South Africa - Ian D. Colvin

The Family Quarrel

And now we come to the saddest part of our history—the wars between Boer and Briton. We have seen how, in the old days, Dutch and English fought for the trade of the East, and how at last England won and took possession of the halfway house to India, its frontier fortress, as the Dutch used to call the Cape. It was not only won in battle and confirmed by treaty but it was paid for in money, and so England, with a just title, entered upon that task which had so long baffled the East India Company, the government of the country. We have already seen how governor after governor took up the work of the van der Stels, to give the land peace and prosperity, to give security to the white settler, and at the same time to give justice and protection to the native. And here, just as with the van der Stels, was the great stumbling-block. The best of the settlers, men like Sir Richard Southey, the Cloetes, Sir Andries Stockenstrom, took the side of the Government, that the native should be given justice and that slavery should be abolished, but the Frontier Boer, who for generations had looked upon the black man as his enemy or his slave, and upon the native's cattle as his legitimate booty, took mortal offence at the attitude of Government; and rather than submit to it, trekked beyond the frontier.

No one, who has read the old records, will say that the one was altogether right and the other altogether wrong. In some cases, as with regard to the Kafir tribes on the eastern frontier, the home Government forced the local Government into an attitude of hostility towards the settler, at the very time that the settler, bleeding with assegai wounds, was watching his homestead blazing to the sky. When the Boers trekked, Lord Glenelg showed no sympathy with their grievances nor consideration for their safety. He did not content himself with sending a Commissioner after them to liberate their slaves, or warning them not to attack the tribes with which Government was at peace. He took the side of the Zulus, whom he regarded as innocent and oppressed people, and while he refused to protect the farmers he prevented them from getting ammunition through Port Natal.

The balance of right was on the Government side, and that is as much as ever can be said in a human quarrel. For the Boers destroyed and enslaved, murdered and robbed the natives, whether they were peaceful or hostile, as we shall soon see. But we must not forget that we are here face to face with one of the old elemental wars: the black and the white were fighting for Africa; any truce in such a quarrel was difficult. It was like the war between the Spaniard and the Mexican, the American pioneer and the Red Indian. In all cases the white man has been condemned by those who sit peacefully on the land their forefathers won in the same way a thousand years or more ago.

But blundering often, and unreasonable often, still, on the whole, the English Governors were right, just as William Adriaan van der Stel was right. The Boers, who refused to work, were exterminating labour without mercy. Not only did they break the power of the warlike tribes but they destroyed the peaceful and inoffensive peoples like the Bechuanas, and the broken clans of the west. Thus from the lowest point of view, the point of view of mere profit, the Boers were wrong. They were like a poacher who dynamites a fish-pond without any thought of the future; or an elephant-hunter who shoots all the female elephants and never thinks where to-morrow's ivory is to come from. The British ideal has been in the long run a better one. We need labour for mines, and railways, docks, farms, and plantations. Therefore we give the native peace and justice, and a share of the land which is surely big enough for all. But at the same time we must be master of the black people. No good British Governor or British settler has ever preached equality: that has been left to the old ladies at home.

But let us return to the early days of Natal, for it was here that the quarrel burst forth into flame. Lord Glenelg, it need not be said, was an anti-Imperialist, and when the Boers moved beyond the frontier, he refused to extend it. Instead, he cackled in helpless wrath like a hen with ducklings that have taken to the water. The British settlers who were at Port Natal petitioned in vain to be made a British colony. But stories of Boer raids upon native tribes between them and the Eastern Province, tribes who were in peaceful relations with the Colonial Government, at last forced the hand of the Colonial Office, and Lord Stanley gave his reluctant consent to an occupation of Port Natal. It was to be an occupation without responsibility, or with as little responsibility as possible. The immediate cause of the occupation was a raid on a Kafir chief, Neapai, on a pretext that he had stolen some cattle, the slaughter of a large number of natives, and the enslavement of many others.

