Cecil John Rhodes and A Shot of Jameson

“I admire him, I frankly confess it; and when his time comes I shall buy a piece of the rope for a keepsake” -Mark Twain.
Photo Credit: Edward Linley Sambourne

It’s really not surprising that so many historical flashpoints start with a rich man, a bad idea, and a bunch of mercenaries. In this case, the rich man in question was Cecil John Rhodes. There were other gold “bugs” that had grown fat and wealthy feeding on the gold mining industry, but none possessed the kind of gift for unethically grand vision that Rhodes possessed. A third son, Rhodes had stepped up when his elder brother had failed, seemingly to spite the illness that ravaged his physical condition. His early successes had come from the diamond mines in Kimberly, and with a partner founded a diamond empire that became known as the De Beers mining company in 1888.[1] Proving that not all bright ideas are good, Rhodes also helped begin the process of fixing price and quantity for the world’s diamonds. This is the root of the artificially high cost diamonds have enjoyed since the early 20th Century, and also the source for a hundred years of greed, violence, and even genocide for some sparkly rocks in the ground.

Nor was Rhodes content to remain just an incredibly successful and ruthless businessman. He had massive dreams for a British dominated world, on a scale that would might be described as almost comically supervillainish.[2] On the more realistic and helpful end of that spectrum was the creation of the prestigious Rhodes scholarship by his will. The scholarship sends bright young thinkers to Oxford every year, that they might refine their educations and make the world a better place. On the other end, and also laid out in his original 1877 will was the:

“the establishment, promotion and development of a Secret Society, the true aim and object whereof shall be for the extension of British rule throughout the world, the perfecting of a system of emigration from the United Kingdom, and of colonisation by British subjects of all lands where the means of livelihood are attainable by energy, labour and enterprise…the ultimate recovery of the United States of America as an integral part of the British Empire, the inauguration of a system of Colonial representation in the Imperial Parliament which may tend to weld together the disjointed members of the Empire and, finally, the foundation of so great a Power as to render wars impossible, and promote the best interests of humanity.”[3]

Rhodes' mercenary
Rhodes’ mercenary “police” at the 1893 Battle of Shangani. The second war was launched after one of the colonial patrols was ambushed and massacred. Note the annoyingly stoic expressions the British artist gives the police. Photo Credit: Richard Caton Woodville

It’s the kind of dream that would make Marvel’s Doctor Doom nervous, and it provides some context for the schemes Rhodes began to hatch in South Africa. Some of them were globalizing, like an 1892 plan for linking Cairo and Cape Town by rail and telegraph line. Others were political, and by 1895 Rhodes had successfully become Prime Minister of the newly self-governing Cape Province. And finally and most pertinently others were racially driven, and designed to keep the Boers as isolated as possible. In pursuit of all three goals Rhodes chartered a colonial enterprise in 1889, and with the assistance of an unscrupulous doctor named Leander Starr Jameson, effectively founded a new colony north of the Limpopo River. Though initially called Zambesia, after defeating the resident Ndebele and Shona peoples in several wars and a subsequently brutal administrative system was put in place, Rhodes decided to drop the pretense and formally renamed the territory Rhodesia after himself. Now master of territories both north and southwest of the Boer Republics, in 1895 Rhodes began to hatch a conspiracy to bring down Kruger’s Transvaal.

Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, replete with sinister monocle. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons.
Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, replete with sinister monocle. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons.

The plan was a straightforward one, now former Doctor Jameson was going to take of force of about 1,500 Rhodesian police and mercenaries and march south into Johannesburg.[4] Once there he would greet the already rebelling Uitlanders and provide the stiff backbone they needed to overthrow Paul Kruger and any other Boers who felt like giving them lip. Then the whole province could be handed over to the British government wrapped with a nice bow on it. Though the whole scheme was made to give the British plausible deniability, the current majority government was up to its eyeballs in planning what became known as the Jameson Raid. Rhodes had floated the idea months in advance to Colonies Minister Joseph Chamberlain, who took a keen interest. Chamberlain was a permanent star in the firmament of British politics, and had recently played a key role in forming the new government. He had his sights set higher, and unifying the Cape would hopefully be a nice feather in his cap if he aimed to be Prime Minister someday. In the months and years that followed, the Raid and Chamberlain’s level of foreknowledge of it would become rich territory for historical conspiracy theorists, before some unearthed telegrams from Chamberlain calling on Rhodes to “hurry up” shed light on how involved he had been in the coming boondoggle.

With political cover from the home islands, financial support from some of the Rand lords, his own newspapers busily trumpeting the cause of the Uitlanders, and a talented doctor turned mercenary in place to lead the coup, everything was theoretically in place. Which meant it was time for Murphy’s Law to explain the difference between theory and practice.

For a start, Jameson couldn’t scrape together 1,500 men, and had to settle for about 500 Rhodesian police on Rhodes’ bankroll. Additionally while the Uitlanders were frustrated, especially over recent protectionist tariffs on rail use in the Transvaal, but even the most hawkish of their numbers couldn’t decide what they wanted a post Kruger world to look like. Many of them had moved to Transvaal in the first place to get away from British influence, the last thing they wanted was for “Grandmama” Victoria to show up like some withered Mafiosi looking for her cut. The Uitlanders were even less certain about the megalomaniacal Rhodes, and they stayed firmly put. Normally this would be the point everyone would call the venture off, but Jameson wasn’t like most (sane) people. To the dismay of Rhodes, Chamberlain, and soon to be everyone else, Jameson decided to see just how deep of a hole he could dig for himself and went ahead with the raid.

Jameson following the raid, but before his depressing return to power as Cape Prime Minister in 1904-08. Photo Credit: Petit Parisien
Jameson following the raid, but before his depressing return to power as Cape Prime Minister in 1904-08. Photo Credit: Petit Parisien

With a few maxim guns, some artillery, a letter written in advance sanctioning the annexation of Transvaal by Rhodes, a pile of his own personal correspondence, and naturally a crate full of champagne and brandy, Jameson set off to conquer himself a territory. In a story of dubious origin, though Jameson cut the telegraph wires back to Rhodes, his men sliced through a cattle fence instead of the wire to Pretoria. Regardless of how they found out though, the local commandos had mobilized before Jameson was more than a day into hostile territory. Even ditching everything they could afford to leave behind (which inexplicably meant keeping the champagne crate and indictable letters), Jameson was still three agonizing days from Johannesburg. The Boers did their best to help his men understand just how long that could take, and his column was soon whittled down by snipers and ambushes. When he finally got within sight of the city, Jameson was forced to send a note to his supposed friends in the Uitlander community, asking for backup. Presumably stifling their laughter the commandos let the messenger pass through so Jameson could learn there was no help coming from anyone. With an unhealthy chunk of his men already dead or wounded, no backup, and nowhere else to go but a shallow grave, Jameson gave up.

[1] De Beers in this case was the name of two Afrikaner brothers, whose farm had been the site of one of the company’s first truly lucrative diamond mines.

[2] Actual quote from Rhodes: “To think of these stars that you see overhead at night, these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annex the planets if I could; I often think of that. It makes me sad to see them so clear and yet so far.”

[3] Flint, J. (1974). “Cecil Rhodes”. Little Brown& Company, London. As a sidebar, this perspective was a kind of nucleus for the later Round Table movement, founded in part by Alfred Milner (we’ll get to him later), which is still a favorite among conspiracy theorists today

[4] Johannesburg had gone from nowhere to a city with incredible speed, thanks to the Rand rush. By 1894 the city had over 100,000 people, and in just ten years had become the largest in South Africa.


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