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Ian D. Colvin

The Matabele Rebellion

When Jameson was riding into the Transvaal, Rhodes was at Groote Schuur, consumed with anxiety, Groote Schuur, the "Great Barn" of the Dutch governors, is, as we know it now, a noble house in the Dutch colonial style, upon the lower slopes of Table Mountain, upon a corner of the great estate which stretches upwards to the crags and precipices of the rock itself and along the mountain side for some seven miles to Constantia Nek. Here Rhodes made a beautiful home, not so much for himself or even his friends, but for all the world. He laid it out in roads, and parks, and gardens, through which, from end to end, the people whom he loved had freedom to wander. Here the news came to him, and we know from trustworthy witnesses that it struck him an almost mortal blow. He had no sleep for five nights, Jourdan tells us, and for several days he was seen by none, but wandered about in the tempest of his thoughts among the woods and boulders of the mountain side. When Jourdan came with the messages which showered upon them, "he would select a telegram, look at it for a second, then replace it with the others, and resume his pacing up and down in an absent-minded manner." One remark he made which has the ring of the man's heart in it: "Now that I am down, I shall see who are my real friends." His rushings to and fro at this time seem part instinctive as of a creature in pain. First he went to Kimberley, which he loved; a week there, and he made for England: little comfort there in the deafening yap and clatter of censorious tongues. Four days in England, and he set out by the East Coast for Rhodesia, where at last he found work to occupy and distract his mind. The Matabele, hearing of the defeat of Jameson and his troopers, had risen in rebellion, and begun operations with a massacre of the white settlers.

It was a formidable rising. The Matabele, wiser from recent experience, fought in guerilla fashion, taking cover in the bush and granite caves of the Matoppos, and conducting an active and dangerous, if desultory warfare. At this time the affairs of the Company were at a low ebb, and Rhodesia itself was in a bad way, for, besides its losses by the rising, which paralysed mining and agriculture, its cattle had been swept clean by the rinderpest. Rhodes saw that as the war was going it might last long enough to bring his Colony to ruin. He had no official standing, the Imperial Government having compelled him to resign his position as Managing Director of the Chartered Company. But without other authority than the man himself, he assumed control of the situation, and opened peace negotiations with the rebels.

And here Rhodes showed in a supreme degree his genius for dealing with men. General Carrington's little army lay within easy reach of the hills in which the enemy were hidden; but Rhodes moved his own camp to the very skirts of the hills, and two miles from the army. This he did "in order to win their confidence," and in that exposed and perilous position he lay for six weeks coaxing first one chief and then another, as it were, to feed from his hand. By slow degrees he won their complete confidence. "He sat," says Jourdan, "day after day throughout the heat of the day talking to the chiefs and cracking jokes with them, until we were tired to death of the sight of them. . . . He chaffed and teased the chiefs, and sometimes one fancied he was one of them by the way he adapted himself to their customs and methods of expression. He delighted in chaffing them. His face would beam all over when he thought he had the best of an argument and had them in a corner." By such means a great peace indaba or council was arranged, and Rhodes, unarmed and without escort, accompanied only by three friends, rode into the hills and faced the line of armed warriors. For three or four hours they discussed their grievances and the terms of peace, and the natives, we are told, listened with downcast eyes when Rhodes sternly rebuked them for their massacre of women and children.

Then, as if indifferently, he said, "Is there to be peace or war?" The leading chiefs threw their spears at his feet.

The three with Rhodes were Colenbrancler, Hans Sauer, and Captain Stent. Captain Stent tells us that as they rode back to camp, Rhodes turned to Dr. Sauer and said: "It is such scenes as this that make life worth living."

We may believe that this great work was medicine to his mind, and he found further comfort in riding through the great new country from town to town, and from farm to farm, hearing and redressing grievances, and setting settlers upon their legs again by the bounty of his private purse.