Masked Raiders: Irish Banditry in Southern Africa (1880-99

Masked Raiders: Irish Banditry in Southern Africa (1880-99)
Charles van Onselen
Zebra Press, 312pp, £14.99

In the later years of the 19th century, South Africa was a prime focus for British imperial action, and exercised an irresistible fascination over the British public. A succession of wars was fought there, culminating in the Boer war of 1899-1902. Before that, the discovery of diamonds at Kimberley and then gold on the Witwatersrand had transformed the economy of South Africa, not to say of the capitalist world, and introduced whole new classes of men to the Cape and its hinterland.

These ranged from the "Randlords", the immensely rich mining magnates who acquired English honours, country estates and half the houses in Park Lane, to the bandits who roamed the Transvaal, robbing banks and stealing gold bullion. A number of these were Irish, some by way of Manchester, some of them deserters from the British army, and they are the subject of Masked Raiders, the fascinating latest book by Charles van Onselen.

Now a research professor, based at the University of Pretoria after a long academic career inside and outside South Africa, van Onselen is one of a notable group of historians who latterly have used materialist methodology to examine South Africa's social and economic history. Under the old regime, to call yourself a materialist, with its overtones of M*rx*sm, was (as a Dubliner might say) neither popular nor profitable.

Whatever the methodology or ideology, the results, in van Onselen's case, have been highly entertaining, from his essay on "Randlords and Rotgut" to The Fox and the Flies (2007), his hair-raising book about the career of the gangster Joseph Silver. Leaving conventional political and imperial history to others, he guides us through neglected highways and byways, not to mention introducing us to the highwaymen. His latest heroes, in the dramatic sense at any rate, are men such as Jack and Hugh McKeone, born in South Africa of an Irish father, who became celebrated bandits.

At the time, South Africa was barely even a geographical expression, a patchwork of Boer republics, British colonies and black African kingdoms. It was in one of those latter - Basutoland, now Lesotho - that the McKeones cut their teeth and "were perfectly fashioned for a life of brigandage". This career began in the Transvaal in the late 1880s, just as Paul Kruger's South African Republic was suddenly and alluringly awash with money from the largest goldfield in the world.

Although the Boers had already given the British army a nasty shock in the war of 1880-81, the Transvaal barely existed as a state, with the most rudimentary apparatus of law and order. After Jack McKeone's first bank robbery in Krugersdorp in August 1889, there was a farcical sequence of arrest (by chance as much as design), imprisonment and escape, which would be repeated regularly. In response, the mining companies and banks introduced safes, but these could be blasted open or removed in one piece, and conflict grew more violent.

Few of these desperadoes would be remembered except for their criminal exploits, but other Irishmen who made their way to South Africa found much greater fame. Arthur Griffith and John MacBride worked in the Transvaal, MacBride on a gold mine, Griffith in news­papers, while they engaged in Irish republican agitation. MacBride subsequently served in the Irish force that fought with the Boers, married Maud Gonne (to Yeats's distress), took part in the 1916 Easter Rising and was executed; Griffith also returned to Dublin and founded two celebrated journals, the United Irishman and Sinn Fein (a paper before it was a party), and finally became the president of the second Dail, or Irish parliament.

Plainly indebted to the work of Eric Hobsbawm, who has pioneered the social study of banditry, van Onselen has written a vividly realistic book. And yet, like others in the field, he is vulnerable to two kinds of sentimental temptation: sentimentality about the criminal classes and sentimentality about Ireland. He writes of "the smouldering discontent about the injustices of the world that is the hallmark of the social bandit everywhere" and treats his bandits as "working-class heroes", which they may have been in part - but then Al Capone and the Kray brothers were working-class, and heroes to some. Indeed, van Onselen recognises that some of these rascals "were neither 'heroic criminals' nor 'social bandits'. They were armed, deeply disturbed young men."

He also mentions Griffith's notorious anti-Semitism, which was characteristic of Irish republicanism, as of all integral-nationalist or proto-fascist movements. And yet he appears to accept that Irish nationalism was an early anti-colonial struggle, when maybe the truth is that, as Stephen Howe observes in his admirable Ireland and Empire (which I reviewed in these pages in May 2000), if "Ireland's story was indeed a colonial one, it was as part of a picture in which, literally, all European history is colonial history".

The conclusion to Masked Raiders is titled "Anti-Imperialist Struggles in Retrospect", which begs a question or two. The Boers' resistance to British power, which was almost universally admired outside England, was obviously anti-imperial in one sense. However, the Boers or Afrikaners were fighting both to defy the British empire and to keep the black Africans under their heel. No wonder their cause attracted Griffith, a man who abhorred the idea that any patriotic Irishman should "hold the negro his peer".

These, however, might be quibbles. Here is a book that any old-fashioned imperialist should recognise as being, at the very least, a rattling good yarn.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's books include "The Randlords: the Exploits and Exploitations of South Africa's Mining Magnates" (Atheneum, $17.95) and "The Strange Death of Tory England" (Penguin, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency