Conflict in the Eastern Cape - British Empire 1815-1914

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Conflict in the Eastern Cape

Table Mountain from the sea during the Dutch period
Britain took control of Cape Town in 1806
When the British took possession of the Cape Colony in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars, it was a slave owning outpost of the Dutch. It was of strategic value to the British as from Cape Town a navy could control the seaward route to Indian and the Indies during the war with France. The white colonial population of not more than 25,000 scattered widely across some 100,000 square miles, consisted of descendants of Dutch, German and Huguenot settlers. Around 16,000 lived in Cape Town, an area favoured with rich soil and a Mediterranean climate. The colony depended for all of its economic success on the labour of foreign slaves imported from elsewhere in Africa and Asia.
10,000 slaves in Cape Town
Almost every European family of status owned slaves. In Cape Town there were 10,000 slaves. The European settlers  regarded themselves as in control of the local Khoikhoi indigenous population who had lost their land and now served the white community as a labouring class, treated no better than the slaves. The total population of the Cape Colony at the time of the British arrival was no more than 75,000.

Beyond the fertile land around Cape Town lay a hinterland of scrub and semi-desert – the Karoo where Dutch farmers eked out a difficult and lonely existence. Some Dutch farmers lived as far away as the Orange River, to the north (400 miles away)where they came across the Xhosa chiefdoms, themselves expanding westwards. It was on this eastern border that there was to be intermittent conflict for the next sixty years.

Soon after the British arrival in Cape Town they attempted to bring law and order to this eastern border where there were frequent  raids on cattle and attacks on farms which were met with reprisal raids. In 1811 the British sent regular soldiers to this eastern border to expel the Xhosa from the Fish River area to beyond the Keiskamma River. In his report on the expedition, Sir John Craddock wrote that no more blood had been shed other than what was necessary ‘to impress on the minds of these savages a proper degree of terror and respect.’
An artist's impresssion of Makana
Makana's Forces cross the Fish River
In January 1819 in a desperate bid to regain their lost land, 100,000 Xhosa warriors under the leadership of Makana crossed the Fish River and advanced on the frontier town of Grahamstown intent on driving out the white population. The Xhosa leader, Makana, was a charismatic prophet who had emerged as a leader in 1818, together with a religion to rival Christianity. He talked of destroying all the Europeans, of bringing back to life all the slaughtered Africans and their cattle as well. Makana was popular with the young men because he advocated polygmony. Makana allied himself with Ndlambe, one of the leading Xhosa chiefs who had been driven eastwards across the Fish River in 1811/12. Makana’s forces had been attacked by British forces in December 1818 when their cattle had been scattered and their homes destroyed with the British artillery.

The attack on Grahamstown
In response to Makana’a attack the British declared martial law and called for reinforcements from the Cape. On 22 April an attack on Grahamstown began but Makana’s forces were forced to withdraw before the withering and superior British firepower. In their withdrawal up to 1,000 men were lost. As Makana’s force retreated, they were to be harried by a British force of 3,400 that had been put together under the command of Colonel  Willshire. The British crossed the Fish River and chased the Xhosa as far as the River Kei killing hundreds of Xhosa and leaving many villages burning in their wake. More than 30,000 cattle were driven away.  
Grahamstown in 1820
Xhosa villages burnt despite Makana's surrender
Makana surrendered and a plea by leading Xhosa warriors for peace was ignored as Xhosa villages continued to be burnt down. Even the homes of Xhosa who had been loyal to the British were burnt. Ngqika, A Xhosa warrior who had fought against Makana had thousands of his acres taken and handed over to settlers who arrived in 1820 to settle the eastern frontier.
The arrival of the 1820 settlers
The 1820 settlers
In London the Government had presented a plan to Parliament which was portrayed as an ‘economic measure’ that would reduce unemployment and alleviate social distress. £50,000 was granted to transport 4,000 volunteers to be taken to the Zuurland (later Albany). 4,000 men women and children from 80,000 applicants, the majority with little experience of farming, would be used to create a settle an area on the frontier and by so doing create a barrier to any further encroachment by the Xhosa. What the settlers were not told was that the land was not suitable for cultivation or that they were going to a war zone. Within a few years over half would leave their allotted land and seek the imagined safety of nearby towns and villages.
1820 settlers begin to make a home - but the unsuitabilioty of thje land for cultivation and lacl of security mant left within a year for the safety of loal villages.
Visitors to the areas described the situation as the San bushmen being hunted down and killed as if they were wild beasts. The British and Dutch military forces operating in the lands of the Xhosa and the San have been described by Richard Gott in his book Britain’s Empire  as death squads. Gott names the principal leader on the eastern front as the local commander, Colonel Henry Somerset, son of Lord Charles Somerset, the former Governor. Somerset’s force was a motley band  of Boer settlers,  British military, British settlers as well  as Khoikhoi soldiers and Temby and Gealeka warriors.
The San people decimated
One result of the arrival of this group of settlers was to encourage Dutch farmers to look further north – to the  lands of the San beyond the Orange River - for land to farm when  land in the Cape became impossible to find. As the Dutch moved into the land of the San, they lost about 100,000 square miles of prime hunting terrain. Not only was land lost but the San people were subjected to appalling atrocities as Dutch commando units sought out San people and indiscriminately murdered them.  
San tribesmen
The arrival of Governor D'Urban
In August 1828 Matiwane, an African chief camped on the eastern border, was attacked by Somerset’s men who then perpetrated a massacre leaving bodies with heads almost decapitated, pregnant females ripped open, legs broken and heads severed. When the Governor of the Cape Colony, General Sir Richard Bourke, planned to initiate an investigation he was promptly transferred to New South Wales.
A Xhosa warrior
The Fish River
In 1834 a new Governor was sent out to the Cape, and given the task of preparing the colony for their freedom  -by December 1834. He was General Benjamin D’Urban, a veteran of the Peninsula Wars and Caribbean wars of the 1790s. As Governor of Guyana he had to repress a slave rebellion in 1823 – which was a factor in the decision to abolish slavery in the Empire in 1833.
The Xhosa expelled from the land east of the Fish River
The abolition of slavery in 1833 together with the Ordnance of 50 which gave the Khoikhoi people of the Cape Colony the same rights as whites, and the events on the eastern border of the Cape Colony were instrumental in the decision of Dutch farmers to leave the Cape in the late 1830s.
Officials of the new Whig government under Melbourne in 1834 wanted D’Urban to make a settlement with the Xhosa by using the same system as was used in India – that of working with local leaders in a system of indirect government. Chiefs would administer an area under the watchful eye of a British official and in return would receive gifts and money. This was a controversial policy for the Cape and was not acceptable to the settlers who preferred confrontation or annihilation. A deal might have been possible with Maqoma, the Xhosa leader, except for the way he had he had been treated by Colonel Somerset who had been impounding Xhosa cattle and burning villages.
Grahamstown threatened again
Maqoma had been allowed to stay on the land between the Great Fish River and the Keiskamma Rivers until 1829 when it was decided that the land could be used as an area for the Khoikhoi to settle in and thus create a human barrier between the Xhosa and the British settlers in Albany. Instead  of telling Maqoma to leave and give him time to do so, the British began burning down villages to force him back across the Keiskamma. Soon an area of 400 square miles had been settled by the Khoikhoi, many of whom joined the Cape Mounted Rifles which provided a frontier force.
Sir Harry Smith
On 21 December 1833, a large Xhosa force moved across the Great Fish River and  reclaimed their former lands, now Albany. Settlers were slaughtered and homes burnt and the frontier town of Grahamstown was threatened again. The Xhosa then declared a ceasefire and asked for talks. D’Urban’s response was to send  a new military commander, Colonel  Harry Smith to the area. Smith was a veteran of the occupation of Buenos Aires and Waterloo and had been stationed at the Cape since 1829. He rejected the idea of talks and instead prepared for an offensive. In January 1834 his force pushed the Xhosa back and their resistance fell away.

