The Tamsen Chronicles

A National Hoax

The world’s biggest personal confidence trick ever pulled on a government and its people occurred in the 1950s at about the time I accompanied the late Queen Mother and Princess Margaret on their official tour of what was Rhodesia before Independence and then becoming Zimbabwe.

Situated in Middle Africa, this country was originally opened up in 1890 by the South African based mining magnate and administrator, Cecil John Rhodes, who gave his name to the territory and world history.

Exactly 60 years later, I was working in Africa as a foreign correspondent and journalist when it was officially announced by the Rhodesian Government that a prestigious relative of Rhodes was to make an historic and important visit to the country established by his ancestor.

In a rush of Press announcements, we were told that, never before had any relative of the country’s founder visited the land of their namesake.

As a result of this, I flew urgently into Salisbury, the Rhodesian capital, to witness and record what was touted to be one of the greatest events in the country’s history and a supposed renewal of the great Rhodes tradition to make Rhodesia a leader in mining and as Africa’s leading food basket.

For the big and tumultuous day of the VIP’s celebrated arrival, the Rhodesian Government and many leading public community groups arranged the biggest welcome to anyone in Rhodesia’s fairly long history.

A battalion of the Rhodesian Army was enlisted to provide a momentous guard of honour while a special welcoming party, consisting of the Prime Minister, Sir Godfrey Huggins, the State Governor of the Dominion, it’s wigged and cloaked judiciary and many Members of Parliament, was set up.

Thousands of interested and excited onlookers were also invited to Salisbury Airport for what was officially touted as the return of the Rhodes spirit to Rhodesia and the biggest event in its history.

At the appointed time on the special day, the commercial aircraft from London carrying one dapper little man known simply as the Honourable D. Rhodes, duly landed on the airport tarmac to the tune of a military band playing the national anthem followed by songs of welcome by a women’s choir.

When our D. Rhodes Esquire stepped out of the aircraft on to a special red carpet, a crescendo of cheers arose from the eager public enclosure and the Rhodesian dignitaries stepped forward in unison to shake the hand of the man whose ancestor had taken their country into the agricultural and industrial age.

I looked closely at the V.I.P. newcomer and was amazed how close he resembled Cecil John by the unusual colour of his hair, his stature and his facial expressions, as one sees in history books.

Endless speeches of welcome were made and broadcast to the crowd before the Governor and Prime Minister shepherded the visitor to Government House for further major celebrations and talks.

Senior Government officials told me in interviews that D. Rhodes Esquire was a prominent Canadian business personality who had decided to return the Rhodes name to Rhodesia in person and to lend his business talents to the country’s mining industry.

Local newspaper headlines announced that Rhodesia was to be further developed by a second Rhodes offering them an even more prosperous future. Celebrations continued throughout Salisbury City that night as Rhodesians marvelled that there was once again a living connection to their long and distinguished history as Africa’s second powerhouse to South Africa.

The excitement of the moment was, however, heavily dampened when a church minister and distinguished historian of all things Rhodesian made an urgent midnight call to Government House from his hinterland home, claiming that Cecil John positively had no living male descendants. History books were immediately sought and pondered over for hours until the reality of the matter was awkwardly evident.

When the visiting D. Rhodes was confronted with the truth, he admitted that, as his name was Rhodes and his stature and features were somewhat similar to those of Cecil John, he had devised a plan to go to Rhodesia in the hopes of gaining instant fame and fortune.

Just 48 hours after his big and tumultuous arrival in Salisbury, this devious imposter was secretly and silently sent back by air to London without any fanfare by highly red faced and embarrassed Government officials and police, never to be seen again.

This was the first and last time in my many years as a journalist that I was totally taken in — as so many others were — by an audacious con man.

A minor hoax was also pulled in Rhodesia that year when I was staying at the Leopard’s Rock Hotel with the late Queen Mother and Princess Margaret while covering their State tour of Africa.

The princess told the Queen Mother she was unwell and had to return urgently to Salisbury — only to go to Government House to meet her lover, Group Captain Peter Townsend, who was patiently waiting there for her. And that was the start of a very public love affair with a sad ending for the people concerned.

After the event, I and other journalists present went off to write our stories on this eventful day.