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Africa During the Scramble: The Kat River Experiment

Updated: May 16, 2022

By Gary Oswald

Khoekua marksmen played a key role in the Cape Frontier Wars

One of the most shocking things about the Scramble of Africa was its speed. In less than 40 years, Africa went from mostly free to mostly run by European Empires. Prior to the 1870s, a lot of African polities had either limited contact with Europe or were used to them as fairly weak visiting traders who could be forced to back down by threats. The Kingdoms of Dahomey and Benin certainly knew who the Europeans were but they didn't view them as an existential threat because they'd been an established part of their politics for hundreds of years without ever becoming dominant. And then within ten years, the Europeans had annexed their lands.

This wasn't, however, the case everywhere. The Cape Colony saw instead a slow but consistent European expansion from 1652 to 1879. The peoples of that area knew what they were dealing because their ancestors had been fighting the same wars for centuries. As such they had adapted techniques of fighting such as the gun, the horse, the broken line, the hit and run and the ambush which they had largely picked up from the Europeans rather than the traditional massed lines of South African combat prior to the arrival of the Dutch.

The Dutch had arrived in the Cape somewhat reluctantly. During their war of independence from the Iberian Union they had attacked the Portuguese colonies in Brazil, Indonesia and China to steal their trade in spices and slaves and thus both fund their own war effort and hurt their opponents. Having secured their own Asian trading ports they then needed a secure stop off point in Africa for ships travelling from Jakarta to Amsterdam. Originally they went for the Portuguese ports in Angola and Mozambique but after Luanda was recaptured by forces from Brazil and the fort of Sao Sebastio in Mozambique held out under multiple sieges, the Dutch instead tried for the Cape, which was a worse harbour but had no pre-existing Portuguese forces to overcome.

As a result, the almost forgotten Dutch assaults on Angola and Mozambique are perhaps some of the most impactful in World History, the Dutch were not far from taking both and if they had won on either front, it's likely the Cape would not have been settled by Europeans for many centuries later, if at all. It was well known, after all that the Portuguese had retreated from Table Bay after losing multiple engagements with the natives and nobody really wanted to try again, an English proposal to do so was dismissed by the Royal Court. The Dutch were forced to chance their aim by the lack of other options and instead of the trading port and harbour that they had hoped for, and which they would have got in Mozambique, they, almost accidentally, started a settler colony instead. Dutch (and French and German) farmers settled around the Cape Harbour to provide food for the ships and began to push inland to fight raiders and expand into new farmland. None of this was ordered by Amsterdam, none of it was really even approved by Amsterdam. The standard VOC policy was for indigenous farmers to produce food for European traders to export not the white farming colony that had developed in the Cape. And the military expansion largely happened independently too and was just a natural effect of the commando militia system meaning the farmers could fight their own wars without approval from anyone.

The small number of white settlers, quickly led to a slave society being established as a way of providing farm workers, both through the importation of slaves from elsewhere (some 63,000 during the period of Dutch rule) and the submission of the existing residents of the Cape. The African residents of the cape can be divided into three distinct groups, the San, Khoikhoin and the Xhosa. The Xhosa were Bantu speaking chieftains who had been invading the Cape from the North and East for at least a century prior to the Dutch arrival. They fought the Khoikhoin and San (the word Xhosa comes from a Khoikhoin word meaning 'those who destroy' in a fairly typical example of a people being named by their enemies) and eventually absorbed most of those people into their own culture and there is every evidence they expected to do the same with the Dutch. The Xhosa encounters with new people generally worked out as fighting followed by negotiation, submission, inter marriage and then integration.

Nomadic Khoikhoi dismantling their huts, aquatint by Samuel Daniell

The Khoikhoin and San, the original residents of South Africa, were two sides of the same coin, though they spoke different languages. The San were hunter gatherers and the Khoikhoin were farmers and so they fought each other over land use but they intermingled and often Khoikhoin whose farms were destroyed would join the San in the bad lands and San who settled down would become Khoikhoin. These people, which the Europeans called the Hottentot and we shall call the Khoisan (the term Khoisan is somewhat controversial but the Khoikhoin and San people became so intermingled that a word for both of them is useful), would be devastated by small pox and increasingly trapped between the expanding Dutch and the expanding Xhosa with most of them absorbed into one or the other of those societies. Sara Baartman, the Hottentot Venus, was of that people, as were most of the house servants and farm labourers in the Cape Colony, who intermingled with the imported slaves to form a black underclass who made up the majority of the Cape armies and work force but were never viewed as equal. The Nama people of Namibia would eventually emerge from Khoisan and mixed race Cape residents pushing West to find their own land, in one of many treks away this society by black and mixed race people which included many who joined the Xhosa, where their guns and horses were welcomed.

