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Cecil Rhodes by  Ian D. Colvin

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IN this brief sketch, I have tried to give the main outline of Rhodes's life and work, and wherever possible I have let his own words testify. This method I hope has made clear the large conception of duty that ruled his life, as well as the ruling principles of his statesmanship. But one aspect of this statesmanship I have hitherto neglected,—his interest in the affairs of England and the British Empire as a whole. He was a believer in what the Germans call "real politik"—he believed, that is to say, that politics were ruled and determined by the [83] interests of mankind, as well as by the facts of the physical world. Thus he believed that the union of the British Empire must be laid on a foundation of common interests. He was a preferentialist, or, as we now say, a Tariff Reformer, long before Chamberlain. It is worth remembering that the great friend of his early days in Cape politics was Jan Hofmeyr. Hofmeyr was a man of the wine-farming South-West, and, in common with all his people, looked upon the Cobden Treaty with France as the most momentous and disastrous fact in Imperial politics. The Cape wine trade with England had been built up on a preference of six shillings a gallon, and when that preference was abolished in 1860, this flourishing trade had been completely destroyed. It had brought many farmers to ruin; it had ruined the wine industry. More than any other single act of policy, it had made the Cape Dutchman distrust and dislike England. Now it is remarkable that in the Colonial Conference of 1887 Hofmeyr, as the Cape representative, proposed an Imperial tariff to be imposed by England and all the Dominions on foreign goods, and the proceeds to be used for the navy. I feel certain, although there is no proof, that Rhodes gave this Imperial turn to Hofmeyr's desire to get the wine preference back again. In 1891, in a speech made to the wine farmers of the Paarl, Rhodes recounts a conversation he had with Lord Salisbury. He had said to the Prime Minister: "If you wish to retain the sentiment of the Colonies, you must consider day by day how you can give the people some commercial advantage, and thus show them that the tie with England is one that is of practical advantage to themselves." He had then told Lord Salisbury of the destruction of the Cape wine trade, [84] and he added: "When I discussed this with Lord Salisbury, I adopted the suggestions I had had from Mr. Hofmeyr about a differential rate, and said the greatest tie England could make with the Cape Colony was to return to the system of 1858."

But Rhodes did not propose a one-sided arrangement. On the contrary, he regarded the Colonies as the great future markets for British manufactures that by statesmanship might be kept open when other markets were closed by hostile tariffs. At the second annual meeting of the Chartered Company he had much to say on this question:

"Cobden had his idea of Free Trade for all the world, but that idea has not been realised. The whole world can see that we can make the best goods in this country, and the countries of the world therefore establish against us, not protective tariffs, but prohibitive tariffs. . . . It seemed to be forgotten in talking about these islands that there are thirty-six millions of people, and that the islands only produce sufficient to support six millions, the other thirty millions being entirely dependent on the trade of the world. . . . I know full well if President Harrison's policy is continued by the Yankees they will absorb Canada, make reciprocal arrangements with South America, and declare the New World to be self-supporting. . . . I want to show the masses that the question of the day for them is the Tariff question, and this country is the last country that should abstain from dealing with it."

And at the general meeting of 1895 he explained how he had applied this doctrine in Rhodesia. He pointed out that the Colonies when they were given [85] self-government put on protective tariffs, and thus built up what he called "bastard industries." They were bastard industries because a young country, with coal and iron undeveloped, and with a sparse population, could make no real profit out of them; they were expensive and unremunerative. "The only chance for a Colony," he said, "is to stop these ideas before they are created, and, taking this new country of ours, I thought it would be a wise thing to put in the Constitution that the tariff (on British goods) should not exceed the present Cape tariff, which is a revenue and not a protective tariff." This clause gave security that, if ever the Rhodesian tariff was heightened, British goods would be given a preference. Moreover, "this clause, being in our own charter, would have governed the rest of Africa, and therefore you would have had Africa preserved to British goods as one of your markets." This proposal, he went on to say, had been refused by the British Government, and he asked the share-holders to use all their political influence to have it reinserted.

"All these big questions, remember, come from little things. If you carry that clause in the Constitution of Matabeleland, you do not know how it will spread, the basis being that your goods shall not be shut out from the markets of the world. That clause will extend from Matabeleland to Mashonaland, throughout Africa, and then, perhaps, Australia and Canada may consider the question. You will be retaining the market for your goods. You have been actually offered this, but have refused it, because you did not understand it."

