers drifted away from the pleasant river banks into the barren wilderness beyond. In the open veld, twenty-five miles from the river, lay the farm of Dutoit's Pan, standing by its pan or pond of brackish water. The farmer's children had found diamonds on the side of the hill that rose from the water, and the rumour of the discovery spread. Thousands of diggers crowded in upon the farmer, pegged out his land without as much as a by-your-leave, and soon the whole hillside was swarming with diggers. The diamonds lay not merely on the surface; but below in the red gravelly boulder-strewn sand. The whole place was like a great gravel pit, the miners throwing the debris anywhere in their eagerness to sift the greatest amount of gravel in the shortest possible time. Soon, the diggers said, we will get through this red sand, and then there will be no more diamonds. Below the red sand were chalk nodules, and then came a brittle yellowish white soft rock. Some of the diggers left in despair; but others pounded the rock to powder and found diamonds. Then came another find, at Old De Beers, a mile away, and then still another, "the New Rush," the greatest of all, on the neighbouring "Colesberg Kopje." The New Rush, or Kimberley, as it came to be called, eclipsed all the other finds, and became [18] the centre of the busy rowdy feverish hive of workers.

Here, then, came Rhodes. He had crossed the great range of the Drakensberg, then unknown to fame; he had passed the little Boer capital of Bloemfontein, where Jan Brand kept his republic in order; he had clipped down to the Vaal and seen the river diggers at work under the willows; and had reached New Rush only a week or two after the territory came under the British flag. His cart threaded its way through the barbarous debris of the outskirts, Kafir huts, skeletons of oxen and horses—and not skeletons merely but evil-smelling carcases—Boer wagons, and the rising mountains of gravel and white sand. Thus he stumbled upon a city of some forty thousand people—a city but a few months old, a city without one tree or spire or tall building, a city built of tent cloth and corrugated iron. The place was growing like Jack's beanstalk—stores, canteens, little houses of wooden framework and canvas, with window frames bound with ribbon—a business street where the diamond dealers bid against one another for the finds of the diggers. But the centre of interest was the mine itself—the wonderful mine which was to transform Rhodes from a penniless boy to a great power in the world, and was already transforming South Africa from an almost penniless and bankrupt country to a centre of wealth, speculation, and business and political activity.

Let me describe this mine as it was in the early days. The kopje, with its gravel and boulders, had been cleared bodily away. Beneath was found the soft white rock I have already described. It had the form of a circular pipe some nine acres in extent, with a regularly defined edge of talcose shale all [19] round it like a rind, or outer wall. How far this pocket or pipe went down no one could tell—that was the gamble of the mine; but inside the encircling cliff the soft grey rock was all diamondiferous, the diamonds being scattered through it thinly, yet with some rough approach to evenness, although the outside claims were reckoned to be the most valuable. Each of the original diggers had been allowed to stake a single claim of 31 feet square, and the committee, profiting by its experience at Dutoitspan, had ordained that roads should be preserved across the mine, and that all the "stuff "should be taken out of the mine and sorted beyond its limit. As the miners went down the roads became gangways, and the waste became growing mountains of white sand, for the soft rock or hard clay which contained the diamonds disintegrated in the open air into a sand so fine and light that it floated like dust in the air, and when a wind blew drifted like snow. The gang-ways also crumbled and fell, sometimes burying the diggers below, and as the mine went down it became more and more difficult to cart the stuff out of the mine to the breakers and sorters who worked beside the growing mountains round the edge. Thus it came about that round the edge of the oval-shaped cauldron a framework of timberwork had to be built, tier below tier, and on the floors thus improvised winches were rigged up with ropes passing inward and down to the claims below. These claims were of various depths according to the energy and resources of their owners, and some had been divided into halves, fourths, or even sixteenths. The bottom of the mine was thus a rough uneven checker of squares like a piece of shepherd's plaid, criss-crossed by innumerable ropes which formed a spider's-web [20] above the diggers. Below, the gangs worked loading the buckets; above, they worked at the creaking winches. As the buckets appeared at the top they were passed on to the pounders and sorters who worked at their tables in the open air. The rough work was generally done by gangs of Kafirs, the owners supervising and sorting at the tables. The diamonds were sold either to the merchants in their offices or to the "kopje wallopers," diamond buyers in a smaller way of business who threaded their way from table to table, or from tent to tent, chaffing, chaffering, cheating the diggers when they could, and usually with an eye open for the Kafir boy who waited round some corner with a diamond he had concealed between his toes.

In all this there was ample room for speculation, both in the value of single stones and in the value of whole claims, for diggers drank and gambled, came and went. Some retired with fortunes, others "broke to the world." When the "hard blue" was reached fifty to sixty feet down, many thought that "the bottom was knocked out of the mine," and left in disgust; others were discouraged by a flooding of their claims or the fall of a gangway of crumbling tufa; still others were sickened by the glare and the dust. "The dust of the dry diggings," says one, "is to be classed with plague, pestilence, and famine, and if there is anything worse with that also." They left for their old haunts of the river diggings under the willows by the cool waters of the Vaal.

