Unwarranted Derogatory Comments on Sir Leander Starr Jameson

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For nearly 90 years, Jameson Memorial Hall was the focal point of the University of Cape Town.  Its construction costs were raised by his admirers. Among many other great events, it’s where thousands of academic degrees were awarded and where Bobby Kennedy gave his “Ripple of Hope” address in 1966. One can only imagine how many life-long relationships began as chats on “Jammie Steps”. As an alumnus, long-time employee and transformational activist of/at UCT, I would like to comment on statements made about Sir Leander Starr Jameson by former UCT Vice-chancellor Max Price in his pieceCouncil agrees to change name of Jameson Hall” published in June 2016 and by current VC Phakeng in her recent piece “Naming of UCT buildings” published on 29 March 2019.

First, I object to Price’s selective, arguably defamatory, use/interpretation of ‘historical’ information concerning Jameson provided by “respected historians that [‘confirms’] Jameson’s ruthless self-interest manifested in a profound lack of respect for other people”. In support of his condemnation, Price decries “his [Jameson’s] decision with a coterie of like-minded doctors deliberately to misdiagnose an outbreak of smallpox in Kimberley in 1883 to prevent the absconding from the mines of black labourers”.

The source of this allegation is presumably an article by Dr J. Charles Shee published in the Central African Journal of Medicine in 1963 (vol. 9 no. 5 pp 183-186). First of all, Shee states that the only ‘decision’ Jameson made regarding this incident was to diagnose his patients as having “a bullous disease allied to pemphigus” [a blistering disease of the skin].   Shee’s article then goes on to say:

  1. he was by “far and away the best trained doctor in the town … he was a competent physician and a deft surgeon”;
  2. that some of Jameson’s “income came from the medical care of the precious African labour force on the mines”;
  3. that he was one (there were two others) of six doctors commissioned to investigate the outbreak who did not support a diagnosis of smallpox;
  4. of the ca 20 medical doctors in Kimberley at time, half did not diagnose the disease as smallpox;
  5. that there were allegations of misconduct from, amongst others, a Dr Hans Sauer, a friend of Jameson, who had experience dealing with smallpox;
  6. that these allegations led to “assault and counter-assault, libel action and counter-action”;
  7. only one medic, Dr Henry Wolff, was disciplined regarding the outbreak;
  8. that Jameson and most of those “involved [with the malpractice allegations] remained, or became, good friends afterwards”; and
  9. Jameson’s medical career was “perhaps the most remarkably successful that ever fell to the lot of any practitioner in this sub-continent.”

VC Phakeng restricts her comments to an explicit acknowledgement of the “dishonourable history of Leander Starr Jameson”. I maintain that Price’s use of words such as: “ruthless self-interest manifested in a profound lack of respect for other people” and “a coterie of like-minded doctors deliberately to misdiagnose” are unwarranted given the available evidence. Indeed, the first-mentioned words can be applied (here and here) to the actions of self-admitted, unapologetic, amnestied, lawbreaking Fallists. A more complete and balanced analysis of “Dr Jim’s” history portrays him in a very different light.

Kipling’s “Man”

Sir Leander Starr Jameson, 1st Baronet, KCMG, CB, PC (1853–1917) was a distinguished medical doctor, brilliant surgeon, colonial administrator, politician and statesman. Initially, he studied to become a medical doctor at University College Hospital, London where he excelled, becoming a Gold Medallist in materia medica. He had a successful, if not distinguished, medical career in England before overwork broke down his health. He continued his career in southern Africa, with some of his noteworthy patients being Afrikaner Presidents Paul Kruger and Sir Jan Brand, the Ndebele king Lobengula and the similarly UCT-vilified Cecil Rhodes (his “bosom companion”).

Indeed, on the basis of his providing excellent medical care and other advice, Jameson was honoured with the exceptional status of inDuna within Ndebele King Lobengula’s premier regiment, the Imbeza. To qualify for this honour, Jameson endured the necessary initiation ceremonies. With regard to his actions in Matebeleland, Jameson used his status as an inDuna to persuade Lobengula to grant concessions to the agents of Rhodes which led to the formation of the British South Africa Company (BSAC). Yes, Jameson was a key figure in the First Matabele War of conquest which was, in part, a reaction to the Ndebele [conquering “strangers from the coast” that had arrived 60 years previously] reneging on agreements and attacking and brutally killing Shona people and ‘white’ settlers.

Thereafter, Jameson abandoned his medical career and became Chief Magistrate of the BSAC. With regard to his leading (and impetuous timing) of the Jameson Raid, a reading of Sir Percy FitzPatrick’s The Transvaal from within (1899) [which chronicles the history of conflict between the English-speaking Uitlanders and the voortrekker Afrikaners of the Transvaal South African Republic] demonstrates that it was the first thrust in a movement to overthrow Paul Kruger‘s racist South African Republic in order to abolish race-based servitude and secure voting and other rights for Uitlanders. At the time, Transvaal was populated by 30 000 ‘white’ Afrikaner voters and 60 000 Uitlanders – whom the Kruger-led government kept disenfranchised. In court, Jameson took responsibility for ‘The Raid’, refusing to implicate others – including Rhodes.

Latterly, Jameson served admirably as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. Indeed, Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If, was written with Jameson in mind as an inspiration for manly stoicism in the face of adversity and determination not to be deterred from completing a task – desirable characteristics he recommended for young people.

“Dr Jim’s” character

Jameson’s many admirers were devoted (bordering on hero-worship) to him, proclaiming his honesty, tough cynicism and idealism.  [Sounds a bit like Steve Biko.]  One of Jameson’s obituaries likened him to noted Irish patriot Charles Stewart Parnell. In another of his obituaries, Jameson was also described as a highly ethical person, with a rigid code of honour and a patriot who never sought wealth, power, fame or a BEE-like leisure lifestyle.

A suggestion

If the Naming of Buildings Committee (NoBC), its task team, the University Executive and Council want to drop names of buildings, at least tell a full story about the ‘de-named’. My challenge to the NoBC et al. is to actually canvass via a democratic ballot the full university community via matters such as this. The ballot could allow individuals to self-identify as follows: academic staff, admin staff, support staff, donor, current student, alumnus (including year graduated), age, gender (appropriately partitioned), sexual preference, ‘race’ (as finely partitioned as desired), etc. These results should be published widely to reflect how components of the UCT Community value its heritage and modern reality. Renaming buildings and spaces should not be interpreted in any way as an attempt to erase a “dishonourable” past that is “a time that is no more”. It should be seen as a conscious effort to confront the past by neither being captive to it nor by being ignorant of it. Jameson may not have been the best choice as the namesake for UCT’s premier building, even back in the 1930s, but that was the wish of those who paid for it.

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