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Cecil Rhodes by  Ian D. Colvin


 

 

HOW RHODES WENT TO SOUTH AFRICA

[9] CECIL JOHN RHODES, as he said himself, came of farming stock. His ancestors were substantial people, of St. Pancras Parish in the north of London, the founder of the family being a certain William Rhodes, a Staffordshire man, who bought lands in that neighbourhood about 1720. Rhodes's Farm has long since been swallowed up; but by the piety of their great descendant the names of no less than thirty-three of his race are now inscribed in durable granite in Old St. Pancras churchyard. They were yeomen, graziers, cowkeepers, brickmakers, church-wardens of the parish, and, growing in wealth with the growth of London, some of them hived off into the country. Thus Cecil's grandfather, William Rhodes, was a landowner of Leyton Grange in Essex, and his father, Francis William Rhodes, a country clergyman, first, from 1834 to 1849 at Brentwood in Essex, and then from 1849 to 1876 at Bishop's Stortford in Hertfordshire. If we may judge from the tradition of two countrysides, the vicar was a fine type of the Christian gentleman, simple, generous, careful of the poor. His portrait may be seen in [10] the vestry of Bishop's Stortford Church, a faded little photograph, showing a man tall of stature, with a face powerful and marked with thought, a lofty brow, long nose, and jowl a little heavy. His first wife died in childbirth, leaving him one daughter; the second, Louisa Peacock, a lady of good Lincolnshire family, was Cecil's mother. Cecil was the fourth son in a family of eleven, nine of whom survived infancy, and he was born at Bishop's Stortford on 5th July 1853, not in the vicarage, as Sir Lewis Michell supposes, but in a large square house called Thorley Bourne, on the London Road, half a mile or so from Bishop's Stortford railway station.

Bishop's Stortford is a little market town some thirty miles from London. It is the centre of a pleasant country district of leafy Hertfordshire; its streets run up and down and along the steeply rising sides of the little valley of the Stort. At the bottom, on either side the river, is a ruckle of old red-tiled malting houses, the malt finding its way by barge to London; above, a fine flint-work church (circa  1400), with a high stone tower and leaden spire, and generously adorned with gargoyles and other carvings, inside and out. The verger showed me with some pride a memorial window to the "good vicar, Mr. Rhodes," and the fine old carved stalls of the choir, some of which were used in Rhodes's time to seat "the seven angels of the seven churches," as the vicar called his sons. I was even shown Cecil's own seat, in a corner, with a swan finely carved on the under-side. Round the church cluster the vicarage, a pleasant house in a pleasant garden; the old grammar-school, superseded in Rhodes's time by the new; a picturesque old inn called "The Boar's Head"; and other houses built upon the generous lines [11] of the Georgian and earlier styles. Altogether it is a town in the character of the Home counties—to the eye of the visitor, a restful, even a sleepy place, with old houses backed or enfolded by old gardens, and old brick walls bearing old pear-trees, roses, and wistaria, looking down upon its little river and all round upon rich farmlands and substantial homesteads, with here and there a country house in its timbered park. Here Rhodes spent his boyhood, as we may be sure, very pleasantly, taking the normal share both in work and play. He was in the school first eleven at thirteen, and took a classical scholarship; tradition speaks of him as a golden-haired, delicate-looking little fellow, in nature somewhat shy and retiring, and with "an agreeable way of speaking which runs in the family." The vicar wanted his sons to enter the Church; but they had their own views, and most of them chose the Army.

Herbert, the eldest, a rover by nature, set out for Natal, then a struggling little colony, whose settlers lived under the menace of the Zulu power. Herbert experimented as a cotton planter, and when Cecil was seventeen, and refused both Church and Army, he was sent out to bear his brother company. Natal is a colony cut off from the rest of South Africa by high ranges of mountains, and, as it enjoys the warm currents and soft breezes of the Indian Ocean, it has a semi-tropical climate. The settlers were at that time experimenting with various crops, and agricultural experiment is proverbially a costly and laborious business; for settlers without capital it is apt to be disastrous. The brothers worked hard at their jungle land in the Umkomaas valley, and soon had one hundred acres under cotton. They committed the mistakes inevitable to beginners, and [12] were much harassed by the aphis, the boreworm, and the caterpillar. The elder brother, always a wanderer, made frequent expeditions into the interior, and Cecil was often left in sole charge of the cotton fields and the Zulu labourers. He had succeeded, however, in growing a fair crop of cotton, when he received a message from his brother, the effect of which was not only to send the cotton field back into jungle, but to change the face of South Africa. Herbert had been one of a party, mainly of officers of the 20th Regiment, under the leadership of Captain Rolleston, which went prospecting for diamonds, on the banks of the Vaal River. In January 1870, they found them, and the message from Herbert to his brother was—Come.


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