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Cecil Rhodes by  Ian D. Colvin




[47] IN the second quarter of last century, when the Boer voor-trekkers left the northern outposts of Cape Colony behind them, and passed over the great grassy plains of the country between the Orange and the Vaal, they were met by Umsilikatse and his warriors. The chief and his people were Zulus who had fled from the tyranny of Chaka, and established a new tyranny beyond his reach. Their regiments had slaughtered whole peoples, and driven the broken remnants towards the Kalahari Desert or into the mountain recesses of Basutoland. The Boers fought this horde in two great battles. In one the laager of wagons stood like a fortress against the onset of advancing spears. The Zulu impis reached the wagon wheels, and, seizing the spokes, swayed the wagons to and fro in a desperate attempt to break the chains that bound them together and force their way through. But the Boers kept up a ceaseless fire, the women and children loading their long guns behind them, and the regiments fell back broken and defeated. In the other battle the Boers on horseback attacked the Zulu army, galloping up to fire and galloping away when the regiments charged. The Zulus could neither reach their enemy nor get away from them. Thousands fell as the fight proceeded, and in a panic this great Zulu tribe, with its cattle and its women, never halted till not only the Vaal but the Limpopo were far behind, and they felt safe from their enemy, where the Zambesi winds through [48] the heart of the high plateau which forms the interior of Africa. Here was a splendid country of grass and game, and unwarlike natives, greater in extent than Germany and France put together, with no white man nearer than the weak Portuguese upon the coast. In the centre of this magnificent country the Matabele nation took its place, depasturing its cattle on the wide plains under the granite mountains, and raiding the Mashonas to the east, and the Bechuanas to the west and south. The Mashonas indeed became their serfs, to be raided and robbed at will. Early travellers, Livingstone, Chapman, Baines, and others, have described the country and its people, and the strength and ferocity of the Matabele nation impressed them all. We have vivid pictures of Umsilikatse's great place, where an army many thousand strong did warlike homage to their king. They were magnificent warriors, marshaled in regiments each nearly a thousand strong, wearing towering head-dresses of the black body-plumes of the ostrich, capes of ostrich feathers upon their shoulders, bands of otter skin upon their foreheads, tails of white cattle hanging from arms and legs, and short kilts of black and white catskin. On their left arms they carried the long shields of ox-hide, black, white, red, or speckled, according to their regiments; and in their right hand the short heavy stabbing spear, as important a factor in Zulu power as the short stabbing sword was to the Romans.

Even in Umsilikatse's day, the Matabele were a good deal visited by gold seekers and concession hunters, and his son and successor, Lobengula, had given Thomas Baines a grant of mining rights as early as 9th April 1870. Even by that time prospectors had been at work, and had found gold over a [49] large area; companies had been organised; machinery had even been brought to Tati, and the main roads and the lie of a large part of the country fairly well ascertained. But the formidable nature of the Matabele power, the great distances, the difficulty of the road, the tsetse fly, the discovery of diamonds and then of gold at Barberton—all these things kept back the development of the North. But Rhodes knew that the rush was about to begin, and he meant that the British should be first. "We are now," he said to his friend, Sir Hercules Robinson, "at latitude 22°; and what a trouble it has been." Sir Hercules replied, "Where do you mean to stop?" "I will stop," returned Rhodes, "where the country has not been claimed." They looked at the map together. Such a definition, they found, took them to Lake Tanganyika. Sir Hercules refused to go forward; he had not the backing from England. But Rhodes knew that a German agent was trying to get to Lobengula, and that a Dutch expedition was being fitted out. He proposed one of those compromises of his which meant victory. Why not secure the option? So much Sir Hercules would do. Mr. J. S. Moffat, the Assistant Commissioner in Bechuanaland, was sent to Lobengula and obtained a treaty in which the King promised to sell, alienate, or cede nothing, and to enter into no treaty or correspondence with any foreign power, without the sanction of the High Commissioner. This treaty was signed on 11th February 1888, and by the autumn of the same year, Rhodes's partner and agents, Rudd, Maguire, and Thompson, had obtained the concession of all mining rights in Lobengula's country in exchange for £100 a month, and a large stock of arms and ammunition.

