Jameson took to the task of organising a coup with schoolboy enthusiasm. Though a rank amateur in military matters, he was supremely confident of his own abilities. In a conversation with Hans Sauer in Bulawayo in October 1895, he expressed contempt for the fighting spirit of the Boer population. ‘I could drive them out of the Transvaal with five hundred men armed with sjamboks [rawhide whips],’ he boasted. A short, balding figure, insignificant in appearance, Jameson hardly looked the part of a revolutionary leader. He walked with a slight stoop, rode slackly and tended to lounge about with his hands in his pockets. But his energy and love of adventure carried him headlong into the fray.

The plan, on paper, was relatively straightforward. Jameson intended to raise a force of 1,500 men and equip it with Maxim guns, field artillery and spare rifles, ready to invade the Transvaal from base camps in Bechuanaland on a date pre-arranged with conspirators in Johannesburg. The Johannesburg conspirators - Reformers, as they called themselves - would meanwhile recruit an army of 7,500 volunteers and prepare for an insurrection. The volunteers would be armed with rifles and Maxim guns purchased in Britain by Harris ‘for Rhodesia’, shipped to the Cape, transferred to De Beers premises in Kimberley and then smuggled into Johannesburg in oil drums and stored on mining company premises there. With 9,000 men under their command, the conspirators expected to overwhelm any Boer resistance with ease. Once in control of Johannesburg, they would declare a provisional government and despatch a force to seize the government’s arsenal in Pretoria. The British high commissioner would then intervene. A new era would begin.

To disguise their intentions, the conspirators devised a series of codewords for use in telegraphic communications. Their insurrection was referred to as ‘the races’ or ‘the polo tournament’ or ‘the flotation’; Jameson was ‘the veterinary surgeon’ or ‘the contractor’; the conspirators were ‘the subscribers’; the British high commissioner was ‘the chairman’; Jameson’s commissariat, set up to procure horses, mules, wagons and large quantities of food and forage, was ‘the Rand Produce and Trading Syndicate’.

As the central figure in the drama, Jameson was constantly on the move. On 1 November, he inspected and approved a site for the main base camp at Pitsani. Police volunteers arrived from Matabeleland and Mashonaland. With Chamberlain’s approval, members of the Bechuanaland Border Police were allowed to transfer to the BSA Company police. In Cape Town, Jameson recruited about 100 men from the Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Volunteer Rifles, a Cape Town regiment.

On 19 November he arrived in Johannesburg for a meeting with the principal Johannesburg conspirators: Charles Leonard, Lionel Phillips, John Hays Hammond and Frank Rhodes. They set a provisional date for the insurrection: 28 December, shortly after Johannesburg’s annual Christmas horse races; and agreed that Jameson’s force would cross the border two days in advance. With no military experience and no knowledge of the terrain, Jameson assumed that two days would be sufficient for his heavily armed force, dragging cannon and machine guns, to cover the 170 miles from Pitsani.

Jameson also induced the conspirators to sign a letter inviting him to come to the aid of the people of Johannesburg. Jameson said he needed the letter to avoid entering the Transvaal ‘like a brigand’ and to enable him to justify his actions with the BSA Company if the need arose. The letter predicted an imminent conflict:

The position of matters in this State has become so critical that we are assured that at no distant period there will be conflict between the Government and the Uitlanders . . .

Thousands of unarmed men, women and children of our race will be at the mercy of well-armed Boers, while property of enormous value will be in great peril . . .

It is under these circumstances that we call upon you to come to our aid, should a disturbance arise here . . .

The circumstances are so extreme that we cannot but believe that you and the men under you will not fail to come to the rescue of people who will be so situated . . .

The letter was drafted by Charles Leonard and signed by all four conspirators; a fifth conspirator, George Farrar, a mining entrepreneur, added his signature subsequently. The letter was left undated; it was agreed that a suitable date should be filled in later. Worried that the letter might fall into the wrong hands, the conspirators stressed to Jameson that the letter was intended only for his personal use and that it was not to be acted upon without their specific approval. The following day, sensing a potential disaster, Leonard tried to get Jameson to give the letter back. ‘Awfully sorry, old man,’ replied Jameson, ‘but it has gone down to Cape Town by the last train.’

