British Expansion In South Africa 1870-80 – N. Bhebe
The annexation of Lesotho represented a change in the British policy of withdrawal from territory north of the Orange river. The change became even more apparent with the disallowing of Transvaal territorial expansion in 1868 and the annexation of Griqualand West in 1871. British expansion coincided with the era of mineral discoveries in Southern Africa. In 1867 a diamond was picked up at Hope Town in the Cape Colony, and the following year alluvial and dry digging for diamonds started along the Vaal river towards its junction with the Orange river.
In 1868 an elephant hunter called Henry Hartley and Carl Mauch, a geologist, reported the existence of gold deposits between the Ndebele and Ngwato countries as well as in Mashonaland. Even though the gold discoveries proved largely illusory, they initially aroused a great deal of interest both in South Africa and Britain, while diamond mining grew rapidly into a major South African industry. President Pretorius, whose state seemed chronically poor, saw a chance of pulling it out of its predicament by enlarging its borders in such a way that it encompassed most of the known mineral deposits and had an outlet to the sea. In April 1868 he announced that his republic stretched north and west to Lake Ngami and east to include a small section of the coast line south of Delagoa Bay. The Portuguese, who had the tiny village of Maputo near Delagoa Bay, and the British missionaries and traders whose road to Central Africa was threatened, all protested vigorously and put pressure on the government to prevent the Boer expansion.
By 1869 Pretorius had given up his territorial ambitions. The discovery of diamonds meanwhile sparked off territorial disputes among the Transvaal, Orange Free State, Waterboer’s Griqualand West, the Rolong and the Tlhaping. The Transvaal and the Orange Free State claims clashed in the area between the Harts and the Vaal rivers, so that President Brand withdrew in favour of President Pretorius of the Transvaal. Pretorius and the African states submitted their cases for arbitration by the Lieutenant-Governor of Natal, Robert Keate, and Pretorius lost his case to the Africans. Brand, on the other hand, pleaded to have his territorial conflicts with Griqualand West submitted for arbitration. This was rejected by the British, for fear of having their position as the paramount power in Southern Africa challenged. Waterboer then applied for British protection, and Britain annexed not only Griqualand West but also the rest of the diamond fields on 27 October 1871.
The declaration of a protectorate over Lesotho, which Brand believed was timed to prevent its conquest and absorption by the Boers, the limitations imposed on the Transvaal’s territorial aggrandizement, and the snatching away of the diamond fields, all embittered the Boers to the extent that for many years to come the British forfeited their co-operation and indeed also reinforced the Boer determination to resist being brought back under British hegemony by physical force. This ensuing era of fresh British expansion in Southern Africa has generated much discussion among historians.
Antony Atmore and Shula Marks in particular have summarized succinctly the current interpretations and have gone on to offer some new ideas which, in turn, have generated further research. Atmore and Marks argue that the scholars who have relied most heavily on ‘the official record’ such as R. Robinson and J. Gallagher, broadly recognize the importance of economic factors in explaining late nineteenth century British imperialism, ‘but veer sharply away from any further and more precise economic analysis of the events they portray, whether in South Africa or elsewhere.’ Instead, the ‘official mind’ historians see British expansion, in the final analysis, as occurring when policy-makers are drawn irresistibly into the African (including the South African) interior to stop ‘crises or emergencies’ on the ‘frontier’ or ‘periphery’ of their formal colonial holdings or informal empire.
However, what is omitted, Atmore and Marks point out, is the thorough analysis of these crises, which in the end proved so crucial for the creation of the British empire. In fact, when these crises are explored, they reveal that they were actually ‘related to the break-down of indigenous authorities under the weight of the demands of an increasingly industrialized Britain.’ In the early nineteenth century these pressures occurred mostly on the eastern front in South Africa, where the informal agents of industrialized Britain – the missionaries, traders, and administrators – were active. But with mineral discoveries in the interior in the late nineteenth century, the demands of industrialized Britain rapidly shifted there and were imposed upon both the African states and the Boer republics.
Thus, although the strategic importance of the Cape on the sea route to India continued to influence British imperial policy in South Africa in the late nineteenth century, expanding British economic interests in the subcontinent weighed preponderantly. These British interests demanded vast supplies of African labour that could not be secured if Africans retained their independence and economic self-sufficiency. Their kingdoms therefore had to be smashed and their people proletarianized. The rapid industrialization of South Africa called for the subordination of the white states as well. The reason was that both the colonies and the Boer republics were incapable ‘of successfully performing the role of collaborators’. What followed this assessment was an extremely ‘complex and confused situation’, in which, among other things, the British government sought to secure its interests by promoting a subordinate confederation in South Africa. Again, ‘official mind’ historians, the best example of them in this case being C. F. Goodfellow, have explained the genesis and operation of the confederation policy which reached its climax in the annexation of the Transvaal, initiated the fall of the Zulu kingdom, and led to the destruction of the Pedi state – in terms of the personalities of the British Colonial Secretary, Lord Carnarvon, and the Governor and High Commissioner, Sir Bartle Frere. Atmore and Marks argue that, though this may well have been true, the solutions offered by the confederation policy satisfied almost uniquely British interests and socio-economic imperatives in South Africa. It is therefore possible that the Transvaal may have been annexed to release the African labour locked up by the pass laws of 1873 and 1874 so that workers could flow freely to the diamond mines and railway construction in the Cape Colony.
