Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - A Looker-On in London, by Mary H. Krout, 1899 - Chapter 19 - The Chartered Company

[back to menu for this book]

[-196-]

CHAPTER XIX

THE CHARTERED COMPANY

(1895-6)

    THE excitement occasioned by President Cleveland's message on the Venezuela question had scarcely quieted down when London was again convulsed with the sensational news of Dr. Jameson's unsuccessful attempt to invade the Transvaal with an armed force commanded by British officers holding the Queen's commissions.
    The new year had dawned dismally, with lowering skies and in the midst of great social, political and financial depression. The Venezuela flurry had shown that the United States could not be reckoned upon in case of need, had its alliance been sought on the mere ground of a professed Anglo-Saxon ancestry and a common tongue. Lord Salisbury had been savagely assailed for non-interference in the Armenian disturbances, the same element seeking to force the government into an ineffectual war with Europe, an element corresponding to that class in the United States which had urged the immediate and forcible vindication of the Monroe doctrine in the Venezuela dispute. Germany was very unfriendly, as was subsequently shown, and there were difficulties existing and threatened in Egypt and along the Indian frontier. The South African imbroglio seemed to he the crowning stroke; how it would end no one could tell, and there were excited denunciations of those who had instigated and abetted Jameson's folly, with the most dismal prophecies as to the ultimate consequences of his rashness and lawlessness. It is [-197-] now pretty well understood that Dr. Jameson's plans were known in England to the few who had the confidence of Mr. Cecil Rhodes, the head and front of the conspiracy, and that these were personages of exalted station, men of wealth and title, with the editors of at least one great newspaper.
    Dr. Jameson - "Dr. Jim," as he was affectionately called in conformity to the English custom of bestowing nicknames-was at first deeply pitied, and great indignation was felt toward the so-called reform committee who were charged with betraying him and leaving him to his fate.
    In some of its features the case was an illustration of history repeating itself, and the uprising in i88o was recallcd, the investment of Pretoria and the repulse and slaughter of the English forces, with the death of Colley at Majuba Hill, in February, 1881. That almost the same disaster had again occurred, it was decided, indicated two things; first, that the English soldier, the "Rooibaatje" as the Dutch termed him, was no match for the Boer on his native veld; and second, that the compromise accepted at the conclusion of hostilities in that campaign resulted not in peace, but in what had proved to be only an indefinite truce. President Kruger was pre-eminently the man of the hour; reminiscences of his visit to London with General Joubert were recalled, and the descriptions that were current at West End dinner tables were certainly not flattering, no matter how accurate they may have been. He was generally described as a man who was habitually unkempt, untidy, stolid, sanctimonious and superstitious. It was related of him that he would scarcely look out of his window in Piccadilly, lest he should be contaminated by its rampant worldliness. Frau Kruger was presented in even stronger colors as the typical Dutch "tanta," unable to speak or understand English, and even more shocked than her rustic husband by the frivolities of the English  [-198-] metropolis. Joubert, who accompanied the President and his wife to England, was regarded as much more a man of the world, less narrow in his religious prejudices, and more familiar with the ordinary social conventions.
    Almost from the moment that the public were informed of Dr. Jameson's defeat and capture, the chief question seemed to be: "What reparation will the Boers demand at the hands of the British government ?" There was great relief when it was learned that the lives of Dr. Jameson and his officers had been spared, but there was a whole volume in this one weighty sentence in a Standard leader which reviewed at length the disastrous adventure.
    "We trust that the President (Kruger) has no claims in reserve that may cause public opinion to modify the favorable verdict at present pronounced upon his conduct."
    In other words, having handed over to the British government the leader of an unsuccessful invasion, as President Kruger had done, and it was an invasion which had resulted in the loss of some twenty lives, it was hoped that the Transvaal would not ask for indemnity. Bearing in mind that thrift which was a national characteristic of the Dutch Boer, the English government might as well have petitioned water not to run up hill, or have attempted to abolish the law of gravitation by act of Parliament, as was afterwards sufficiently proved. The Boer had been wonderfully merciful in sparing life where most governments would have carried out the sentence of an immediate court martial without delay; but it seemed extremely improbable that he would content himself with the sole reward of an approving conscience, which, had the case been reversed, England assuredly would not have done. It was speedily realized that England would be called upon, and very properly, to pay roundly for Dr. Jameson's unsuccessful expedition. While the public mind, already harassed and [-199-] anxious over the threatened conflict with the United States, was distressed beyond measure over this fresh trouble, an added complication was brought about by the telegram of congratulation which the Emperor of Germany saw fit to transmit to President Kruger