A Hole New World

Big Hole. The mine ceased production in 1914, and was subsequently filled in and converted into a lake and museum to Disney-fie De Beers' history. Photo Credit: Irene 2005.
Big Hole. The mine ceased production in 1914, and was subsequently filled in and converted into a lake and museum to Disney up De Beers’ history.
Photo Credit: Irene 2005.

Though it would be a stretch to say the next few years were peaceful, the next fifteen years were decent for Boer-British relations. Then one day in 1867 an African shepherd looked down at the glittering rock he found near the Cape/Orange Free State border and the whole region went ballistic. Diamonds had been found, much to the ecstatic joy of the British living in the nearby town of Kimberly and everyone else. In a frighteningly small amount of time the hill where the largest deposit was located was transformed into literally the largest man made hole in the world at the time. The aptly named Big Hole drew tens of thousands of men to the mines of all races and creeds.[1] Surprisingly enough even a potential dispute over the land’s sovereignty brought by the Orange Free State was assuaged with a gift 90,000 Pounds and the knowledge that the Boers had no real way of enforcing their claim.

Of course it wouldn’t be the British thing to leave well enough alone, and the new British governor Bartle Frere began to eye formally unifying all of South Africa under the crown. Frere had more than a few cards in his hand. For a start he had taken steps to win the favor of the Afrikaners still living in Cape Province and the now 30 year old Natal. To the former they granted the right to self-governance in 1872, of the sort the Canadians and New Zealanders had been enjoying. To the latter, they sponsored a few choice campaigns of genocide the Afrikaners had been hankering for. The result was another small nation known as Basutoland was folded into the colony of Natal after a brutal sacking by British and Afrikaner forces. Many of the survivors were carted off to the Cape for a life that was slavery in all but the name.

The King, in an official photo taken in London after events played themselves out. The King acquired an interesting reputation with the British, acquiring the kind of "honorable foe" status that Saladin had to the crusaders. Photo Credit: Francis Ellen Colenso.
The King, in an official photo taken in London after events played themselves out. The King acquired an interesting reputation with the British, acquiring the kind of “honorable foe” status that Saladin had to the crusaders. Photo Credit: Francis Ellen Colenso.

If murderous bribery didn’t do the trick, Frere could also count on fear to help pull the Afrikaners into line. The Zulus had emerged from their civil war under the leadership of King Cetshwayo, a savvy operator who had cozied up to the British as a counterweight to his Boer neighbors. It also helped that the Zulus could field more than 20,000 soldiers if necessary, though most were armed only with their assegais (short spears) and hide shields. The Zulus were also attempting to update their weapons, purchasing Martini-Henry breach loading rifles from traders and gun runners; though these were as yet untested in their hands. It was this combination of greed and fear that finally gave Frere and his allies the chance they needed to drive the Boers into their waiting arms.

Following another in the endless series of land encroachments the Transvaal was so fond of doing to their neighbors, the Pedi tribe decided they had had enough. In 1876 the Boer Commandos (the name of Boer units) were ambushed by the Pedi and dealt a stinging defeat. Part of the problem was that while wages in the mines for black Africans were still paltry compared to their white counterparts, it was still enough to buy a modern rifle. The Boers were paid back for years of oppression and violence. In the political vacuum following their defeat, Frere and his Secretary for Native Affairs reached out and unilaterally asserted themselves in the Transvaal. While the Boers were appalled by the turn of events, their recent losses were compounded by their fear that Cetshwayo would take advantage of the chaos to attack. While they weren’t happy about it, they offered no serious resistance to the British for the moment.

High Chancellor Bartle Frere, the latest and worst in a long line of rubbish administrators. Photo Credit: Cape Archives
High Chancellor Bartle Frere, the latest and worst in a long line of rubbish administrators. Photo Credit: Cape Archives

Deciding there was no better way to bring his new South African Federation together than a little team building exercise, Frere decided it was time to dispense with the Zulus. Using the pretext of yet another round of low level skirmishes between the Boers and Zulus in 1877, Frere began needling Cetshwayo for border concessions. When the Zulu King politely told him to mind his own business, Frere began pushing hard for a war. Needless to say this was not one of those conflicts fought for high minded ideals, an independent commission brought in to justify the conflict had even concluded that the Boer/Frere case was almost wholly manufactured and had little basis in reality. Nevertheless, Frere was committed to the war, likely because he had been promised the role of governor over the entire Federation if he succeeded. Certain he would be exonerated for creating the equivalent of another Canada, Frere sent an ultimatum to Cetshwayo in 1878. This was the kind of offer that no sovereign could really accept, and when it was predictably rejected Frere got the paper fig leaf he needed as a cassus belli. In 1879 war was formally declared, though the British had essentially written off the campaign already. After all, how could a bunch of men armed with spears and second hand rifles get the better of the British Army?

[1] While its status as deepest hole of the age is now in dispute, the 240 meter deep excavation is still almost in Balrog territory. Needless to say as well, working conditions were appalling for the 50,000 men laboring in the pit and fatal accidents were commonplace.

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