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The Cape during the French wars: 1795-1814

The pretext for Britain's seizing of the Cape, as the most strategic point on the important sea route to India, is the French conquest of the Netherlands in 1795. This brings the Dutch into the European war on France's side and makes their attractive African colony a legitimate prey.

The peace of Amiens, in 1802, restores the Cape to its previous owners and brings back a Dutch administration. But war is renewed in 1803. The British capture the Cape again in 1806. And this time the terms of the peace ending the Napoleonic wars, agreed in the congress of Vienna, leave the southern tip of Africa in British hands. It is an arrangement which, for the rest of the century, will lead to friction between the British administration and the original Afrikaner colonists.

Slaves and 'Hottentots': 1806-1835

The British, taking control in the Cape colony, encounter a society in which the use of slaves has long been part of the established system and in which the local tribespeople (the Khoikhoi, known at the time by the Afrikaans word Hottentot) are employed in conditions little better than slavery.

This clash of cultures comes at a time when British public opinion is enthusiastic in its support of the campaign against slavery. This campaign achieves its first great success just after the return of the British to the Cape. Parliament enacts in 1807 the abolition of the slave trade, making it illegal for British ships to carry slaves or for British colonies to import them.

An early statute of the British in the Cape colony becomes known as the Hottentot Code (officially the Caledon Code, 1809). It requires written contracts to be registered for the employment of tribal servants and it provides safeguards against their ill treatment. But it also enshrines one familiar condition of serfdom; servants may only leave a farm if a pass is signed by their employer.

British missionaries, led by John Philip, are soon protesting at this restriction. From 1826 Philip campaigns vigorously back in Britain and in 1828 the house of commons passes a resolution for the emancipation of the Cape tribes. In the same year the governor of the Cape colony guarantees complete liberty of movement to 'free persons of colour'.

From the point of view of the Afrikaners, worse is to come. In 1833 the reformed parliament in London passes the Emancipation Act. All slaves in British colonies are to be freed after a period of 'apprenticeship', which in the Cape colony ends in 1838.

The Afrikaners inevitably feel that alien ways are being imposed upon their long-established culture by a new colonial power, and their sense of isolation is increased by other changes. In 1820 British families, numbering about 5000 people, are shipped to the Cape and are given 100-acre plots of land.

Under the new regime English becomes the language of the law courts. British teachers set up village schools where the lessons are in English. But above all it is British interference in the relationship between the races in South Africa which gives the most profound offence to the traditionally-minded Boers - and prompts the Great Trek.

An Afrikaner woman, Anna Steenkamp, later records in forthright terms her people's complaint. The British had placed slaves 'on an equal footing with Christians, contrary to the laws of God and the natural distinctions of race and religion, so that it was intolerable for any decent Christian to bow down beneath such a yoke; wherefore we withdrew in order thus to preserve our doctrines in purity.'

Preparing to trek: 1834-1836

Afrikaners, if ill at ease with their circumstances, have a well-tested tradition of response - to move elsewhere on a trek. In 1834 restless Boer farmers in the eastern province of Cape Colony send out three exploratory expeditions to report on what lies beyond the Orange River.

The party heading northwest puts in a negative report, having reached the Kalahari desert. But those going north into the high veld and northeast into coastal Natal bring back glowing accounts of richly fertile regions and great herds of wild animals. This information confirms the determination of the Boers to strike out into new territories.

The account brought back by the scouts is correct as far as it goes, but their recce has been too brief to discover the political realities prevailing in the 1830s. Over the past two decades there has been turmoil among the tribes occupying these regions. They have been moving from their traditional lands, pushing others ahead of them, in an upheaval known as the Mfecane.

Modern research suggests that one of the reasons for this displacement is an increase in slaving raids, to supply traders operating from Delagoa Bay (in southern Mozambique). The traditional explanation has put all the blame on the brutal military empire established at this time by the Zulu chieftain Shaka. Both are contributory factors to what is a very harsh reality.

