South Africa History In the 19th Century



During the Napoleonic Wars, the administration of Cape Colony changed. After the Frnech conquered the Netherlands, the British seized control of Cape Colony in 1795, returned it to the Dutch in 1803 and seized it again in 1806. After 1806, they gradually extended their control along the coast to the east. The Boers resented British rule, even though British control brought economic benefits to the Boers.

British control increased the opportunities for Boer farmers to export sheep and wool, and hunters to export ivory obtained from the interior. On the other hand, the British angered Boers by abolishing slavery in 1807, although they reduced the impact in 1809 with the “Hottentot Law.” Under this law, all blacks were required to carry passes with the name of their employer and residence when they were in public, and any black found without a pass could be taken by any white for labor.

When news of the Hottentot Law produced an outcry in Britain, the Cape Colony administration added provisions that required whites to provide a written contract to their black workers and gave blacks the right to sue their employer in court for breach of contract. That angered Boers, especially after a British judge toured rural areas to hear lawsuits brought by African workers. Boers were further angered when Christian missionaries, who began to arrive from Britain after 1815, championed African rights and got the government to pass Ordinance 50, which removed the most restrictive provisions of the Hottentot Law in 1828.

The final straw for many Boers came in 1833 when the British parliament outlawed the ownership of slaves throughout the empire. Poorer Boers who owned only a few slaves were especially agrieved because they could not afford to pay enough wages to attract replacement workers. Meanwhile richer Boers protested the loss of what they considered to be a huge capital investment. The new law prompted a mass migration of Boer farmers (known as Trekboer), first towards Natal, which the British annexed in 1845, then towards the interior in Orange Free State and eventually farther to the northeast into the region of Transvaal (literally “beyond the Vaal River,” a tributary of the Orange River).The British did not try to stop Boers, since their departure reduced the tension in their own territory, and instead ratified the results with a pair of treaties: the Sand River Convention of 1852 which recognized the independence of Boer Republic of the Transvaal, and the Bloemfontein Convention of 1854 which recognized the independence of a second Boer republic, the Orange Free State.

Tensions remained, however, between the Boers who remained behind in Cape Colony and the British administration. Those tensions were increased by the Trekboer attitude towards the remaining independent African kingdoms, which the British government perceived as provocative. But some of the British living in Cape Colony sympathized with the Boer resentment of the “imperial factor”–i.e. meddling by London in local affairs, and animosity towards Great Britain increased even further in the 1870s when the British annexed West Griqualand, site of the Kimberley diamond discoveries. When Disraeli’s Colonial Secretary Lord Carnarvon tried to organize a federation of the British and Boer territories in 1875 (modeled after the 1867 federation of French and English provinces of Canada), the Boer leaders turned him down.




The discovery of diamonds in 1867 near the Vaal River, some 550 miles northeast of Cape Town, ended the isolation of the Boers and changed South African history. The discovery triggered a “diamond rush” that attracted people from all over the world and turned Kimberley into a town of 50,000 within five years. At first, both whites and blacks worked independent claims in four areas surrounding Kimberley, but as the mines went deeper, they became more difficult to work, and a number of businessmen managed to consolidate them into larger mines. One of them was Cecil Rhodes who arrived in South Africa at age 16 and eventually gained control over most of the diamond mines through his De Beers Consolidated Company. Another was Barney Barnato, the son of a London pub owner who arrived in 1873 at age 21 with a small amount of cash and “forty boxes of cheap cigars” which he used to buy mining claims. A third was Alfred Beit, the son of a Hamburg merchant who arrived in 1875 and stayed on to organize the consolidation of small mines so they could be exploited with heavy mining equipment.
Kimberley in 1870, only three years after Europeans started to mine diamonds


In 1886, a second major mineral find was made along a large cliff thirty miles south of the Boer capital at Pretoria. The cliff, known locally as the “Witwatersrand” (literally “white water ridge”) contained the world’s largest deposit of gold-bearing ore. Although it was not as rich as gold finds in Canada and Australia, its consistency made it especially well-suited to industrial mining methods. At first the “Rand” became covered by small claims just like at Kimberley, but men like Rhodes, Barnato and Beit who had become wealthy in the diamond mines invested their profits in gold-mining. Due to the relatively low quality of the ore, it required a lot of digging required to produce acceptable amounts of gold, and that could only be accomplished by using costly heavy machinery. That ruled out most small miners, but other Europeans with access to capital invested in Rand gold mines, and the diamond moguls were never able to achieve the same level of control as they had at Kimberley. By 1889, the South African gold mines were controlled by 124 companies organized into nine “groups” based on their sources of financing.