Later that day, opening the new Chamber of Mines building, Lionel Phillips publicly declared the mining companies’ support for the reform movement:

All we want in this country is purity of administration and an equitable share and voice in its affairs. I hope that wiser counsels may prevail and that the Government of this country may be induced to see that the present policy will not do. Nothing is further from my heart than a desire to see an upheaval which would be disastrous from every point of view and which would probably end in the most humble of endings - in bloodshed.

But I should say this, that it is a mistake to imagine that this much maligned community, which consists of a majority of men born of free men, will consent indefinitely to remain subordinate to the minority in this country . . .

Yet there was a noticeably amateurish character about the whole operation. When Jameson turned up for a rendezvous at Frank Rhodes’ house to discuss conspiracy business, he discovered that his host, a renowned ladies’ man, had preferred a different assignment. ‘Dear Jimjams,’ wrote Colonel Rhodes in a note, ‘sorry I can’t see you this afternoon, have an appointment to teach Mrs X the bike.’ The Times correspondent, Younghusband, later remarked: ‘The great mistake made was trying to run races with cart-horses.’

Jameson’s confidence, however, remained unshaken. When Fred Hamilton, the editor of The Star, lunched with Jameson and Colonel Rhodes in Johannesburg in November, he expressed the view that they would face tough opposition. ‘I shall get through as easily as a knife cuts butter,’ retorted Jameson. ‘You do not know the Maxim gun. I have seen it work. I shall draw a zone of lead a mile each side of my column and no Boer will be able to live in it.’

From Johannesburg, Jameson travelled to Cape Town to discuss final arrangements with Rhodes. Other conspirators joined them on 24 November for a summit meeting at Groote Schuur: Leonard, Phillips, Hammond and Frank Rhodes. Jameson ensured that Robinson was kept informed: ‘The night before I left for Mafeking,’ Jameson subsequently confided to a friend, ‘I went to see him. I was his doctor, and therefore private interviews were very easy to arrange on the score of his health. On that last occasion we went over the ground of our joint action again.’

But in the first week of December, the ardour of the Reformers cooled rapidly. Talk of an uprising had been easy. Some Reformers had hoped that mere talk would induce Kruger to implement the reforms they wanted. But preparing for an uprising brought home the magnitude of what they had set in motion. There was no sign of any popular support for such an action. Observing the notable lack of enthusiasm, Colonel Rhodes cabled Jameson on 7 December to tell him that ‘The polo tournament here is postponed for one week, as it would clash with race week’. In exasperation, Jameson replied: ‘Surely in your estimation do you consider races is of the utmost importance compared to immense risks of discovery daily expected . . .? Let J. H. Hammond inform weak partners. More delay, more danger.’ But in Cape Town, Rhodes had no alternative but to agree to postpone the revolution until after New Year’s Day.

No sooner had Rhodes dealt with that issue than further complications arose. In London, Flora Shaw discovered that Kruger’s state secretary, Willem Leyds, had arrived in London en route to Paris, the Hague and Berlin and suspected that he intended to stir up a ‘stop Rhodes’ campaign in the chancelleries of Europe. In a cable to Rhodes on 12 December, Moberley Bell, the Times manager, urged swift action. ‘Delay dangerous sympathy now complete but will depend very much upon action before the European powers given time to enter protest which as European situation considered serious might paralyse Government.’ Five days later, after Shaw had interviewed Leyds, Bell reinforced the warning. Chamberlain, he said in a cable on 17 December, would be prepared to shrug off European protests provided swift action was taken. ‘Chamberlain sound in case of interference European powers but have special reason to believe wishes you must do it immediately.’