Shaka: 1816-1828

Shaka is a dispossessed son of a chieftain of the Zulu, a minor Bantu tribe. He has much in common with another conqueror who rises from humble beginnings - Genghis Khan. The scale of the chaos caused by Shaka's brutality and military genius may be less, but the pattern of the two men's early lives is similar.

Shaka is in his late twenties, in 1816, when he wins control of the Zulu, at the time an insignificant group numbering only about 1500 people in what is now Natal. He rapidly transforms the Zulu warriors into a terrifyingly efficient military machine, the success of which is probably eased by a parallel terror in the region - that of the slave raids.

Where other tribes engage in relatively safe long-distance warfare, throwing light spears, Shaka's Zulu regiments (known as impi) are armed with the short thrusting assegai, forcing them to go in and fight at close quarters. The impi, who live a life of enforced celibacy, learn specialized tactics which are repeated on every battlefield.

The raiding policy of the impi is to kill almost all the men of an opposing tribe and then to incorporate the remainder in the Zulu army. Like the ancient Assyrian army, which operates in a similar way, an ever more powerful Zulu force is thus able to terrorize and devastate an ever wider region.

Tribes fleeing inland from Zulu devastations in Natal create a domino effect, encountering and often driving ahead of them their previously peaceful neighbours in the desperate struggle for land. This sequence, the Mfecane ('crushing'), causes havoc in the 1820s as far inland as the present-day Orange Free State. It is calculated that as many as two million people die in these disturbances.

The tribes which now emerge in a dominant position north of the Orange River are the Ndebele. Also known as the Matabele, they are closely related to the Zulu. Their leader, Mzilikazi, has been one of Shaka's generals, until a quarrel in 1822 causes him to flee west with his people and his flocks.

It is into this turmoil, extending both west and east from the Drakensberg mountains, that the Afrikaners decide to trek in the years after 1835.

By then Shaka himself is dead. Early European accounts suggest that the death of his mother, in 1827, tips his cruel nature into undisguised madness. They say that some 7000 Zulus are slaughtered to assuage his grief. Every offensive sign of new life is snuffed out. The planting of crops is forbidden. Any woman found to be pregnant is killed, as is her husband. The death-dealing raids of the impi are escalated until finally, in 1828, Shaka is himself murdered by his half-brother, Dingaan. So Dingaan is the Zulu king who confronts the Boer trekkers when they reach Natal.

The Great Trek and the Ndebele: 1836-1837

In the years after 1836 it is calculated that some 12,000 people, consisting of Boer families and their African servants, cross the Orange river to head north into the high veld or turn east through the passes of the Drakensberg mountains into Natal.

The first significant party crosses the river in 1836. Led by Hendrik Potgieter, it consists of some 200 people with their wagons and cattle. They press ahead through a beautiful landscape which is strangely empty - the effect of the Mfecane. It helps the trekkers in one way (the lack of people on the land), but it also means that the tribal opponents they eventually confront are hardened in the recent warfare.

In the territory ahead of the Potgieter party, and of the other trekkers who soon follow them, are the Ndebele. The first sign of these tribesmen is the massacre in July 1836 of a small group of trekkers who have pushed north of the Vaal river, in the region of Parys. This encounter is followed in October by an extraordinary battle at Vegkop, where Potgieter decides to make a stand - with just forty men - against an Ndebele army numbering about 5000.

Potgieter uses the long-established defensive device (going back at least as far as the Hussites) of a circle of wagons, known in South Africa as a laager, to form a temporary fortress against the attacking forces.

Shooting from within this barricade, Boer muskets prove more than a match for African spears. After two assaults have failed, the Ndebele withdraw - leaving possibly as many as 500 dead around the perimeter of the laager. Within it, inside the ring of tied wagons, just two Boers are dead and some fourteen wounded.