Both mining regions faced the same problem with labor–how to find enough workers and how to keep their cost low. In each case, local governments passed laws at the insistence of the mining companies that limited the right of black Africans to own mining claims or to trade their products. Ultimately, black Africans were relegated to performing manual labor while whites got the skilled jobs or positions as labor foremen. In addition, black workers were forbidden by law from living wherever they wanted, and instead forced to stay in segregated neighborhoods or mining compounds. The political power of the mining companies became so great that once the Kimberley area was annexed by Cape Colony in 1880, it took only a decade before diamond “baron” Cecil Rhodes was elected prime minister of Cape Colony.




Although they resisted federation with the British, the Transvaal Boers could not ignore the threat possessed by the independent Zulu state to the southeast. The Zulu were a subgroup of the Nguni Bantu who occupied the eastern slopes and coastal plain of South Africa, a dry region with numerous small rivers that provided relative prosperity. The Nguni were semi- nomadic pastoralists who also planted staple crops during the winter rainy season and lived in small, independent homesteads that were loosely organized into relatively small states. That began to change at the beginning of the 19th century when a series of dry years followed decades of good rainfall, population growth and territorial expansion. The result was overcrowding that culminated in conflict over access to water and good land.



Southern Africa in 1870
southern Africa in 1870

By 1800, the Nguni were organized into three main groups: Sobhuza’s Ngwane, Dingiswayo’s Mthethwa (which included the Zulu), and Zwide’s Ndwandwe. One of Dingiswayo’s military commanders was Shaka, the leader of the Zulu, and under his leadership, the Zulu adopted several novel military and administrative tactics that made their army the most successful in the region. They included the use of short “stabbing spears” called assegais for close-in fighting and cowhide shields to protect against thrown weapons. The Zulu also employed shock tactics based on stealth and surprise, and a “cow-horn” formation with a strong center and swift enveloping wings that proved particularly useful in major battles. Finally, the Zulu organized their society using “age-sets” to initiate youths into what was in effect a professional army. This system allowed the Zulu to incorporate defeated enemies into their army, while the use of indunas (provincial authorities appointed by the king) insured loyally and prevented rebellion. As a result of series of wars (known collectively as the Mfecane), the Zulu became the most powerful African state in southern Africa in the 1820s. Some of the people they defeated fled west across the Drakensberg Mountains rather than accept Zulu authority, and there they encountered the advancing Trekboer  from Cape Colony.

By the 1870s the Zulu, led by King Cetshwayo, occupied a kingdom located between British Natal and the Boer Transvaal Republic. For a time, Cetshwayo maintained good relations with Natal in an effort to counter Boer encroachment on Zulu land, but in 1877, Sir Theophilus Shepstone, the British Secretary for Native Affairs in Natal, convinced the Transvaal government to accept British annexation. Concerned about Boer resistance to this move, Shepstone decided to sacrifice good relations with the Zulu. He told the British High Commissioner for Cape Colony, Sir Bartle Frere, that the Zulu threatened the proposed annexation, so in December 1878, Frere ordered Cetshwayo to disband his army, but Cetshwayo refused and mobilized 30,000 soldiers instead. On January 11, 1879, the British invaded Zululand with about 7,000 regular troops, a similar number of black African “levees” and a thousand white volunteers. Ignoring advice from a number of Boer authorities, the British camped at Isandhlwana where they lost more than 1,600 soldiers to a Zulu attack on January 22, 1879. Another British outpost at Rorke’s Drift on the Zululand-Natal border withstood a second Zulu attack, however, and after reinforcements arrived, the British managed to conquer the Zulu capital at Ulindi by July 1879.

