History of Cape Colony from 1806 to 1870

Cape Colony

The history of Cape Colony from 1806 to 1870 spans the period of the history of Cape Colony during the Cape Frontier Wars, also called the Kaffir Wars, which lasted from 1811 to 1858. The wars were fought between the European colonists and the native Xhosa who rebelled against continuing European rule. The Cape Colony was the first European colony in South Africa, which was initially controlled by the Dutch but subsequently invaded and taken over by the British. After war broke out again, a British force was sent once more to the Cape. After a battle in January 1806 on the shores of Table Bay, the Dutch garrison of Cape Castle surrendered to the British under Sir David Baird, and in 1814 the colony was ceded outright by the Netherlands to the British crown. At that time the colony extended to the mountains in front of the vast central plateau, then called "Bushmansland", and had an area of about 194,000 square kilometres and a population of some 60,000, of whom 27,000 were white, 17,000 free Khoikhoi (Hottentots), and the rest slaves. These slaves were mostly imported black people and Malays.



The First and Second Frontier Wars

The first of several wars with the Xhosa had already been fought by the time that the Cape Colony had been ceded to the United Kingdom. The Xhosa that crossed the colonial frontier had been expelled from the district between the Sundays River and Great Fish River known as the Zuurveld, which became a neutral ground of sorts. For some time before 1811, the Xhosa had taken possession of the neutral ground and attacked the colonists. In order to expel them from the Zuurveld, Colonel John Graham took the area with a mixed-race army in December of 1811, and finally the Xhosa were driven beyond the Fish River. On the site of Colonel Graham’s headquarters arose a town bearing his name: Graham's Town, subsequently becoming Grahamstown.

A difficulty between the Cape Colony government and the Xhosa arose in 1817, the immediate cause of which was an attempt by the colonial authorities to enforce the restitution of some stolen cattle. On 22 April 1817, led by a prophet-chief named Makana, they attacked Graham’s Town, then held by a handful of white troops. Help arrived in time and the enemy were beaten back. It was then agreed that the land between the Fish and the Keiskamma rivers should be neutral territory.


The 1820 Settlers

The war of 1817-19 led to the first wave of immigration of English settlers of any considerable scale, an event with far-reaching consequences. The then governor, Lord Charles Somerset, whose treaty arrangements with the Xhosa chiefs had proved untenable, desired to erect a barrier against the Xhosa by having white colonists settle in the border region. In 1820, upon the advice of Lord Somerset, parliament voted to spend £50,000 to promote migration to the Cape, prompting 4,000 British people to emigrate. These immigrants, who are now known as the 1820 Settlers, formed the Albany settlement, later Port Elizabeth, and made Grahamstown their headquarters. Intended primarily as a measure to secure the safety of the frontier, and regarded by the British government chiefly as a way of finding employment for a few thousand of the unemployed in Britain. Yet, the emigration scheme accomplished something with more far reaching implications than its authors had intended. The new settlers, drawn from every part of the British Isles and from almost every grade of society, retained strong loyalty to Britain. In the course of time, they formed a counterpoint to the Dutch colonists.

The arrival of these immigrants also introduced the English language to the Cape. English language ordinances were issued for the first time in 1825, and in 1827 its use was extended to the conduct of judicial proceedings. Dutch was not, however, ousted, and the colonists became largely bilingual.


Dutch hostility to British Rule

Although the colony was prosperous, many Dutch farmers were as dissatisfied with British rule as they had been with that of the Dutch East India Company, though their grievances were not the same. In 1792 Moravian missions had been established for the benefit of the Khoikhoi, and in 1799 the London Missionary Society began to try to convert both the Khoikhoi and the Xhosa. The championship of Khoikhoi grievances by the missionaries caused much dissatisfaction among the majority of the colonists, whose conservative views temporarily prevailed, for in 1812 an ordinance was issued which gave magistrates the power to bind Khoikhoi children as apprentices under conditions little different from those of slavery. In the meantime, the movement for the abolition of slavery was gaining strength in England, and the missionaries appealed at length, from the colonists to Britain.