At this crucial juncture, another issue erupted. On 17 December, President Cleveland of the United States threatened Britain with war over a long-standing boundary dispute between Venezuela and British Guiana. Chamberlain took the view that if there was to be an uprising in Johannesburg, it needed to occur as soon as possible, before European opposition became too strong and before Britain was more deeply involved in an American imbroglio over Venezuela. ‘The longer it is delayed the more chance there is of foreign intervention,’ he told Sir Robert Meade, the permanent secretary at the Colonial Office. ‘It seems to me that either it should come at once or be postponed for a year or two at least. Can we ensure this?’ Chamberlain asked Edward Fairfield, the Colonial Office expert on southern Africa, to contact Rhodes’ associate in London, Rochfort Maguire, ‘to make the situation clear’. Fairfield asked Maguire whether it was possible to defer the uprising for a year, but Maguire, wanting to see action, replied that it was now too late. Fairfield therefore, passing on Chamberlain’s views, told him that ‘the sooner it came off the better’. As a result of this meeting, Maguire and Lord Grey cabled Rhodes on 20 December urging him to ‘hurry up’ on account of the approaching trouble with Venezuela. On the basis of this telegram Beit cabled Phillips in Johannesburg: ‘Our foreign supporters urge immediate flotation.’

But many of the Reformers had become disenchanted with the whole project. There was growing distrust of Rhodes’ intentions. The dispute over whether the revolution was to be carried out under a British flag or under the Vierkleur, which Rhodes had endeavoured to settle in November, broke out anew. Leonard and Phillips together with Hammond and other Americans wanted a reformed republic; Hammond went so far as to warn that he would shoot anyone who raised any flag other than the Vierkleur. ‘We won’t stand for having a British flag hoisted over Johannesburg,’ Hammond told a meeting of American miners. ‘All we want is justice from Kruger and his grafters. You can rely on me that I’ll shoot any man who hoists any flag but the Boer flag.’

To clarify the issue, the Reformers asked the Times correspondent, Francis Younghusband, to travel to Cape Town to see Rhodes. Younghusband arrived at Groote Schuur on Sunday, 22 December, as Rhodes was entertaining a host of guests on the back veranda. As they strolled among the blooming hydrangeas, Younghusband told Rhodes that there was no enthusiasm for an uprising in Johannesburg and strong opposition to the Union flag; and he advised him to postpone the whole idea. Rhodes was furious:

RHODES: Is there no one in Johannesburg who will risk being shot and will lead the malcontents?

YOUNGHUSBAND: There is no one willing to do this.

RHODES: Then won’t you do it? Do you mind being shot?

YOUNGHUSBAND: I have no interest in the proposed revolution and would not dream of leading it.

After much heated discussion, Rhodes decided: ‘If they won’t go . . . they won’t. I shall wire Jameson to keep quiet.’

Rhodes received similar advice from another visitor to Groote Schuur that day, Sir Graham Bower, the imperial secretary. Bower had become increasingly convinced that the revolution was petering out and was doomed to fail, with potentially disastrous consequences. His efforts to get Rhodes to abandon the project had hitherto met only with growing irritation, but he decided that one more attempt was worth the while. Rhodes agreed that the Reformers were growing cold and spoke of them contemptuously: ‘You know the sort they are, there is no fight in them,’ he said. Why then, asked Bower, put so much at risk? According to Bower, Rhodes replied:

The Johannesburg people are bound to get their rights. With Joubert and Kotzé [Transvaal moderates] they will be overwhelmingly strong. The result will be a cosmopolitan republic more dangerous to England than Kruger. I prefer Kruger to a Johannesburg financier or speculator. Either may call Germany and Germany will come fast enough . . .

If the Johannesburgers succeed without me, it is all up with a South African union. Now I fear those fellows may have a revolution and a successful revolution in spite of me. They will gravitate to Europe and away from South Africa. We shall have J. B. Robinson or Barney Barnato or Ed. Lippert or Albu, or someone else blackmailing us all, or putting us up for auction in Europe. If I assume control, I can steer them into a South African union . . . They can keep their flag, if I get the thing.

