In September 1891 Cecil Rhodes set out from Beira in Portuguese East Africa for the new settlement of Salisbury in Mashonaland 310 miles away. It was an arduous journey through lion country and knoted forests. There was no road and a rail line was some years away. Empire builder Rhodes was at the time prime minister of the Cape Province. A year earlier he had dispatched to the north 250 British soldiers and settlers to lay claim to today’s Zimbabwe.
Rhodes was travelling with two Europeans and a bevy of African bearers and cooks. The Europeans had arrived in Beira by sea from Cape Town, a journey taking several days.
Twenty-five-year-old adventurer Frank Johnson had made the overland journey across Mozambique once before and his flat-bottomed river steamer Agnes awaited the Rhodes party in Beira, at that time a village of some 50 structures. Oxen, two carts and horses were loaded aboard the Agnes and the group set off. After 60 miles the boat ran aground, forcing an overland trek.
Each night campfires were lit to keep away baying lions and other game whose piercing howls disturbed the travelers’ sleep. Heavy rains, impenetrable bush and swollen streams wrecked the carts, further delaying the travelers who continued on horseback. Eventually losing a battled with malaria and tsetse flies, the horses died and the band had to walk.
One night not far from today’s Zimbabwe/Mozambique border the three white men huddled together in a small tent. Rhodes, according to Johnson’s 1940 memoir Great Days, was restless and left the tent, ignoring instructions to stay within the ring of fires. Some minutes later Johnson heard the growl of a lion—and knowing that meant the lion was hunting– got up to check. What he saw was a terrified Rhodes, pajama bottoms below his knees, racing back towards the tent.
De Waal, the Dutch speaking Afrikaner and third man in the tent, later wrote that Rhodes was chased not by a lion but by a hyena. Johnson believes it was a lion, writing that Rhodes had been warned about the sad fate of a London Times correspondent who had been killed by a lion in the same area. The journo, named Beaumont, wrote Johnson, had gone into the bush searching for a horse that had wandered off. All that was found were boots, feet still inside, and bones. The story may be apocryphal as a search through a Times data base yields no mention of a southern Africa correspondent named Beaumont.
Rhodes and his party reached Mashonaland in October not far from today’s Mutare. His arrival in the land named after him was noted with a marker erected some time later. It had been a grueling 12-day journey from Beira.
Cecil John Rhodes died nine years later in 1902 at the age of 48. He remains today as controversial as when he was alive. American author Mark Twain, traveling in South Africa in the 1890s was ambivalent about Rhodes. In the Anglo-Boer War Twain favored the underdog Afrikaners against the powerful British. He wrote this about Rhodes; “I admire him, I frankly confess it; and when his time comes I shall buy a piece of the rope for a keepsake.”
Another contemporary, Theodore Roosevelt, took the opposite view. While endorsing American neutrality in the war, TR regarded Rhodes as a great man.