Natal, Transvaal, Governor’s Recall

Backtracking from the Xhosa, by 1839 the Boers had established the Republic of Natalia along the coast of the Indian Ocean. While their immediate neighbors the Zulu were still not exactly pleased with the influx, their recent defeat and the beginning of a nasty and fratricidal civil war hamstrung their ability to do much about the Trekkers for the time being. It’s a little too soon to count them out just yet though.

While it's a little dated, this 1876 map of South Africa gives a good idea of where the various colonies and states are located around this time. Photo Credit: Batholomeu's of London
While it’s a little dated, this 1876 map of South Africa gives a good idea of where the various colonies and states are located around this time.
Photo Credit: Batholomeu’s of London

While the Zulus were busy, the establishment of Natalia finally caught the attention of the British. Looking up from his punch ups with the local tribesmen, the governor du jour George Napier decided that Natalia was a little too critically located to ignore. Sitting as it did right along the Indian trade route and already in the process of developing a decent port, Natal looked nice enough to be worth a spot of military bother. There were other practical reasons for intervention as well. Unlike a lot of his other contemporaries, Napier was actually very concerned with implementing what passed for humanitarian niceties under British colonial rule at the time, and he was troubled by the reports of Trekker conflicts with both the Xhosa and Zulu. Napier first sent the Trekkers a polite note, reminding them that no, leaving British territory did not give them leave to stop being British colonists, even if they were in fact Dutch. When the Bores pointed this out and told Napier to jump in a lake, he fell back on his experience from the Napoleonic Wars and occupied the entire country in 1843.[1] Natalia ceased to be, and British rule suddenly jumped east with the newly rechristened Colony of Natal. Deciding that they hadn’t voted with their feet as effectively as they could have, most of the region’s settlers promptly packed their bags and moved north, linking up with other Boers, two new republics began incubation north and west of Natal, the Orange Free State and the South African Republic or Transvaal.

"Half-Mad" Smith, as anyone clearly would be with that facial hair. Engraving Credit: J Brown, for Edward Henry Nolan
“Half-Mad” Smith, as anyone clearly would be with that facial hair. Engraving Credit: J Brown, for Edward Henry Nolan

This departure did not go entirely unchallenged, as Napier was replaced by his fellow Napoleonic War veteran Sir Harry Smith. No one better encapsulated the fickle approach the British took to South Africa than Smith. He was very much the profile of a dashing officer, and had even wooed a Spanish noblewoman during the Peninsula war. Smith had previously served as commander-in-chief for the region under Benjamin D’Urban in the 1830’s, and had been removed when the British decided his methods were too bloodthirsty.[2] Now he was back as governor to remind London why they had recalled him in the first place. Sir Harry was immediately embroiled in wars with just about everyone, everywhere, in short order. The War of the Ax with the Xhosa, several connected wars with other tribes, and a romp into the fledgling Orange Free State to thump the local Boers at the battle of Bloomplaats in 1848 all occurred under his watch. Though it’s not clear if this was actually the case, several accounts suggest Sir Harry actually made the locals kiss his feet after he conquered them. Clearly a charming fellow.

Under normal circumstances, this would be where the story of the Boers would end and another chapter of their lives as resentful subjects of the British crown would begin. For all his other character flaws Sir Harry had just smashed the Boers, and he made little secret of his fondness for hanging would be rebel leaders. Fortunately for everyone who wasn’t British, he had done pretty much all of this without so much as a wink or a nod from London. He was called “half-mad Smith” by government officials, and worst of all to some of them he was racking up quite a bill with his military adventures. The new Parliament in the early 1850’s also represented a line of thinking that might be more familiar to modern readers. Granted, they still wanted to earn enough money to buy six diamond studded snuff boxes apiece, but the new governing coalition was less keen on paying for the colonial exploitation that used to generate this revenue. They were pushing something more along the lines of modern free trade. Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone will become more important later as his political star rockets into the stratosphere, but for now he was focused on slicing through tariffs and reforming markets at home and abroad. To this end, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal were left alone after their foundings in 1852. Treaties in 1852 and 1854 recognized their respective independence. After all, what was the point in conquering them? The Boer republics were landlocked, as poor as the dirt they tilled, and so anarchic it wasn’t clear whether they could anything more than tie their own shoes without pulling a gun and shooting their neighbors.

[1] The Boers actually tried appealing to the Dutch for support, and apparently thought their mother country was still something of an international naval power. Unfortunately the world had moved on a bit since the mid 1600’s.

[2] Benjamin D’Urban himself also earned the rare notoriety of being too brutal to serve as a colonial governor. After an English Missionary brought back tales of the atrocities being committed against the Xhosa and others, D’Urban was basically shelved until his replacement arrived.


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