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History of Cape Colony from 1806 to 1870

This article deals with the history of Cape Colony in the future South Africa during the period from 1806 to about 1870.

Refer to History of Cape Colony for accounts of earlier and later phases.

War having again broken out, a British force was once more sent to the Cape. After an engagement (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 line of mountains guarding the vast central plateau, then called "Bushmansland", and had an area of about 120,000 square miles and a population of some 60,000, of whom 27,000 were whites, 17,000 free Hottentots and the rest slaves. These slaves were mostly imported negroes and Malays. Their introduction was the chief cause leading the white settlers to despise manual labour.

Table of contents
1 The First and Second Kaffir Wars
2 The British Settlers of 1820
3 Dislike of British Rule
4 The Third Kaffir War
5 The Great Trek
6 The War of the Axe
7 Extension of British Sovereignty
8 The Convict Agitation and Granting of a Constitution
9 The Kaffir War of 1850—1853
10 The Great Amaxosa Delusion
11 Sir George Grey’s Governorship

The First and Second Kaffir Wars

At the time of the cession to Great Britain the first of several wars with the Kaffirs had been fought. (The numerous minor conflicts which since 1789 had taken place between the colonists and the Kaffirs — the latter sometimes aided by Hottentot allies — are not reckoned in the usual enumeration of the Kaffir wars.) The Kaffirs, who had crossed the colonial frontier, had been expelled from the district between the Sunday River and Great Fish river known as the Zuurveld, which became a sort of neutral ground. For some time previous to 1811 the Kaffirs, however, had taken possession of the neutral ground and committed depredations on the colonists. In order to expel them from the Zuurveld, Colonel John Graham took the field with a mixed force in December 1811, and in the end the Kaffirs were driven beyond the Fish river. On the site of Colonel Graham’s headquarters arose the town which bears his name: Graham's Town (subsequently "Grahamstown").

In 1817 further trouble arose with the Kaffirs, the immediate cause of quarrel being an attempt by the colonial authorities to enforce the restitution of some stolen cattle. Routed in 1818, the Kaffirs rallied, and in the early part of 1819 poured into the colony in vast hordes. 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 arranged that the land between the Fish and Keiskamma rivers should be neutral territory.

The British Settlers of 1820

The war of 1817—19 led to the first introduction of English settlers on a considerable scale, an event fraught with far-reaching consequences. The then governor, Lord Charles Somerset, whose treaty arrangements with the Kaffir chiefs had proved unfortunate, desired to erect a barrier against the Kaffirs by settling white colonists in the border district. In 1820, on the advice of Lord Charles, parliament voted £50,000 to promote emigration to the Cape, and 4000 British were sent out. These people formed what was known as the Albany settlement, founding Port Elizabeth and making Graham’s Town their headquarters. Intended primarily as a measure to secure the safety of the frontier, and regarded by the British government chiefly as a better means of affording a livelihood to a few thousands of the surplus population, this emigration scheme accomplished a far greater work than its authors contemplated. The new settlers, drawn from every part of the British Isles and from almost every grade of society, retained, and their descendants retain, strong sympathy with their original native land. In course of time they formed a counterpoise to the Dutch colonists.

The advent of these immigrants was also the means of introducing the English language at the Cape. In 1825, for the first time, ordinances were issued in English, and in 1827 its use was extended to the conduct of judicial proceedings. Dutch was not, however, ousted, the colonists becoming to a large extent bilingual.

Dislike of British Rule

Although the colony was fairly prosperous, many of the Dutch farmers were as dissatisfied with British rule as they had been with that of the Dutch East India Company, though their ground of complaint was not the same. In 1792 Moravian missions had been established for the benefit of the Hottentots, and in 1799 the London Missionary Society began work among both Hottentots and Kaffirs. The championship of Hottentot grievances by the missionaries caused much dissatisfaction among the majority of the colonists, whose views, it may be noted, temporarily prevailed, for in 1812 an ordinance was issued which empowered magistrates to bind Hottentot children as apprentices under conditions differing little from those of slavery. Meantime, however, the movement for the abolition of slavery was gaining strength in England, and the missionaries at length appealed from the colonists to the mother country.