Their encounter became increasingly acrimonious. Rhodes accused Bower of being disloyal to Chamberlain who wanted him to ‘hurry up’:

I resented this [wrote Bower] and said: ‘What I allege is that you are mad to risk yourself in a matter which will ruin you and the country if you don’t look out. If the Dutch find you hurrying up the reformers what will they think of you?’ He again accused me of disloyalty to Chamberlain. I gave him my opinion, and when I left he asked me not to speak to him again. I left saying I had certainly no desire to speak to him again, or to associate with a madman.

Instead of postponing the plot, Rhodes decided to heed Chamberlain’s call for haste. On Monday, 23 December, he cabled to Jameson stating that the rising would take place on the date originally fixed - 28 December. ‘Company will be floated next Saturday.’ Nothing henceforth - neither cables nor messengers - was to deflect Jameson from launching his escapade.

In Johannesburg, however, the Reformers had now lost all confidence in the plot. As rumours of rebellion spread, several members of the stock exchange, led by George Albu, called a meeting where they denounced the plan as ‘foolish’, accused uitlander leaders of ‘arrogance’ and pledged their support for Kruger’s government. The Mercantile Association, a business organisation, declared it would take no part in the revolt.

Early on Christmas Day, George Farrar went round to Leonard’s house to voice his concerns: ‘I hear if Jameson comes in he is going to hoist the Union Jack. I have induced every man who has joined me and who is helping me in this business to go in on the basis that we want a reformed republic.’ And he warned Leonard: ‘This is Boer country; it would be absolutely morally wrong to do anything else and I will not go a yard further in this business unless that basis is maintained. ’ Leonard heard much the same view that day from an American, Captain Thomas Mein at the Rand Club. ‘If this is a case of England gobbling this country up,’ said Mein, ‘I am not in it.’

Later on Christmas Day, the Reformers decided to postpone action, saying they needed further confirmation from Rhodes that no British flag would be raised. Charles Leonard was sent to Groote Schuur to insist on the matter. Frank Rhodes cabled his brother telling him that Leonard was on his way to Cape Town for further discussions and that the rising had to be postponed until matters were resolved. Jameson’s brother Sam was given the task of telling Jameson in Pitsani. ‘Absolutely necessary to postpone flotation,’ he cabled from Johannesburg. ‘You must not move until you have received instruction to.’ Harris in Cape Town reinforced the message in his own cable: ‘So you must not move until you hear from us again. Too awful! Very sorry.’

The vacillation of the Johannesburg conspirators enraged Jameson. There was no need for delay, he replied on 27 December. The pledge on the flag they wanted from Rhodes had already been given. Squads had already been sent out for ‘distant wire cutting’ of telephone lines, ‘therefore let J. H. Hammond telegraph instantly all right’. Jameson also sent messages to Harris in Cape Town complaining of the cowardice of the Johannesburg conspirators and insisting that he keep to the original timetable. ‘. . . expect to receive a telegram from you nine tomorrow morning Saturday 28th authorizing movement . . . we must carry into effect original plans.’ And he threatened to use the ‘women and children’ letter he had obtained from the Reformers. ‘They [the Reformers] will then have two days for flotation. If they do not, we will make our own flotation with help of letter which I will publish.’

Back came further demands for Jameson to stay his hand. ‘Expert reports decidedly adverse,’ Hammond retorted. ‘I absolutely condemn further developments at present.’ Jameson was told that two special envoys from Johannesburg were on their way to explain the position. Phillips told Beit in Cape Town that if an immediate rising was insisted upon it would end in ‘complete failure’. But Rhodes himself made no effort to send Jameson his own instruction.

As dawn broke on Saturday, 28 December, Charles Leonard reached Cape Town, accompanied by Fred Hamilton, editor of the Johannesburg Star. They quickly made their way to Groote Schuur to explain to Rhodes that Johannesburg was not ready; there were too few supporters and not enough weapons; six months’ more time was needed. Rhodes appeared agreeable. He would telegraph at once, he said, halting Jameson. According to Leonard, Rhodes said: ‘I will keep Jameson six months or nine months or longer on the border as a moral support to you. We will get these arms in to put you on a more level basis with the Boers.’ He told them to ‘await development of events’.

