Boers and Bantu in South Africa

Boers and Bantu in South Africa
Boers and Bantu in South Africa

The first encounters between Europeans and the Bantu- (Xhosa, Zulu, among others) and Khoisanspeaking peoples of southern Africa occurred during the European race to discover sea trade routes to Asia in the 15th century.

The first Dutch settlers, called Boers (Dutch for “farmer”), developed a colonial society that expanded into African-occupied territories that themselves were experiencing great social and political change.

With the introduction of British rule during the French Revolution, intra-European hostility worsened in both Africa and the world. The political and cultural landscape became a powderkeg as the British colonial government, various groups of settlers, missionaries, and Africans on the Cape interacted.

The discovery of gold and diamonds in the middle of the 19th century intensified the conflict between the British and the Boers (also called Afrikaners, the Dutch word for “African”) into war and resulted in greater European control and influence over the lives of African peoples.

In 1488 Bartolomeu Dias of Portugal was the first European to reach South Africa, in a journey around the southern tip of Africa in search of a sea trade route to Asia. While Dias only traveled as far as Algoa Bay (location of present-day Port Elizabeth), another Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape to India in 1497.

The Cape itself did not become a site of permanent settlement until 1652, when Jan van Riebeeck established a station at the Cape of Good Hope for the Dutch East India Company (VOC). The Cape became a colony of European settlement in 1657 when the VOC settled employees on company-plotted farms.

The population grew as company servants retired to the colony. In 1688 a large group of French Huguenots arrived in the colony, fleeing Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes. In 1658 the first ships of African slaves arrived at Table Bay; other slaves would soon be delivered from Dutch colonies in Asia.

The Dutch East India Company and, after 1795, the British, struggled to maintain stability as colonial farmers pushed the boundaries of settlement into the interior. While officially off-limits to the slave trade, Africans in and near the Cape Colony experienced an increasingly troublesome relationship with European settlers.

During the late 17th century the desire for arable land sparked violent conflict between white farmers and pastoral Khoikhoi peoples, as well as amongst the Khoikhoi themselves. By the late 18th century Cape Khoikhoi had been all but destroyed by dispossession and disease.

Between the 1770s and the 1830s African societies were experiencing a period of rapid change and conflict called the Mfecane (the Zulu word used to describe turmoil). While the Mfecane is an incredibly controversial topic among scholars—it refers to a period of warfare and migration caused by the expansion and consolidation of the Zulu kingdom under Shaka Zulu.

Refugees often fled southward into Xhosaland as pressure was mounting from European settlers in the south, who began moving into Xhosa territory during the 18th century. The hunger for land by Africans and a growing population of European settlers only intensified, as did the conflict between and amongst them.

In 1795 the Revolutionary French government invaded the Dutch Republic and established a new regime on a French model and under French control. This new government seized the Cape Colony from the Dutch East India Company.

The British, at war with France, perceived French control of the strategic colony at the Cape of Good Hope as a threat and forcibly took it in September 1795. As a result of the Treaty of Amiens, the colony was returned to the Dutch, only to be seized again when hostilities between the French and British resumed. After the defeat of Napoleon I, the Cape remained a British colony.

The Cape itself was ecologically inhospitable and lacked, as far as the British knew, many natural resources. The British cared mostly for its place on the sea route to India. Despite few immediate changes to the colony in the wake of British rule, the pace of Anglicization quickened during the 1820s, as did the spread of English-style schools and the introduction of more strictly English models of political, economic, and judicial organization.

Starting in 1820 many settlers were imported from Britain. While Dutch-speaking Trekboers had been emigrating from the colony since the 1770s, thousands of Afrikaner Voortrekkers (“pioneers”) left the British colony during the 1830s and 1840s during a migration known as the Great Trek. It later became a key mythological moment of Afrikaner nationalism.

British occupation also introduced extensive missionary activity to the Cape, starting with the arrival of the Nonconformist London Missionary Society (LMS) in 1795. The role of missionary societies in educating and protecting Africans and in advocating for the abolishment of slavery further intensified already existing hostilities between the British colonial government and the Afrikaners, most of whom resented British presence.

In 1833 the British Parliament abolished slavery, enraging many slave-owning settlers while not radically improving conditions for former slaves in the colony. As early as 1809 the British colonial government employed legal ordinances to control the movement and employment of Africans who worked for white settlers in colony. On the frontier, land hunger and conflict between European settlers and Africans generally worsened.

By the 1770s white settlers had moved beyond the colonial boundary into an area west of the Great Fish River called the Zuurveld. The British sought to create a colonial boundary that would separate blacks and whites.

