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Jonathan Ball

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Read an excerpt from Charles van Onselen’s The Cowboy Capitalist

“Charles van Onselen’s richly informative and gripping Cowboy Capitalist offers intrigue, betrayal and suspense worthy of a spy thriller in a deeply documented account of international entrepreneurial capitalism, labor exploitation, and political conspiracy in the age of imperialism.” – Robert E. May, Professor Emeritus of History, Purdue.

The Jameson Raid was a pivotal moment in the history of South Africa, linking events from the Anglo-Boer War to the declaration of the Union of South Africa in 1910. For over a century the failed revolution has been interpreted through the lens of British imperialism, with responsibility laid at the feet of Cecil John Rhodes. Yet the wild adventurism that characterised the raid resembles a cowboy expedition more than a serious attempt to overthrow a Boer government.


In The Cowboy Capitalist, Charles van Onselen challenges a historiography of over 120 years, locating the raid in American rather than British history and forcing us to rethink the histories of at least three nations. Through a close look at the little-remembered figure of John Hays Hammond, a confidant of both Rhodes and Jameson, he discovers the American Old West on the South African Highveld.

This radical reinterpretation challenges the commonly held belief that the Jameson Raid was quintessentially British and, in doing so, drives splinters into our understanding of events as far forward as South Africa’s critical 1948 general election, with which the foundations of Grand Apartheid were laid.

Charles van Onselen is the acclaimed author of several books including The Fox and the Flies, Masked Raiders, and The Seed is Mine, which won the Alan Paton in 1997 and was voted as one of the best books to emerge from Africa in the 20th century. His latest book, Showdown at the Red Lion, has been opted for a TV series. Van Onselen has been honoured with visiting fellowships at Yale, Cambridge, and Oxford, and was the inaugural Oppenheimer Fellow at Harvard’s WEB Du Bois Institute. He is currently Research Professor in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Pretoria.

An excerpt (pp. 118-123):

Hammond returned from the Matabeleland mining safari, in 1894, charged with precisely the assignment that he had hoped for from the Big Man, the one that he had failed to persuade Barnato to buy into. His task was to sell off Rhodes’s existing holdings in gold mines without causing panic in the market, and then systematically to reassemble a portfolio of properties capable of producing long-term dividends from the new, deeper-level properties. It was a project ‘more commercial and financial than technical’ that combined the need for personal and professional intrigue of exactly the sort that came naturally to him:

Part of my task was to see that secrecy was maintained. Had even a whisper of our intentions been spread abroad, the price would have gone rocketing. Working independently through several brokers pledged to silence, I was able to secure most of the desirable land on favourable terms.12

It all helped ensure that 1895 was a year of spectacular success for Rhodes, Gold Fields and, of course, John Hays Hammond. Towards the end of the year, before the Raid, the engineer admitted to Ernest Rhodes that ‘this has been an extraordinary year for money making’.13

It was during the covert switch from outcrop mines to deep-level properties, in late 1894, that Hammond was drawn into close contact with two men who were to play important parts not only in the immediate success of the Gold Fields project but also in the plotting of the Jameson Raid over the following year. One was Fred Hamilton, who he already knew as editor of The Star but who, by then, also suspected that Rhodes was bent on some sort of intervention on the Rand. The two not only shared Rhodes as an employer but also what was to become his biggest secret, and they worked together ever more closely. Significantly, Percy FitzPatrick later recorded that Hamilton ‘was one of the first associated with the movement’.14 Hammond easily captured Hamilton.15

Hammond’s other new contact was Rowland Albemarle Bettington, one of the stockbrokers ‘pledged to silence’. Looking back, it is hard to know whether Hammond was more taken with Bettington, or Bettington with Hammond, although one suspects the latter rather than the former. Bettington would have gravitated towards Hammond by personality type and profession just as surely as a river finds the ocean. The men and their families lived close by one another, on the Parktown ridge, and it seems significant that when Bettington had a house built for himself, in Princess Place, the residence was given the name ‘Santa Clara’, a small town that lay just 72 kilometres southeast of Hammond’s hometown of San Francisco. The son of an East India Company civil servant, Bettington was 12 years older than Hammond and had arrived in South Africa in 1872 as a 29-year old filled with imperial fervour and soldierly ambition but insufficient funds to purchase a commission in the British Army. In the eastern Cape, where frontier wars were almost as regular as the seasons, Bettington for some time alternated between editing or owning small-town newspapers and pursuing a military career, notably during the Ninth Frontier War of 1877–1878. At that time, by his own admission, Captain Bettington was fully overcome by ‘war fever’. In 1881, he made his way north, to Barberton, where he achieved some success as a broker.16