But there were two young men who meant to see the game out—one a digger, the other a "kopje walloper." They were both young, both shrewd and able above their fellows; but here the likeness ended. The digger was Cecil Rhodes, then a long, lanky [21] youth, in cricketing flannels many times washed and stained a brick red with the sand of the veld. He had come, as we know, at his brother's suggestion, his brother holding a claim in New Rush. His work was to superintend their gang of Kafirs, or sort diamonds on the edge of the mine. Not a few friends and acquaintances have recorded their impression of Rhodes at that time, and they all speak of him as abstracted, silent, plunged in thought. We have a picture of him sitting on an inverted bucket with his chin on his hand, gazing down into the depths of the great pit. "I have many times seen him," says another, "dressed in white flannels leaning moodily with his hand in his pockets against a street wall." Herbert one day trekked for the north, and never returned, but Cecil remained. From digging he took to dealing in claims, and the firms of Rhodes, Rudd, and Alderson were busy at work amalgamating in a small way as early as 1873. At first the business must have been wildly speculative; we hear of one Arie Smuts buying a claim for £50, and finding diamonds worth from £15,000 to £20,000 in two months. The claims went up in value until they were worth, about the time when Rhodes arrived, from £2000 to £4000 a piece. But there were wide fluctuations, due to flooding or over-buying, or nervousness in the money market. The firm missed great chances from mere want of cash, for the banks, according to Michell, treated them with scant respect. Yet Rhodes, by all accounts, handled this difficult business with boldness and skill. Even by 1875 he was "a man of some importance and authority." His partners and friends gave him good backing. Charles Dunell Rudd, a Harrow and Cambridge man, nine years his senior, was one of them; but the man [22] upon whom Rhodes came chiefly to rely was Alfred Beit, a young diamond buyer from Hamburg, a Jew with the best traditions of the best Jews behind him. He came, as Michell tells us, of "a wealthy and honourable family," and he himself was the soul of honour. Rhodes was the mind that conceived and rough-hewed the schemes; Beit helped him through all the delicate operations of finance. Thus the firm grew in strength until by 1880 the first De Beers Mining Company was registered, with a capital of £200,000.

And now as to Rhodes's rival. "The only man he feared in South Africa was a cunning little Jew called Barnato"—so, according to Barnato himself, Rhodes was heard to say about this time. Barney Barnato was a Whitechapel Jew, with the worst traditions of the worst Jews behind him. I do not know if that astonishing classic of the gutter, Reminiscences of Kimberley, may be taken anywhere as evidence. It is a book over which the judicious will grieve and the injudicious—of whom I count myself one—will laugh; a gross, merry-hearted book, written by an illiterate Scarron with a natural gift. If the book is anywhere true, it should be true of Barnato, with whom Cohen lived and worked, and slept, and revelled. "Barney loved me better than any man," says Cohen, "and would have done anything for me in the world—bar give me sixpence." Barnato told him of his youth—how he stood outside the Garrick Theatre in Leman Street and begged pass-out checks from the theatre-goers, selling them for halfpence, and we get another picture of him—"a little, weakly, sorrowful child sitting crying on a doorstep in Middlesex Street." In such hard schools he learned resource and sharpness of wit, learned to use his fists as well as his [23] head and his tongue. We see him first impudent, ignorant, self-confident, "wearing a silver chain and watch that would not go 'as a mark of respect,'" beating the kopjes for stray diamonds with his partner Cohen. For a time their capital was only £30, and forty boxes of doubtful cigars. But they were full of resource, energy, high spirits. At one time the firm were being badly beaten by a buyer who rode a pony in and out among the tents and wagons where the Boer diggers lived and sold their findings. The firm tried to follow him, and find out who his customers were, but without success. But one day the rival sold his pony and Barney bought it. He had noted that his rival rode with a loose rein, and sure enough when Barney rode it through the camp the pony stopped at every wagon where business was to be done. The beast served for introduction, and the firm took over its goodwill.

Such stories as we have of Barnato indicate a man shrewd, cunning, ruled by the love of money, learning to handle men with the false bonhomie of the street corner. Like Rhodes he believed in amalgamation, and he raced neck and neck with his rival, till by 1880 he floated the Barnato Mining Company, comprising some of the richest claims in the Kimberley mine. Thus in the same year the young Englishman and the young Jew marshalled their forces and stood out above the ruck of claims and interests, the giants of the clever, busy, speculative, little financial world of Kimberley. For the next eight years they were to struggle for the mastery, until in the end the best man won, and Rhodes consolidated the Diamond Fields upon his own terms.

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