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Changing History: Jan-Jan Joubert talks to Charles van Onselen about his latest book The Cowboy Capitalist

When Charles van Onselen finds new information about history, he doesn’t allow conventional wisdom to get in his way, writes Jan-Jan Joubert for the Sunday Times

The Cowboy CapitalistThe Cowboy Capitalist
Charles van Onselen, Jonathan Ball Publishers

The Jameson Raid took place in 1896, a British imperialist adventure in which Cecil John Rhodes, Leander Starr Jameson and Joseph Chamberlain failed to overthrow the government of Paul Kruger. They were after gold, right? Not so fast, says South Africa’s most adventurous historian, Charles van Onselen, in his new book, The Cowboy Capitalist. It’s a galloping read which adds further dimensions to the story and turns our understanding of the Jameson Raid on its head.

The book came about by chance when Van Onselen stumbled upon information on the American link to the raid. Through rigorous research, Van Onselen unearthed the role of the American imperialist capitalist John Hays Hammond in the raid, a point proved by Hammond’s being one of the main accused after the raid – which has often been overlooked.

He also focuses on a Boer fifth column centred on Kruger’s political opponent General Piet Joubert, lawyer Ewald Esselen and the poet-journalist Eugene Marais, and their ambivalent role during the raid.

Van Onselen has written about anti-heroes and downright scoundrels on the cusp of the previous century. Why that time frame, and why choose such miscreants as his focus?

“History is about change, and change was on steroids in the Industrial Revolution,” comments the historian, lounging on a sofa in Cape Town’s Mount Nelson Hotel.

“Everything was sped up; structures, processes and people played themselves out. And I’ve always been interested in the overlaps of crime as politics and politics as crime,” he says.

“If a society’s moral and ethical foundations, and its institutions, are weak the powerful will enrich themselves at the expense of the weak.

“As for the main characters, with the exception of Joseph Silver in The Fox and the Flies, who is psychotic, they have virtuous aspects and human weaknesses, but are socially undesirable.

“The figures I focus on are often eccentric and strange, but thematically they illustrate how politics and crime become interlinked. Their behaviour is outside of the norm, and therefore acts as litmus to the norm – which exposes the true norms of their societies. Where they connect, truth emerges. Does man shape society, or does society shape man? Where people are off-centre, like many of the people about whom I write, it tells you much about their society.

“Imagine, for instance, if a thief, a liar and a cheat runs a country, what does it tell you about the country?” he says, and for a moment the divide between past and present becomes unclear.

Van Onselen’s books straddle continents rather than being contained to countries. “The figures I prefer to write about function on a global scale; I don’t regard myself as being confined to writing South African history.

“I am allergic to nationalism. If you confine yourself to the history of the nation state, it becomes a nationalist narrative. The world is much more interesting than that. The world of knowledge has no passports or borders.”

Regarding the Jameson Raid, Van Onselen believes in following the money, and the American expansionist Hammond made a lot of it – he was the highest paid mining engineer in the world at the time.

Racial policy and social justice aside, Van Onselen believes Paul Kruger was an excellent president. “Kruger was the best president this country has ever known. He had to steer an agrarian society into a capitalist, industrialising one within a matter of 10 years and had to deal with the full-scale coup d’etat which the Jameson Raid was. No other president had to adapt so completely,” he argues.

And that is the story he tells in The Cowboy Capitalist – how the Jameson Raid had its roots in the American West and the Confederacy; how Jameson’s personality played a part, and how Rhodes became something of an unwilling accomplice.

In so doing, he asks new questions, sets new paradigms, uncovers new facts and proposes new visions of the past – the very reason no one who loves history and wants to understand this beloved country can afford not to read The Cowboy Capitalist.

It is the way history is supposed to be written.

Book details

Also available as an eBook.


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