Besides, the Transvaal obstructed the free flow of African labour by permitting the activities of British and colonial land speculators who subsisted on profits from rents paid by the African farm squatters. The squatters had little intention of selling their labour to the miners and other white employers because they had sufficient land to produce crops for their own consumption and for sale in order to pay taxes. For these reasons the Transvaal, like the Zulu kingdom whose military system held up labour supplies, had to go. Indeed, Norman Etherington goes a long way to substantiating the views of Atmore and Marks when he shows that after the discovery of diamonds, African labour was drawn from all over the subcontinent, including what are today Mozambique and Zimbabwe, and that the Transvaal, Orange Free State and the Zulu kingdom obstructed its free flow. Moreover, Shepstone, the key source of information in the 1870s for British policy-makers and operators, was not only concerned about immediate solutions to the problem of securing African labour for the British capitalists, but looked further to see the solution to the whole problem as lying in a federation of the white states with a common African policy. Clearly, therefore, some accounts of British imperialism in South Africa have neglected the growing economic importance of the region to Britain, a situation which became increasingly apparent at the end of the 1860s with the discovery of diamonds and reports of gold deposits, and most evident in the i88os when gold began to be mined in the Witwatersrand.
Between 1871 and 1874, however, the British government tried to secure a federation of the South African states and thereby to guarantee the security of its interests in South Africa by means of persuasion. When Britain granted the Cape Colony responsible government, it was with the hope that the Colony would take over the Lesotho labour reservoir and the diamond-rich Griqualand West so that the Cape would emerge as the most powerful state and draw to itself the rest of the white settlements. To the disappointment of the British, the Cape government agreed to annex Lesotho but turned down the offer of Griqualand West. The offer was refused because the Cape had a large Boer population that sympathized with the republics, which never gave up their claims to the diamond fields.
By the middle of 1873, Lord Kimberley, the Colonial Secretary, confessed that the quarrels over the diamond mines stood in the way of a South African confederation and stopped pressing for it. Lord Carnarvon, who succeeded Kimberley in February 1874, resuscitated the federation policy and officially launched it on 4 May 1875. It seemed to be the only antidote to the festering ills of South Africa, which were epitomized by Griqualand West, where labour supplies were desperately short, imperial expenses on defence and administration high, territorial disputes deafening, and guns easily obtained by the Africans who then, in defence of their independence, turned the same firearms on the white men. Then there was the unsolved Langalibalele uprising, whose handling by the Natal whites exposed the dangerous weakness of the individual white states in confronting Africans with easy access to guns. In 1873 Langalibalele of the Hlubi refused to register the guns that his people had procured – mostly from the diamond fields – and this was interpreted by the Natal government as an act of rebellion. Shepstone and the Lieutenant-Governor raised an army to invade his kingdom, but the Hlubi chief escaped to Lesotho, where he was betrayed by Molapo, the Sotho chief, and handed back to his enemies.
In the only encounter that took place with the Hlubi and their neighbours, the Natal troops ran away and in the process some of them were killed. But the Natal government in the end dealt with the Hlubi in a most cowardly and vindictive manner. Even before the Chief, Langalibalele, was apprehended, the government inflicted measures that were disproportionate to the crime committed. His chiefdom was erased, his cattle and horses impounded, his land taken away and his subjects distributed to farmers as indentured labourers. When finally the chief was summarily tried and found guilty, he was banished for life and imprisoned on Robben Island. It was quite clear to the British government, which was also impressed by the arguments of the Anglican Bishop, John William Colenso, the only stout defender of the Hlubi chief, that injustices done to the Hlubi were the result of the excessive dread of the blacks held by the whites. Actual contacts made by Langalibalele with the Sotho, Ndebele, and Zulu before the rising, or rumours of them, further raised the spectre of a general African uprising against the balkanized whites in South Africa.