[50] With this concession and the recommendation of the High Commissioner to help him, Rhodes went to London to get his charter, his friend Sir Sidney Sheppard, now Administrator of Bechuanaland, keeping affairs straight with Lobengula. Rhodes was opposed by Exeter Hall, organised by his old opponent Mackenzie, and by the Radicals. He was opposed also by Mr. A. E. Maund, a rival concessionaire with a powerful backing, who had nobbled some of Lobengula's indunas. But Rhodes laid his plans too deep and too well. In his usual way he absorbed and conciliated his competitors; he founded his British South Africa Company with a capital of £1,000,000, of which £200,000 was subscribed by De Beers, and by the end of April 1889 he felt strong enough to apply to the Colonial Office for a Royal Charter. Now the Imperial Government had been well informed by the High Commissioner that the rush into Matabeleland was inevitable, and that it was better to have the thing done under the direction of "a gentleman of character and financial standing," who would "secure the cautious development of the country with a proper consideration for the feelings and prejudices of the natives."

Rhodes's project was for the development and government of the country—Bechuanaland, Matabeleland, and Mashonaland—the extension of railways and telegraphs to the Zambesi, the encouragement of colonisation and of British trade, as well as the working of the mineral concessions. The Colonial Office liked the idea, for it saved them trouble. As Lord Knutsford said: "The example of the Imperial East Africa Company shows that such a body may, to some considerable extent, relieve Her Majesty's Government from diplomatic difficulties and heavy [51] expenditure." Thus the way was smoothed out at home, and all that remained was to occupy the country. This is where Dr. Jameson comes into our story.

Dr. Jameson was a young Scotch surgeon who had gone to Kimberley in 1878, after making his name as a brilliant operator at London University Hospital. He soon made a great reputation in Kimberley for cool and skilful surgery, and as a man he charmed by his kindness, his courage, and a certain bantering wit, which disarmed those whom it transfixed. Jameson was to appearance all gaiety, frolic, and high spirits; but the manner concealed a character of steely temper and an unselfish idealism that cared nothing for self, but dared anything for others. Jameson and Rhodes soon became bosom friends, Rhodes inspiring Jameson with his immense and brooding conceptions, Jameson lighting up Rhodes's humours with his mercurial and infectious laughter.

Now when Rhodes returned to South Africa in 1889, and began to busy himself recruiting his expeditionary force, he heard that things were not going well at Buluwayo. The rivals and enemies of the Charter, British and foreign, working with the chauvinist element among Lobengula's own people, had at last turned the chief's mind against the Rhodes combination. He had executed the indunas who favoured the scheme, and Rhodes's agent, in fear of his life, had fled from Matabeleland and taken refuge in Mafeking. Lobengula now opposed a hostile front to the undertaking, and the whole scheme was in obvious peril. Rhodes, in great trouble, confided in his friend. Jameson, we are told, grasped the situation in an instant. "I will go," he said; [52] and to Rhodes's question, "When will you start? "he replied, "To-morrow morning." Now it has to be remembered that Jameson had already visited Lobengula. He had gone the year before, making a holiday of it, with Rhodes's agent, Dr. Rutherfoord Harris, who was convoying the tribute to the royal kraal. On that occasion the indunas had refused to allow the wagons to cross the border; and Jameson had ridden in alone and made a conquest of Lobengula. Therefore he was not without experience. But the adventure was none the less dangerous as affairs now stood, and Jameson in undertaking to act as Rhode's ambassador to the King, was risking his life as well as sacrificing a rich practice and brilliant surgical career in the Colony. But Jameson was not of those who count the cost. He went to Lobengula, and found that obese potentate suffering from a severe attack of gout. He undertook to cure him, and was as good as his word. Just so had Hamilton, another Scotch surgeon, obtained from a Mogul Emperor the firman that made the settlement of Calcutta possible. Lobengula took Jameson into higher favour than any white man had reached before. He made him an induna in his favourite regiment, and before the assembled army invested his guest in the barbaric insignia of the impi—the ostrich plumes, the shoulder cape, the black and white shield, the assegais. Jameson was in favour; but his position was precarious. The intrigues went on, gaining strength from the fact that the expeditionary force was gathering on the frontier. It became dangerous even for the King to show much favour to Jameson, and he refused to declare his attitude on the question of the road to Mashonaland. The time drew near when the ex- [53] pedition was to set forth. Jameson went to bid the King good-bye. We have a vivid picture of the incident from Mr. Fort. The door of the royal hut was in two portions, and Jameson had his farewell interview, leaning over the lower half, the King stark naked, somewhat agitated, "an unwieldy mass of dark copper-coloured flesh moving restlessly up and down in the dim uncertain light of the hut."

