Revisioning history: Author Charles van Onselen posits that the Jameson Raid must be evaluated not primarily through the lens of Southern Africa’s circumstances vis-à-vis Britain, but in the context of US imperialism. Picture: SUPPLIED
Revisioning history: Author Charles van Onselen posits that the Jameson Raid must be evaluated not primarily through the lens of Southern Africa’s circumstances vis-à-vis Britain, but in the context of US imperialism. Picture: SUPPLIED

Charles van Onselen, research professor at the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship at the University of Pretoria, spends much of his time obsessing.

"A few of the better ‘answers’ to my book-writing problems have come to me during the wee hours of morning — long after tired listeners have left the building and History and Insomnia are left to dance away what is left of the night," he says.

The author of seven previous works, he is a pre-eminent authority on the social history of the Witwatersrand at about the time of the discovery of gold in the late 19th century. His fixation has paid off in his new book, The Cowboy Capitalist.

During a recent academic fellowship at Harvard, he stumbled upon a reference to a "vigilance committee" in San Francisco during the 1850s California gold rush and remembered reading of a committee of that name in Johannesburg in 1895.

Unsatisfied with the apparent coincidence, he pondered other possible connections between the American and Transvaal frontiers. That triggered a "minor earthquake in the cortex": filibustering raiding parties were early manifestations of US imperialism and ugly capitalism, and for 120 years the influence and precise role of an enigmatic architect-planner behind the 1895-96 Jameson Raid has remained a murky historical puzzle.

Could he have been American, and was the Wild West a strategy template for one of the seminal events in recent South African history?

Van Onselen’s theory unfolds, and as the pieces connect they propel him down a rich road of discovery.

"Most of the rest of the evidence was squeezed out of a compliant computer in Johannesburg," he says.

This is modest understatement: at nearly 500 pages, and with 50 pages of notes and seven pages of bibliographical references, The Cowboy Capitalist painstakingly posits that the Jameson Raid must be evaluated not primarily through the lens of southern Africa’s circumstances vis-à-vis Britain, but in the context of expanding webs of US imperialism.

Van Onselen believes southern Africa in the 1890s to early 1900s is a fertile time and locale for historical analysis.

"History is, among other things, about tracking change over time," he says.

"Rapid economic development gives rise to startling structural changes in society within a compacted time frame. Southern Africa — a mixture of colonialism, imperialism and the mineral discoveries in the late 19th century — lends itself to the delivery of fast-forward, high-octane history."

Like most of his other works, The Cowboy Capitalist explores turbulent themes. Cultural clashes — Boer against Brit, English against American — take a supporting role in the context of powerful globalising forces of capitalist industrialisation ripping up the roots of agriculture-based societies.

The Transvaal heartland’s distance from the epicentre of these forces was no cushion against their inevitable penetration into southern Africa. The discovery of gold simply hastened the process. Still, quite how rapidly the predominantly American mining experts replicated their ambitions and operations to the Rand, and spawned cross-continental networks, seems remarkable for a time when the telegraph had only just been invented.

Van Onselen views this differently: "Only [those] who cannot be bothered to read history really believe that ‘globalisation’ is the first-born child of the internet age.

"Ask any strandloper strolling along a Cape beach in the late 15th century and he or she would tell you that, between the rounding of the Cape, first by Dias (1486) and then De Gama (1497), the place was going to hell in a hand basket and that local cattle traders would soon be bending the knee to global commerce," he says.

Van Onselen’s works are proof that history can be beautiful. but also — in the palpably recycled problems and prejudices across the centuries — depressing. Nevertheless, he sees the notion that history repeats itself as fallacious.

Rather lack of understanding of history means that the opportunity is lost for it "to provide insightful comparisons capable of stimulating creative and imaginative responses to new challenges", he says.

"History addresses the present as much as it ever does the past and until such time as we have a decent ‘story to tell’ history will remain a largely unloved child of the past." Part of that story is about uncovering historical truths blurred, or distorted, by time and personal or nationalist agendas.

The discovery of gold brought American engineers and profiteers to the Transvaal, one of whom was John Hays Hammond, the "cowboy capitalist" of the book’s title.

History addresses the present as much as it ever does the past and until such time as we have a decent ‘story to tell’ history will remain a largely unloved child of the past


The kernel within Van Onselen’s sleuthing is his unmasking of Hammond. Scion of an Old South family with Confederate military leadership credentials, Hammond rapidly forged a career as one of the world’s leading mining managers and engineers, with experience in Mexico and the Coeur d’Alene area of Idaho.

He also cultivated deep connections in the political and banking elite of both the east-and west-coast US.

Cecil John Rhodes eagerly recruited him to maximise extractions for the Consolidated Gold Fields company. By 1895, Hammond was participating not only in handsome profit sharing, but also in a tight camaraderie with Rhodes and his steadfast personal ally, Leander Starr Jameson.

Hammond’s fingerprints are all over the machinations of the Jameson Raid.

From his time in North American mining areas he had knowledge of, and practice in, organising mine-owner consortiums, resisting labour movements, and manoeuvring filibustering raids with the assistance of military authorities. Rhodes was the dreamer, Jameson the doer — but Van Onselen shows unequivocally that Hammond was the arch planner of the attempted coup.

But the triumvirate was an alliance of convenience, not one of ideology. Rhodes and Jameson screened their motives behind British expansionism, but Hammond is revealed as an orchestrator with a different tune, envisioning the Raid resulting in: "a separate, semi-autonomous constitutional dispensation for the Witwatersrand along the lines of that of the District of Columbia".

Capitalist motivations were foremost, Hammond epitomising the "extremely powerful set of American engineers with huge personal holdings in the gold mines, who were motivated by business and political interests in Washington DC and on Wall Street and actively fashioning an informal empire for the United States in the 1890s".

This is what Van Onselen does brilliantly.

By tracing Hammond’s background and influences, and all but infiltrating his thoughts, he intuits the protagonist’s sentiments and chronicles the tiny events and small shifts that initiate butterfly effects.

Van Onselen shows that Hammond as the locus of an underhand centre of power in the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek — and an emerging capitalist rival to Rhodes and the other Randlords in southern Africa generally — to be a significantly less worthy character than the cowboy-knight image he carefully cultivated.

Pointedly, Van Onselen sees the shoots emanating from dreadful roots, believing that Hammond’s legacy must be judged as "the voice of the confederacy, of the Old South, of racism and slavery".

This, then, is Van Onselen’s Americanised version of the raid, a revisionist interpretation not hitherto grasped.

Insofar as the Jameson Raid is the ostensible focus of the book, it was more a huff than a hurricane, and the event is but a keyhole into Van Onselen’s wider interrogations.

The near-term effects and fallout from the raid "helped poison southern African history and plunged the British Empire into its greatest and most costly war ever", he writes.

But he forces a deeper analysis and a longer-term view: "The deepest roots of the South African tragedy lie as much in the northern hemisphere as they do in the southern."

Although the raid failed in its conspiratorial goal of capture, The Cowboy Capitalist meticulously reveals the unfortunate triumph of political manipulation, the advancement of corporate and personal avarice — epitomised by the Randlords and Hammond as a locust-like "international hireling of capital" — and the distortion of truth to suit the powerful elite.

Of course, this reverberates in its familiarity with the current state of the US and SA, to which Van Onselen has a pithy rejoinder: "Ever was it thus."