In Johannesburg, Bettington continued trading in shares, and in between kept his journalistic hand in by occasionally contributing articles to The Critic and other publications. Bettington’s interest in journalism appealed to Hammond, whose pursuit of fame and the desire to influence public opinion made the courting of newspapermen and the press a lifelong passion. Bettington, was just one of several former editors, including Percy FitzPatrick, Lionel Phillips and Fred Hamilton, who came to play a prominent part in the Jameson Raid and its offshoot, the so-called Reform Committee. As a professional subset within the Reform Committee, journalists were trumped only by the even tighter networks of doctors and lawyers. Bettington, like Jack Hammond, was comfortable in all those circles.

Stockbroking and journalism were not, however, Bettington’s only interests. Brave and possessed of a ‘fiery’ temperament, he was a thoroughgoing imperialist and particularly resentful of the victory that the Boers had achieved at Majuba in 1881, during their ‘First War of Independence’. He served on the Executive of Charles Leonard’s National Union and, by late 1894, was already active in the Rifle Club established by Lionel Phillips after the Pretoria upheavals that Sir Henry Loch had been called in to settle.17 Hammond, an American republican, but also an Anglophile radical, found much to admire in Rowland Bettington. He was no John ‘Coffee’ Hays, but he clearly was a man one could rely on.

Partly by chance and partly by design, then, by the closing quarter of 1894 Hammond was being drawn into a small circle of radicals where the notion of armed rebellion or revolt, while not as clear-cut as it was to become later, was nevertheless already part of the group’s conversation. Rhodes, Jameson and others might be sitting in the Burlington Hotel talking theory and the need for a decisive political intervention on the Witwatersrand, but back in Johannesburg Hammond was mixing with frustrated soldiers and men with a very practical interest in riflery.
Hammond, attuned to the needs of an industrial revolution literally and metaphorically, was in an environment where his darkest fears – already manifest before going to Matabeleland – were being fed continually. Among the mining elite there were sufficient mutterings about the inadequacies of the state for the Kruger government to start assembling a ‘secret service’ to provide it with a flow of counterintelligence about a possible urban insurrection.18 But Hammond knew better than most that a ‘revolution’ would require careful planning. The main question was, what part was he to play in it?

Given his experience in the American West, Hammond felt that, just as he had provided Rhodes and Jameson with an early warning about simmering discontent in Johannesburg, so could he see other signs of social menace with a clarity not always shared by the circles in which he and Natalie moved. Organised crime was beginning to manifest itself in the town through the unregulated sale of alcohol to African miners – a problem he and Clement had grappled with back in Sonora.19 Moreover, it was apparent that on the outskirts of the town and in its prison, black criminals were conducting a reign of terror among ordinary Africans even though no whites could, as yet, put a name to their organisation.20 Not so with white gangsters, ex-bandits who specialised in gold thefts from the mines, with the connivance of the town’s Chief Detective, Bob Ferguson, and whom English journalists, including the Lancastrian FR Statham, already knew as the ‘Irish Brigade’.21

For Hammond, who took it as an article of faith that ‘lack of law enforcement is a far worse thing than lack of laws’, there was worse to follow.22 In mid-October 1894, the Commandant of Police, DE Schutte, wrote an open letter to a Johannesburg newspaper, declaring, ‘I acknowledge the rottenness of the entire police force, but decline to accept the disgrace attached thereto, having striven to reorganise the same, but failed through lack of support.’23 The boom in mining stocks and a burgeoning criminal population was outstripping the state’s capacity to enforce the law. These problems were compounded when, in December 1894, a resentful Ferguson was overlooked for promotion to the position of national Chief Detective.24

Ferguson’s uncooperative attitude undermined policing in the town. By the New Year the law and order genie was not quite out of the bottle but the cork was under mounting pressure. Then, on Saturday evening, 26 January 1895, the cork popped and all hell was let loose upon the populace. ‘One-Armed Jack’ McLoughlin, leader of the Irish Brigade, executed a police informer in a shooting at the Red Lion Beer Hall, in Commissioner Street and, while making his escape, put another bullet through the head of a youth when he mistakenly thought that the young man was going to apprehend him. Two shootings, within minutes of one another, in the most densely settled part of town, sent shivers of fear through many underworld watering holes in downtown Johannesburg.

