Cecil Rhodes as Master Persuader, 1890

From Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2008), Kindle pp. 247-249:

In 1890, at the age of thirty-seven, Rhodes reached a pinnacle of wealth and power. As prime minister of the Cape Colony, he had command of an effective administration and the support of the Afrikaner Bond, the only organised political party in the country. As chairman of De Beers, he controlled a virtual monopoly of both diamond production and markets. As managing director of the British South Africa Company, he was empowered to act with ‘absolute discretion’ over a vast stretch of the African interior and allowed a private army – the British South Africa Police – to enforce his plans.

It was a dazzling feat of empire-building that won him many admirers. Rhodes regarded his achievements as evidence of his own unique genius. But, like other empire-builders, his success had depended on the work and talent of many key figures. His early business career had been held together by Charles Rudd; indeed, their partnership for several years was commonly known as Rudd and Rhodes, in that order. The mastermind behind the amalgamation of the diamond mines in Kimberley was not Rhodes but the self-effacing Alfred Beit – ‘Little Alfred’ – to whom he invariably turned for solutions. His drive to the north was facilitated by Hercules Robinson, a Cape imperialist who shared similar aims; it was Robinson’s decisiveness that led to the Moffat Treaty, incorporating Matabeleland within Britain’s sphere of interest. His triumph in winning the support of the British establishment for a chartered company was due as much to the work of Gifford and Cawston in London as to Rhodes’ own efforts. Finally, he managed to obtain a royal charter for his company only because it suited the interests of Lord Salisbury; preoccupied with the need to keep Britain ahead in the Scramble for Africa among European powers, Salisbury saw a means to extend British influence on the cheap, at no cost to the public exchequer.

In harnessing allies to his cause, Rhodes displayed remarkable powers of persuasion. But what was equally influential was the power of his money. Many hitched themselves to Rhodes’ band-wagon lured by the prospect of making their own fortunes. When he encountered resistance or scepticism, Rhodes was adept at providing incentives, bribes, share options, directorships and other positions, convinced that every man had his price. Politicians, journalists and churchmen in Britain and in southern Africa, even those with distinguished records, had few qualms about signing up as paid supporters for Rhodes’ cause. The Anglican Bishop of Bloemfontein, Dr Knight-Bruce, once so outspoken in his condemnation of Rhodes, was soon silenced by being offered the post of first Bishop of Mashonaland. Earl Grey, the paladin of his generation, was similarly converted, reasoning to himself that he might be able to do more good from within the British South Africa Company than by remaining an outside critic.

In his memoirs, the Cape lawyer James Rose Innes gave a graphic description of Rhodes at work, infecting the body politic, as he put it:

He offered to members of parliament, and other prominent persons the opportunity of subscribing at par for parcels of chartered shares then standing at a considerable premium. It was delicately put; the idea was to interest the selected recipients in northern development. Of course the recipient paid for his shares, but equally of course they were worth far more than he paid. In effect it was a valuable gift, which could not, one would think, be accepted without some impairment of independence. Yet there were acceptances in unexpected quarters.

Rose Innes was one of the few who declined Rhodes’ offer.

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Filed under Britain, democracy, economics, industry, labor, migration, nationalism, South Africa

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