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HOME > Short Stories > The Last Frontier > CHAPTER VIII “ALL ABOARD FOR CAPE TOWN!”
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IN Bulawayo, which is in Matabeleland, stands one of the most significant and impressive statues in the world. From the middle of that dusty, sun-baked thoroughfare known as Main Street rises the bronze image of a bulky, thick-set, shabbily clad man, his hands clasped behind him, his feet planted firmly apart, as he stares in profound meditation northward over Africa. Cecil John Rhodes was the dreamer's name, and in his vision he saw twin lines of steel stretching from the Cape of Good Hope straight away to the shores of the Mediterranean; a railway, to use his own words, “cutting Africa through the centre and picking up trade all the way.”

If ever a man was a strange blending of dreamer and materialist, of utopian and buccaneer, of Clive and Hastings with Hawkins and Drake, it was Cecil Rhodes. In other words, he dreamed great dreams and let no scruples stand in the way of their fulfilment. Having trekked over nearly the whole of that vast territory that stretches northward from the Orange and the Vaal to the shores of Lake Tanganyika, his imagination saw in this fertile, sparsely settled country virgin soil for the building up of a new and greater Britain. The predominance of the British in Egypt and in South Africa, [Pg 191] and the fact that the territory under British control stretched with but a single break from the mouths of the Nile to Table Bay, gave rise in the great empire-builder's mind to the project of a trunk-line railway “from the Cape to Cairo,” and under the British flag all the way. Though Rhodes's dream of an “All Red” railway was rudely shattered by the Convention of 1889, which allowed Germany to stretch a barrier across the continent from the Indian Ocean to the Congo State, he never abandoned the hope that a British zone would eventually be acquired through German East Africa, either by treaty or purchase, even going so far as to open negotiations with the Kaiser to this end on his own initiative.

It was a picturesque vision, said the men to whom he confided his dream, but impractical and impossible, for in those days the line from Alexandria to Assuan and another from Cape Town to Kimberley practically comprised the railway system of the continent, and five thousand miles of unmapped forest, desert, and jungle, filled with hostile natives, savage beasts, and deadly fevers, lay between. But the man who had added to the British Empire a territory greater than France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy combined; who had organised the corporation controlling the South African diamond fields; who had put down a formidable native uprising by going unarmed and unaccompanied into the rebel camp; and who was responsible, more than any other person, for the Boer War, was not of the stamp which is daunted by either pessimistic predictions or obvious obstacles.

It was a slow and disheartening business at first, this building of a railway with a soul-inspiring name. The discovery of the diamond fields had already brought the line up to Kimberley; the finding of gold carried it northward again to the Rand; the opening up of Rhodesia led the iron highway on to Bulawayo, and there it stopped, apparently for good. But Rhodes was undiscouraged. He felt that to push the railway northward from Bulawayo to the southern shores of Lake Tanganyika was an obvious and necessary enterprise—the actual proof, as it were, of the British occupation. But the Boer War was scarcely over, the national purse was drained almost dry, and even the most optimistic financiers shrank from the enormous expense and problematical success of building a railway into the heart of a savage and unknown country.

Finally Rhodes turned to the imperial government for assistance in this imperial enterprise, for the man who had added Zululand, Bechuanaland, Matabeleland, Mashonaland, Barotseland, and Nyasaland to the empire felt that the empire owed him something in return. He first laid his scheme before Lord Salisbury, then prime minister, who said that nothing could be done until he had a closer estimate of the expense. Returning to Central Africa, Rhodes had a flying survey of the route made in double-quick time, and with the figures in his pocket hastened back to London. This time the premier sent him to see Sir Michael Hicks-Beach, the chancellor of the exchequer. Hicks-Beach, who was notorious for his parsimony in the expenditure [Pg 193] of national funds, was frigid and discouraging, but finally relaxed enough to say: “Get a proper survey made of your proposed railway, with estimates drawn up by responsible engineers, and if the figure is not too unreasonable we will see what can be done.” Fortified with this shred of hope, Rhodes again betook himself to the country north of the Zambezi, and, after months of work, hardship, and privation, facing death from native spears, poisonous snakes, and the sleeping-sickness, his men weakened by malaria and his animals killed by the dreaded tsetse-fly, he returned to England and presented his revised surveys and estimates to the chancellor of the exchequer. That immaculately clad statesman negligently twirled his eye-glass on its string as he regarded with obvious disfavour the fever-sunken cheeks and unkempt appearance of the pioneer. “Really, Mr. Rhodes,” he remarked coldly, “I fear it is quite out of the question for her Majesty's government to lend your scheme its countenance or assistance.” It is a pleasingly human touch that as the indignant empire-builder went out of the minister's room he slammed the door so that the pictures rattled on the wall.