What could not be confined to the local dives, however, was what followed; it echoed through the press for days thereafter and up and down every important street in town. Having disposed of his informer-nemesis, ‘One-Armed Jack’ linked up with a pair of underworld associates, entered Rosenthal’s Restaurant, in Commissioner Street, and there, in full view of members of the public, presided over a celebratory dinner lasting several hours. The dinner was still in progress when Ferguson got to hear of it but, fearing McLoughlin and resentful of his superior, Andrew Trimble, he declined to set out and arrest the suspect. McLoughlin finished his meal and then left, disappearing into the night.25

Fred Hamilton at The Star led the public charge against Ferguson, pinning the word ‘coward’ to the Chief Detective’s already shady reputation. It was a label of dishonour, one that Hamilton’s close associates considered to be the most serious any man could face. Two weeks later Ferguson resigned but, by then, three other white men had been murdered in Johannesburg without any arrests being made. A full-scale colonial ‘panic’ followed. Rumours circulated that black men were involved in sexual assaults on white women. A run on gun shops followed. Sheriff Bob had blinked and, as he did, Cowboy Jack stepped forward.

From that moment on, The Star began a mass-based campaign designed to channel public outrage in ways that consciously pointed to the history of San Francisco in the 1850s. The Californians in town – and there were many of them – would certainly have understood the parallel being drawn, but for the majority of working men, English and Cornish, the comparison would have been unfamiliar if not a touch strained. Despite that, the campaign was driven with a focus and urgency that suggested that the editor was being strongly influenced by someone with first-hand knowledge of San Franciscan history.

The campaign commenced on 5 March 1895, when Rowland Bettington wrote a letter to the editor, which started by drawing attention to a recent murder of a white worker. The letter then continued, as might be expected from one who was a leading office bearer in the National Union, to reproduce a litany of familiar complaints about the franchise and the language question, and so on. But what the author really wanted was a public meeting, to be held in the Stock Exchange building three nights later, and to set about establishing a ‘Vigilance Committee’.26 Vigilance committees – more American than English – were, however, not part of the populist repertoire in Johannesburg despite the fact that one had sprung into life in 1888, as part of a response to the Irish Brigade.27 Hamilton was left to educate the majority of his non-American readers in a blunt, didactic leader:

Let anyone who wants to know what lawlessness means when it once gets a good grip on a big town read the history of the Vigilance Committee in San Francisco, or a half-dozen chapters of Mark Twain’s ‘Roughing It’ and then let the reader ask himself why what took place in western America in the early fifties should not happen here?28

This simple nudge in the right direction was followed, on 12 March, by a remarkable, half-page article written by somebody who identified himself only as ‘An American on the Rand’. The essay, ‘Vigilance Committees – A Famous Association’, was centred unambiguously on the early history of San Francisco. Not only did the author endorse militant populist action unsanctioned by the law as a way of controlling crime, but from the examples presented two other things stood out. The author bore some knowledge of American industrial history, and was also familiar with individuals in banking circles. He particularly admired the founder of the city’s most famous Vigilance Committee, William T Coleman, whom he lauded for the way he succeeded in paying every last cent that he owed creditors long after a declaration of bankruptcy had freed him from that obligation.29

The article was almost certainly penned by a son of San Francisco. And the campaign to set up a vigilance committee in Johannesburg was probably being covertly influenced by the same man who had helped oversee the establishment of the Law and Order Leagues in the Coeur d’Alene 36 months earlier but who did not want to risk the danger of being identified by name, by ‘Barbarian’ Brown. The essay had Hammond’s fingerprints all over it, and further evidence came from the great public meeting itself.