So in March 1842 Captain Smith and a detachment of the 27th Regiment marched from the eastern frontier into Natal. It was a long way—some four hundred miles, the rain came down in torrents, the rivers were flooded, and there were no roads, so that it took six weeks to get to Durban. On the way he was met by Boer deputies who tried in vain to stop him in the name of the republic which they had set up. Smith only replied that they were British subjects on British territory, as indeed they were, and that he would only treat with them if they admitted as much. So the negotiations went on, the Boers getting more and more insolent, until at last they swooped down upon Smith's cattle and rode away with nearly all of them. Thus Smith, who had tried his best to make the farmers listen to reason, was forced to attack them.

And here we have the first of many British disasters. Smith's plan was to attack the Boer camp at Congella, a place three miles along the shore from his own position. It was a night attack, and Smith, with over a hundred men and two guns, marched through the mangrove swamp along the shore, hoping to surprise the farmers. But the soldiers were clad in bright scarlet, it was a brilliant moonlight night, and one of the gun carriages creaked so that it could be heard half a mile away. Moreover, the Boers were on the alert, and made their dispositions accordingly. They stationed their sharp-shooters behind the trees, and as the redcoats came blundering along, opened a sudden fire upon them. Every shot took effect. The heavy elephant guns of the Boers carrying much farther than the British muskets, the redcoats, who were besides quite ignorant of the enemy's position, were helpless. The gun teams were shot at, the limbers were upset by the wounded oxen, everything was confusion. Moreover, a boat which carried a howitzer and was meant to co-operate with the troops could not be brought near enough for action. The attack, in short, was a complete failure. Poor Smith got back to camp without his guns, and with a loss of seventeen killed, thirty-one wounded, and three missing. Then the Boers made a surprise attack upon the position at the Point, and captured about thirty soldiers and residents, as well as the bulk of the pro-visions. They had now surrounded the camp, and being more than two to one, they kept it closely beleaguered. They had three cannon captured from the English, from which they opened a heavy cannonade. They threw forward trenches and they kept up a musket fire day and night. But Smith was not easily daunted. He dug deep trenches, killed the horses, dried the flesh in the sun, and put his men on half allowance. In the meantime the Boers had allowed the women-folk to take refuge on board the Mazeppa, a ship which was lying in Durban harbour at the time. The conduct of the enemy was indeed a curious mixture of humanity and savagery. They were often kind to the wounded, and yet Delegorgue, the French naturalist, tells us they applied to him for the arsenic and corrosive sublimate with which he prepared his specimens, in order to poison the well from which the soldiers drew their water.

In these dire straits a brave frontiersman, Dick King, who knew the wild country like the palm of his hand, came to the rescue. He offered to take the news of the siege to the colony, a perilous business, for six hundred miles of savage territory lay between the port of Natal and Grahamstown. He was given two horses, and at night he swam them across the bay to the Bluff. Once he was pursued by the Boers; once he was almost shot by Kafirs who took him for a Boer; but with the skill of a hunter he threaded his way from mission station to mission station, from kraal to kraal, the fact that he was an Englishman disarming the natives. It was a greater ride even than Harry Smith's, for King had no guide and no relays of horses, and was in a savage country; but he came safely through, taking only nine days to the journey, and reinforcements were promptly despatched.

In the meantime Smith and his men were in dire straits. Nearly all the provisions were gone, and the water—though Delegorgue had excused himself from giving the poison—was bad. They lived on six ounces of evil-smelling horseflesh and four ounces of biscuit-dust a day, and the crows which fell to their guns were their only luxury. Their trenches were hampered with wounded. But they held doggedly on, and once they rushed the Boer trenches and bayoneted some of the enemy.

But after a month of this wretched life, when the brave little garrison was almost at extremities, a signal of salvation appeared in the sky. "A rocket," says Delegorgue, "loaded with sparks of hope, rose straight up—immense, majestic—at the same time that a powerful discharge of cannon resounded." Two English ships had arrived, the frigate Southampton, and a coaster called the Conch, loaded with soldiers. The Boers fled like rabbits. The garrison was saved.

