Old pirates and new gangsters


Charles van Onselen’s latest fascinating historical detective work is called, to give it its full title, The Cowboy Capitalist: John Hays Hammond, the American West and the Jameson Raid.

In it, Van Onselen, following on his groundbreaking studies of life and work on the Rand in its early days, tracks the involvement of American robber-baron capitalist Hammond in the Jameson Raid — or, as Van Onselen would prefer, the Jameson “Raid”, because it wasn’t really a raid so much as an attempted invasion in support of an uprising in Johannesburg, though the uprising didn’t happen.

Cecil Rhodes’s crony Leander Starr Jameson was waiting in what is now Botswana for the signal (from Hammond) that an uprising had begun so that he could ride to support it and overthrow the government of what was then the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek, but when the signal didn’t come he rode anyway. He ended up being captured by Boer forces and landed in jail, though not for very long. The South African War followed a few years later.

Interestingly enough, Hammond was happy to be called a “filibuster”, which has come to mean legislative obstruction but, in the late 1800s, referred to raiding parties that made incursions into foreign states in attempts to foment revolution. Hammond, however, most definitely didn’t want to be known as a “pirate”. If only he was aware of the etymology of “filibuster”, which (I discover in James M McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom) goes back to Spanish filibustero and simply means “pirate”.

According to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, filibustero is related to the Dutch vrijbuiter (freebooter), which dates from the 1500s and the Dutch and British raids on Spanish ships ferrying gold from the South American colonies to Europe. “The relationship of borrowing from Dutch to French and Spanish and English is unclear,” says Chambers. The borrowing of freebooting methods, historically, is not.

Hammond emerges from Van Onselen’s account as a figure very much like George Hearst, the robber-baron capitalist in the TV series Deadwood, played by Gerald McRaney with fine-tuned menace.

I kept seeing McRaney’s face, and recalled his manner, while reading The Cowboy Capitalist, but Hearst was a real person — as were other Deadwood characters, such as Al Swearengen and sheriff Seth Bullock.

Like Hammond, Hearst was a mining engineer and quickly became a mine owner. Both used all sorts of skullduggery to get what they wanted. Hammond’s Homestake Mining Company near Deadwood lasted for 123 years.

One exchange in Deadwood sounds like a possible chat between South Africa’s president, say, and his crime intelligence chief. It’s an exchange between Hearst and a devious character called Cy Tolliver.

Hearst: “You’re a lying, blackmailing sack of shit.”

Tolliver: “What do you want?”

Hearst: “I want you to go to work for me.”  

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Author Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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