Later in the day, Rhodes asked Bower to meet him at Groote Schuur. Bower found him on the old tennis court. ‘You will be glad to hear,’ said Rhodes, ‘that the revolution has fizzled out like a damp squib. You can tell the Governor. He will be glad to hear it.’

Acting on behalf of Rhodes, Harris sent Jameson several cables on 28 December. ‘It is all right if you will only wait.’ All foreign friends were ‘dead against’ a flotation. ‘We cannot have fiasco.’ ‘Public will not subscribe one penny towards it even with you as director.’ But still there was no direct message from Rhodes himself. Jameson’s reply to Harris was adamant. ‘Unless I hear definitely to the contrary shall leave tomorrow evening.’ The telegram was sent to the offices of the Chartered Company, but by the time it reached Cape Town, the building had closed and it remained undelivered in the Cape Town telegraph office overnight.

On Sunday morning, 29 December 1895, Jameson sent a second telegram to Cape Town. ‘Shall leave tonight for the Transvaal.’ Both telegrams were picked up by Harris’ confidential secretary at 11 a.m. and taken to Groote Schuur. Rhodes deliberated for several hours before deciding to reply. He subsequently claimed to have told Jameson: ‘On no account must you move, I most strongly object to such a course.’ But his telegram was never sent because by then the lines had closed.

After spending a comfortable Christmas Day at Highbury, on the outskirts of Birmingham, Chamberlain thought it advisable to inform the prime minister, Lord Salisbury, of the coup that was about to occur. His latest information was that it would take place on the following Saturday.

My dear Salisbury,

I have received private information that a rising in Johannesburg is imminent and will probably take place in the course of the next few days . . .

If the rising is successful it ought to turn to our advantage.

The following day, however, Chamberlain received the disconcerting news that the Reformers had decided to postpone their uprising. Even more disturbing was a letter from Fairfield warning him of a conversation he had had with Bouchier Hawksley, Rhodes’ solicitor in London. ‘He seemed to think that Rhodes (whom he does not much like) might be driven into an attitude of frenzy and unreason, and order Jameson to “go in” from Gaberones with the Company’s police and manipulate a revolution.’

Scenting danger to his own position, Chamberlain sent a confidential telegram to Robinson on 29 December:

There seems to be a fiasco at Johannesburg owing probably to Rhodes having misjudged the balance of opinion there.

It has been suggested, although I do not think it probable, that he and Jameson might endeavour to force matters at Johannesburg to a head by Jameson or someone else in the service of the Company advancing from the Bechuanaland Protectorate with police.

In view of Articles nos. 22 and 8 of the Charter I could not remain passive were this to be done. Therefore, if necessary, but not otherwise, remind Rhodes of these Articles, and intimate to him that, in your opinion, he would not have my support, and point out the consequences which would follow to his schemes were I to repudiate the action.

In Pretoria, Kruger watched the hubbub in Johannesburg with grim patience. The conspirators had long since lost the element of surprise. Pretoria, as much as Johannesburg, was awash with rumours. James Bryce recorded: ‘The visitor had hardly installed himself in an hotel in Pretoria before people began to tell him that an insurrection was imminent, that arms were being imported, that Maxim guns were hidden, and would be shown to him if he cared to see them, an invitation which he did not feel called on to accept.’ In response to the clamour in Johannesburg, Kruger promised minor reforms. But otherwise he was prepared to wait. ‘If I want to kill a tortoise,’ he told burghers, ‘I wait until he sticks his head out.’

In Pitsani, as he prepared to depart, Jameson was brimming with confidence. Although he had managed to raise a force of only 500 men, he still expected to slice his way through to Johannesburg within three days. When the two special envoys arrived via separate routes bringing letters instructing him to postpone the mission, he shrugged them off with a laugh. Addressing a parade of his men on Sunday afternoon, before crossing the border that night, he read out to them parts of the bogus letter he had obtained from the Reformers:

. . . thousands of unarmed men, women and children at the mercy of Boers . . .

The men gave him a hearty cheer. ‘We would have followed the Doctor to hell,’ said one afterwards.

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