So much has been written about the Jameson Raid as a key moment in South African history, particularly as part of the run-up to the South African War of 1899 to 1902, that it’s hard to imagine a fresh contribution to the raid’s historiography. Yet Charles van Onselen has done it, and by means of a biography of a man who was central to the raid but is barely mentioned in books on the war. If he is mentioned, he is seen as one of Cecil Rhodes’s coconspirators in the plot that led to the so-called “raid” (which would probably be better called a filibuster — or an act of piracy).
John Hays Hammond was an American mining engineer by training and was involved in exploiting mineral resources in the United States, ultimately becoming one of the robber-baron capitalists of the era (and then, typically, transforming himself into a philanthropist and political influencer).
When he arrived in South Africa to check out the prospects of the Witwatersrand gold seam, he was fresh from a scene of violent industrial conflict in the American West, where there was a pattern to the way mine owners dealt with their workers: they ruthlessly exploited them and then, when the workers protested and/or rose up (often with the help of agents provocateurs paid by the owners), the troops were called in and the miners were crushed by force of arms and sent back to work. This class war was bloody.
By picking out key dates and tracing Hammond’s history and opinions, Van Onselen makes a convincing case for the idea that Hammond was, in fact, the progenitor of what became the Jameson Raid — that it was his idea.
Around the campfire on a trip to Rhodes’s new holdings in what is now Zimbabwe, it appears he talked Rhodes and Rhodes’s sidekick Leander Starr Jameson into fomenting insurrection in Johannesburg as a way of wresting control of the Transvaal. It could not be left to the backward Boers to run — not if the Rhodeses of the world were to make a lot of money. An uprising of unhappy uitlanders in Johannesburg, combined with Jameson’s riding to the rescue with 600 armed men, would bring down the Paul Kruger government of the Transvaal and deliver the Reef to Rhodes, Hammond contended.
Van Onselen shows, too, that there was a probable plot-within-a-plot of Hammond’s own. He produced some bizarre flourishes to the plot, such as kidnapping Kruger, which didn’t happen. And, it is clear, Hammond’s long-term interests did not entirely coincide with those of Rhodes and the British Empire. (Rhodes deemed his own interests and those of the empire to be the same. Much South African history flows from this.)
Van Onselen also unravels the machinations on the Boer side, including the equivocal behaviour of those who were opposed to the Kruger government of the Transvaal. They were, quite simply, plotting with the uitlanders, or at least with Hammond.
And Van Onselen is excellent on the aftermath of the raid, writing about the desperate days after it had failed when Hammond, Jameson and the raiders were in jail. The story of Hammond’s wrigglings to get out, with the help of his manipulative wife, is very entertaining. She later became an evangelist of racial purity in the US.
Giving a great deal of context, Van Onselen traces the stumble towards the South African War and how, in the long years after Hammond fled the Transvaal, he kept returning to the raid to retell his version of it — and to tweak that version. He, like others involved, was still revising history decades after the botched insurrection in Johannesburg had brought down the Rhodes administration in the Cape, where he had been prime minister since 1890.
Jameson, of course, had to answer in the court of British public opinion after the raid, so he had his own version of events to recount. Like Hammond, he had a particular fear of being called a coward and that played a significant role in how he acted.
He had made a mad dash across the veld, almost into the jaws of death, without having been given the go-ahead by Hammond, who was organising the uprising in Johannesburg; it had not, in fact, taken off, but Jameson had such a drive to be a man of action, a hero, that he went anyway. Perhaps his success in slaughtering the Matabele a year or two previously in Rhodesia had gone to his head.
Here is an entry point into the psychology of the participants, particularly Jameson, of which Van Onselen makes a subtle study. Jameson was just being a man, really — or trying to be the idealised, even mythologised, kind of man conjured up by the British imperial imagination. He was probably compensating for his hidden homosexuality but he’s still a shining example of what you might call the toxic masculinity of the ruling class of the day.
The theme of masculinity and its social construction in this historical era has emerged notably in Van Onselen’s most recent books, from the especially toxic Jack the Ripper figure in The Fox and the Flies to the diluted sort of competitive warrior culture apparent in Showdown at the Red Lion. It’s a fruitful and fascinating seam to excavate, an enriching element to add to all the other streams Van Onselen brings into convergence in his important and compelling work.