One thing Charles Van Onselen’s Masked Raiders: Irish Bandrity in Southern Africa, 1880-1899 makes clear is that the South African fondness for blowing shit up has been around for a while. Today it’s ATM machines, in the nineteenth century it was safes. And the ‘big men’ of the Irish brigands he writes about strike one as being nineteenth century equivalents of the Italian/Russian/Czech/Israeli ‘mafia bosses’ that plague South Africa today.
One of the many things I like about Van Onselen’s book is that it injects some much-needed historical perspective into discussions on crime in South Africa. There has always been a roguish, dangerous side to South African society that has ruined lives, and made others, and that the state has struggled to get to grips with. What’s changed is the nature of the rogues. Why is this? I don’t know, I’m not a criminologist. Just let me make my sweeping generalizations and get on with reviewing the book.
Van Onselen’s book is right on trend by rocking the Steampunk meme with an edgy mix of dynamite, guns, pugilism, highwaymen, and grimy proto-industrialism. And it’s readable too with characters like ‘one-armed’ Jack McLaughlin, the hard-drinking boxer, George ‘Stevo’ Stevenson, and the part-time prostitute and bandit love interest, Sarah Fredericks. Also making an unexpected appearance are some prominent Fenians, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood whose sojourn in southern Africa is a reminder of the extent to which European diasporic entanglements stretched readily across the Empire.
Van Onselen steps outside the usual boundaries of dry academic writing to give us action-filled paragraphs like this:
From close range he fired a bullet into Stevenson’s chest. His victim fell backwards onto the bed… Fredericks screamed, mortified by the sight of her lover lying wounded on their bed. Turning on her, McLaughlin growled, ‘Shut up, you cow, or you will get one too.’ When her screaming persisted, he fired a second shot in her direction. It missed.
Remarkably composed, McLaughin turned on his heel and strode towards the exit. In the passageway, revolver in hand, he encountered some men who had been attracted by the commotion. ‘All right boys, I will not harm you,’ he reassured them before making his way through the beer hall and out onto the street, all the while followed by a small but growing posse of customers shouting, ‘Stop him!’
Politicians try constantly to reinvent South Africa’s past, but books like Van Onselen’s remind us that we should embrace our past as being much messier, more dangerous, more industrial , and more inter-connected across racial, ethnic and national boundaries than the sanitised ‘nation building’ versions politicians both past and present would like us to believe in. It’s a reminder to keep rocking the spirit of our ancestors and keep metaphorically blowing s**t up – in particular s**t narratives, prejudices and forgettings.