Advised by Shepstone and others, Lord Carnarvon saw federation as the only answer to the ‘terrible labyrinth’ of South Africa. As a first step, Lord Carnarvon secured the appointment of Sir Garnet Wolseley, recently returned from Kumasi where he had defeated the Asante, to deal with the Natal difficulties. Wolseley was instructed to gain control of African affairs for the Crown and to delay responsible government for the whites in preparation for a South African federation. Since peaceful approaches would be pursued, Carnarvon became conciliatory to the Boers by dangling a settlement of the diamond fields disputes. In 1875 he proposed a conference of the colonies and republics where minor issues such as a common African policy and territorial misunderstandings would be discussed as a prelude to the main issue of confederation. The mistake Carnarvon made was to suggest the names of the delegates and, in fact, he blundered gravely when he appeared to support the division of the Cape Colony by inviting the secessionist and leader of the opposition, John Paterson, as representative of the easterners and the Prime Minister, John Charles Molteno, as representative of the westerners.
The result was that the Cape Colony and the republics, which were still aggrieved at the loss of the diamond fields, refused to participate, leaving Natal and Griqualand West as the only willing ones. After this fiasco, Carnarvon called another conference in London in August 1876. The conference was again a failure. President Brand of the Orange Free State negotiated a settlement of his claim to the diamond fields and received £90 000 as compensation but then refused to be drawn into discussions concerning federation. Highly sensitive to imperial interference and jealously guarding the responsible status of his country, Prime Minister Molteno, who happened to be in London at the time, also refused to attend the conference, saying he had no mandate from his government to do so. Only Griqualand and Natal came to the conference, so nothing could be accomplished. This second failure drove Carnarvon ‘as far as his impatience, his patriotism, and his amour propre would allow. He resolved to use more forceful measures to unite South Africa. Lord Carnarvon’s first target was the Transvaal. His chance came when he received a telegram in September 1876 from the High Commissioner which exaggerated the predicament of the Transvaal at the hands of the Pedi of Sekhukhune.
The Transvaal had gone to war with the Pedi in May 1876 for a number of reasons. In the 1860s and early 1870s, the Pedi population and power grew rapidly. Many neighbouring African societies that wished to escape the labour demands and taxes imposed on them by the Boers attached themselves to the Pedi kingdom, while others were coerced into doing so. As already pointed out, the Pedi were also actively building up their firearms supplies. The Pedi population expansion immediately deprived the Boers of labour supplies, as their territorial extensions took them into the disputed areas, where they clashed with the Lydenburgers. Matters came to a head when the Pedi prince, Johannes Dinkwanyane, prevented a Boer from occupying a piece of land and again when a Pedi contingent forced the African residents of a Berlin mission station to abandon it. The Transvaal President, J.J. Burgers, who was looking for loans to build a railway to the sea, wanted to crush the Pedi disturbances as a way of building up the confidence of investors in his republic. Burgers could also not ignore the Lydenburgers’ call for firm action against their ‘troublesome’ Pedi neighbours and he therefore led the republic to war.
With the assistance of the Swazi, Burgers launched a three-pronged attack on Sekhukhune’s Lulu mountain fortress. The Lydenburgers and the Swazi carried out their operations from the east where the first target was the stronghold of prince Dinkwanyane. Meanwhile, Burgers’ commando swept its way from the west, the plan being that the two forces, together with a third, would ultimately converge on Sekhukhune. Because of the half-hearted show put up by the Boers, who left the Swazi to do most of the fighting and to sustain heavy casualties, the latter abandoned the struggle. As soon as the Swazi left, Boer morale crumbled very quickly and they started to desert before they could make any assault on Sekhukhune’s fortress. Undermining Boer patriotism were their several grievances against Burgers, whom they accused of heresy, a wrong education policy and poor economic planning. Moreover, the Boers from the western districts were not as committed as the eastern Lydenburgers to the struggle against the Pedi because they were not directly affected by Pedi pressures and resistance and there did not seem to be any personal gain expected from the war.
After Burgers’ withdrawal, the local Boers continued to harass Sekhukhune, and, because it was the planting season, he agreed to negotiate a truce. Philip Bonner rightly points out that in that war neither the Boers nor the Pedi were defeated, ‘the situation had reached a stalemate, with neither side holding any decisive advantage. It was only in 1879 that the British, with their Swazi allies, managed to overpower the Pedi kingdom and to capture Sekhukhune. The British, however, took the 1876 Boer fiasco to be a thorough defeat and a signal for the impending collapse of the Transvaal. Carnarvon appointed Shepstone to be the Special Commissioner for the Transvaal and on 9 October 1876 empowered him to take over the republic with or without the consent of its volksraad. Various motives for the annexation of the Transvaal have been suggested. The Transvaal was known to contain mineral deposits that made it potentially the richest part of South Africa.
The Transvaal blocked the free flow of labour from within Transvaal and from the neighbouring regions. The Transvaal government was also threatening to build a railway to Delagoa Bay so that it could not only be independent of the British colonial harbours but also threaten British supremacy by entering into relations with foreign powers. Carnarvon further calculated that the annexation of the Transvaal would result in the encirclement of the Orange Free State and therefore force the latter to come to terms. Shepstone’s take-over of the Transvaal on 12 April 1877, though clumsy and not calculated to conciliate the Boers, was relatively simple because the republic was bankrupt and its president unpopular. Having annexed it, Carnarvon appointed Sir Bartle Frere as the Governor and High Commissioner to carry his ‘scheme of federation into effect.’ Frere’s task was far from easy.