An incident which occurred in 1815—1816 did much to make permanent the hostility of the frontiersmen to the British. A farmer named Bezuidenhout refused to obey a summons issued on the complaint of a Hottentot, and firing on the party sent to arrest him, was himself killed by the return fire. This caused a miniature rebellion, and on its suppression five ringleaders were publicly hanged at the spot — Slachters Nek — where they had sworn to expel "the English tyrants". The feeling caused by the hanging of these men was deepened by the circumstances of the execution — for the scaffold on which the rebels simultaneously swung broke down from their united weight and the men were afterwards hanged one by one. An ordinance passed in 1827, abolishing the old Dutch courts of landroost and heemraden (resident magistrates being substituted) and decreeing that henceforth all legal proceedings should be conducted in English; the granting in 1828, as a result of the representations of the missionaries, of equal rights with whites to the Hottentots and other free coloured people; the imposition (1830) of heavy penalties for harsh treatment of slaves, and finally the emancipation of the slaves in 1834, — all these things increased the dislike of the farmers for the government. Moreover, the inadequate compensation awarded to slaveowners, and the suspicions engendered by the method of payment, caused much resentment, and in 1835 the trekking of farmers into unknown country in order to escape from an unloved government, which had characterized the 18th century, recommenced. Emigration beyond the colonial border had in fact been continuous for 150 years, but it now took on larger proportions.

The Third Kaffir War

On the eastern border further trouble arose with the Kaffirs, towards whom the policy of the Cape government was marked by much vacillation. On 11 December 1834 a chief of high rank was killed while resisting a commando party. This set the whole of the Kaffir tribes in a blaze. A force of 10,000 fighting 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 dared to resist. Among the worst sufferers were a colony of freed Hottentots who, in 1829, had been settled in the Kat river valley by the British authorities. The fighting power of the colony was scanty, but the governor, Sir Benjamin D’Urban, acted with promptitude, and all available forces were mustered under Colonel (afterwards Sir Harry) Smith, who reached Graham’s Town on 6 January 1835, six days after news of the rising had reached Cape Town. The enemy’s territory was invaded, and after nine months’ fighting the Kaffirs were completely subdued, and a new treaty of peace concluded (on 17 September 1835). By this treaty 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 Wiliam’s Town.

The Great Trek

The action of Sir Benjamin D’Urban was not approved by the home government, and on the instruction of Lord Glenelg, secretary for the colonies, who declared that "the great evil of the Cape Colony consists in its magnitude", the colonial boundary was moved back to the Great Fish river, and eventually (in 1837) Sir Benjamin was dismissed from office. "The Kaffirs," in the opinion of Lord Glenelg, "had an ample justification for war; they had to resent, and endeavoured justly, though impotently, to avenge a series of encroachments" (despatch of 26 December 1835). This attitude towards the Kaffirs was one of the many reasons given by the Trek Boers for leaving Cape Colony. The Great Trek, as it is called, lasted from 1836 to 1840, the trekkers, who numbered about 7000, founding 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 Cape Colony ceased to be the only European community in South Africa, though for long it maintained its predominance. (Up to 1856 Natal was, in fact, a dependency of the Cape.)

Considerable trouble was caused by the emigrant Boers on either side of the Orange river, where the newcomers, the Basutos and other Kaffir tribes, Bushmen and Griquas contended for mastery. The Cape government endeavoured to protect the rights of the natives. On the advice of the missionaries, who exercised great influence with all the non-Dutch races, a number of native states were recognized and subsidized by the Cape government, with the object - not realized — of obtaining peace on this northern frontier. The first of these "Treaty States" recognized was that of the Griquas of Griqualand West. Others were recognized in 1843 and 1844 — in the last-named year a treaty was made with the Popdoes on the eastern border. During this period the condition of affairs on the eastern frontier was deplorable, the government being unable or unwilling to afford protection to the farmers from the depredations of the Kaffirs.

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, which owed its initiation to Sir John Herschel, the astronomer (who lived in Cape Colony from 1834 to 1838), was adopted; Road Boards were established and did much good work; to the staple industries — the growing of wheat, the rearing of cattle and the making of wine — was added sheepraising; and by 1846 wool became the most valuable export from the country. The setting up in 1835 of a legislative council, on which unofficial members had seats, was the first step in giving the colonists a share in the government.

