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Masked Raiders by Charles van Onselen Launched at the Book Lounge – With the Irish, Without the Bandits

Charles van Onselen

It was a week for Cape Town’s history buffs and those who came, the Irish South African Association amongst them, to the launch of Masked Raiders: Irish Banditry in Southern Africa, 1880–1899 by Charles van Onselen, did not go home disappointed.

Random House Struik’s Stephen Johnson introduced the author and his interlocuter, Nigel Penn, the Book Lounges‘ “resident historian”, prize-winning author and associate professor of Historical Studies at UCT. He said, “I’m hoping that Masked Raiders will be The Hobbit to a Lord of the Rings” – a further series of books on South Africa’s fascinating past.

Penn introduced Van Onselen as one of his heroes and one of the foremost social historians of the South African past, whose work had been most influential in the formation of his own (not-so-modest) career.

He said, “It was Charles who first showed me that historians of southern Africa could legitimately concern themselves with the illegitimate, with the lives of criminals, with marginal and disreputable characters and with the seedy side of life. It was Charles also who showed that historians could combine sophisticated political analysis, even historical materialism, with a racy narrative, with a fascination for incredible stories, that they could unashamedly enjoy themselves while writing and engage with a personal, idiosyncratic style.”

Nigel Penn Charles van OnselenPenn continued, “Parts of this book read like a complicated detective novel, or a spy thriller, or even the pages from the Weekly Mail of the day, involved with police corruption and state machinations in the high business councils of the land.”

Masked Raiders describes the activities of a group of Irish criminals who were active during 1880s and 1890s in the frontier mining towns of the Rand, places characterised by lawlessness and by economic hardship. “Van Onselen argues that much of the criminal activity of the Irish gangs was a form of political action, a type of social banditry, a familiar reaction of downtrodden men, often deserted soldiers, throughout the world when faced with the harshness of rapid industrialisation and political oppression.

“Irish immigrants to SA – of whom there were many – brought with them the experience of political and criminal organisation from Ireland, from industrial England and even from faraway Australia where many had lived as bush rangers in the frontier town of the Outback.

“Highway robbery, murder, safe-cracking and armed thuggery of the Irish bandits, may actually have inspired the men – who were not all that dissimilar from them – who organised the Jameson Raid. These greedy capitalists saw how successful the methods of crude, primitive accumulation employed by the Irish and sought to use similar methods themselves to seize control of the Kruger State. They failed. In the aftermath of their failure, the Kruger State, with Smuts as its efficient attorney-general, tried to crack down on crime, especially illegal gold dealing.”

Penn said that Van Onselen follows an incredible trail of clues and shows successfully that some of those most actively engaged in this world of illegal gold dealing, were members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Many of these men arrived mysteriously in SA in the 1890s, two of whom went on to achieve fame in the Irish rebellion of 1916 – John McBride and Arthur Griffith, the first president of the Irish Free State, seem to have been dealing in illicit gold.

“Much of this has been forgotten or swept under the carpet due to Anglo Boer War, which swept away the Kruger Republic and the criminal underworld that was a thorn in Kruger’s side,” the historians agreed.

Masked RaidersStephen Johnson, Nigel Penn & Charles van Onselen One of the themes of this book is that there is a much closer connection than we think between criminal action and political activity. The actions and attitudes of criminal gangs in the 1890s had a much greater influence on shaping political developments in the British Empire at the turn of the 19th century than previously had been thought.

A vibrant discussion, punctuated with Van Onselen’s inimitable wit and irony, highlighted how the more things change, the more they stay the same – and was followed by a series of questions from a fascinated audience.

Another not-to-be-missed foray into South Africa’s past from Charles van Onselen.

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