The Jameson Raid was an attempt by Cecil Rhodes, governor of the Cape Colony and chairman of the British South Africa Company to organise a coup within the Boer dominated South African Republic and effectively annex that territory to the British Empire.

The Background

The Great Trek of 1835-1837 had established two Boer republics within the interior of southern Africa, namely the Zuid Afrika Republic i.e. the South African Republic or SAR more commonly known, to the British at least, as the Transvaal or Transvaal Republic and the Oranj Frei Staat or Orange Free State. The subsequent discovery of gold at the Witwatersrand transformed the economy of the Transvaal and sucked in tens of thousands of new immigrants, known as Uitlanders or Outlanders. These Uitlanders were denied political rights within the SAR, despite the fact that they soon outnumbered the original Boer settlers and became much aggrieved by the level of taxes and other impositions (the dynamite monopoly in particular) levied on the gold mining industry.

Much of the dissent in the SAR was whipped up by Cecil Rhodes and Alfred Beit primarily to serve their own commercial mining interests which they had combined as the De Beers Company. With their prompting a Reform Committee emerged at the gold mining centre of Johannesburg, with Cecil's brother, Francis Rhodes, was one of its leading members, and which soon became the focus for an uprising against the SAR government.

In order to facilitate the planned coup Rhodes sent some four hundred of the Matabeleland Mounted Police belonging to his Company to the town of Pitsani that lay within a strip of recently acquired territory within Betchaunaland, just a few miles from the border with the SAR. These men were under the military command of a Major Sir John Willoughby from the Horse Guards, while the other principal officers were Major Robert White (Welch Fusilliers), Colonel Raleigh Grey (Inniskillings), Colonel Henry White and Captain C. Coventry and were armed with usual rifles together with 6 Maxim machine guns, two 7-pounder guns, and one 12.5 pounder. In addition there was a further group of some one hundred and twenty volunteers who had gathered at Mafeking in the Cape Colony, with the whole expeditionary forced placed in the charge of a Scottish doctor by the name of Leander Starr Jameson.

The basic plan was that Johannesburg would rise in revolt, seize the Boer armoury at Pretoria whilst Jameson's men would make a three day dash across the border to 'restore order' and take control of the SAR. However difficulties began to arise within the Reform Committee. First of all the SAR President Paul Kruger wasn't entirely ignorant of Rhodes' intentions and began making efforts to placate some of the leading members. Secondly differences arose between the Johannesburg reformers regarding the form of government to be adopted after the coup. The British generally wanted the Transvaal to become a crown colony but many of the other nationalities (who were principally Germans and Americans) simply wanted the South African Republic reconstituted on new basis.

Once it became clear that no agreement could be reached and that a successful coup was unlikely the reformers contacted Jameson to inform him of this fact and asking him to stand down. However Jameson was tired of waiting and decided to go anyway, believing that his presence would act as a catalyst and force the reluctant Johannesburg reformers to act. Thus on the 28th December Jameson telegraphed Rhodes at Cape Town stating that "Unless I hear definitely to the contrary, shall leave to-morrow evening", and on the very next day sent a further message, "Shall leave to-night for the Transvaal". Fate however intervened to delay the transmission of the first telegram, so that both arrived at the same time on the morning of the 29th December. By then it was too late for Rhodes to do anything; Jameson's men had cut the telegraph wires and there was no way of recalling him.

The Raid

The Raid started badly as although Jameson's men cut the telegraph wires to Cape Town they failed to cut the wires to Pretoria. (They mistakenly cut a the wires of a fence instead.) Thus Jameson lost the element of surprise as news of his incursion across the border quickly reached the SAR capital. The Raiders therefore found themselves conducting a running fight with Boer commandos as they made their 170 mile dash to Johannesburg.

At Krugersdorp they found a small party of Boers blocking the road and after a brief exchange of fire Jameson decided to outflank the defenders and continue of his way to Johannesburg. On the 2nd January his expedition halted just south of Doornkop kopje within site of Johannesburg only to receive the news that the town had not risen. Jameson was soon surrounded and outnumbered by a Boer force under the command of Piet Cronje and after some hours of fighting Jameson hoisted the white flag and negotiated a surrender.

The Aftermath of the Raid

1. The fate of Jameson and his fellow raiders

Despite the fact that Jameson had surrendered on terms granted by Cronje, which included a guarantee of safe conduct, the SAR government indicated that it did not feel bound by such terms and that it was minded to execute the lot of them. This was however simply bluster and SAR soon agreed to send them back to Britain to face trial under the Foreign Enlistment Act.

On the 20th July 1896 Jameson and the other officers stood trail at the High Court in London before the Lord Chief-Justice, Baron Russell of Killowen, Baron Pollock, and Mr Justice Henry Hawkins. Jameson was sentenced to fifteen months imprisonment, John Willoughby to ten months, Reginald White to seven months, and the others to five months each, all without hard labour. But since Coventry had been badly wounded he was immediately released and Jameson himself was released in the following December for reasons of his health. He later returned to South Africa where he served as prime minister of the Cape from 1904 and 1908 and became a baronet before retiring to Britain in 1912.