An incident, which occurred from 1815 to 1816, did much to make the Dutch frontiersmen permanently hostile to the British. A farmer named Bezuidenhout refused to obey a summons issued to him after a complaint from Khoikhoi was registered. He fired on the party sent to arrest him, and was killed by the return fire. This caused a miniature rebellion, and in its suppression five ringleaders were publicly hanged by the British at Slachters Nek where they had originally sworn to expel "the English tyrants." The resentment caused by the hanging of these men was deepened by the circumstances of the execution, for the scaffold on which the rebels simultaneously were hanged broke from their united weight and the men were hanged one by one afterwards. The deeply religious Dutch frontiersmen believed the collapsing scaffold to be an act of God. An ordinance passed in 1827 abolished the old Dutch "landdrost" and "heemraden" courts, instead substituting resident magistrates. The ordinance further stipulated that all legal proceedings be henceforth conducted in English.

A subsequent ordinance in 1828 granted equal rights to the Khoikhoi and other free coloured people with white people as a result of the championing of the missionaries. Another ordinance in 1830 imposed heavy penalties for harsh treatment of slaves, and finally the emancipation of slaves was proclaimed in 1834. Each of these ordinances drew further ire from the farmers towards the government. Moreover, the inadequate compensation awarded to slave-owners, and the suspicions engendered by the method of payment, caused much resentment, and in 1835 the trend where farmers trekked into unknown country in order to escape from a disliked government recommenced. Emigration beyond the colonial border had in fact been continuous for 150 years, but it now took on larger proportions.


The Third Cape Frontier War

On the eastern border, further trouble arose between the government and the Xhosa, towards whom the policy of the Cape government was marked by much vacillation. On 11 December 1834, a commando party killed a chief of high rank, incensing the Xhosa: an army of 10,000 men, led by Macomo, a brother of the chief who had been killed, swept across the frontier, pillaged and burned the homesteads and killed all who resisted. Among the worst sufferers was a colony of freed Khoikhoi who, in 1829, had been settled in the Kat River valley by the British authorities. There were few available soldiers in the colony, but the governor, Sir Benjamin d'Urban acted quickly and all available forces were mustered under Colonel Sir Harry Smith, who reached Graham’s Town on 6 January 1835, six days after news of the uprising had reached Cape Town. The British fought the Xhosa for nine months until hostilities were ended on 17 September 1838 with the signing of a new peace treaty, by which all the country as far as the River Kei was acknowledged to be British, and its inhabitants declared British subjects. A site for the seat of government was selected and named King William’s Town.


The Great Trek

Map of the route of the Great Trek
Map of the route of the Great Trek

The British government did not approve of the actions of Sir Benjamin d'Urban, and the British Secretary for the Colonies, Lord Glenelg, declared in a letter to the King that "the great evil of the Cape Colony consists in its magnitude" and demanded that the boundary be moved back to the Fish River. He also eventually had d'Urban dismissed from office in 1837. "The Kaffirs," in Lord Glenelg's dispatch of 26 December, "had an ample justification for war; they had to resent, and endeavoured justly, though impotently, to avenge a series of encroachments.” This attitude towards the Xhosa was one of the many reasons given by the Trek Boers for leaving the Cape Colony. The Great Trek, as it is called, lasted from 1836 to 1840. The trekkers, numbering around 7,000, founded communities with a republican form of government beyond the Orange and Vaal rivers, and in Natal, where they had been preceded, however, by British emigrants. From this time on Cape Colony ceased to be the only European community in South Africa, though it was the most predominant for many years.

Considerable trouble was caused by the emigrant Boers on either side of the Orange River, where the Boers, the Basutos, other native tribes, Bushmen, and Griquas fought for superiority, while the Cape government endeavoured to protect the rights of the natives. On the advice of the missionaries, who exercised great influence on all non-Dutch people, a number of the native states were recognised and subsidised by the Cape government with the objective of creating peace on the northern frontier. The first "Treaty States" to be recognised was Griqualand West of the Griqua people. Subsequent states were recognised between 1843 and 1844. While the northern frontier became more secure, the state of the eastern frontier was deplorable, with the government either unable or unwilling to protect farmers from the Xhosa.

