- Rhodes' huge territorial ambitions
Africa in the 19th century was filled with opportunity, and no less filled with opportunists. The potential to make or break were equally spectacular, and nowhere more so than in South Africa. The great diamond discoveries of Kimberley in 1866 followed by the Witwatersrand Gold Rush of 1886 both helped to establish South Africa as the principal arena of capital adventure and war in the 19th century British Empire.
In 1870, and into this pot-boiler of opportunity, stepped a slight, sickly and unremarkable youth by the name of Cecil John Rhodes. The son of an English parson, Rhodes had been dispatched to the Natal Colony in the hope that a period of time in the tropics would repair his poor health. He began his adventures in South Africa as a cotton farmer in the Umkomanzi Valley before he set off in October 1871 for the diamond fields of Kimberley.
It is hard to imagine a less likely arrival in the rough and ready world of the diamond digger than the young Rhodes, and yet it was here that the curious symmetry of determination, unstoppable persuasiveness and a brilliant grasp of finance saw Rhodes emerge as one of the titans of the diamond industry in South Africa, and his De Beers Consolidated Mines the largest and most influential diamond mining and retailing concern in history.
Smuts in his prime
One of Africa’s greatest statesmen of the Imperial era, and some would say beyond, Jan Christian Smuts was a gargantuan figure in the Abe Lincoln mould. He was essentially a simple and bucolic man who was burdened with greatness but who was able to embrace that greatness in a radically changing world. Boer guerrilla leader, two time South African premier, British Army general and commander and architect of both the League of Nations and United Nations, Smuts ranks with Nelson Mandela as one of Africa’s most gifted sons. Despite a questionable national philosophy he rose to the highest levels of statesmanship in an empire not noted for its embrace of ethnic minorities. In 2004 he was voted in a South African Broadcasting Corporation poll the greatest South African of all time.
Smuts was born in 1870 to a wealthy Cape farming family of staunch Afrikaner outlook. An early academic aptitude saw him rise rapidly through the local school system before he moved on to the prestigious learning institutes of Stellenbosch in the Eastern Cape. From there he continued to Cambridge University, graduating in 1893 with a double first. A year later he passed the examination for the Inns of Court after which he entered the Middle Temple. He was embraced by the normally cloistered legal fraternity in London, and seemed set on course for a brilliant career. However by late 1995 he was on his way back to the Cape, determined to force his future in the land of his birth.
Frederick Courtney Selous: One of the great white sons of Africa
Frederick Courtney Selous was one of the more interesting characters of Imperial Africa and one of the great white sons of Africa.
Probably the most potent illustration of how Selous impacted the popular British consciousness at the time is the fact that he is the recognised prototype of Ryder Haggard’s popular character Allan Quartermaine of King Solomon’s Mines fame. This may not mean much to modern readers, but in fact Quartermaine was a potent a hero in his day as Rambo was in the 1980s and Indiana Jones was in the 1990s.
Frederick Selous was also more than this. He defined the popular image of the Englishman abroad. This was not in the pattern of Cecil John Rhodes whose questionable capital adventures brought ignominy upon the Crown and the Foreign Office and shame on the legacy of colonial Britain. Others such as David Livingstone tended to create an aura of eccentricity and failure about the vast development projects proposed in the aftermath of his discoveries. Selous, on the other hand, was phlegmatic, educated, thoughtful and erudite. He was a champion of fair play in terms of the treatment of blacks by whites; a modest adventurer; a gentleman philosopher and the last of the great frontier individualists.