The British Empire 
                                                              1815-1914

The Transvaal, 1877-1881

The Impact of the Man on the Spot

The over-riding concern of the British in South Africa was to maintain the stability of the area so that the strategic port of Cape Town was not threatened in any way. Following the Great Trek of the 1830s the  British had decided to leave the Boers alone and allow them to rule themselves. The Bloemfontein Conference, 1854, had confirmed this policy but stability in the area continued to be  affected by the wars between the British and the Xhosa in the eastern Cape, and the continued conflict between the Boers and the Zulus.  The British had hoped that more settlers would move to  South Africa but the difficulty in farming  the dry areas meant that  the numbers  going to the Cape remained small compared to the numbers going to the other white settler colonies.


Discovery of minerals transformed the importance of the region

The discovery of important minerals in the region, firstly diamonds in 1867 and then gold in 1886,  was to  transform the geo-political importance of the region and lead to a number of wars between the British and the Boers, and the British and the Zulus. From an economic backwater the area would be transformed and the way this was to change the Transvaal in particular led to the Second Boer War that would be a turning  point for the British Empire.


Following the annexation  of Griqualand (where diamonds had been found)  in 1871, investment and immigrants had been attracted on a huge scale. The town of Kimberley was to become the centre of a huge diamond industry eventually dominated by Cecil Rhodes. British imports into the Cape increased from £2 million in 1871 to £7.7million in  1890 when the value of Cape exports stood at £9.5 million, a third of which came from diamonds. This enabled the Cape government to initiate  a programme of public works, particularly railways  which gave the colony a network of 2000 miles of track.


Native labour was essential for the success of any industrial enterprise

Laying  tracks and digging for diamonds was very labour intensive and the obvious labour force would be the black population but for this to happen the native population would have to  be pacified. This became more important as the 1870s progressed as black migrant workers particularly the  Pedi were beginning to use the money they earnt from digging for diamonds on guns. The Zulu kings were beginning to build up an arsenal making it crucial for the British that all the native tribes be pacified and effectively conquered. How would this be done when the British government portrayed the Empire as  a civilising empire by which the benefits of western civilisation would be  conferred on local native peoples? The government in London  could not have a clear policy of conquest and annexation. There would have to be a threat to the British settler population or to British workers for the government to act.


Secretary of the Colonies, Carnarvon, wanted to federalise the territories of southern Africa

Secretary of the Colonies in many of the Tory cabinets of this period,  beginning with Derby's cabinet in 1866, was  the Earl of Carnarvon who had  a plan  for a South African  federation which would include the Cape Colony, Natal, the Transvaal and  the Orange Free  State. This appeared to  be an  ideal solution for the British as it would bring stability to  the region and given the revenues from diamonds would be  self-supporting. Progress towards  the stability wanted by the British came to a halt when during the 1870s  there were a series of  native rebellions, the last struggles of the natives of the region against the increasing power of the British. By this time the British had introduced to South Africa  the latest technology, the Martini-Henry breech loading rifle and the Gatling machine gun and with these local British troops and the local militia were able to quell the troubles. The Boers in the Transvaal though were beaten in a skirmish with the Pedi and this exposed them to further attacks. The Transvaal was by this time absolutely bankrupt and in need of support so Carnarvon seized the opportunity to push his scheme for federation  forward by ordering the annexation of the Transvaal in January 1877.


Transvaal annexed

Sir Theophilus Shepstone was the envoy sent to Pretoria to bring about the annexation for which the Boers were initially grateful for they lay defenceless in the face of an attack by the Zulus of Cetewayo. For the Boers this would be a temporary inconvenience, but for Shepstone it  signalled  the beginning  of a federated South Africa with the Boers at last again the control of the British.

Before a federation , which would include the Transvaal, the Orange Free State, Natal and Cape Colony, could be constructed, the new  Governor of the Cape, Sir Bartle Frere, decided it was necessary first to  destroy the power of the Zulu nation. He had no authority to do this as Disraeli had explicitly ordered him not to do anything to worsen relations with the Zulu. What he did in disobeying orders was typical of a time when written orders from London could take weeks if not months to reach Governors around the world. It was not until railways and the telegraph was fully established that London could keep a close watch on what her officials we doing.


The Zulus, under the leadership of Cetewayo, were themselves increasingly concerned at the British annexation of the Transvaal and what it meant for them as the  Boers were the traditional enemies of the Zulus.


War launched against the Zulu

Throughout 1878 the Zulus were seen as being more and more aggressive particularly towards British missionaries. Missionaries were reporting to Frere incidents of torture and the murder of converts. In May 1878 the Reverend Filter asked for help for his community of 160 at Luneberg, Transvaal believing it to be threatened by the Zulus. In July a force of 100 Zulus crossed the Tugela into Transvaal to take two Zulu women who had taken refuge - women who they subsequently killed. Events such as these convinced that he had to act to destroy the power of the Zulus.