And then began wearisome negotiations. The Boers had retired on their town of Pietermaritzburg, and there reinforcements swarmed in from the other side of the Drakensberg. Cloete, the Governor's Commissioner, a member of one of the best Dutch families of the Cape, did all in his power to bring them to reason and to win their allegiance to the Crown. But the farmers were buoyed up with hopes of foreign intervention. The crowned heads of Europe—even the Emperor of China—had been petitioned. A Dutch supercargo, Smellekamp by name, had been sent as envoy to the King of Holland with despatches in the soles of his boots. Holland, they firmly believed, was one of the strongest powers in Europe and was sure to come to their aid. Any one who expressed a doubt or who favoured the English was bullied and threatened with death.

But the help did not come: the King of Holland scornfully repudiated all connection with the rebels; and the only troops to arrive in Natal were British reinforcements. In the long run, therefore, the Volksraad, as the Boer Council was called, submitted with an ill grace, and the people as well as the country were formally taken under the protection of the British Government.

Thus Natal became an English colony. But most of the Boers, who could not stomach English notions as to the rights of natives, trekked again, and did not rest until they had crossed the Drakensberg, and their wagons, after passing through its steep and tortuous defiles, opened out like a fan upon the great plains of the high veld.

But let us now turn for a little to events north of the Orange and south of the Vaal. Here we find for a long time a state of politics of such intricate anarchy that it would be waste of time to try to disentangle them. The British Government had allowed Moshesh, the chief of the Basutos, certain treaty rights, and he had formed a great nation of the broken tribes left by Moselekatse, and established himself in the mountain country round the head waters of the Orange. Then west of him was a Griqua clan, commanded by a half-breed called Adam Kok. The Griquas were themselves half-breeds, the children of the Dutch farmers and their Hottentot servants, and these people had gradually formed a clan system of their own. West of them again was another half-breed clan under Waterboer. Besides these there were tribes of Bushmen and Bechuanas scattered here and there over the vast regions west and north, and there were several distinct parties of emigrant farmers, some, under men like Oberholster, friendly to the British Government, and others under irreconcilables like Mocke, a mischief-maker who had already given trouble in Natal, hostile to colonial rule. All these tribes and clans and sections were more or less inimical the one to the other, and the Colonial Government, sadly hampered by missionary influences, Kafir wars and Colonial Office interference, followed a timid and spasmodic policy, if policy it could be called.



But then came our old friend Harry Smith, now Sir Harry and Governor of the Colony, with a great career as a soldier behind him, and somewhat advanced in years, but with fire and energy unabated. With his arrival all was changed. He told the farmers that he meant to take over the country from the Orange to the Vaal; he tried to reconcile Pretorius, who had fought against Captain Smith and had recently been direly insulted by Sir Harry's predecessor, who had refused to see the fine old Boer warrior when he came to Cape Town to present some grievances. Sir Harry also set Adam Kok in his right place and reconciled Moshesh to the change. All this he did with the zeal and fine dramatic fury peculiar to his nature. He wept over the Boers and threatened to hang Adam Kok and almost embraced Moshesh.

But there was a section of Boers who were determined not to submit to British rule, and when Sir Harry recrossed the Orange the disaffected sent north for Pretorius and marched on Bloemfontein. Major Warden, who had only a small force, was compelled to capitulate and retired to Colesberg. Sir Harry was in Cape Town when he heard the news. That very day he put a reward of 1000 on the head of the rebel commandant and began to collect a force. He was soon over the Orange with a fine little army of some seven hundred men, and marched along the road to Bloemfontein where the Boers were waiting for him with a force of about the same strength.

