The SA gold rush

2010-07-07 00:00


Masked Raiders: Irish Banditry in Southern Africa 1880-1899

Charles van Onselen

Zebra Press

THERE’S nothing like a good gold rush to bring the baddies out of the woodwork. In Masked Raiders Charles van Onselen, one of South Africa’s most accomplished historians, turns his gimlet eye onto the specific baddies of Irish descent who plied their trade as highwaymen, safe-crackers and bank robbers in the gold fields in the years leading up to the Anglo-Boer War.

Fort Napier in Pietermaritzburg was “an informal College of Banditry for delinquent Irish”, men whose background was that of people ­displaced and disadvantaged by the Industrial Revolution in Britain and who deserted from the army once it had given them useful survival skills. They had no love for the colonial power, and a visceral dislike of ­authority. And so they headed off to the Witwatersrand and created a couple of decades of mayhem.

It is the story all over again of America’s Wild West and Australia’s Kelly Gang, but not nearly so well known. South Africa produced the McKeone brothers, the genuinely one-armed bandit John McLoughlin and others, and scored a fascinatingly mysterious visit from Arthur ­Griffith and John McBride, one who would later become the first president of the Irish Free State and one who would fight for the Boers in the war, marry Maud Gonne (and distress W. B. Yeats in the process) and die by firing squad in Kilmainham jail after the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland. Were they involved in the loss of the Dorothea, a ship with an uninsured cargo that has always been rumoured to be illegal gold, off Cape Vidal in 1898? It is tempting to think they were.

Van Onselen details the prison ­escapes, disguises, shootouts, chases across the veld, court appearances that were pure theatre, corrupt cops, links between crime and ­politics, a feral gang culture, the cash-in-transit robberies of a pre-motorised age and other events whose parallels are not only to the Wild West.

It is all there, but the author is more interested in the social history that brought it about and its results than merely in gung-ho tales of ­outlaws. He has produced what is a serious academic study, but the ­subject matter is so lively that the reader rollicks along.

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