After dinner that night Rhodes strolled over to see a friend of Kimberley days, a Hebrew financier named Alfred Beit, in whom he found a sympathetic listener. As Rhodes took his hat to go, Beit casually remarked, “Look here, Rhodes, you'll want a start. Four and a half million pounds is a big sum to raise. We'll do half a million of it, Wernher [his partner] and I.” That [Pg 194] meant success. Though ministers of the Crown turned a cold shoulder to the great imperialist who came to them with a great imperial enterprise, help came from two German Jews who had become naturalised Englishmen. The next day the City brought the total up to a million and a half, and within little more than a fortnight the entire four and a half millions were subscribed, the three names, Rhodes, Beit, and Wernher, being accepted by the man in the street as sufficient guarantee of success. It was in this fashion that Cecil Rhodes raised the money for another great stride in his railway march northward.

By 1904 the road had progressed as far as the Victoria Falls of the Zambezi, where it crosses the river on a wonderful steel-arch bridge—the highest in the world—its span, looking for all the world like a frosted cobweb, rising four hundred and twenty feet above the angry waters. “I want the bridge to cross the river so close to the falls,” directed Rhodes, “that the travellers will have the spray in their faces.” “That is impossible,” objected the engineers. “What you ask cannot be done.” “Then I will find some one who can do it,” said Rhodes—and he did. The bridge was built where he wanted it, and as the Zambezi Express rolls out above the torrent the passengers have to close the windows to keep from being drenched with spray. By 1906 the rail-head had been pushed forward to Broken Hill, a mining centre in northern Rhodesia; three years later found it at Bwana M'kubwa, on the Congo border. Here the task of construction was taken up by the [Pg 195] Katanga Railway Company, and in February, 1911, freight and passenger trains were in operation straight through to Elisabethville, in the heart of the Belgian Congo, two thousand three hundred and sixteen miles north of Cape Town and only two hundred and eighty miles from the southern end of Lake Tanganyika.

As you sit on the observation platform of your electric-lighted sleeping-car, anywhere along that section of the “Cape-to-Cairo” between Cape Town and the Zambezi, you rub your eyes incredulously as you watch the rolling, verdure-clad plains stretching away to the foot-hills of distant ranges, and note the entire absence of those dense forests and steaming jungles which have always been associated, in the minds of most of us, with Central Africa. The more you see of this open, homely, rather monotonous country the harder it becomes for you to convince yourself that you are really in the heart of that mysterious, storied Dark Continent and not back in America again.

And the illusion is completed by the people, for the only natives you see are careless, happy, decently clad darkies who might have come straight from the levees of Vicksburg or New Orleans, while on every station platform are groups of fine, bronze-faced, up-standing fellows in corded riding-breeches and brown boots, their flannel shirts open at the neck, their broad-brimmed hats cocked rakishly—just such types, indeed, as were common beyond the Mississippi twenty years ago, before store clothes and the motor-car had spoiled the picturesqueness of our own frontier.

North of the Zambezi it is a different story, however, for there it is frontier still, with many of a frontier's drawbacks, for the prices of necessities are exorbitant and of luxuries fantastic; skilled workmen can command almost any wages they may ask, and common labour is both scarce and poor. The miner, the scientifically trained farmer, and the skilled workman have rich opportunities in this quarter of Africa, however, for the mineral wealth is amazing, much of the soil is excellent, and civilisation is advancing over a great area with three-league boots.

For excitement, variety, and picturesqueness I doubt if the journey through Barotseland and the Katanga district of the Congo can be equalled on any railway in the world. It is true that the Uganda Railway—which, by the way, does not touch Uganda at all—has been better advertised, but in quantity of game and facilities for hunting it the territory through which it runs is no whit superior to that traversed by the “Cape-to-Cairo.” Stroll a mile up or down the Zambezi from the railway bridge and you can see hippos as easily as you can at the Zoo in Central Park; in Northwest Rhodesia herds of bush-buck, zebras, and ostriches scamper away at sight of the train; and as you lie in your sleeping-berth at night, while the train halts on lonely sidings, you can hear the roar of lions and see the gleam of the camp-fires by means of which the railway employees keep them away. On one occasion, when our train was lying on a siding south of the Zambezi, the conductor of the dining-car suddenly [Pg 197] exclaimed, “Look there, gentlemen—look over there!” His excitement was justified, for from over a screen of bushes, scarcely a biscuit's throw away, a herd of five giraffes craned their preposterous necks and peered at us curiously. Once, when I was travelling through Northwest Rhodesia, our engin............
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