on his victory. There had been, for some months, a growing coldness between England and Germany, and the German Emperor was extremely unpopular, even before he thus defiantly betrayed his real hostility and jealousy. His interference, which was termed a gross violation by all the accepted traditions of diplomacy, forced the English people to conclude that they had, almost within their own gates, a jealous and implacable enemy whose secret animosity had only been aggravated by an outward friendliness and by still closer ties of consanguinity. The Emperor had visited the Queen, his royal grandmother, the preceding August, and had been received with every mark of honor befitting his exalted station. He had apparently reciprocated this warmth of feeling and had participated cordially in the succession of brilliant fetes that had been given at Osborne during his visit. He was untiring in his attendance upon the Queen and apparently upon terms of perfect amity with other members of the Royal family. In view of all this, the Kruger telegram was boldly denounced as an indecent affront to the English government, which was not less astounded by the message itself than by the support which the attitude of the Emperor had received from the German press and people. The mediaeval views of the German Emperor as to the divine right of kings, had met with very little sympathy among the English Royal family who, while they sufficiently respected their own peculiar and hereditary prerogatives, were not disposed to imitate the solemn and irksome etiquette of the German court. It had long been known that the Emperor had violently resisted the English influence of his [-200-] mother, the good Empress Frederick, and it was now apparent that this opposition had at last expressed itself unmistakably. In the thickening troubles, France, as usual, veered with the wind. During the few days of the Venezuela dispute the French press unanimously expressed the utmost sympathy for England, prompted wholly by self-interest - the possibility of a future dispute over her own boundary line between French Guiana and Brazil; but having had a little leisure for reflection she modified her views. The threatened breach between Germany and England was hailed as a probable opportunity to recover her own lost provinces, and the French press echoed the German denunciations of the Transvaal raiders with marked coldness. Much as France hated England she hated Germany more, and would be neither advised nor influenced by a people at whose hands she had suffered spoliation and defeat.
    Very little was said in this crisis for or against Mr. Cecil Rhodes. Its moving spirit, apparently he had taken precautions to conceal his direct and personal connection with the plot. His resignation of the Premiership of Cape Colony, following Jameson's defeat and capture, confirmed a deep-seated impression among those who disliked him- and his enemies were numerous - that he had shielded himself behind his luckless subordinate and so escaped his just deserts. Not even his enormous wealth or the patronage of royalty itself, had been then sufficient to establish his popularity in London where it was believed he would not have despised public favor. There was, as is usual in such controversies, a diversity of opinion. Mr. Rhodes was condemned by many, as a man absorbed in personal ambitions, regardless of those whom he sacrificed in the furtherance of his aims; cold, crafty, and selfish to the core. Others praised his executive ability and thought that they perceived in his character the chief essentials of [-201-] leadership. Fortunately for him, many of his defenders were men of high position who, it was charged,, were not wholly disinterested; while among his enemies were those, which was also to his advantage, whose disapproval was a recommendation to the clemency of the decent and intelligent. He had, from the first, the support of the Times through its colonial correspondent, a woman of great ability, whose judgment had been valued by the editors, and who, apparently a little flattered by the distinction of her position, had been drawn into the plottings of the real leader, as was shown in the subsequent parliamentary investigations. The countenance which had been lent the Chartered Company, the fountain source of the conspiracy, by titled and influential men, greatly modified the comments of the Conservative newspapers; the Liberal papers, alone, speaking with entire frankness and with no appearance of reserve. Many conflicting statements, rather surprising and unusual in the English press, were spread abroad, and several days elapsed before the various versions were sifted to the bottom and the actual facts ascertained. For almost a week special telegrams from South Africa appeared with the explanatory foot note - "delayed in transmission" - which hinted at unlawful tampering with telegraph wires, and which also was fully explained and corroborated in the progress of the trial some weeks later.
    Mr. Chamberlain at this crisis was the hero of the people, although public opinion afterwards was considerably modified. It was acknowledged even by the Liberals, who had not been able to forgive his desertion to Conservative or Liberal-Unionist ranks, that he had proved himself equal to a very difficult emergency, and the promptness with which he met the demands of the Transvaal, arranging without loss of time for the return of Dr. Jameson and his men to England and their imme-[-202-]diate trial, was commended on every side. He was toasted at public and private dinners, praised in enthusiastic addresses at public meetings, and on the evening of January 8th went to Windsor to receive the thanks of the Queen.
