Rhodes and his sexuality

No secreTS The book examines historical claims about Rhodes’s relationships with men
No secreTS The book examines historical claims about Rhodes’s relationships with men

The Secret Society: Cecil John Rhodes’s 

Plan for a New World Order by Robin Brown

Penguin Random House

400 pages


A new book by Robin Brown on how Cecil John Rhodes plotted a new world order through a secret society also considers the political impact of his homosexuality. Here is an extract from the book.

To establish the extent to which Rhodes’s homosexuality influenced the decisions he took and the manner in which he took them, it is necessary to investigate some of his other relationships. Foremost among these is his friendship with a young clerk he met in Kimberley during that important year of 1881. Neville Pickering was his name and, three years later, Rhodes rewrote his will, leaving his entire fortune – which by then had grown considerably – to Pickering, who was also tasked with responsibility for the Secret Society. This could only be an act of madness – or love.

Rhodes’s more adoring biographers generally seem embarrassed by this second will, explaining it as a ‘noble gesture’ and suggesting it demonstrates how little Rhodes really cared for money. Yet this explanation ignores the covering note that accompanied this will: ‘My dear Pickering. Open the enclosed after my death. There is an old will of mine with Graham, whose conditions are very curious, and can only be carried out by a trustworthy person, and I consider you one.’ A postscript follows: ‘You fully understand you are to use the interest of the money as you like during your lifetime.’

Pickering had come to Rhodes’s assistance when he was in urgent need of a secretary. Rhodes had just set up the De Beers Mining Company, and Pickering, born in Port Elizabeth, was working as a clerk for the firm of Dunell Ebden, which had sold the farm Vooruitzicht, where the Kimberley and De Beers diamonds were first discovered in 1871. When De Beers was registered as a joint-stock company in 1881, Rhodes resigned as company secretary and Pickering took over later that year.

Matters then proceeded apace. Within a few months, the two men were living together in a small tin shack where they entertained few visitors. Their relationship continued in this manner for the next four years. Pickering is generally remembered as a pleasant young man, sociable and popular.

When Pickering first met Rhodes, he regularly went to dances, apparently enjoying the female company, whereas Rhodes famously only went ‘for the exercise’. However, girls dropped out of Pickering’s life when, like others, he discovered that even a mention of marriage was enough to make Rhodes throw a tantrum. In his relationship with Pickering, Rhodes is referred to by early biographers as a ‘father figure’ – rather nonsensically, however, as Rhodes was a mere four years older.

It was not long before Pickering excelled at his job. He got his diamond broker’s licence in 1881 and was mentioned by the De Beers chairman at the AGM as ‘one of the best brokers for the company’s diamonds at Kimberley’. Three years later, on June 26 1884, Pickering was thrown from a horse into a clump of wag-’n-bietjie thorn bushes.

Pickering had ‘thorns entering below the knees of both legs’ which were removed with much pain and great difficulty, and within hours the wounds were infected. Some months previously, Pickering had been bedridden with so-called Kimberley fever (probably dysentery) and was already in a weakened condition. A week later, his physician, the young Dr Jameson, diagnosed blood poisoning and a related lung infection. Pickering was bedridden for a month and convalesced for almost two years on crutches. Sadly, Dr Jim was not able to cure Pickering, who slowly wasted away. No expense was spared, however, and Rhodes’s devotion throughout this period was unquestionable.

Pickering’s illness was the start of Rhodes’s lifelong relationship with Jameson, to whom he would likewise be devoted. Born in the same year as Rhodes, Jameson had also gone to Kimberley for health reasons. When Pickering died, Dr Jim moved in with Rhodes – and so began an intimate friendship that survived the fiasco of the Jameson Raid, right up to the time Jameson nursed Rhodes on his deathbed.

At the time Pickering had his accident, Rhodes was buying gold claims on the fabulously rich Witwatersrand. But he immediately put these deals aside and, when he found that the coach to Kimberley was full, he climbed on to the roof, where he sat with the mail bags for a rough and dusty 300-mile trip to Kimberley that took more than 15 hours. Once again, so much for Rhodes’s weak heart and poor lungs.

Pickering hung on for another two months until he died on the morning of October 18 1886. Rhodes, who had hardly left his friend’s bedside, was devastated – and visibly so.

Most of Kimberley turned out for the funeral, which took place later that day. Rhodes and Neville’s brother, William, were the chief mourners, with Rhodes being openly grief-stricken, his tears punctuated by bursts of high-pitched, maniacal laughter. A colleague, Sir David Harris, reported seeing Rhodes and William seated together weeping, each insisting that the other should have Neville’s timepiece.