Dutch society in the Cape in the late 18th century was essentially a thin layer of white farmers ruling over Khoisan servants and slaves and facing off embittered unconquered Khoisan and Xhosa populations outside their borders. This was not innately stable as a structure and the system was tested to its limits between 1772 and 1795 when the Dutch fought a brutal war on their borders as the remaining unconquered Khoisan, with the help of rebellious slaves and servants, attempted to drive the Dutch out of their land altogether. It was a war fought to the knife, with both sides verging on the genocidal and the Dutch won, with the surviving Khoisan captured and forced into labour on their farms. While technically an apprentice system, this was in practice slavery by another name with the Khoisan tied to the farms and unable to leave to pursue jobs elsewhere without permission. Should the Dutch Cape have endured it would have had to deal with increasing conflict between the urban dwellers and the Boer farmers who had different priorities (there had already been farmer revolts against Cape Town), while the frontier would be wracked with rebellions among the slaves and frontier wars with the Xhosa.

But in our reality the big threat to it came from European politics rather than African ones. The Dutch position in Asia was increasingly supplanted by that of the British and the French, both of whom viewed the Cape Colony as a possible dagger to their supply lines. Neither particularly minded the Dutch owning it, but a French Naval presence could cut off the British from their colonies in India and vice versa. When Revolutionary France conquered the Netherlands, the British were suddenly faced with the nightmare scenario of the French taking control of the Cape and so set out to conquer it themselves to prevent that.

The British were immediately faced with resistance from the Boer Farmers on the frontier and set out to put down that threat by arming the Christian Khoisan of Cape Town, who were seen as the people most likely to benefit from the change in ownership. Faced with this army the Boer rebels surrendered, but the Khoisan slaves of the rebels, emboldened by the Cape army of their kinsmen and hoping that deliverance was at hand, began to leave their farms in droves having first taken goods and guns from their owners. They took refuge in the British Camp, where around 400 Boers having fled their farms were also stationed. The British regulars attempted to keep the two sides from further bloodshed, but then they ineptly stumbled into war with the Xhosa, got mauled and had to retreat. With no British soldiers in place, the Khoisan and Boers in the camp starting killing each other and the Xhosa armies swept down in the chaos, allying themselves with the Khoisan and driving most of the Boers off their farms entirely.

Order would eventually be restored and the colony would even be temporarily returned to the Dutch in the Peace of Amiens, though the British would be back permanently four years later, but the power of the Boer farmers was largely broken by that conflict. The British would increasingly view the Khoisan as the more reliable and effective frontier soldiers and would find themselves focused on Christianising them, westernising them and attempting to improve their conditions through various labour and anti slavery laws. The result was that the Boer farmers would repeatedly prove resentful and rebellious subjects, great numbers of whom would leave the colony entirely, whereas the Khoisan would make up the main force of the British armies in the region.

In 1828, British Liberals sympathetic to the Khoisan's plight, passed legislation liberating from their farms and giving them security of property. As a result the Khoisan farm workers left their farms and arrived in the towns and the missionary stations where they acted as vagrants. In 1829, these dispossessed workers were given permission to settle in the Kat River area, where they were given the smaller and most exposed lots, on the border with the Xhosa. This was a poisoned pill but it was also their own land, the first the Khoisan had owned in generations and it was celebrated widely by them. As a result when the Xhosa broke through the British defences in 1835, the Khoisan largely remained loyal to London, rather than defecting to the Xhosa as they had done previously and they earned much respect for their ability as soldiers.