Elsewhere, however, the colony was making progress. The change from slave to free labour proved to be advantageous to the farmers in the western provinces. An efficient education system, owing its inception to Sir John Herschel, an astronomer who lived in Cape Colony from 1834 to 1838, was adopted. Road Boards were established and proved to be very effective in constructing new roads. A new stable industry, sheepraising, was added to the original set of wheatgrowing, cattle rearing, and wine making. By 1846 wool became the country's most valuable export. A legislative council was established in 1835, giving the colonists a share in the government.


The War of the Axe

Another war with the Xhosa, known as the War of the Axe, broke out in 1846, when a Khoikhoi escort that had been manacled to a Xhosa thief was murdered while transporting the man to Graham’s Town to be tried for stealing an axe. A party of Xhosa attacked and killed the escort. The surrender of the murderer was refused, and war was declared in March of 1846. The Ngqikas were the chief tribe engaged in the war, assisted by the Tambukies. The Xhosa were defeated on 7 June 1846 by General Somerset on the Gwangu, a few miles from Fort Peddie. However, the war continued until Sandili, the chief of the Ngqika, surrendered. Other chiefs gradually followed this action, and by the beginning of 1848 the Xhosa had been completely subdued after twenty-one months of fighting.


Extension of British Sovereignty

Sir Harry Smith
Sir Harry Smith

In December of 1847, or what was to be the last month of the War of the Axe, Sir Harry Smith reached Cape Town by boat to become the new governor of the colony. He reversed Glenelg's policy soon after arrival. A proclamation he issued on 17 December, 1847, extended the borders of the colony northwards to the Orange river and eastward to the Keiskamma river, and at a meeting of the Xhosa chiefs on 23 December, 1847, Sir Harry announced the annexation of the land between the Keiskamma and the Kei rivers to the British crown, thus re-absorbing the territory abandoned by Lord Glenelg. The land was not, however, incorporated into the Cape Colony, but instead made a crown dependency under the name of British Kaffraria. For a time the Xhosa accepted the new government in British Kaifaria since they were mainly left alone as the governor had other serious matters to contend with, including the assertion of British authority over the Boers beyond the Orange river, and the establishment of amicable relations with the Transvaal Boers.


The Convict Agitation and Granting of a Constitution

A crisis arose in the colony over a proposal to make the Cape Colony a convict station. A circular written in 1848 by the third Earl Grey, then colonial secretary was sent to the governor of the Cape, as well as other colonial governors, asking them to ascertain the feelings of the colonists regarding the reception of a certain class of convicts. The Earl intended to send Irish peasants who had been driven to crime by the famine of 1845 to South Africa. Due to a misunderstanding, a boat named the Neptune was sent to the Cape Colony before the colonists' opinion had been received. The boat had 289 convicts on board, among whom was the famous Irish rebel John Mitchell, and his colleagues. When the news that this vessel was on her way reached the Cape, people became violently excited and established an anti-convict association whose members bound themselves to cease from all interaction of any kind with persons in any way associated "with the landing, supplying or employing convicts". Sir Harry Smith, confronted with violent public agitation, agreed not to allow the convicts to land when the Neptune arrived in Simon's Bay on 19 September 1849, but to keep them on board the ship until he received orders to send them elsewhere. When the home government became aware of the state of affairs, orders were sent directing the Neptune to proceed to Tasmania, and it did so after staying in Simon’s Bay for five months. The agitation did not fade away without further achievements, as it led to another movement that intended to obtain a free, representative government for the colony. The British government granted this concession, which had been previously promised by Lord Grey, and a constitution was established in 1854 of almost unprecedented liberality.


The Eighth Frontier War of 1850–1853

The anti-convict move had scarcely ended when the colony was once again involved in a war. The Xhosa bitterly resented their loss of independence, and had secretly prepared to renew their struggle ever since the last war. Sir Harry Smith, informed of the increasingly threatening attitude of the natives, went to the border region and summoned Sandili and the other chiefs for a meeting. Sandili refused obedience, after which the governor declared him deposed from his chieftanship at an assembly of other chiefs in October of 1850, and appointed an English magistrate named Mr Brownlee to be temporary chief of the Ngqika tribe. It seems that the governor believed that he would be able to prevent a war and that Sandili could be arrested without armed resistance. Colonel George Mackinnon, who had been sent out with a small army with the goal of securing the chief, was attacked on 24 December, 1850, in a narrow gorge by a large number of Xhosa, and compelled to retreat after some loss of men. This small battle prompted a general rising among the whole Ngqika tribe. Settlers in military villages that had been established along the border, were caught in a surprise attack after they had gathered to celebrate Christmas day. Many of them were killed, and their houses set on fire.