D’Urban came to the border area and decided to provide safety to the British settlers in Albany by annexing all the Xhosa land as  far as the Great Kei River. This though was the land of Hintsa, a much revered and respected chief. Hintsa’s kraal was attacked and when he surrendered he was given demands that he couldn’t possibly meet. The Xhosa  land between the Fish and the Kei Rivers was annexed and called the Province of Queen Adelaide in honour of the Queen consort of William III. A HQ was to be established and called King William’s Town. D’Urban also called for the extermination of the Xhosa people.

The Xhosa began a tactical withdrawal towards the Amatolas hills from where they conducted hit and run raids on British columns. A new campaign by Smith in June 1835, with a force that included 2,000 British regulars,  local  militia and Khoikhoi auxiliaries burnt down 1,000 huts and stores of corn in the new territory, prompting the Xhosa to fight back. The British decided they had no choice but to negotiate and a peace settlement was signed on 17 September. D’Urban decided that the Xhosa in the area, amounting to 70,000 could remain in the Amatolas hills. 2,000 Xhosa had been killed in the campaign and 100 settlers.

The treatment of the Xhosa became known in London and brought a lot of criticism. John Philip, the missionary, compared events on the frontier to events in the French Revolutionary Reign of Terror. The Whig government had come to power in April 1835 with new radical ideas and with a new Colonial Secretary, Lord Glenelg who was an evangelical and a close friend of the radical  MP Thomas Fowell Buxton who chaired the Parliamentary Committee on Aborigines. In hearings in August 1835 a number of people spoke up for the Xhosa in front of the committee, either condemning the military campaigns against the Xhosa or criticising the cost of the campaigns.

Lord Glenelg decided to reverse the annexation of the Xhosa land  and ordered a  British retreat. D’Urban was sacked by Glenelg. For many Dutch farmers this was the last straw, prompting many thousands to leave the Cape Colony to set up home beyond its frontiers.
The final conflict
The Xhosa were left alone to live in the land between the Keiskamma and the Great Kei until in the 1840s demand by the settlers in the Cape Colony for more land led to another conflict. In the 1840s the world price for wool began to soar and was accompanied by demand for more land suitable for sheep farming. The Whig government had been replaced with Peel’s  second cabinet and with the likes of evangelicals like Lord Glenelg no more in the government there was less resistance to the idea of annexation of land for commercial use. This was after all the government that introduced Free Trade. A new policy of annexation of the Xhosa lands was announced and surveying parties began to move across the Keiskamma.
By 1885 the land of the Xhosa had been fully incorporated into the Cape Colony
Sources used
Britain's Empire by Richard Gott, 2011
Making Empire by Richard Price, 2008
Diamonds, Goldand War by Martin Meredith, 2007
The Rise and Fall of the British Empire by Lawrence James, 1994

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