The gathering of the notables at the Stock Exchange on 8 March 1895, might as well have been compiled from a Who’s Who of those who were later centrally involved in the Jameson Raid. The meeting was initiated in response to a letter by Bettington and then supported by the article on San Francisco written by Hammond that appeared in a newspaper edited by Fred Hamilton and owned by Cecil Rhodes. Lionel Phillips was elected as Chairman of the committee and the main address was delivered by James Leonard, a ‘great friend’ of Kruger’s new reform-minded State Attorney, Ewald Esselen. Leonard was commendably honest and left the audience in no doubt as to what lines the mine owners were already thinking along. ‘We want above all things,’ he said, ‘the head of a department that shall be a police department,’ and then added the rider, ‘We want such a man to regard himself as the head of a quasi-military organisation and to feel proud of his own position …’30 The feedback from the deputation that subsequently went to petition Kruger as a result of this public meeting came from Abe Bailey. Ideological hardliners, warmongers, if you will, men such as Bettington, Hammond and the Leonard brothers, were setting the pace many months before the ‘Jameson Raid’ transpired.31


12 Hammond, Autobiography 1, p 294.
13 United Kingdom, Oxford University, Bodleian Library, Hammond Papers, JH Hammond to Captain EF Rhodes, 21 October 1895.
14 See Chapter 5 of JP FitzPatrick’s The Transvaal from Within (London, 1899) [hereafter FitzPatrick, Transvaal from Within].
15 Hamilton’s view was that ‘in a fairly long life I have known fewer men who were better balanced – a good mind, a sound and agile physique, a sincere and sterling character, and a humour and real kindliness of heart which bubbled and shone through those twinkling eyes’ – Harlow and Hamilton, ‘Jameson Raid’, p 287. It is not known whether Hamilton, like most journalists of the day and later, drank heavily. His is a description of Hammond that does not even remotely resemble that provided by others who knew him.
16 The only source of information about Bettington’s early career appears to be a short article that he wrote for the magazine South Africa and which was subsequently reprinted in, among others, The Clarence and Richmond Examiner (New South Wales), 14 November 1896.
17 See Colvin, Jameson 2, pp 14 and 137.
18 Nor was this a secret; note, for example, how JT Bain approached the State Attorney, Ewald Esselen, in August 1894 to become a ‘detective’ at a time when the secret service was managed through the detective department. See J Hyslop, The Notorious Syndicalist. JT Bain: A Scottish Rebel in Colonial South Africa (Johannesburg, 2004), p 108 [hereafter Hyslop, The Notorious Syndicalist]. On the rise of the secret service, see Kamffer, ‘Die Geheime Diens’, pp 36–70.
19 See Hammond, Autobiography 1, p 305, for his views on alcohol and black miners.
20 For the wider context, see C van Onselen, The Small Matter of a Horse: The Life of ‘Nongoloza’ Mathebula, 1867–1948 (Pretoria, 2008).
21 For the background to these developments, see the following by C van Onselen: Masked Raiders, New Babylon and New Nineveh: Everyday Life on the Witwaterstand, 1886–1914 (Cape Town, 2001), pp 90–91 and 109–156; and Showdown at the Red Lion: The Life and Times of Jack McLoughlin, 1859–1910 (Cape Town, 2015), Chapters 10 to 15 [hereafter van Onselen, Showdown at the Red Lion]. On Ferguson’s complicity in gold thefts, see CH Muller, ‘Policing the Witwatersrand: A History of the South African Republic Police, 1886–1899’, unpublished DPhil thesis, Centre of Africa Studies, University of the Free State, 2016, pp 264–276 [hereafter Muller, ‘Policing the Witwatersrand]. And for the mine owners’ outrage, see FitzPatrick, Transvaal from Within, p 64.
22 Hammond, Autobiography 1, p 81.
23 DE Schutte to Editor, Standard & Diggers’ News, 11 October 1894; and Muller, ‘Policing the Witwatersrand’, pp 145–147.
24 Muller, ‘Policing the Witwatersrand’, pp 100–180.
25 See van Onselen, Showdown at the Red Lion, pp 266–281.
26 Rowland A Bettington to the Editor, The Star, 5 March 1895.
27 See van Onselen, Masked Raiders, pp 36–40.
28 The Star, 5 March 1895. See also ‘Tonight’s Meeting’, The Star, 7 March 1895.
29 ‘Vigilance Committees – A Famous Association’, The Star, 12 March 1895. See also Hammond, Autobiography 1, p 9.
30 As cited in Republic of South Africa (RSA), Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository (PAR), A 1297, EM Trimble Papers, folios 504– 505.
31 For more of the context, see also Muller, ‘Policing the Witwatersrand’, pp 161–162; and ‘The Police Situation’, The Star, 10 March 1895

The Cowboy Capitalist

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