As long as the Zulu remained a threat, the Boers accepted British annexation. However, once the Zulu were defeated, the Transvaal Boers claimed that the 1877 annexation was a violation of the Sand River and Bloemfontein Conventions of 1852 and 1854 href=””>see above). While a new British government hesitated (Disraeli was replaced by Gladstone as prime minister in 1880), Boer forces won a series of victories that culminated at Majuba Hill in February 1881. The British relented and signed the Convention of Pretoria that year, and the Convention of London in 1884. These agreements restored Transvaal autonomy but did not specifically recognize Transvaal independence.

The British attempt to annex Transvaal was their biggest incursion into the area, but there were others. In 1868, the British annexed Basutoland in the Drakensberg Mountains following an appeal from Moshesh, the leader of a mixed group of African refugees from the Zulu wars who sought British protection against the Boers. In the 1880s, Bechuanaland (modern Botswana, located north of the Orange River) became the object of dispute between the Germans to the west, the Boers to the east, and Cape Colony to the south. Although Bechuanaland had no economic value, the “Missionaries Road” passed through it towards territory farther north. After the Germans annexed Damaraland and Namaqualand (modern Namibia) in 1884, the British annexed Bechuanaland in 1885.

In 1886, the balance of power in the region started to tip towards the Boers thanks to the gold discoveries at Witwatersrand. Although older Boers were displeased because the gold rush threatened their pastoral way of life, younger Boers saw the gold as a means to obtain real political power.



With the major African kingdoms out of the way and the Boer Republics under British authority, the way was clear for British imperialists to carry out their plans. Perhaps the greatest of all was Cecil Rhodes, the dominant European figure in southern Africa in the late 19th century. He originally came to Natal in 1869 to recover from tuberculosis at his older brother’s farm, but instead of farming, Rhodes spent most of his time looking for diamonds at Kimberley. For a decade, Rhodes commuted between Oxford (England) where he earned a university degree, and Kimberley (Orange Free State), where he amassed a fortune in diamonds.


Besides being a shrewd businessman, Rhodes was also a dreamer who wanted to unite the world under an Anglo-Saxon empire. He considered the American War for Independence to have been an enormous tragedy because of the way it divided English-speaking peoples, and he hoped that the English in Europe and America would eventually reunite. Rhodes even wrote in 1877 about his vision of an empire that included Africa, South America, the East Asian Coast, most of the Holy Land, and South Pacific islands.


By 1880, Rhodes was a multi-millionaire and well-known enough to run for election as an Member of Parliament in the Cape Colony. He became interested in the land north of the Transvaal, specifically Matabeleland and Mashonaland in the modern country of Zimbabwe. Originally, occupied by the Shona people, the region was conquered by the Matabele people in the 1840s during the Zulu wars. By the 1880s, Europeans believed that there was gold in Matabeleland because of its location between rich mineral deposits already discovered in Katanga (Congo) and Witwatersrand (South Africa). The Matabele leader Lobenguela used diplomacy to pit European powers against each other, and eventually granted all of the rights to mining in his territory to Cecil Rhodes in the mistaken belief that all he wanted was gold.Rhodes wanted gold, but he also wanted to extend the British empire in order to create a continuous land route from Cape Town to Egypt, which came under control of the British in 1882. Rhodes promoted his plan for the “Cape-to-Cairo route” as a means to strengthen the British position in two critical locations and a way to provide work for England’s unemployed. After getting Lobenguela to agree, Rhodes chartered a mining company and got several rival companies–notably the Bechuanaland Exploration Company–to sign over their interests to him and withdraw. Despite the fact that Rhodes had many enemies in Britain (including missionaries, the London Chamber of Commerce and some members of the South African parliament) who interpreted his ardent defense of Cape Colony interests as anti-imperial, Rhodes received a charter for his “British South Africa Company” in October 1889. For the government of Great Britain, this was a low-cost way to prevent Germans, Boers or Portuguese from occupying Matabeleland.