The War of the Axe

Another war with the Kaffirs broke out in 1846 and was known as the War of the Axe, from the murder of a Hottentot, to whom an old Kaffir thief was manacled while being conveyed to Graham’s Town for trial for stealing an axe. The escort was attacked by a party of Kaffirs and the Hottentot killed. The surrender of the murderer was refused, and war was declared in March 1846. The Gaikas were the chief tribe engaged in the war, assisted during the course of it by the Tambukies. After some reverses the Kaffirs were signally defeated on 7 June 1846 by General Somerset on the Gwangu, a few miles from Fort Peddie. Still the war went on, till at length Sandili, the chief of the Gaikas, surrendered, followed gradually by the other chiefs; and by the beginning of 1848 the Kaffirs were again subdued, after twenty-one months’ fighting.

Extension of British Sovereignty

In the last month of the War of the Axe (December 1847) Sir Harry Smith reached Cape Town as governor of the colony, and with his arrival the Glenelg policy was reversed. By proclamation, on 17 December 1847, he extended the frontier of the colony northward to the Orange river and eastward to the Keiskamma river, and on 23 December 1847, at a meeting of the Kaffir chiefs, Sir Harry announced the annexation of the country between the Keiskamma and the Kei rivers to the British crown, thus re-absorbing the territory abandoned by order of Lord Glenelg. It was not, however, incorporated with the Cape, but made a crown dependency under the name of British Kaifraria. For a time the Kaffirs accepted quietly the new order of things. 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

In the colony itself a crisis arose out of the proposal to make it a convict station. In 1848 a circular was sent by the 3rd Earl Grey, then colonial secretary, to the governor of the Cape (and to other colonial governors), asking him to ascertain the feelings of the colonists regarding the reception of a certain class of convicts, the intention being to send to South Africa Irish peasants who had been driven into crime by the famine of 1845. Owing to some misunderstanding, a vessel, the Neptune, was despatched to the Cape before the opinion of the colonists had been received, having on board 289 convicts, among whom were John Mitchell, the Irish rebel, and his colleagues. When the news reached the Cape that this vessel was on her way, the people of the colony became violently excited; and they established an anti-convict association, by which they bound themselves to cease from all intercourse of every kind with persons in any way connected "with the landing, supplying or employihg convicts". On 19 September 1849 the Neptune arrived in Simon’s Bay. Sir Harry Smith, confronted by a violent public agitation, agreed not to land the convicts, but to keep them on board ship in Simon’s Bay till 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 having been in Simon’s Bay for five months. The agitation did not, however, pass away without other important results, since it led to another movement, the object of which was to obtain a free representative government for the colony. This concession, which had been previously promised by Lord Grey, was granted by the British government, and, in 1854 a constitution was established of almost unprecedented liberality.

The Kaffir War of 1850—1853

The anti-convict agitation had scarcely ceased when the colony was once again involved in war. The Kaffirs bitterly resented their loss of independence, and ever since the last war had been secretly preparing to renew the struggle. Sir Harry Smith, informed of the threatening attitude of the natives, proceeded to the frontier, and summoned Sandili and the other chiefs to an interview. Sandili refused obedience; upon which, at an assembly of other chiefs (October 1850), the governor declared him deposed from his chieftainship, and appointed an Englishman, Mr Brownlee, a magistrate, to be temporary chief of the Gaika tribe. The governor appears to have believed that the measures he took would prevent a war and that Sandili could be arrested without armed resistance. On 24 December 1850 Colonel George Mackinnon, being sent with a small force with the object of securing the chief, was attacked in a narrow defile by a large body of Kaffirs, and compelled to retreat with some loss. This was the signal for a general rising of the Gaika tribe. The settlers in the military villages, which had been established along the frontier, assembled in fancied security to celebrate Christmas Day, were surprised, many of them killed, and their houses given to the flames.

Other disasters followed in quick succession. A small patrol of military was cut off to a man. The greater part of the Kaffir police deserted, many of them carrying off their arms and accoutrements. Emboldened by success, the enemy in immense force surrounded and attacked Fort Cox, where the governor was stationed with an inconsiderable force. More than one unsuccessful attempt was made to relieve Sir Harry; but his spirit was equal to the occasion. At the head of 150 mounted riflemen, accompanied by Colonel Mackinnon, he dashed out of the fort, and, through a heavy fire of the enemy, rode to King William’s Town — a distance of 12 miles.

