The Early Days – the Rhodes brothers in the Ncibi Valley, Natal

Herbert Rhodes emigrated to South Africa in 1868, and joined a fellow passenger Thomas Foster on his ship in a venture to grow cotton in the Ixopo District.
Towards the end of 1870, Cecil Rhodes was recommended by his doctor (because of his breathing problems) to take a sea journey to a warmer climate and decided to join his brother Herbert in South Africa farming cotton. Their farm was called Spitzkop. Another they farmed was Touraine. He was only 16 (born 5 July 1853) when he embarked on the Endora, a barque
of 322 tons, under the command of Captain William Turnbull. It sailed on 21 June 1870. After 70 days at sea, the Endora entered Durban harbour in September. Armed with a letter of introduction recommending him as a young, promising colonist, Cecil was met by Dr P.C. Sutherland, Surveyor General of Natal. He took Rhodes to stay at his residence, Gardenscliff, at Plessis Laager, about four kilometres out of Pietermaritzburg. Cecil’s brother, Herbert, called for him there after returning from a prospecting trip.
A few months after his arrival at the Lion’s Kloof cotton farms, Cecil was left in sole charge of their farm with 30 Zulus working for him, and this was where he learned Zulu, a skill that often proved most useful. Herbert had become more interested in the diamond finds, even though he was the biggest cotton grower in the district, with sixty acres under cultivation and forty prepared for planting.
A story is told that once, Walter Gray, unable to reach his own farm, stayed overnight with Rhodes whom he described as “a tall, thin, pink-cheeked young man with a squeaky voice.” The following morning he was presented with a bill for two shillings and sixpence for board and lodging. Gray remarked ”I don’t mind paying, but we don’t do things like that out here. But, you young man, will get on in the world!” Later, with his first savings of a few pounds, Cecil bought shares in a railway company in Natal.
Due to his appearance, local Zulus thought he resembled the long, hanging cords found in the dense bush, known as ‘monkey ropes’. Hence their name for him, U’Tswai. Another name recorded is Pendulenkunzi, given to him much later, as it means “he who opposes the bull.” The ‘bull’ is thought to represent Lobengula (Nombengula), King of the Matabele. This was told by Mapelu Zungu, a Zulu warrior who fought at the Battle of Isandhlwana, and was also in the Jameson Raid.
Rhodes lived in a single mud and stone rondavel with a grass roof, there being no thatching available in the valley. A similar hut was used as a storeroom. The stable was an enclosure made from reeds. In May 1871, Rhodes exhibited half a bale of cotton at the Pietermaritzburg Agricultural Society’s annual show. His entry came second as it was not the required amount. Nevertheless, it was adjudged the best cotton among many entries.
The cotton was taken in a cart pulled by 14 oxen up a steep ridge to Hill Top farm, where there was a building at that time. Although some cotton growers reaped as much as 272 kg of cotton to half a hectare, and grew mealies between the rows of cotton, the venture ended after a season of blight, bollworm, grasshoppers and continual harassment from baboons.
Cecil Rhodes built a hunting lodge on a farm now known as Hazeldene near Richmond, originally part of Beaulieu. A section of the old lodge can still be seen. He was keen on hunting, and organised hunts while in Kimberley with a number of his close friends. An old Zulu named Lugodo Mletwe lived in the Nhlavini district until he died in 1976 claiming to have been Cecil Rhodes’ gun bearer when he was an umfaan. With a beard down to his waist, the old man looked as if he could have been about 116 years when he died. He would then have been ten when employed by Rhodes!

The Rhodes brothers transferred their interests to the diamond fields at Kimberley. In September 1871, Cecil left the Ncibi Valley, Herbert having already left the year before. It is recorded that he set off on the 640 km journey to Kimberley with a Scotch cart drawn by a team of oxen to carry his belongings. He rode a pony, accompanied by one servant. His belongings were a pick, two shovels, several volumes of the Classics, a Greek lexicon, boxes of biscuits, tea, flour and a few other simple provisions; also a box of lozenges which his father had sent to him. After the death of his pony, he walked a good part of the way, well ahead of the slow-travelling cart. It took just over a month to reach his destination, New Rush, previously known as Colesberg Kopje.
It was known that Herbert found it difficult to settle down in one place and in 1873 he joined 12 diggers, calling themselves ‘The Pilgrims’, who went prospecting at the New Caledonian Gold Fields. This was one of the first expeditions to the gold diggings near Lydenburg, Transvaal (Mpumalanga). The expedition started from Pietermaritzburg, and one can assume that Herbert returned briefly to the Ncibi Valley before setting out on the expedition.
There is a record of Cecil Rhodes returning to the farming area a year or two later, and introducing himself to Isabel Walker as Cecil John Rhodes. He also fancied other local girls, and presented three of them with diamonds, one of them named Emmeline Hawkins. He presumably met Emmeline when visiting her brother, with whom he had become friendly while cotton farming. Emmeline was not enticed by the gift, and married George Walker instead. The diamond was lost between the floorboards of the old Erskine homestead after their marriage. After the old farmhouse fell into disrepair members of the family long hunted for it among the ruins, to no avail. The ground was ploughed and is covered now by a saligna gum.
This brief period is interesting in that it was the only time in his life that Cecil Rhodes showed a personal interest in women.

Many years later a small monument was erected in the Ncibi Valley by the Historical Monuments Commission, commemorating Cecil Rhodes’ sojourn there. It still stands.
On the High Flats of Natal by Valerie Woodley.
The Kimberley Club by Tony Westby-Nunn.
Contributed by Tony Westby-Nunn, January 2021

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