The Cape Colony refused to take the lead in the confederation movement; its leaders regarded the British efforts to encourage it to do so as unwanted interference with its responsible status. The Orange Free State was also against being dragged into the union. When in 1878 Frere invited its leaders to a conference to discuss the issue, President Brand replied that the republic was doing so well in every sphere of life that its leaders could not contemplate the loss of its independence. The Transvaal could have been forced to unite with the other states under the annexation arrangements. But Shepstone’s administration failed to conciliate the Boers, so that they remained as wedded as ever to the idea of disannexation. Besides, Shepstone himself became so embroiled in the Transvaal-Zululand border disputes that when he was requested to offer his opinion on confederation in 1878 he replied that he had ‘scarcely been able to think sufficiently of it to give you my opinion’, and asked for ‘a little free breathing’. Only Natal was willing to confer on the issue.
Consequently Carnarvon was forced to resign on a matter unrelated to South Africa in January 1878 when his federation dream was nowhere near realization. From the standpoint of securing British interests in Southern Africa, Frere was an ideal choice with the right vision. He wanted to impose a South African confederation built upon European self-government and the subjugation and civilization of the Africans. ‘Subjugation’ and ‘civilization’ meant basically the transformation of the African societies into labour reservoirs for British and colonial enterprises, and markets for industrialized Britain, while ‘European self-government’ would safeguard British capitalist investments. Frere decided that the African aspect of the confederation should be dealt with first. His vision encompassed the whole subcontinent, so that the Tswana, the Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele and Shona societies all had to be annexed by declaring protectorates or by conquest. Of immediate and practical significance was Zululand, whose border disputes with the Transvaal could be utilized to manufacture a casus belli. The disputed territory was an appropriate issue for Frere, and indeed the Colonial Office, in that it entangled Natal, Zululand and the Transvaal and involved Shepstone, who had always nursed grand ambitions around it. Its history dated to as far back as the 1850s.
In 1856 Cetshwayo had gone some way towards guaranteeing the next Zulu succession for himself by annihilating Mbulazi, a possible contender, and his faction. Thereafter Cetshwayo co-ruled with Mpande, before the latter’s death in 1872. But Cetshwayo still feared another of Mpande’s sons, Mkungu, who lived in Natal under the protection of Bishop Colenso and Shepstone. His fears seemed to materialize in the 1860s when there were rumours of a possible Natal invasion of Zululand, and these spread to the Transvaal and were taken advantage of by some Transvaalers.
In 1861 some Transvaal Boers sent messages to Cetshwayo purporting to confirm the rumours and then offering to guarantee his succession and later his coronation in return for land in the territory under dispute. Cetshwayo made empty promises which he never bothered to follow up. At the same time, Shepstone, who had since the 1850s yearned to found a black kingdom with a white administration that was self-financing, and free from settler interference, now saw a chance of realizing his ambition in the disputed territory. As soon as he got wind of the Boer communications with the Zulu, he rushed to Cetshwayo and on behalf of the Natal government confirmed him as the Zulu heir apparent. From this point on, however, the Boers took up farms in the Utrecht district, the disputed territory.
The Zulu refrained from throwing them out by force but turned to the British government to take over the Utrecht district so that it would form a buffer against the Transvaal. For years Shepstone urged the British government to accept the Zulu offer, arguing that it would serve to settle the excess Natal black population and prevent the Transvaal from reaching the sea through Zululand. Shepstone’s idea became even more significant in the 1870s, the years of labour shortages in Natal, the Cape Colony and Griqualand West.
It was soon discovered that migrant labour routes ran through the Transvaal, Zululand, and the disputed territory. Since both states interfered with the routes, a Shepstone kingdom between them would become the safest corridor. For as long as Shepstone had his eyes on his possible black state, he supported Cetshwayo’s territorial claims against the Transvaal, because he needed the Zulu king’s co-operation. Indeed that was why he attended Cetshwayo’s coronation in 1873. Moreover, Shepstone believed strongly that if Britain wanted to control all the African states in Southern Africa it had to start by controlling and influencing the Zulu kingdom. But once Shepstone became the ruler of the Transvaal he changed sides and began to support the territorial claims of the Boers.
The reason was perfectly simple: ‘Now he had only to uphold the Transvaal claims in order to secure the corridor free of charge.’45 The only danger to his objective, indeed to the peace of the whole subcontinent, remained the Zulu kingdom, which had to be destroyed. In this, Frere and the Colonial Office, which had taken up Shepstone’s views in 1874, concurred.


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