Meanwhile a new enemy appeared. Some 900 of the Kat river Hottentots, who had in former wars been firm allies of the British, threw in their lot with their hereditary enemies — the Kaffirs. They were not without excuses. They complained that while doing burgher duty in former wars — the Cape Mounted Rifles consisted largely of Hottentot levies — 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 combination was formed with the Kaffirs to take up arms to sweep the Europeans away and establish a Hottentot republic. Within a fortnight of the attack on Colonel Mackinnon the Kat river Hottentots were also in arms. Their revolt was followed by that of the Hottentots at other missionary stations; and part of the Hottentots of the Cape Mounted Rifles followed their example, including the very men who had escorted the governor from Fort Cox. But numbers of Hottentots remained loyal and the Fingo Kaffirs likewise sided with the British.

After the confusion caused by the sudden outbreak had subsided, and preparations had been made, Sir Harry Smith and his force turned the tide of war against the Kaffirs. The Amatola mountains were stormed; and the paramount chief Kreli, who all along covertly assisted the Gaikas, 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 judgment in conducting the war, and he was succeeded by Lieutenant-General Cathcart. Kreli was again attacked and reduced to submission. The Amatolas were finally cleared of the Kaffirs, and small forts erected among them to prevent their reoccupation.

The British commanders were hampered throughout by the insufficiency of their forces, and it was not until March 1853 that this most sanguinary of Kaffir wars was brought to a conclusion, after a loss of many hundred British soldiers. Shortly afterwards, British Kaifraria was made a crown colony. The Hottentot settlement at Kat river remained, but the Hottentot power within the colony was now finally crushed.

The Great Amaxosa Delusion

From 1853 the Kaffir tribes on the east gave little trouble to the colony. This was due, in large measure, to an extraordinary delusion which arose among the Amaxosa in 1856, and led in 1857 to the death of some 50,000 persons. This incident is one of the most remarkable instances of misplaced faith recorded in history. The Amaxosa had not accepted their defeat in 1853 as decisive and were preparing to renew the struggle with the white men. At this juncture, May 1856, a girl named Nongkwase told her father that on going to draw water from a stream she had met strangers of commanding aspect. The father, Mblakza, went to see the men, who told him that they were spirits of the dead, who had come, if their behests were obeyed, to aid the Kaffirs with their invincible power to drive the white man from the land. Mhlakza repeated the message to his chief, Sarili, one of the most powerful Kaffir rulers. Sarili ordered the commands of the spirits to be obeyed. These orders were, at first, that the Amaxosa were to destroy their fat cattle. The girl Nongkwase, 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 utterly perish.

The people heard and obeyed. Sarili is believed by many persons to have been the instigator of the prophecies. Certainly some of the principal chiefs regarded all that was done simply as the preparation for a last struggle with the whites, their plan being to throw the whole Amaxosa nation fully armed and in a famishing condition upon the colony.

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 host upon the colony had committed an incredible blunder in neglecting to call the nation together under pretext of witnessing the resurrection. This error they realized too late, and endeavoured by fixing the resurrection for another day to gather the clans, but blank despair had taken the place of hope and faith, and it was only as starving suppliants that the Amaxosa sought the British.

The colonists did what they could to save life, but thousands perished miserably. In their extremity many of the Kaffirs turned to cannibalism, and one instance of parents eating their own child is authenticated. Among the survivors was the girl Nongkwase; her father perished. A vivid narrative of the whole incident will be found in G. M. Theal’s History and Geography of South Africa (3rd edition, London, 1878), from which this account is condensed. The country depopulated as the result of this delusion 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

In 1854 Sir George Grey became governor of the Cape, and the colony owed much to his administration. The policy, imposed by the home government, of abandoning responsibility beyond the Orange river, was, he perceived, a mistaken one, and the scheme he prepared in 1858 for a confederation of all South Africa was rejected by Great Britain. By his energetic action, however, in support of the missionaries Moffat and David Livingstone, Sir George kept open for the British the road through Bechuanaland to the far interior. To Sir George was also due the first attempt, missionary effort apart, to educate the Kaffirs and to establish British authority firmly among them, a result which the self-destruction of the Amaxosa rendered easy. Beyond the Kei 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 been increased by the opening up 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, begun in 1859, 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.

In 1865 the province of British Kaifraria was incorporated with the colony, 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 liquor to the natives, and the free trade in intoxicants which followed had most deplorable results among the Kaffir 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 (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 Basutos, 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 Great 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.

Original text from

The story continues in: History of Cape Colony from1870 to 1899