Potgieter follows this victory with a brutal massacre to emphasize who is now in control of the high veld. In January 1837 mounted Boers make a secret dawn raid on sleeping Ndebele villages. More than a dozen are destroyed before resistance can be organized. Everyone within these kraals is shot. Some 6000 cattle are stolen. The message is stark. The gun, the European weapon, is now to be the master here.

It takes one more engagement to prove the point conclusively. In October 1837 Potgieter leads a commando of 330 men northwards in a final push against the Ndebele. In a succession of engagements over a nine-day period near the Marico river the Ndebele are driven steadily backwards, until finally they retreat to safety beyond the Limpopo - where their leader, Mzilikazi, establishes a new kingdom.

The statistics are even more amazing than at Vegcop. Some 3000 Ndebele are dead (according to Boer estimates) and there is not a single Afrikaner casualty. But the coming months produce a sudden and dramatic reversal in the trekker fortunes. It involves the charismatic figure who replaces Potgieter as leader of the Great Trek.

The Great Trek and the Zulu: 1837-1838

Piet Retief, an articulate member of the Boer community in the eastern Cape colony, publishes in the Grahamstown Journal in February 1837 an account of his people's grievances and of their need to find a new land. It is immediately seen as the manifesto of the Great Trek.

Retief now rides north to join the main body of trekkers at their encampment near Thaba Nchu (a mountain known to them as Blesberg). Here they elect him their governor and commander-in-chief, to the fury of Potgieter who is thus elbowed aside. Potgieter soon has further cause for resentment. He has already demonstrated the opportunities awaiting the trekkers in the high veld. But Retief suspects that their best chances may lie in Natal.

Fortune seems to favour Retief when scouts bring back news in August 1837 that five passes have been found through the Drakensberg range. By mid-October, with a small advance party, Retief has descended to the fertile plain of Natal. He finds himself in a beautiful landscape scarred by abandoned and destroyed villages - the result of the ferocious campaigns of the Zulu chieftain Shaka and his brother Dingaan, who now rules the tribe.

Retief makes his way first to the region's main harbour, Port Natal or Durban, where a few British merchants have settled. From them he hears that Dingaan appears to have no objection to Europeans occupying the depopulated area south of the Tugela river.

With four of his own men, and two settlers from Port Natal as interpreters, Retief sets off for Dingaan's palace at Umgungundhlovu. They reach it on 7 November 1837. It is an alarming place, with a nearby hillside reserved for regular and extremely brutal executions. The Boers are treated to two days of martial dances by some 4000 Zulu warriors before Dingaan receives them in audience.

When he does so, he offers Retief a challenge reminiscent of some heroic fable. A herd of his royal cattle has recently been stolen. If Retief recovers them, Dingaan will assign to his people all the territory between the Tugela and Umzimvubu rivers.

It seems too easy a bargain for 200 miles of rich coastal territory, and indeed Dingaan has no intention of honouring it (he has already promised this same stretch of land to four other visiting Europeans). But Retief believes in the bargain and sets off to fulfil his part of it - which he achieves by a somewhat shameless deception of the chieftain who has taken the cattle.

Meanwhile the good news has reached the many trekkers waiting in safety in the Drakensberg. They descend in considerable numbers into the plain. By the end of November 1837 there are as many as 1000 Boer wagons in Natal.

To Dingaan, accustomed only to the occasional missionary and the few traders at Port Natal, this looks like a European invasion. And soon he hears reports of Potgieter's devastating defeat of the Ndebele at the Marico river. He decides upon a drastic and treacherous response.

When Retief returns to clinch the deal, he comes to Dingaan's kraal with a party of seventy Boers including his own 14-year-old son. After several days of martial dancing Dingaan signs a document granting the agreed territory in perpetuity to Retief and his countrymen. But in a farewell ceremony, on 6 February 1838, the dancing warriors close in on the Boers and overpower them. They are dragged off for slaughter on the hillside already littered with other bodies picked clean by vultures.

