Masked Raiders. Irish Banditry in Southern Africa 1880-1899, by Charles van Onselen
One of the world's most distinguished social historians, Charles van Onselen, has spent his career unearthing the experience of people who don't normally find their way into history books. In Masked Raiders, he turns his riveting gaze on the "Irish Brigade", a forgotten fraternity of highwaymen, soldiers and psychopaths expelled from Victorian Britain and cast into the crucible of industrialising South Africa.
Nationalist mantras, mouthed by Armani-dressed elites on behalf of the ragged-trousered masses, are often as blinkered in scope as they are short on memory. Clinging to what they see as God-given boundaries, those who rule seldom pause to look back on times when complex underlying factors rather than the will of great men defined the fate of swathes of humanity in territories aligned by the impersonal logic of economic forces. For the suited-ones, the outlines of the nation-state are a given just as surely as is the need for 'nation-building' on terms they decide. It is as if God could scribble the outlines of a state in the sand but was wholly incapable of getting his chosen people to work in concert for a blissful future in the promised land. Long on the 'blood of the martyrs' but often short on authentic historical memories, nationalist elites of all stripes find it difficult to think back to an era when others, including immigrants and refugees, helped to define the modern exclusionary W in terms of time, space and identity. A state for barely a hundred years, and a democracy of sorts for less than twenty, 'South Africa' remains more of a geopolitical description than an organic socio-economic entity. It has long been a playground for self-styled 'nation-builders', each incoming elite putting forward its own ethnic nucleus as the core of a longed-for 'nation' whose birth - ultimately dependent on the goodwill of untrustworthy others - is about to be realised. Amidst such deep, persistent divisions it may seem bizarre to explore the history of one tiny, displaced ethnic minority engaged in banditry over the few decades that pre-dated the birth of the modern Union of South Africa in 1910. But it is precisely because the Irish formed such a small part of the demographic make-up of southern Africa's interior yet were disproportionately active as brigands between 1880 and 1899 that their story is worth telling. With a history of banditry and resistance that derived, in part, from their own experience as a colony in the British Empire, the Irish were no strangers to tales about outlaw heroes or the doings of secret agrarian societies. Their socialisation in Ireland, or across the Irish Sea as second-generation ethnic Irish in Lancashire during the Industrial Revolution, included reading 'penny dreadfuls' that portrayed the deeds ot brigands, highwaymen and pirates in romantic terms. That, along with first-hand experience gained in belt-and-buckle-wielding gangs stalking rough neighbourhoods in cities such as Manchester, primed the imaginations and hardened the bodies of poverty-stricken Irish teenagers for later, more overtly anti-imperial action in the remote parts of an expanding anglophone world. It is ironic that it was the British Army - in which, as in the church, Irishmen from deprived backgrounds were always over-represen ted -that did most to bring these exotic, socially marginalised individuals to southern Africa. In the late nineteenth century, Fort Napier, in the garrison town of Pietermaritzburg, acted as an informal College of Banditry for delinquent Irish, teaching them how to negotiate and survive in the southern African interior while out on patrol in Natal or when based in rural Zululand. Like cacti in the desert waiting for a storm to unleash the moisture needed to bloom, all that was required for those of an antisocial disposition to mutate from soldiers into bandits was the emergence of appropriate socioeconomic conditions. The tempest came with the mineral discoveries of the late nineteenth century. (...)
This is an excerpt from the book: Masked Raiders. Irish Banditry in Southern Africa 1880-1899, by Charles van Onselen.
Title: Masked Raiders
Subtitle: Irish Banditry in Southern Africa 1880-1899
Author: Charles van Onselen
Publisher: Randomhouse Struik
Imprint: Zebra Press
Cape Town, South Africa 2010
ISBN 9781770220805 / ISBN 978-1-77022-080-5
Softcover, 15 x 23 cm, 312 pages, several b/w photographs
van Onselen, Charles im Namibiana-Buchangebot
Masked Raiders: Irish Banditry in Southern Africa 1880-1899" tells the tale of history where Irish troops deserted their posts for the allure of the diamonds and gold.
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