Although the conflict with the Xhosa in the Eastern Cape had come to an end in 1878, Frere asked London for  more soldiers to deal with the situation but wars in Afghanistan and the possibility of war with Russia over Constantinople brought a refusal from London, both for troops and for any war with the Zulus. Despite this  Frere and Shepstone determined to bring the situation with the Zulus to a  head. Another telegram from London had been sent to Frere reiterating  the Government's opposition to  war but before Frere  had  seen it a group of English envoys  met with Zulu leaders on the banks of the Tugela river, and in a  four hour speech Frere read out a list of demands for Cetewayo to consider, including the disbanding of the Zulu army, the abrogation of the Zulu laws on marriage and the handing over of those Zulus responsible for the murder of the two captured women.


Cetewayo was given twenty days to respond. When  no  response had  been received by 1 January 1879, Frere  had his  excuse to wage war on the Zulu nation.


Isandlwana

At daybreak on  20 January a force of 1,200 troops led by the new commander in chief in South Africa Lord Chelmsford crossed the Buffalo to establish a camp at Isandlwana.  Leaving the main force to establish the camp, Chelmford took a reconnaissance force to  search for the  main Zulu force thought  to be to  the south. Whilst Chelmsford was still away from the main force, it was attacked and  all but  wiped out by a Zulu force  that had enveloped  them. Only six men survived. In defiance of orders a Zulu force of 3-4000 then crossed into Natal and attacked  the mission station at Rorke's Drift which was  defended by 139 men from the 24th regiment, many of them invalids. In  a battle that lasted over twenty fours the attacking Zulus were beaten off suffering losses of 500 dead. The Zulus were exhausted  from their  endeavours at Isandlwana and had  not eaten for two days and could not get the better  of the British fire power. Eleven soldiers  at Rorke's Drift were awarded the Victoria Cross as a propaganda exercise designed to mitigate the impact on the nation of the severe defeat at Isandlwana.


Chelmsford had attacked Cetewayo  in complete defiance of the British  government that had replaced him Wolseley.  Wolseley had learnt in May that he  was  to  be sent to Africa to make peace with the Zulus and to  safeguard existing  British territories. Wolseley reached Cape Town on 23 June 1879 and Durban  on 28 June. It was whilst he was at Pietermaritzburg  that he heard that Chelmsford was defying orders and marching on Ulundi with 4000 British soldiers and 1000 native allies.


Ulundi

On 4 July Chelmsford attacked and defeated the Zulu army of 20,000  defending their main camp at Ulundi. Even though Cetewayo had urged  the use of guerrilla tactics the Zulus did not change their tactics and the British this time kept their  army together and in the attack on Cetewayo's stronghold  used the traditional tactics of the  red-square to concentrate their fire power and defeat the frontal attacks of the Zulus.  Chelmsford though decided to vacate Ulundi without  capturing  Cetewayo.


Wolseley left to pacify the Zulu

It was left to Wolseley to arrange the surrender  of  the Zulu chiefs which he had done by mid-August although Cetewayo remained at large. Wolseley setup a series of patrols and eventually Cetewayo was captured on  31  August. The  government did not want to annex Zululand so it was  divided into thirteen  provinces under chiefs from  the  pre-Chaka period. Every chief was required to sign a document agreeing to the abolishment of the Zulu military system and not to make war or seize land. British residents  were  not to  be imposed on the chiefs though, much to the disgust of Bartle Frere. Zululand kept its independence only until 1887 when  it too became a British protectorate. It  was then annexed to Natal ten  years later in  1897.


It remained for Wolseley to crush the last native resistance to British rule - the Pedi in  north  eastern Transvaal. The result was that Basutoland  became a British protectorate governed like Zululand through native  chiefs. Basutoland continued  as  a  protectorate until direct control from London  was introduced in 1883  as a result of threats from the Boers. Independence  as the Kingdom of Lesotho was  established in  1966.


The pacification of the Zulus  removed a threat to the Boers who had never accepted British rule. General Wolseley made it clear in a meeting with Joubert  that British rule  was  irrevocable but  once the Boers realised  this, they rebelled. This  first Boer war ended with the defeat of a small British force under the command of Colley at Majuba Hill on 27 February 1881. Wolseley had made it clear to the British  government that the Transvaal was rich in minerals and  that gold had already been found. The new government in London though decided to drop plans  for federation and  restore  Boer independence. In negotiations at Pretoria (1881) and London (1884) independence was conceded  although the British government clung to the notion that they still had sovereignty over  the Boer republic -  this was part of the justification for the war in  1899.

The takeover of the Transvaal, the war against the Zulus and the subsequent establishment of protectorates in Basutoland and Zululand were not necessarily the wish of the government, not even of Disraeli's government, but the responses to individual crises by local officials on the  spot. What happened in Zululand  was  enough  for  Gladstone to  come out of  retirement. Brimming with moral outrage at the actions  of the Disraeli government Gladstone  embarked on the Midlothian Campaign. The Liberal victory in 1880 he took as a victory against the Imperialist policies of his opponent  and against flag waving but once  in power the government continued the policies of free trade and protecting Britain's commercial interests abroad.



General Wolseley was sent to south Africa as High Commissioner and Commander in Chief of the military

Cetshwayo, chief of the Zulu

The Battle of Isandlwana where a British battalion was wiped out

Lord Chelmsford, who commanded the British forces at Isandlwana

Sir Bartle Frere, High Commissioner in South Africa 1877

Theophilus Shepstone who annexed the Transvaal, 1877

Diamond miners in Kimberley in the 1870s

Early gold miners on the Witwatersrand