"Well, King," said Jameson, "as you will not confirm your promise and grant me the road, I shall bring my white impi, and, if necessary, we shall fight."

"I never refused the road to you and your impi," replied Lobengula.

The hint was sufficient. Jameson went straight to Macloutsie, the frontier station, where the expedition was assembled. It consisted of five hundred mounted police, two hundred pioneers, some volunteers and others, amounting in all to about a thousand souls. They were picked men drawn from South Africa and England. There were Imperial officers, farmers, diggers, prospectors, hunters, most of them well accustomed to the open life of the veld. Selous, the great hunter, who had helped also in the negotiations with Lobengula, was the guide. Colonel Pennefather, assisted by Majors Heany and Borrow, was in military command; Major Johnson was in charge of the commissariat; Mr. A. R. Colquhoun accompanied the force as the Administrator of the new territory. There was no time to be lost. It was known that a strong Portuguese force was being organised to enter from the east, and that 1500 Boers had already signed on for a commando that was to enter from the south. The High Commissioner, however, would allow nothing to be done in a hurry. The ship might have a rough passage; it was not [54] to be launched before it was tested. Lord Methuen inspected it, and found its timbers staunch and tight.

Thus at last, on the 28th June, the expedition started on its great trek of four hundred miles. It was an anxious journey, through bushy and difficult country, with fear of the Boers on the south, and on the north the Matabele impis. The long column, with its train of wagons and its herds of cattle, was vulnerable to attack. A road had to be cut through thick bush and over rough and hilly country. Many rivers had to be forded. On 1st August the Lundi River was reached, and beyond that the country was unknown even to Selous. It was a rugged, broken country of hill and forest, with a chain of mountains barring the horizon. But away in the distance there was one dark gorge. Into that pass Selous pushed forward, and from the crown of a neighbouring hill looked out upon the open downs beyond. Eight days of toil brought the expedition to the gorge. A Matabele party had warned the force to turn back at Tuli; as they toiled through "Providential Pass," Lobengula's messengers gave them a second and more peremptory warning. But they paid no heed, and on the 14th August they encamped at the head of the pass in full view of the high plateau that lay before them. They now marched forward through open country with more security, although the rumour of war gained strength, and on 11th September they hoisted the Union Jack on the site of the present Salisbury. They had turned the flank of Matabeleland, they had secured the road by a chain of garrisoned forts, and now they entrenched themselves in the centre of Mashonaland. Lobengula had kept his word; the traditions of his house, the recent history of South Africa, the fall of [55] the Zulu power, told him that resistance was useless. But his braves were all for war, so he kept them in hand by a warlike diplomacy, by marches and counter-marches, by menace and threat. But he did not strike; the inevitable war was to come later.

How it came was briefly thus. The Matabele had been in the habit of regarding the Mashona as their natural prey. They raided them periodically, killing their men and old people, and carrying away their girls and cattle. It was the custom of the country, and Lobengula could not prevent it. When the Mashona entered the service of the settlers they expected protection, and the settlers in mere humanity could not stand by and see them massacred. Yet the Matabele impis took an especial delight in murdering the Mashonas who were in the service of the white men, and they also freely raided the settlers' cattle. The settlers saw their servants murdered before their eyes, and demanded protection. A small force of Rhodesian police drove back the impi. Dr. Jameson demanded from Lobengula 1000 head of cattle as indemnity. In return, Lobengula demanded that the Mashona in and around Victoria—men, women, and children—should be handed over to him for execution. At the same time he recalled one of his regiments which was raiding Barotseland, and prepared for war. Jameson rapidly organised a force, amounting in all to between 800 and 900 men. Rhodes, who had sold 50,000 shares in the Chartered Company to provide funds for the war, went up to Salisbury by the East Coast, and joined the little army. The first battle took place on the Shangani River, on 25th October 1893, where a force of 5000 Matabele warriors was defeated with great slaughter. A second engagement on 1st November, near the [56] head-waters of the Bembezi River, practically finished the war. The Matabele had depended on their old tactics of surrounding and charging the square—tactics fatal when against a defence armed with rifles and machine guns. The only reverse of the war was the destruction of the small detachment under Captain Allan Wilson, which had pressed too far ahead in its pursuit. Thus Matabeleland, as well as Mashonaland, fell into Rhodes's hands. He had secured not only the road to the North, but the North itself.

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