The Jameson Raid launch pad at Village

SHARE   |   Saturday, 30 April 2016   |   By Bashi Letsididi
old gaborone hotel old gaborone hotel

Contrary to what the government claims, even in its Bechuanaland Protectorate days, Botswana was used as a launch pad for attacks against neighbours. Evidence abounds in both textual and physical form. Not too long ago, President Lieutenant General Ian Khama lobbed intercontinental missiles at the United States’ presidential candidate, Donald Trump, from his base at the Government Enclave in Gaborone. The latter has generally been a launch pad for intra- and inter-continental verbal missives against Sudan, Zimbabwe, Burundi, Ivory Coast, Syria, North Korea and most recently, China. But that’s current affairs. The modern historical record traces the country’s launching pad career back to 1899 when Cecil Rhodes (the British mining magnate who founded De Beers and built the railway line that passes through Botswana) used a colonial fort near Tlokweng village to plan the ill-fated Jameson Raid.

After establishing the Bechuanaland Protectorate, the British set up their colonial headquarters in a present-day Gaborone residential district that is known as Village. Then this area was called “Government Camp” and it was here, in 1887, that Rhodes built the colonial’s fort first resting place for British pioneers travelling from Salisbury (Harare now) to Mafikeng in South Africa. It was here, in 1899, that the Jameson Raid (which was one of the main causes of the Anglo-Boer War) was planned. Under the command of a British colonial officer called Leander Starr Jameson, white Bechuanaland and Rhodesian policemen launched an unsuccessful raid on the Transvaal Republic. “Old Gaberones Hotel” has been declared a national monument and is now the centerpiece of the National Botanical Garden. Before being elevated to this status, the building would have fallen into disuse and disrepair because, at least according to what the plaque says, it “has been restored to its former glory.” From a twenty-first-century-lotioned aesthetic, there seems to be precious little in the way of glory about such restoration.

However, if the walls of this launch pad could talk, they would certainly generate enough audio on military history to keep anyone’s ears busy for days on end. Lately, Botswana cities have been “twinning” with others around the world and if that same arrangement could be made with historical monuments, “Old Gaberones Hotel” would easily find a Siamese twin in Bedfordview, an affluent town in the Gauteng province of South Africa. At the same time that Jameson and his co-conspirators were poring over maps and conversing in low voices at Old Gaberones Hotel, another group of Englishmen was doing the same thing at a house in Bedfordview. Having been originally purchased for mineral rights, this area was later parceled up into farms and small holdings many of which were owned by retired miners. Among those who settled here was an Englishman called Sir George Herbert Farrar who named his farm after his home town of Bedford in England.

With Sir Farrar playing a key role, the Jameson Raid was planned in a small house near his farm. Archival records give no indication as to the nature and level of coordination between the two cross-border parties. Whatever it was, the outcome was disastrous. As “Old Gaberones Hotel” rotted in independent Botswana, Government Enclave replaced “Government Camp” and the new Gaborone Hotel was built on a new site along the railway station – this is where Shoprite Supermarket is currently. When the building was knocked down, the hotel moved diagonally across the railway line to its present location where, until the establishment of Rail Park shopping mall, it was the centerpiece of the Gaborone bus station.