Rhodes spent that night at Dr Jim’s tin shack opposite the Kimberley Club, which from then on was his Kimberley home. He never returned to the shack he had shared with Pickering. Much gossip was provoked by the obvious depth of Rhodes’s grief, which exceeded that of a master for an assistant. And when it became known that he had gone to live with Jameson, the rumours intensified.

Jameson’s relationship with Rhodes has attracted more speculation than any other of his friendships. They shared the shack for years: it was never more than a hovel, always untidy, with little more than an iron bed in each of the two bedrooms, and a few rough chairs and a table in the sitting room. Nonetheless, momentous decisions were taken in that humble abode. One such decision involved a ‘clash of the Titans’ when, after an all-night meeting, Rhodes eventually squared Barney Barnato and succeeded in taking over the Kimberley mines. The scheme to take control of Matabeleland was also brewed between those walls.

The pair mostly took their meals at the Kimberley Club opposite. Dr Jim was small in stature, lively and energetic. With his easy bedside manner, he always had more patients than he could cope with. By this time, Rhodes was gaining weight and looked ten years older than his age. He had become increasingly taciturn since Pickering’s death, and his humour had become somewhat sadistic. His angry outbursts, delivered in his characteristic falsetto, often verged on the hysterical. ‘Yet what a man this was!’ exclaimed Brian Roberts, whose study, Cecil Rhodes and the Princess, is nevertheless not a hagiography, as the following suggests:

One may not admire his methods or agree with his scale of values; one might consider him intolerant, ruthless and egocentric – a man obsessed by his own interpretation of the world and its destiny – but one must stand aghast at his achievements. Consider what he had done in twenty years; the twenty years when most men are struggling to find their feet. He had arrived in South Africa an ailing, inconspicuous lad. He had neither name nor influence to help him. He had educated himself. He had built up one [of] the largest financial empires of the world. He had become Prime Minister of the Cape. He was 37 years old.

Of course, neither Rhodes nor Jameson could ever admit to a homosexual attraction, but Jameson’s devotion to Rhodes is suggestive of more than mere friendship – indeed a tender intimacy. Jameson eventually gave up full-time doctoring, a profession he loved, and took on the more dangerous jobs of pioneering and exploration. In addition, he performed an administrative role in helping to implement Rhodes’s schemes, some of which were decidedly dubious. One such mission was to the hinterland to negotiate with the King of the Matabele, who had changed his mind about the Mashonaland mining concession he had granted to Rudd. Jameson succeeded in reversing Lobengula’s decision, but only after he had administered several shots of morphine for ‘gout’, and delivered the rifles Rhodes had illegally shipped up from Kimberley.

Following this was the catastrophic raid which Jameson, at Rhodes’s behest, mounted from Rhodesia against the Transvaal. This was the turning point in Rhodes’s career, which will be described in more detail shortly. But if we are debating here how Rhodes’s attraction to men adversely influenced many of his decisions, we need go no further than the Jameson Raid. Jameson’s rejection of Rhodes’s repeated orders to end the raid proved to be the death of Rhodes’s political career, yet Rhodes’s reaction was more resigned than angry. For all the intimacy of their friendship, there is no clear evidence that this strangely devoted pair had a sexual relationship. Throughout their time together, Rhodes was intimate with a string of young men, some of whom were quite fey, and even camp. Still, Dr Jim, for all his charm and conviviality, never, so far as is known, had a sexual relationship with a woman, and he certainly never married.

Rhodes had an obsession with loyalty and trust, which for him were euphemisms for the power and duties of love. Pickering displayed these virtues, as did Jameson, Stead – initially, at least – and Alfred Milner too. To each one of these men, Rhodes at one time or another bequeathed his rapidly growing fortune. And while they all made mistakes – in Jameson’s case, a devastating one – Rhodes always forgave them. The exception was Stead, the only married, heterosexual male among them, who disagreed with Rhodes over the Boer War, breaking the Society’s code of loyalty. At first, Rhodes despaired, but then he dumped him.

The many other young men in Rhodes’s life – the lovers rather than the loved – did not enjoy Rhodes’s trust in quite the same way as his intimates. Although Rhodes was generous with his bunch of ‘burly boys’, he gave them no responsibilities, whether managing his fortune or the Secret Society – indeed, no evidence exists that they were even members of it. These relationships were categorised differently – either boyfriend or bodyguard, angel or lamb.

Rhodes’s trust, once given, was generally for life.

While there were those who questioned Jameson’s sanity at the time of the raid, Rhodes never did. He in fact went on to make Jameson – who had no administrative experience – administrator of Rhodesia.

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