In 1811 under the governorship of Sir John Craddock, Colonel John Graham (for whom Grahamstown was named) led a British, Afrikaner, and Khoikhoi force to expel Ndlambe’s Xhosa from the Zuurveld. The Xhosa responded by raiding settler farms and stealing cattle.

The colonial governor Lord Charles Somerset created a “spoor” system, by which farmers could seek reprisals for their stolen property. The Xhosa chief Ng-qika allied with the British against his uncle Ndlambe. In 1819 a prophet named Makhanda Nxele led a massive Xhosa force toward colonial troops at Grahamstown, only to be eventually driven back over the Fish River.

With the Xhosa defeat, Somerset abandoned even his Xhosa ally and created a buffer zone between white and Bantu settlements on Ngqika’s former land. In 1840 the British forced Ngqika’s son Maqoma off of his lands along the Kat River.

The frontier wars continued. During the Sixth Frontier War, the British commander Sir Harry Smith and the colonial governor Benjamin D’Urban invited the Xhosa chief Hintsa to peace talks, only to have him shot dead and his ears cut off.

During the Seventh Frontier War (also known as the War of the Axe), the plunder of colonial troops starved the Xhosa into surrender. D’Urban annexed the land between the Fish and Kei Rivers as the Queen Adelaide Province but was forced to rescind his claim by the metropolitan government. In 1850 Sir Harry Smith, now the colonial governor, provoked the Eighth Frontier War and established a separate British colony named British Kaffraria.

In 1855 the outbreak of lung sickness decimated the Xhosa’s livestock. A messianic movement started when a girl named Nongqawuse believed that her ancestors had appeared to her. They told her that the whites would be swept into the sea if the Xhosa destroyed their cattle and crops.

The Great Cattle Killing that followed resulted in mass starvation, conflict, suicide, and migration. The colonial governor Sir George Grey used this massive disruption to further expand “civilization” to the area west of the Kei River, where a group of German legionnaires and other immigrants were settled by the colonial government.

Many Voortrekkers had traveled northward into Natal, Transorangia, and the Transvaal with the intention of establishing new states independent from the British. The victory of Andries Pretorius at the Battle of Blood River (Ncome) over the Zulus became a national holiday for Afrikaner nationalists.

A possibly fake treaty with the Zulu king Dingaan resulted in the creation of the Afrikaner republic of Natal, its capital at Pietermaritizburg and Pretorius as its president. British colonial administrators worried about destabilization and access to Port Natal (Durban). In 1843 Britain annexed Natal, and most of the Afrikaners abandoned it.

In the 1850s two new Afrikaner republics were established: the South African Republic, or Transvaal, and the Orange Free State (results of the Sand River and Bloemfontein Conventions respectively). The British recognized Afrikaner independence north of the Orange and Vaal Rivers.

However, the discovery of South Africa’s mineral wealth—huge deposits of diamonds and gold—forever changed the political, social, and economic landscape and would renew hostilities between the British and the Afrikaners.

By 1872 the British granted its South African colonies self-government. In a short period of time, the Cape transformed from a relatively poor outpost of empire to a wealthy nexus of gold and diamond mines. Infrastructure rapidly expanded as immigrants with dreams of wealth poured into places like Kimberley.

The government at home aimed to consolidate British power on the Cape by creating a federated state with Dominion status. In the Transvaal, efforts to resist British annexation were led by Paul Kruger

Afrikaner forces defeated British colonial forces led by Sir George Colley at Mujuba Hill in February 1881, and the British government led by William Gladstone made peace with the Afrikaners in 1881, ending the First Anglo-Boer War (the British name) or the First War of Freedom (the Afrikaner name).

In 1886 huge gold reserves were discovered at Witwatersrand in the Transvaal. Kruger recognized the stabilizing importance that such wealth gave his republic, but an increasing population of foreigners, or Uitlanders, seemed to threaten Boer sovereignty. The Uitlanders, conversely, complained about the way they were treated in the Transvaal.

In 1895 the colonial governor and mineral baron Cecil Rhodes schemed, with the approval of the British colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain, to overthrow the Transvaal government. The resulting Jameson Raid failed to incite a widespread Uitlander uprising and came to symbolize the British lust for power in South Africa.

Kruger was overwhelmingly reelected as president in 1898. In response, Chamberlain sent Sir Alfred Milner to the Cape as High Commissioner. Milner sought to use Uitlander disenfranchisement to create support for British intervention. Ultimately, the British desired not only gold but also control of a consolidated South Africa.

After some negotiations, Kruger, assuming war was inevitable, declared war on the British. The brutally fought Anglo-Boer War, or South African War, was a turning point not only in Anglo-Boer relations but also in the way Europeans treated Africans in South Africa.