Other setbacks followed in quick succession. The greater part of the Xhosa police deserted, many of them leaving with their arms. Emboldened by their initial success, the Xhosa surrounded and attacked Fort Cox with immense force, where the governor was stationed with a small number of soldiers. More than one unsuccessful attempt was made to kill Sir Harry, and he needed to find a way to escape. At the head of 150 mounted riflemen, accompanied by Colonel Mackinnon, he galloped out of the fort, and rode to King William’s Town through heavy enemy fire — a distance of 12 miles (19 km).

Meanwhile a new enemy appeared. Some 900 of the Kat river Khoikhoi, who had in former wars been firm allies of the British, joined their former enemies: the Xhosa. They were not without justification. They complained that while serving as soldiers in former wars — the Cape Mounted Rifles consisted largely of Khoikhois — they had not received the same treatment as others serving in defence of the colony, that they got no compensation for the losses they had sustained, and that they were in various ways made to feel they were a wronged and injured race. A secret alliance was formed with the Xhosa to take up arms in order to remove the Europeans and establish a Khoikhoi republic. Within a fortnight of the attack on Colonel Mackinnon the Kat river Khoikhoi were also in arms. Their revolt was followed by that of the Khoikhoi at other missionary stations; and some of the Khoikhoi of the Cape Mounted Rifles followed their example, including some of the very men who had escorted the governor from Fort Cox. But many of the Khoikhoi remained loyal and the Fingo likewise sided with the British.

After the confusion caused by the surprise attack had subsided, Sir Harry Smith and his force turned the tide of war against the Xhosa. The Amatola Mountains were stormed, and Sarhili, the highest ranking chief, who had been secretly assisting the Ngqika all along, was severely punished. In April 1852 Sir Harry Smith was recalled by Earl Grey, who accused him — unjustly, in the opinion of the duke of Wellington — of a want of energy and judgement in conducting the war, and he was succeeded by Lieutenant-General Cathcart. Sarhili was again attacked and reduced to submission. The Amatolas were finally cleared of Xhosa, and small forts were erected to prevent their reoccupation.

The British commanders were hampered throughout by their insufficient equipment, and it was not until March 1853 that the largest of the Frontier wars was brought to an end after the loss several hundred British soldiers. Shortly afterwards, British Kaffraria was made a crown colony. The Khoikhoi settlement at Kat River remained, but the Khoikhoi power within the colony was crushed.


The Great amaXhosa Famine

The Xhosa tribes gave the colony few problems after the war. This was due, in large measure, to an extraordinary delusion which arose among the Xhosa in 1856, and led in 1857 to the death of some 50,000 people. This incident is one of the most remarkable instances of misplaced faith recorded in history. The Xhosa had not accepted their defeat in 1853 as decisive and were preparing to renew their struggle with the Europeans.

In 1854, a disease spread through the cattle of the Xhosa. It was believed to have spread from cattle owned by the Settlers. Widespread cattle deaths resulted, and the Xhosa believed that the deaths were caused by ubuthi, or witchcraft. In May 1856, a girl named Nongqawuse went to fetch water from a pool near the mouth of the Gxarha River. When she returned, she told her uncle Mhlakaza that she had met three spirits at the pool, and that they had told her that all cattle should be slaughtered, and their crops destroyed. On the day following the destruction, the dead Xhosa would return and help expel the whites. The ancestors would bring cattle with them to replace those that had been killed. Mhlakaza believed the prophecy, and repeated it to the chief Sarhili.

Sarhili ordered the commands of the spirits to be obeyed. At first, the Xhosa were ordered to destroy their fat cattle. Nongqawuse, standing in the river where the spirits had first appeared, heard unearthly noises, interpreted by her father as orders to kill more and more cattle. At length the spirits commanded that not an animal of all their herds was to remain alive, and every grain of corn was to be destroyed. If that were done, on a given date, myriads of cattle more beautiful than those destroyed would issue from the earth, while great fields of corn, ripe and ready for harvest, would instantly appear. The dead would rise, trouble and sickness vanish, and youth and beauty come to all alike. Unbelievers and the hated white man would on that day perish.