2. Johannesburg and the Reform Committee

The SAR government also arrested all the members of the Reform Committee who had conspired with Jameson and put them on their trial charged with high treason. The four main reform leaders Francis Rhodes, Lionel Phillips, George Farrar, and John Hays Hammond were all sentenced to death whilst the remainder were fined £2,000 each, and sentenced to two years imprisonment, with a three year period of banishment to follow.

None of these fairly draconian punishments were ever put into effect. Once the dust had settled, the small fry were soon released once they'd paid their fines, whilst the four ringleaders also had their sentences commuted; firstly to fifteen years imprisonment and then, on the 10th June 1896, reduced to a fine of £25,000 and the requirement to give an undertaking not to interfere with the politics of the country for a period of fifteen years. Only Francis Rhodes refused to give the undertaking and so he was expelled from the country.

3. Cecil Rhodes, Joseph Chamberlain and the Lying in State

Rhodes was somewhat horrified to hear that Jameson had leapt over the border "Poor old Jameson! We have been friends for twenty years, and now he has ruined me!" The scandal over the failed coup forced his resignation as prime minister of the Cape and he returned to London in early 1896 to carry out a damage limitation exercise.

The British government was generally embarrassed about the whole affair and Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary openly disassociated the government from the Raid, although the opposition remained sceptical of such denials. Faced with a certain amount of public disquiet, on the 29th January 1897 the government appointed a Select Committee of the House of Commons to investigate the whole matter. The subsequent report, issued in July 1897, condemned both Rhodes and Beit its report, "acquitted both Mr Chamberlain and the colonial office of any privity in the Jameson Raid, but Mr Chamberlain's detractors continued to assert the contrary." As it happens "Mr Chamberlain's detractors" were quite right, 'Pushful Joe' had known of the raid from the beginning and had simply been waiting to opportunisticly take credit for its success and had even at one point sent a telegram to Rhodes asking him to "hurry things along".

When Chamberlain himself testified before the Committee that "I had not then and ... never had, any knowledge, or ... the slightest suspicion of anything in the nature of a hostile or armed invasion of the Transvaal", he was lying through his teeth. And the reason why he believed he could get away with such an outrageous lie was that he had already reached a deal with the main protagonists in the affair, namely Jameson, Rhodes and Beit, in which they agreed to keep quiet in return for more favourable treatment. There remained the problem what to about the evidence of negotiations between London, the Cape Colony and the British South Africa Company regarding the planning for the Raid, but this problem could easily be solved by finding suitable scapegoats.

Graham Bower, who was the Imperial Secretary for the Cape Colony and the primary contact with Rhodes, was persuaded to testify to the Select Committee that he had not informed his superiors. At the London end a civil servant named Edward Fairfield was chosen to perform a similar service. He declined to be co-operative in the matter but fortunately for Chamberlain he died from a stroke soon afterwards and could therefore be conveniently blamed without fear of contradiction.

By this means Joe saved his political career.

As it happens he was greatly assisted by the German Kaiser Wilhelm II who sent a congratulatory telegram to Kruger a few days after the Raid. The Kaiser's telegram raised the whole matter to the level of an international incident, and led to a wave of anti-German feeling within Britain. Jameson even became something of a popular hero and became the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling's famous poem If.

4. Paul Kruger and the South African Republic

To President Paul Kruger of the South African Republic the Raid turned out be something of a godsend. Faced with a dissident Progressive movement within his own party his grip on power had been faltering. The Jameson Raid now rallied Boer public opinion behind his administration and is also credited with creating the beginnings of genuine sense of Afrikaner nationalism.

Perhaps more crucially the Raid made Kruger aware of the deficiencies within his own Transvaal army. Essentially a citizen army of farmers who downed their agricultural tools and picked up their rifles on receiving the call, they had coped well with Jameson's irregulars but it might have been a different matter if it had actually been a professional army bent on an invasion. Kruger therefore made the decision to spend £1m on 37,000 of the latest German Mauser rifles as well as some decent artillery, sufficient to equip a field army of some 25,000 men.

This was perhaps the most lasting legacy of the Jameson Raid; the creation of a more professional and well armed army of the South African Republic. When war finally did break out between Great Britain and the Boer republics, the British found themselves faced with a far more formidable enemy than they expected.


SOURCES

  • Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War (weidenfield and Nicholson, 1997)
  • Howard Hensman, History of Rhodesia (William Blackwood and Sons, 1900) See http://home.wanadoo.nl/rhodesia/hencontents.htm
  • The Jameson Raid http://www.sahistory.org.za/pages/specialprojects/anglo-boer-wars/jameson-raid.htm
  • The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for TRANSVAAL
  • Modern History Sourcebook: Rudyard Kipling: If http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/kipling-if.html

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