Boomplatz is one of the most interesting engagements ever fought in South Africa. It is typical of Boer ideas of tactics, and it also shows the right way of defeating them. If General Buller had studied the battle of Boomplatz, he need never have been beaten at the Tugela. The Boers, as usual, chose a magnificent position. On the right hand the road was lined by a range of steep and rocky kopjes, which also crossed the road in front and met another range parallel to the road on the left. Thus a force which entered this cul de sac  was open to attack from equally strong positions on three sides. Beyond the range in front was a river, behind that again another range with a narrow pass through which the road wound. Then there was another stream, and beyond still another range of kopjes through which the road passed by a narrow nek. Thus the Boers were perfectly placed for attack and retreat, and they had still further strengthened their position by breastworks of boulders along their first line of defence.

Fortunately, the British were on the look-out, and the movements of a herd of springbok betrayed the Boer position. Smith sent out skirmishers with the strictest orders not to fire unless they were fired upon, for he was slow to believe that the farmers would attack one who had always been their friend and was labouring to benefit them. A shower of bullets, wounding him on the shin and laying three of his men dead on the ground, undeceived him; and under a hot fire he acted with the grasp and promptitude which distinguishes a born soldier. The wagons in the rear were formed into laager, the two companies of the 91st Regiment were put in charge of the two field-guns which were used to open a path through the Boer centre. This central position the two companies of the 45th attacked while at the same time the two companies of the Rifle Brigade advanced in a line of skirmishers upon the Boer left, and the remainder of the little army, two troops of the Cape Mounted Rifles, were used to meet the Boer right, which made a dash over a little open plain to capture the wagons and strike at the British rear. Thus Smith had launched the whole of his force except the reserve which guarded the guns in a simultaneous attack upon the whole of the Boer position, and the enemy was unable to concentrate to meet any one of the attacks as they did on the Tugela. The result was that after a very sharp skirmish the farmers were driven in headlong rout from one position to another and scattered to the four winds. If only Smith had possessed a few more cavalry he would have given them the punishing they deserved. As it was, he thoroughly defeated them and inflicted a loss which may be estimated at midway between nine and forty-nine. The British lost eight men killed and thirty-nine wounded, and they had eight officers wounded, one of them, poor Captain Murray, mortally.

After the battle two of the rebels who had fought were captured. One was a deserter from the 45th, another a Boer named Dreyer. Both were tried by court-martial and shot at Bloemfontein. It is characteristic that the Boers, who were British-born subjects, and without provocation had endeavoured to surprise and destroy Smith and his little army, should regard the shooting of Dreyer as a grievance. As a matter of fact the British have always shown themselves extraordinarily lenient on such occasions. But all the Boers were not rebels. Some of them had entered the field on the British side and successfully defended their laager against Pretorius. Sir Harry was received with acclamation, and after imposing a lenient punishment on the rebels returned into the colony with flying colours.

But troubles were coming upon the brave Governor thick and fast. The great Kafir war of 1851, to which I have already referred, burst over the colony. The Hottentot auxiliaries, whose loyalty had been under- mined by intrigue, joined the blacks. The majority of the Boers refused to go out on commando. Earl Grey had persuaded the Governor to send home a large part of his troops, and for a long time Sir Harry, after garrisoning his outposts, had only some eight hundred men available to meet tens of thousands of athletic savages in a wild and trackless country twice the size of Great Britain and Ireland. With the most wonderful skill and energy he met the position. He was here, there, and everywhere. The war began at the end of 1850, and by August 1851 the 73rd Regiment had marched 2838 miles. It was, taken as a whole, one of the most extraordinary defences ever made. Yet Earl Grey, the Colonial Minister, a civilian half his age, in an insulting despatch found Sir Harry wanting in energy and judgment and recalled him, just as the Kafirs were on the point of being utterly defeated. It was some consolation to Smith that his Commander-in-chief, the Great Duke of Wellington, against whose opinion Smith had been recalled, said in the most emphatic and public way, that he "entirely approved of all his operations."

Thus Smith, like Baird and d'Urban, was rewarded by a grateful Government. But the mischief did not end here. The sovereignty across the Orange was revoked against the wishes of a large party of Boers, and what was rapidly becoming a prosperous British colony was turned into a hostile republic.