    A strange situation, however, was brought about; having the raiders committed to its charge, to be dealt with according to their deserts, the English government, at first, was at a loss what to do with them. The Boers had exercised a clemency that could not be abused; pardoning the men would have been construed as a national affront, and England was in honor bound to repudiate their harebrained folly. In the eyes of his fellow countrymen, both in South Africa and in England, Dr. Jameson was a transcendent patriot. It had been claimed, as a justification of the raid, that the expedition had been planned for the relief of women and children who were in deadly peril of mistreatement at the hands of the Boers in Johannesburg. It was felt that Cape Colony was immensely indebted to him for the advancement of measures that had aided the development of its rich resources and promoted its general prosperity; and the extreme penal~ of the law could hardly have been meted out, even had there existed a statute adequately covering the case and providing for its proper punishment, without a second uprising, possibly more disastrous than the first. It was thought, also, by the law-abiding classes, that the integrity of the English courts, the impartiality of the English law which was pronouncedly no respecter of persons, was to be vindicated; and whether this was accomplished or not, is yet an open question.
    The first accounts of Jameson's chivalry occasioned a burst of patriotic fervor; not unlike the sentimentalizing over the Cuban insurgents in the United States, before their idiosyncrasies were ascertained by the Americans sent to their relief. Mr. Alfred Austin, who had been re-[-203-]cently created Poet Laureate, wrote some mawkish verses; ballads of a like nature were composed, with a swinging chorus, framed and devised for the music halls and the pit and galleries of minor theaters, in which they joined fortissimo; and there was much excited waving of the English Jack, with extemporaneous speeches from patriotic managers. Then the excitement abated and the critics, indulgent and a little deluded at first, wondered if the author of "The Idylls of the King" would have descended to ballad writing for the patronage of music halls. One of the influential newspapers called attention to the real predominance of Hebrew names in the list of officials of the Chartered Company, boldly asserting that the attempted revolution was undertaken less for the relief of suffering English women and children, than to back up shrewd and daring speculators of anything but English ancestry.
    A great deal was made of the statement, professedly authoritative, that "Mr. Rhodes would come home to face the music;" but the flying visit which he subsequently paid, arriving almost in secrecy, conferring with Mr. Chamberlain and a few others whom untoward events made it necessary for him to see, and returning to South Africa immediately, could hardly be described as "facing the music ;" and when the final reckoning came it was the impulsive Scotchman and not the calculating Englishman who suffered. It was the golden opportunity of blatant radicals, and pre-eminently of their ostensible leader, the editor of a weekly paper, chiefly distinguished for its leaders written in the first person. Never had its pages so bristled with capital "I's," incredible as this may seem; and never were its utterances accepted with such avidity by the large number of discontented men-servants who formed so important a part of its clientelle. The rest of the public naturally distrusted loyalty that proclaimed [-204-] itself so vociferously from the house tops, and penetrated the flimsy disguise of one who so palpably posed as the friend of the masses. It was a season of most congenial activity in this direction and the "rottenness of the Chartered Company was certainly well aired. The exposť was prefaced by an account of the seizure of Matabeleland and the robbery of Lobengula, his persecution and death and the subsequent discovery that there was no gold in the territory which had been acquired by brutal force and unwarranted conquest. The Chartered Company was charged with circulating reports of the fabulous wealth of the Mashonaland possessions, which, with clever stock exchange manipulations sent the shares up to £8, 10s. It was further charged that innumerable sub-companies were floated, with claims as assets, and many millions were invested. This had gone on steadily for months, it being impossible to prove conclusively either that the Matabeleland mines were or were not productive. A crash was inevitable and ruin could be averted, it was asserted, only by the seizure of the Transvaal territory, the value of its gold deposits being perfectly well known.
    Mr. Rhodes had been charged also with a deliberate attempt at pauperizing the natives, preventing them from holding land and raising cattle, that they might be forced to work for Europeans; the development of South Africa being largely dependent upon native labor. The charges against Mr. Rhodes and the Chartered Company were specifically set forth and were ten in number, the first being marked by vigor and acrimony and the tenth dying away in what Carlyle would have termed "an unintelligible whinner." There was, no doubt, a good deal of truth in the allegations, but, fortunately for the accused, the source from which they originated counteracted any important influence that they might have exerted. Many of the charges, however, those especially that appeared in [-205-] reputable Liberal papers, were sufficiently well-grounded; they could not have been published, otherwise, in a country where the libel law is so clearly defined and so comprehensive and all consequences of its infringement so absolutely certain.