Rhodes in the Ncibi Valley

2009-11-06 00:00

IT is a harsh and beautiful landscape. Hillsides fall away to the Umkomaas River as it switchbacks through the hills. Being matted with acacia and euphorbia, the countryside has few open spaces, but wherever the grass breaks free it seems to be indicating that sometime in the past somebody sought to make a living there.

The Ncibi Valley funnels down from the escarpment and feeds into the Umkomaas Valley itself. Although the panorama appears to be exclusively African, the names that overlay the rolling topography speak of a more complex legacy: Hill Top, Spitz Kop, Mtungwane, Lion’s Kloof and Bromham Hall.

Into this landscape, in 1870, arrived a teenager named Cecil John Rhodes, one of nine sons of an English parson. Buoyed up by romantic notions of Africa, he was excited to join his adventurous elder brother Herbert, who had already acquired 200 acres (81 hectares) at KwaNcibi, with the intention of making a living as a cotton farmer.

Although cotton had been introduced to the colony decades earlier, at the time Rhodes arrived it had recently enjoyed a temporary boom because of the American Civil War. Britain’s textile mills needed to be fed, and with the cotton fields of the Deep South paralysed by the fighting, Natal farmers had capitalised on the reduced supply and higher prices.

By all accounts, the Rhodes brothers worked hard. The weather was often hot and humid, but they rose early in the morning and spent a full day in the fields with their workers. In a letter to his mother, Cecil said she would not approve of seeing her “two dear boys in shirt and trousers, with more holes than patches, all covered with brick dust, driving the cart up from the river”.

Their accommodation was simple, being two wattle-and-daub huts, one for sleeping and the other for living. For company they had several other young fellow settlers who lived in the vicinity, and from time to time they rode into Richmond to play cricket or to attend church services. Cecil applied himself single-mindedly to the growing of cotton, as if he intended to spend the rest of his life on the farm. As proof of his industry, he sent half a bale to the Royal Agricultural Show in Pietermaritzburg, where it was highly commended. And because he wanted to educate himself, in the evenings he read writers like Plutarch and Plato from his small collection of classics.

But in the end the venture failed. The cotton price dropped, and bollworms and baboons took their toll on the crop, as did heavy downpours and the relentless sun. Eventually, the lure of the Kimberley diamond fields proved too strong, and Cecil followed Herbert northwards.

Rhodes said later that his year at KwaNcibi had taught him several important lessons; among them the value of money, and how to look after himself and to live cheaply. Also, he thrived on the outdoor lifestyle, although throughout his life he was plagued by poor health and had his first heart attack only two years later, before his 20th birthday. The prospect of dying young was said to have driven him onwards at a reckless pace, until his death, aged 49, in 1902.

Another enduring influence of his year at Kwa­Ncibi was his fear of snakes, which were plentiful in the thick undergrowth of the steamy valley. Appropriately, perhaps, during my visit last weekend, not far from the slopes of Sandluluba koppie, where the Rhodes’s house had once stood, a large cobra crossed our path and disappeared down a termite hole.

Whatever one thinks of Rhodes, he was a remarkable man. To some people, he was a heroic and idealistic visionary. To others, he was an unscrupulous businessman with an obsession with money. To yet others, he was a heartless imperialist who plundered a sub-continent for himself and the glory of Empire.

But it is the makeup of his personality that is most intriguing. He was apparently supremely self-confident, probably due to the adoring support and continual reassurance given to him by his mother. This all-consuming and exclusive bond set the pattern for his future relationships, in which he preferred male company to the love of women. And despite his physical weaknesses, he was endlessly energetic, and exuded a magnetism that attracted people to him. While never an original thinker, nor an intellectual, he was practical and entrepreneurial, and had no sense of shame or guilt, grasping countries and gold mines although they could never ultimately satisfy him. He was, in the words of one of his biographers, not a good man, but a great one.

Rhodes’s most lasting legacy is the scholarship scheme that bears his name. Every year, from a variety of countries, gifted young men (and, more recently, women), who otherwise would not have been able to afford it, have travelled to Oxford University to further their studies. In setting up this remarkable arrangement, Rhodes was satisfying for himself a deep, almost mystical, need to link the extremities of what was for him a romantic empire with what he considered to be the heartland of his identity. And, as he intended, so he created an exclusive club that wielded the kind of power that he relished. For example, United States President John F. Kennedy’s administration in the sixties included no fewer than 16 Rhodes Scholars, and 30 years later in Bill Clinton the scheme had its first U.S. president.

When viewed beside his greatest accomplishments, his year in the Ncibi Valley may not seem significant. But throughout his life, when anyone told him that something he was proposing was impossible, Rhodes would remember his award at the Pietermaritzburg Royal Show, and reply: “And they told me I couldn’t grow cotton.”


• With thanks to Ruth Paulsen, Geordie Gartrell and Siphesihle Ngcobo of Duma Manzi Eco Lodge and Game Reserve, on whose property the Rhodes farm is located, to photographer Terrence Patrick, and to Greg Usher and Bagezile Shoba, whose knowledge of local history was of great assistance.

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