In September 1890, Rhodes’ company established a fort at Salisbury in Mashonaland, but within three years, the British government concluded that Rhodes had lied about the gold, Lobenguela’s authority and how the costs of administration would be paid. By then, it was politically impossible for the government to repudiate Rhodes’ charter because it would have meant giving up control over the area. Lobenguela tried to repudiate the agreement by returning Rhodes’ payment and killing the counselor (Lotje) who had arranged it, but Rhodes ignored him. Lobengula eventually died (probably from smallpox) while fleeing Rhodes’ forces.

Rhodes’ reputation in Britain was furthered damaged by the Jameson Raid in 1895. It resulted from conditions in the Witwatersrand goldfields where the Transvaal government, having learned from the example at Kimberley, denied civil rights and the vote to the thousands of foreigners who rushed to the goldfields. In the hope of annexing the Transvaal, the British encouraged theseuitlanders (literally “outlanders”) to revolt. Rhodes sent a detachment of the British South Africa Company’s police force, under the command of Leander Starr Jameson, south from Bechuanaland to assist the uprising. Jameson learned too late that the revolt had failed, and was forced to surrender to Transvaal authorities on January 2, 1896, 25 miles short of Johannesburg.

Jameson’s surrender embarrassed both Rhodes and the British government, since it came as part of an attempt to overthrow a government with whom Britain had a treaty. Rhodes was forced to resign as the Cape Colony prime minister, while Joseph Chamberlain, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, had to hide his role in the affair. Jameson’s capture also triggered a revolt in Matabeleland, and after the raid, the German Kaiser Wilhelm II sent a telegram of congratulations to President Paul Kruger of the Transvaal. That increased British fears of a Boer-German alliance, as did the completion of a railroad in 1894 from the Transvaal to Delagoa Bay in Portuguese Mozambique. British fears were further heightened when the Transvaal government began to buy large quantities of modern weapons from German firms.

Despite all that, Rhodes’ British South African Company survived until 1923 as the last remaining British chartered company. Rhodes died in much earlier, in March 1902, only a few months before the end of the Anglo-Boer War. He was 49 years old.



With tensions between the British government and the two Boer Republics at an all-time high after the Jameson Raid, the appointment of Alfred Milner as High Commissioner for South Africa in 1897 was the equivalent of throwing kerosene on a fire. Milner had been a brilliant student at Oxford University and had served in Egypt where he developed a reputation as an authoritarian leader. Milner believed that the British were a moral right and duty to rule inferior peoples and his job was to to reverse the decline of Britain’s influence in world politics. As a result, he paid no attention to local views and ignored moderates on both sides. Instead, he encouraged the most radical of the Transvaal uitlanders to call for British intervention and used that to justify an ultimatum issued in September 1899. Transvaal’s President Kruger responded with his own ultimatum, and after it expired on October 11, the two sides went to war.


The Boers struck first. Boer Republican commandos attacked Natal and Cape Colony in three directions and won battles against the British on all three fronts in December 1899. The following year, they got bogged down while besieging British garrisons at Ladysmith (Natal), Kimberley and Mafeking (Cape Colony). British reinforcements began to arrive in large numbers and by the end of the year, they had ended the sieges, captured 4000 Boers and occupied the Boer cities of Bloemfontein, Pretoria and Johannesburg. Transvaal President Kruger fled into exile through Mozambique and the British took over the entire railroad network. In December, the British annexed the two Boer Republics and the British commander returned to England.

His return was premature. The Boers continued to fight a guerilla war by seizing supplies, cutting rail lines and staging raids into the coastal colonies. A new British commander, Lord Kitchener, resorted to scorched earth tactics to stop them, including the use of concentration camps and the destruction of 30,000 Boer farms. Captured Boer fighters were exiled to Ceylon, Bermuda and St. Helena while nearly 28,000 Boer civilians, mostly children, died in the camps of dysentery, measles and other diseases. By 1902, the surviving Boer fighters were exhausted and by a vote of 54 to 6, their leaders agreed to sign the Peace of Vereeniging on May 31, 1902 in Pretoria.

The Anglo-Boer War raised questions at home and abroad about British imperial policy. Some opponents criticized the enormous cost of the war while others questioned what British interest was served by conquering European farmers who were fighting for their independence. The civilian death toll in the concentration camps also cast doubt on the morality of British imperialism.


Written by Ph

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