Dingaan next turns his attention to the Boer trekkers who are already spreading out along the Tugela and its tributaries (the majority are camped near the Bloukrans river). In the early hours of the morning, on 17 February 1838, Zulu warriors attack the sleeping families. Nearly 300 Boers are killed (more than half of them children), together with some 200 African servants.

But this is not the end of the clash between Boers and Zulu. The Boers survive the winter of 1838, in fortified encampments under frequent attack. And their fortune changes in November, with the arrival of Andries Pretorius.

Pretorius and Natalia: 1838-1847

Pretorius is a wealthy Boer farmer who decides to join the trekkers in Natal after hearing of their plight. His immediate purpose is an expedition against Dingaan. Within a week of his arrival the trekkers elect him commandant-general. He begins to organize them as an efficient fighting force.

His plan is to march towards Dingaan's headquarters and then, on first contact with the Zulu army, to adopt a strong defensive position. He finds an appropriate place on the Ncome river, in a narrow triangle formed by a tributary. Here, on 16 December 1838, a Zulu army of some 15,000 men attacks a Boer position well guarded with muskets and three small muzzle-loading cannon.

The result is carnage, as the tribesmen with their spears hurl themselves into the attack. By the end of the day the Boers calculate that there are some 3000 Zulu dead, many of them drowned. Not a single Boer has been killed. The Ncome acquires a new name - Blood River.

When the Boers reach Umgungundhlovu, they find it a charred and deserted ruin. On the nearby hillside the remains of Retief and his comrades are still exposed to the elements. In a leather pouch beside Retief's skeleton they find the document in which Dingaan assigned him much of Natal (though some scholars believe that this valuable piece of paper is more probably a forgery to suit the purposes of Pretorius).

The next task of Pretorius and his colleagues is to set up an independent Boer republic. It is given the name Natalia. A settlement at Pietermaritzburg is selected as its capital. A volksraad of twenty-four elected members becomes the governing body, with Pretorius confirmed as commandant-general.

The safety of the tiny republic is greatly enhanced when Dingaan's brother Mpande defects to the Boer side, bringing 17,000 followers across the Tugela river into Natalia. In a ceremony at Pietermaritzburg he is formally proclaimed 'reigning prince of the emigrant Zulus'.

Dingaan is finally removed from the scene after a battle in January 1840 in which his impi are defeated by those of Mpande (with Boer support). Dingaan flees north into Swazi territory. Mpande is pronounced king of the Zulu.

For a brief period the tenacious Boers prosper in their hard-won republic, but a more powerful opponent is already stirring. The British government is beginning to appreciate the value of Port Natal as the only deep-water harbour in this stretch of African coast. There is also an arguable humanitarian reason for intervention. As the local Africans flock back to the villages from which they have been driven in the Mfecane, the Boers show signs of treating them with their traditional disregard for racial justice.

In 1842 a British force of regular soldiers makes its way up the coast into Natalia and marches unopposed into Port Natal (known as Durban to the British). Three weeks of discussion follow between the British commander and Pretorius, after which - on May 22 - Pretorius seizes the British garrison's cattle. The result is a battle, on the following day, which proves a decisive victory for the Boers. Forty-nine British soldiers are killed and their field-guns captured.

But the arrival of a frigate with reinforcements soon alters decisively the local balance of power. In May 1843 Natal is proclaimed a British colony. A garrison is sent from the coast to take charge in Pietermaritzburg.

The Boers, after eight years trying to escape British rule, find themselves once more in a colony where black Africans are to be accorded equal legal rights. Again they react in their traditional way. They heave their heavy wagons back over the passes of the Drakensberg.

Pretorius is one of the last to leave. Hoping to find some form of accomodation with the British, he stays until 1847. Then he leads the remaining 300 or so Boer families out of Natal and up into the high veld. Here at last, for some decades to come, the British will be content to leave the Boers to their own devices.

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