Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Folly of Dr. Jameson

Michael - Thursday

Dr . Jameson
This month is the 120th anniversary of the Jameson Raid, a curtain raiser to the Boer War between the Afrikaner/Dutch republics of southern Africa and Britain. It's interesting because it's been variously portrayed as a mad adventure, underhand foreign policy, Rhodes plot to take over the gold fields of Johannesburg, and a noble mission to save the suppressed English men and women in Johannesburg. 120 years on, historians still aren't in complete agreement about the motivations behind the raid.

Leander Starr Jameson was a doctor turned soldier working for the British South Africa Company.  He moved in high circles both in South Africa and in England, being known to the British Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, and a close associate of Cecil Rhodes, whose empire by then included De Beers, the British South Africa Company (which essentially owned what is today Zimbabwe) and the Cape Colony (of which he was prime minister). What is not clear is how he came to be involved in a quixotic adventure which seemed quite out of character for the conservative and somewhat cynical Englishman. My take is that he was persuaded by Rhodes (certainly) and also by Chamberlain (probably).

Johannesburg in 1896
What in any case is crystal clear is why these men cared about Johannesburg in the first place. The reason was gold. After its discovery, a gold rush started and Uitlanders (foreigners) as Kruger’s Transvaal Republic called them, rushed to the area to make their fortunes. They were completely at odds with the boers. The boers were God-fearing Calvinist farmers many of whom had left the Cape in order to get away from the English. They were suspicious of the gold diggers, fearing that they would grab their country. The Uitlanders might even take over the republic by sheer numbers! Kruger responded by imposing heavy taxes and long residence periods before civil rights were granted. Certainly the gold diggers were not made welcome, but there is no evidence that they were ill-treated or in personal danger. Hardly the situation Austin, Poet Laureate of the day, described in his poem eulogizing the raid:

There are girls in the gold-reef city,
There are mothers and children too!
And they cry, ' Hurry up, for pity!’
So what can a brave man do?
If even we win, they'll blame us;
If we fail they will howl and hiss.
But there’s many a man lives famous,
For daring a wrong like this.

So with revolution being fomented in Johannesburg, the plan was that an expedition to support the new settlers would be dispatched from the north under the leadership of Dr. Jameson. As he passed through Shoshong in what was then the Bechuanaland Protectorate with his small army and artillery, he paid a courtesy call on Chief Khama. Jameson berated Khama for not trusting Rhodes to look after him. Jacob Knight reports the conversation in his book on Shoshong:

Khama III
“Dr. Jameson” replied Khama, “you have got a smooth tongue, but if, as you say, I should have relied on your friendship and peaceful intentions, can you tell me why these big guns are here? What is the object of their movement? Are they not a sign of destruction and death? Please do not try to hoodwink me – I am not a child!”
“Oh no, no, Khama!”protested Dr. Jameson, “I am going to Mafeking on important business and I am taking these guns down with me to have them repaired.”
“No doctor” maintained Khama, shaking his head, “I am not blind, I can see this is a military expedition.”

And indeed it was. Dr. Jameson settled at Pitsani – a strategic area recently granted to the Company supposedly for the railway line – and waited for the signal that the Uitlanders were ready to rise, and the go ahead from Rhodes.  So far so good.

But then everything started to go wrong. The leaders of the proposed insurrection started to have second thoughts and internal disagreements.  They advised Jameson to stand down. Chamberlain got cold feet and tried to stop the raid – although he subsequently denied that he had anything to do with it in the first place - and Rhodes prevaricated. Jameson became impatient. He had 600 restless men and other pressures.  He convinced himself that if he moved, he would spark the required uprising in Johannesburg. He sent a telegram on 29 December 1895 to Rhodes telling him of his intentions: "Unless I hear definitely to the contrary, shall leave tomorrow evening" and on the next day sent a further message, "Shall leave tonight for the Transvaal". However the transmission of the first telegram was delayed, so that both arrived at the same time on the next morning, and by then Jameson's men had cut the telegraph wires and there was no way of recalling him. Jameson had started his three day trek to Johannesburg.

Jameson meets the boers
The adventure was a disaster. Instead of cutting the telegraph wires to Pretoria, they cut a fence wire. Huh? A fence wire? Anyway, Pretoria knew all about the attack and readied for it. No uprising took place, and Jameson eventually surrendered at Krugersdorp outside Johannesburg. The only positive things that can be said about the raid are that very few men died on either side, and that the boers were happy to have the extra artillery!

Jameson taken prisoner

Cabinet meeting in London
As seems often the case, the higher up you are in politics the less accountability there is.  Chamberlain denied any involvement and Lord Salisbury, prime minister, supported him. The dust settled.  Rhodes was sanctioned and had to resign as prime minister of the Cape, but kept all his assets and company rights.  Jameson was tried, but hailed as a hero by the public and the press (and the Poet Laureate), received a light sentence and was soon released.  He later became prime minister of the Cape in his own right, was made a knight, and when he died he joined Rhodes at Matopos. The leaders of the uprising that never happened – including Rhodes’ brother – were first sentenced to death for treason, then received long sentences, and finally were released on the payment of stiff fines.

Kipling, too, was taken with Jameson, who became the role model for the famous IF-

If you can keep your head when all about you   
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;   
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;   
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Jameson's grave at World's View in the Matopos

Soon Kruger’s republic and Britain were at war. The gold headed north.


  1. Now I understand better the song, "We are Marching to Pretoria".

  2. The story is fascinating, but the's been far too long since I've read the way, I'm afraid I'm becoming a creature of modernity, for at first glance at your final photo I wondered what an iPad was doing on the ground. ARGH.

  3. Well, Jono, Jameson was hoping to get to Johannesburg, but Pretoria marched to him!

    Jeff, the poignant thing about the poem is how inappropriate it seems in this case. Yet maybe not entirely. We know that Rhodes had evidence of Chamberlain's involvement which he withheld. Jameson went along out of loyalty, I guess, but was well rewarded later.

  4. Fascinating.
    Greed seems to be the great engine of this bit of history.
    Likewise throughout the world and through all of mankind's record.
    Is greed the story or is ambition and desire to improve the lot of one's family and loved ones a nobler interpretation?
    My limited knowledge of Kipling is of a good man. Clearly he felt Jameson to be a good man as well. What motivated jameson?
    There is a good amount of mystery in history. I suspect much is fiction penned by those who came out on top.