Rhodes and the London syndicate join forces
Rhodes then arrived in Cape Town to talk again with Maund. His mood was markedly different: after looking over Lobengula’s message to Queen Victoria, he said that he believed the Matabele expedition to England could actually buttress the concession and associated development plans if the London syndicate would agree to merge its interests with his own and form an amalgamated company alongside him. He told Maund to wire this pitch to his employers. Maund presumed that Rhodes’s shift in attitude had come about because of his own influence, coupled with the threat to Rhodes’s concession posed by the Matabele mission, but in fact the idea for uniting the two rival bids had come from Knutsford, who the previous month had suggested to Cawston and Gifford that they were likelier to gain a royal charter covering south-central Africa if they joined forces with Rhodes. They had wired Rhodes, who had in turn come back to Maund. The unification, which extricated Rhodes and his London rivals from their long-standing stalemate, was happily received by both sides; Cawston and Gifford could now tap Rhodes’s considerable financial and political resources, and Rhodes’s Rudd Concession had greater value now the London consortium no longer challenged it.
There still remained the question of Leask’s concession, the existence of which Rudd’s negotiating team had learned in Bulawayo towards the end of October. Rhodes resolved that it must be acquired: “I quite see that worthless as [Leask’s] concession is, it logically destroys yours,” he told Rudd. This loose end was tied up in late January 1889, when Rhodes met and settled with Leask and his associates, James Fairbairn and George Phillips, in Johannesburg. Leask was given £2,000 in cash and a 10% interest in the Rudd Concession, and allowed to retain a 10% share in his own agreement with Lobengula. Fairbairn and Phillips were granted an annual allowance of £300 each. In Cape Town, with Rhodes’s opposition removed, Robinson altered his stance regarding the Matabele mission, cabling Whitehall that further investigation had shown Babayane and Mshete to be headmen after all, so they should be allowed to board ship for England.
Meanwhile, in Bulawayo, South African newspaper reports of the concession started to arrive in the middle of January 1889. William Tainton, one of the local white residents, translated a press cutting for Lobengula, adding a few embellishments of his own: he told the king that he had sold his country, that the grantees could dig for minerals anywhere they liked, including in and around kraals, and that they could bring an army into Matabeleland to depose Lobengula in favour of a new chief. The king told Helm to read back and translate the copy of the concession that had remained in Bulawayo; Helm did so, and pointed out that none of the allegations Tainton had made were actually reflected in the text. Lobengula then said he wished to dictate an announcement. After Helm refused, Tainton translated and transcribed the king’s words:
I hear it is published in all the newspapers that I have granted a Concession of the Minerals in all my country to CHARLES DUNELL RUDD, ROCHFORD MAGUIRE [sic], and FRANCIS ROBERT THOMPSON. As there is a great misunderstanding about this, all action in respect of said Concession is hereby suspended pending an investigation to be made by me in my country.
This notice was published in the Bechuanaland News and Malmani Chronicle on 2 February 1889. A grand indaba of the izinDuna and the whites of Bulawayo was soon convened, but because Helm and Thompson were not present, the start of the investigation was delayed until 11 March. As in the negotiations with Rudd and Thompson in October, Lobengula did not himself attend, remaining close by but not interfering. The izinDuna questioned Helm and Thompson at great length, and various white men gave their opinions on the concession. A group of missionaries acted as mediators. Condemnation of the concession was led not by the izinDuna, but by the other whites, particularly Tainton.
Tainton and the other white opponents of the concession contended that the document conferred upon the grantees all of the watershed’s minerals, lands, wood and water, and was therefore tantamount to a purchase receipt for the whole country. Thompson, backed by the missionaries, insisted that the agreement only involved the extraction of metals and minerals, and that anything else the concessionaires might do was covered by the concession’s granting of “full power to do all things that they may deem necessary to win and procure” the mining yield. William Mzisi, a Fengu from the Cape, who had been to the diamond fields at Kimberley, pointed out that the mining would take thousands of men rather than the handful Lobengula had imagined, and argued that digging into the land amounted to taking possession of it: “You say you do not want any land, how can you dig for gold without it, is it not in the land?” Thompson was then questioned as to where exactly it had been agreed that the concessionaires could mine; he affirmed that the document licensed them to prospect and dig anywhere in the country.
Helm was painted as a suspicious figure by some of the izinDuna because all white visitors to Bulawayo met with him before seeing the king. This feeling was compounded by the fact that Helm had for some time acted as Lobengula’s postmaster, and so handled all mail coming into Bulawayo. He was accused of having hidden the concession’s true meaning from the king and of having knowingly sabotaged the prices being paid by traders for cattle, but neither of these charges could be proven either way. On the fourth day of the enquiry, Elliot and Rees, two missionaries based at Inyati, were asked if exclusive mining rights in other countries could be bought for similar sums, as Helm was claiming; they replied in the negative. The izinDuna concluded that either Helm or the missionaries must be lying. Elliot and Rees attempted to convince Lobengula that honest men did not necessarily always hold the same opinions, but had little success.
Amid the enquiry, Thompson and Maguire received a number of threats and had to tolerate other more minor vexations. Maguire, unaccustomed to the African bush as he was, brought a number of accusations on himself through his personal habits. One day he happened to clean his false teeth in what the Matabele considered a sacred spring and accidentally dropped some eau de Cologne into it; the angry locals interpreted this as him deliberately poisoning the spring. They also alleged that Maguire partook of witchcraft and spent his nights riding around the bush on a hyena.
Rhodes sent the first shipments of rifles up to Bechuanaland in January and February 1889, sending 250 each month, and instructed Jameson, Dr Frederick Rutherfoord Harris and a Shoshong trader, George Musson, to convey them to Bulawayo. Lobengula had so far accepted the financial payments described in the Rudd Concession (and continued to do so for years afterwards), but when the guns arrived in early April, he refused to take them. Jameson placed the weapons under a canvas cover in Maguire’s camp, stayed at the kraal for ten days, and then went back south with Maguire in tow, leaving the rifles behind. A few weeks later, Lobengula dictated a letter for Fairbairn to write to the Queen—he said he had never intended to sign away mineral rights and that he and his izinDuna revoked their recognition of the document.