Asia, Africa And Mideast History

The Jameson Raid of 1896 Transvaal South Africa



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History is full of stories of people who step outside the "comfort zone" of their ordinary lives and whose actions come to have consequences of huge importance. Leander Starr Jameson, a medical doctor from Suffolk, falls into this category, as the infamous 1895 "Jameson Raid" against the Transvaal had repercussions that even included being an indirect cause of World War I.

Dr Jameson arrived in the Cape Colony in 1878, in answer to an advertisement for an assistant doctor at a medical practice in Kimberley, which was a boom town following the discovery of diamonds in the area. His own health was not good, and the combination of a warm climate and the chance to make a fortune on the back of diamond mining was very tempting. He certainly did the latter, as he was soon a rich man who was able to buy out his employer and become a leading figure in the medical community, albeit one who was noted for his addiction to the gambling tables.

He soon became acquainted with Cecil Rhodes, who was secretary of the De Beers Mining Company, and the two became firm friends, eventually living in the same house, as Rhodes's political career took off. In time, Dr Jameson acted as Rhodes's right-man man as the latter became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony and began to turn his imperialist ambitions into reality.

In April 1889 Rhodes sent Jameson to Matabeleland to negotiate with King Lobengula over mineral rights, and he paid a second visit to complete the deal in October, during which he used his medical knowledge to treat the king's ailments and thus gain his confidence. This was important the following year, when Rhodes's pioneer column was able to proceed unhindered through Nbedele territory to attack what would soon become Mashonaland.

Dr Jameson became established at Fort Salisbury (modern Harare), from where he attempted to open a route eastwards to the sea, much to the concern of the administrator, Archibald Colquhoun, who saw Jameson as a dangerous maverick who was antagonising the Portuguese rulers of Mozambique as well as local tribal chiefs. However, Jameson's brinkmanship was to Rhodes's liking, and he was appointed as administrator of Mashonaland in September 1891.

As administrator, Jameson had little time for the rights of Africans, and allowed the settlers to appropriate land virtually as they wished. He also engineered excuses for a war on Lobengula in 1893 that led to the latter's defeat and the annexation of Matabeleland into what was now Southern Rhodesia, of which Jameson was recognised officially as the administrator on behalf of Rhodes's British South Africa Company.

He then proceeded to apportion vast areas of land not only to settlers but also to absentee landlords, mostly British aristocrats, who had no intention of farming the land. His chaotic and unscrupulous rule led one contemporary observer to comment that "Jameson must have been off his head for some time before the raid". The unrestrained theft of land and cattle from the Ndebele and Shona people was the main cause of the uprising that erupted in 1896.

To the south of Rhodesia, in the Transvaal, tensions had been building for some time between the Boer inhabitants of Dutch descent and the "uitlanders", who were largely British people who had been attracted to the area around Johannesburg (the "Witwatersrand") when gold was discovered there in 1886. The uitlanders (the word means "outlanders" or foreigners) outnumbered the Boers in the area by two to one, but were denied democratic rights by the Boers who had been in charge of the territory since the First Boer War of 1880-81.

It was clearly in British interests to have control of the goldfields, but seizing them by force would have international repercussions. The best hope appeared to be to encourage an uprising by the uitlanders themselves, and, from October 1894, Rhodes and Jameson worked hard to make this happen. A "Reform Committee" had already been established on the Witwatersrand to campaign for democratic rights, with Colonel Frank Rhodes, brother of Cecil, being a prominent member. Several members of this group were in liaison with Jameson.

The situation in December 1895 was that a force under Jameson's control of around 600 men (mainly police officers armed with six Maxim guns and three light artillery pieces), had been placed by Rhodes on the Transvaal border with what is now Botswana, with a view to supporting the uprising on the Witwatersrand when it occurred. However, it was clear to Rhodes that more time was needed. Jameson, always the gambler, took it upon himself to ignore this advice and launched the raid on his own initiative.

The raid was doomed from the start. The element of surprise, on which Jameson had relied, was nullified by the fact that the Boers knew all about his intentions and were able to prevent his force from reaching Johannesburg. Jameson and his troops crossed the border on 29th December but met resistance on 1st January which forced them to change their route. On 2nd January they were stopped at Doornkop, about 14 miles from Johannesburg, and surrendered. 65 of the raiders had been killed, but only one Boer defender.

The uitlander uprising never took place, having been countermanded from London by the government, who saw no benefit in instigating a second Boer War, despite the lure of the goldfields. Instead, the Reform Committee members were arrested by the Transvaal government, as was Dr Jameson.

Jameson was handed over to the British government for trial, but Frank Rhodes and his associates were tried by the Boers and sentenced to death, although the sentences were later transmuted to 15 years' imprisonment, and even this became a heavy fine such that the conspirators were freed in June 1896.

Dr Jameson was sentenced to 15 months in Holloway Jail in London, on a charge of illegally raising an army, but was freed within a year on health grounds. Despite the Jameson Raid being a huge embarrassment to the British government, Dr Jameson became something of a hero in the eyes of the public, with poems and popular songs being composed in his honor. He returned to South Africa in 1899, resumed his friendship with Cecil Rhodes, and became a member of the Cape Colony parliament. In 1904 he rose to be Prime Minister, an office which he retained until 1908. He spent his last years in England, where he died in 1917. His body was brought back to Africa in 1920 and buried alongside that of Cecil Rhodes in the Matopo Hills near Bulawayo.

The ramifications of the Jameson raid were both short and long term. The finger of blame was soon pointed at Cecil Rhodes, who was forced to step down as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, although this did not seem to alienate the two old friends. Speculation has continued ever since about the role of the British government, and whether approval for the raid had actually been given, only to be denied after the event by Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary, with Dr Jameson being left as the scapegoat. As Jameson himself made clear, had the raid succeeded he would hardly have been disowned in London.

However, the diverting of military resources to the south led to the forces in Matabeleland being severely weakened, which in turn led to the revolt of the Ndebele (joined later by the Shona) in what became known as the First Chimurenga, which lasted well into 1897 and cost hundreds of lives, both of settlers and Africans.

The raid was also a contributing factor to the Second Boer War that the British government had apparently been so anxious to avoid. Relations between British and Boers reached an all-time low, and the Boers began a program of re-armament that could be seen as early preparation for an inevitable war. Indeed, the Jameson Raid has sometimes been seen as the first act of the Second Boer War, despite the four-year truce that intervened.

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of the raid from the perspective of long-term international relations was the "Kruger Telegram" sent by the German Kaiser Wilhelm II to the Boer leader Paul Kruger, congratulating him on his victory over the raiders. The telegram was sent on 3rd January 1896, the day after the raiders were apprehended, and it read:

" I express to you my sincere congratulations that you and your people, without appealing to the help of friendly powers, have succeeded, by your own energetic action against the armed bands which invaded your country as disturbers of the peace, in restoring peace and in maintaining the independence of the country against attack from without".

The implication seemed to be that, if they had requested it, the Boers could have counted on German help in fighting off the British invaders. This went down very badly in Britain, with German people and premises being attacked.

Britain and Germany were already entangled in colonial rivalry in southern Africa, with Germany having established a colony in what is now Namibia, but with its main port, Walvis Bay, being in British hands. The Kruger Telegram was therefore another point in the ratchetting up of tensions, the next stage being the rapid development of naval resources on both sides. Eventually, the rivalry and tension would erupt into the First World War in 1914.

The Jameson Raid, originally just the unwise action of a rash gambler who had been promoted way beyond his capabilities, can therefore be seen as an important incident in 19th/20th century history.

More about this author: John Welford

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