The people heard and obeyed. Sarhili is believed by many people to have been the instigator of the prophecies. Certainly some of the principal chiefs believed that they were acting simply in preparation for a last struggle with the Europeans, their plan being to throw the whole Xhosa nation fully armed and famished upon the colony. Belief in the prophecy was bolstered by the death of Lieutenant-General Cathcart in the Crimean War in 1854. His death was interpreted as being due to intervention by the ancestors.

There were those who neither believed the predictions nor looked for success in war, but destroyed their last particle of food in unquestioning obedience to their chief’s command. Either in faith that reached the sublime, or in obedience equally great, vast numbers of the people acted. Great kraals were also prepared for the promised cattle, and huge skin sacks to hold the milk that was soon to be more plentiful than water. At length the day dawned which, according to the prophecies, was to usher in the terrestrial paradise. The sun rose and sank, but the expected miracle did not come to pass. The chiefs who had planned to hurl the famished warrior upon the colony had committed an incredible blunder in neglecting to call the nation together under pretext of witnessing the resurrection. They realised their error too late, and attempted to fix the situation by changing the resurrection to another day, but blank despair had taken the place of hope and faith, and it was only as starving supplicants that the Xhosa sought the British.

According to the War of the Axe, the colonists did what they could to save life, but thousands perished miserably. In their extreme famine many of the Xhosa turned to cannibalism, and one instance of parents eating their own child is authenticated. Among the survivors was the girl Nongqawuse, however her father perished. A vivid narrative of the whole incident is found in G. M. Theal’s History and Geography of South Africa (3rd edition, London, 1878). The depopulated country was afterwards peopled by European settlers, among whom were members of the German legion which had served with the British army in the Crimea, and some, 2000 industrious North German emigrants, who proved a valuable acquisition to the colony.


Sir George Grey’s Governorship

Sir George Grey
Sir George Grey

Sir George Grey became governor of the Cape Colony in 1854, and the development of the colony owes much to his administration. In his opinion, policy imposed upon the colony by the home government's policy of not governing beyond the Orange River was mistaken, and in 1858 he proposed a scheme for a confederation that would include all of South Africa, however it was rejected by Britain. Sir George kept open a British road through Bechuanaland to the far interior, gaining the support of the missionaries Moffat and David Livingstone. Sir George also attempted for the first time, missionary effort apart, to educate the Xhosa and to firmly establish British authority among them, which the self-destruction of the Xhosa rendered easy. Beyond the Kei River, the natives were left to their own devices.

Sir George Grey left the Cape in 1861. During his governorship the resources of the colony had increased with the opening of the copper mines in Little Namaqualand, the mohair wool industry had been established and Natal made a separate colony. The opening, in November 1863, of the railway from Cape Town to Wellington, and the construction in 1860 of the great breakwater in Table Bay, long needed on that perilous coast, marked the beginning in the colony of public works on a large scale. They were the more-or-less direct result of the granting to the colony of a large share in its own government.

The province of British Kaffraria was incorporated into the colony in 1865, under the title of the Electoral Divisions of King William’s Town and East London. The transfer was marked by the removal of the prohibition of the sale of alcoholic beverages to the natives, and the free trade in intoxicants which followed had most deplorable results among the Xhosa tribes. A severe drought, affecting almost the entire colony for several years, caused great economic depression, and many farmers suffered severely. It was at this period in 1869 that ostrich-farming was successfully established as a separate industry.

Whether by or against the wish of the home government, the limits of British authority continued to extend. The Basotho, who dwelt in the upper valleys of the Orange River, had subsisted under a semi-protectorate of the British government from 1843 to 1854; but having been left to their own resources on the abandonment of the Orange sovereignty, they fell into a long exhaustive warfare with the Boers of the Orange Free State. On the urgent petition of their chief Moshesh, they were proclaimed British subjects in 1868, and their territory became part of the Cape Colony in 1871 (see Basutoland). In the same year, the southeastern part of Bechuanaland was annexed to Britain under the title of Griqualand West. This annexation was a consequence of the discovery there of rich diamond mines, an event which was destined to have far-reaching results.




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