Here, then, was Rhodes's Empire policy—a policy of closer union on the basis of preferential trade [86] arrangements—a policy which was later to be adopted by our greatest Colonial Minister and by the Unionist Party—a policy which, as Rhodes prophesied, has been adopted by Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

In politics Rhodes used to call himself a Liberal, no doubt because he believed in democracy and popular government. He believed also in a system of federalism for the Empire, and was alarmed to find in Gladstone's Home Rule Bill of 1886 that no provision was made for Irish representation in Parliament. To secure that end he subscribed £10,000 to the funds of the Irish Nationalists. The object of the gift, like most of Rhodes's actions, has been misrepresented: it is made quite clear by the letter to Parnell which accompanied it. "Side by side," he wrote, "with the tendency to decentralisation in local affairs, there is growing up a feeling for the necessity of greater union in Imperial matters. The primary tie which binds our Empire together is the one of self-defence. The Colonies are already commencing to co-operate with and contribute to the Mother Country for this purpose; but if they are to contribute permanently and beneficially, they will have to be represented in the Imperial Parliament, where the disposition of their contributions must be decided upon." For the same purpose he sent in 1891 a cheque for £5000 to the Liberal Party funds, with another condition—that the money should be given to a charity if it became Liberal policy to clear out of Egypt. "It would be an awful thing," he said in his postscript, "to give my money to breaking up the Empire."

Rhodes's Education policy was directed to the same end—first to the union of South Africa, and, when [87] racial bigotry refused the splendid gift, to the union of the Empire, by the instrumentality of Oxford. That is the meaning of his will; but not the entire meaning, for American students are included in the scheme, one proof out of several that Rhodes dreamed of the federation of the Anglo-Saxon race.

So much for the man's work: I have left myself but a page or two in which to speak of the man himself. His character has been much maligned and much misunderstood. In business he was scrupulously honourable: to do anything crooked or underhand was not in his character. On this point not only his friends but his rivals in business are unanimous. Even Cohen, who never errs on the side of reticence, never said a word against the honour of Rhodes. As to the Raid, the massing of troops on the Transvaal border has always seemed to me an act of sound statesmanship fully justified by the circumstances. It is as to the crossing of the border that there may be two opinions, and there Rhodes had no hand. But as he did not shirk responsibility, the defence may rest upon this, that it was a blow, ill-aimed and ill-judged perhaps, but a blow for freedom.

While honourable, then, in business and public life, Rhodes was also unselfish. There was no base taint of personality. His thought was never for himself, but for the Commonwealth. And so in private life all his thoughts were for his friends, and for the poor and the oppressed. His benefactions were so enormous that, although his income amounted to something like a quarter of a million a year, his account was nearly always overdrawn at the bank. Few men and no women in distress ever appealed to [88] him in vain. And his actions were not the gross and thoughtless charities of the man with too much money for his needs, for his telegraph and railway schemes to link the North with the South of Africa were financed so largely from his private purse that he was always in need. No, he valued money for what it could do, and he spent for the joy of helping. He spent carefully and thoughtfully, his kind acts being all marked by the same tact, care, and tenderness. Even when he was a poor digger he would take infinite pains, and spend more than he could afford, in helping some lame dog over the stile. Sometimes even the lame dog did not know who helped him over.

He was a man who delighted in the society of friends and in the community of ideas. He loved argument and discourse, and his habit of thought was to brood over some clear and simple principle, following it out into its practical ramifications. When he spoke in public it was as if he thought aloud, and even his private conversation was often a soliloquy.

He never spoke evil of any man or any woman; but had an art to see the best in them. Once in his hearing a clever young man, now risen to eminence, said he had praised Lord Cromer in the press, "because it paid." "No," said Rhodes, "you praised him because it was right."

He kept open house to all men and to the whole population of South Africa. When he lived, he let people wander at will over his estates, and even through his house; when he died, house and estates became the property of South Africa.

He thought much of the future, and this is perhaps the chief distinction between great men and small [89] —that small men are occupied by the present, and great men occupy themselves with what is to come. There is upon this point a passage of such beauty in one of his speeches about Rhodesia that I cannot refrain from quoting it.

"I remember," he said, "in the impetuosity of my youth I was talking to a man advanced in years, who was planting—what do you think? He was planting oak trees, and I said to him, very gently, that the planting of oak trees by a man advanced in years seemed to me rather imaginative. He seized the point at once, and said to me, 'You feel that I shall never enjoy the shade?' I said, 'Yes,' and he replied, 'I had the imagination, and I know what that shade will be, and at any rate no one will ever alter these lines. I have laid my trees on certain lines; I know that I cannot expect more than to see them beyond a shrub, but with me rests the conception, and the shade, and the glory.'"

Rhodes never said that every man had his price; but he said there was no man with whom he could not deal. That was his method of doing things—to deal with other men, to show them what their interests were, and, in his favourite phrase, "to have it out with them." His whole method was an appeal to reason. With every man he crossed, whether it was Kruger or Lobengula or Barnato, he always "had it out with him."

Rhodes believed in religious education, and in religion as an influence; but as for himself he did not know. As he said to the Jesuit Father Barthelemy, all he knew was that he must do his best in this world according to his lights, and do no harm intentionally to anyone. And he added: "Yes, in fact, if I was to go before the Almighty [90] to-morrow, and He was to tell me that He thought I had acted very badly at times, and had wronged some people wittingly, say Kruger, for instance, well—I should be prepared to have it out with Him."

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