Review: Archie Henderson
Lawyers in Turmoil: The Johannesburg Conspiracy of 1895, by Owen Rogers (Stormberg)
The Jameson Raid of late 1895 was one of those seminal events that dramatically changes history. Even if not on the same global scale, think Pearl Harbour in 1942 or the Sarajevo assassination of 1914. The former brought the United States into World War 2, thus saving the democracies, and the latter brought most of Europe and all of the British Empire into World War 1.
The Jameson Raid was an early declaration of intention to wage war in South Africa in the late 19th century. It led to the Boer War – virtually South Africa’s white civil war – and set our history on a course from which it has still not quite escaped.
The raid, in its starkest terms, was the attempt by a multinational conglomerate (in this case Cecil John Rhodes’s mining interests) to usurp the sovereignty of an independent country. It was as if Exxon tried to take over Mozambique through naked military power to get at that country’s shale-gas riches (now threatened by a more shadowy force).
The raid is no longer taught in schools, which is a pity because it shaped our later history: war, peace, constitutionally entrenched white domination and eventual democratic freedom, but still with all the hang-ups of the past.
Owen Rogers, a judge in the Western Cape High Court, has long been fascinated by the raid but from a different perspective of previous books on the topic, of which there have been many. Not unexpectedly for a legal man, he looks at it from the roles that lawyers played in the raid: the conspirators, the judges in the later trial of the raiders, the prosecution and the defence.
Just don’t get the impression that this is a dry, legalistic work; far from it. The book has its legal elements, none of them dry, and is filled with delicious gossip about the legal fraternity at the time. It holds great entertainment value even if you are meeting many of the characters for the first time. From dreary facts on historical documents, he brings them vividly alive.
The scene of the raid, and the subsequent trial of the mercenaries involved and their alleged collaborators, is the Johannesburg-Pretoria axis. Just 10 years after the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand, the dusty settlement of Ferreira’s Camp had been transformed into the bustling gold rush city of Johannesburg. Up the road, lay Pretoria, a dull twin and the seat of what was a poverty-stricken Boer republic now suddenly transformed into an affluent capital, thanks to the taxes from the gold mines.
Gold had lured thousands of adventurers to Joburg: miners, entrepreneurs, chancers, crooks and lawyers, many of them – though not all – from Britain. The clash of cultures between the allegedly devout puritanical Boers and the aggressive, often jingoistic, Uitlanders was inevitable. Britain clearly wanted the riches of the Transvaal, or the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek, of Paul Kruger, but was never willing to admit to its desire openly.
Kruger, a wily old Boer if ever there was one, could see through Britain’s legerdemaining bullshit. War was inevitable. Britain would have needed a legitimate excuse to take over the ZAR but Rhodes was in a hurry and pushed the issue. The raid was the result.
By 1895 the collection of people in Johannesburg was a fascinating mix. James Leonard, who would play a leading role in the drama of the raid and its repercussions, believed that “the Rand contained more brains to the square inch than any other place on earth”.
It is this element that Rogers seizes to tell his story. “A glittering array of legal talent, including three future chief justices of the Union, was on display in Pretoria’s Market Hall for the trial of the Johannesburg conspirators in April 1896,” he writes. What a gift for an author.
Rogers proceeds to tell the stories of that glittering array. It’s a wonderful tale of human frailties and human virtue. And with a cast that few authors of fiction could have dreamt up.