But the Kat River settlements were on the front lines and many were destroyed and economic recovery was slow after the war had concluded. This was not helped by the arrival of Christian Xhosa refugees who had switched sides during the conflict and were given new land near the Kat River won during it, much to the resentment of the Khoisan, who'd hoped to get that themselves. The Khoisan were also actively discriminated against by local traders. In 1831, plots were sold by auction to any buyer, except credit was offered to white families but black farmers must pay up front. And the Kat River settlers had trouble buying equipment or obtaining bank loans. Charity and governmental aid did exist but on a small scale.

As the Kat River populations grew, thanks to the British policy of forcing coloured emigration to the settlement, but the land available did not, thanks both to them not being offered more land from the Xhosa and having existing land taken from them to give to white officers in 1836, they grew poorer. Resentment was growing within the settlement, that the British were largely unaware of. Instead the supporters of the settlement patted themselves on the back over their humane and wise treatment of both the Christian Xhosa, who they called the Mfengu, and the Khoisan, both of whom they began to view as loyal and productive members of the colony and both of whom would be recruited in large numbers into the British armies.

Local farmers, both Boer and British, were less happy. The Kat River settlement had increasingly become a refuge for poor blacks and thus prevented them being forced into labour agreements, depriving the rest of the colony of cheap labour. There was also hope of a shift from producing food to producing wool, which was more profitable and the Kat River was excellent sheep territory. They increasingly began to campaign against the settlement and increasingly found backers within the Cape Government. The Khoisan and Mfengu settlers found themselves resented by their neighbours while also being notably poorer than them. While herds of cattle meaning the settlers could survive their poorer farm yields and so the settlement had become largely self sufficient, it had little left to trade.

And when the British started another war with the Xhosa for land in 1846, the settlement was once again targeted by the Xhosa, with many farms destroyed. And the Mfengu outside the settlement found their land being confiscated and them being sent to the Kat River, which increasingly took the nature of an overcrowded land reservation such as the USA had for their natives. Moreover the British victory in the 1846 War, had seen the Xhosa retreat further, the Kat River was no longer on the frontlines and as the white population grew and the Xhosa shrunk, the need for Khoisan and Mfengu soldiers retreated.

Having lost the reason to woo them, the colonial courts and authorities became increasingly openly biased against the black residents of the colony. Disputes were almost always found in the white's favour and cattle captured from the Mfengu or Khoisan by the Xhosa in war were returned not to the owners but to white farmers. Even taxes were higher in the Kat River than elsewhere.

In 1848, the Kat River settlers were disarmed and in 1850 huts within the settlement were burned so the government could evict their owners. The Kat River settlers found themselves increasingly fearful of repression, something especially likely if the Cape got representative government and were freed from the restraints of London. They also found their crops failing thanks to droughts. And then in early 1851, the Xhosa launched an attack on the British.

The British asked for the Khoisan and Mfengu to reenlist in their armies but they were reluctant to do so, on the basis that they felt no particularly gratitude to the colony and that they wished to protect their own farms which would have inevitably been destroyed while they were off fighting with the British Army. Ultimately instead of rallying for the British, around half of the Khoisan rallied for the Xhosa instead, declaring war on the Colony in the Kat River Rebellion. In particular, the Khoisan militiamen of Fort Armstrong switched sides meaning the fort fell and Kat River became a rebel strong hold.

As the Khoisan and Xhosa marched against the British, the Mfengu, who knew they were resented deeply by both of those parties, suddenly let go of their previous qualms of working with the British and enthusiastically joined forces with them. As a result, once the British won, the Mfengu would be rewarded with land and cattle taking from the Khoisan and Xhosa, though less than the white settlers would be.

The Khoisan settlers in the Kat River on the other hand would be oppressed severely, with schools, houses and farms throughout the settlement burned and many Khoisan killed or imprisoned. As a result many more Khoisan militia switched sides, appalled by this brutality against their own people, until eventually all the Khoisan Soldiers were dismissed for being unreliable and replaced by Mfengu.

Adam Kok III, the last independant Griqua

This was the end of the Kat River settlement. The Khoisan settlers there lost their land, they lost their property and they either became labourers in while farms or fled the colony entirely to polities outside it, most notably Griqualand East and West to the North or the Nama Federation to the West. The Griquas, as the Khoisan who pushed north were known, like the Boers, had been fleeing the Cape in treks since the 1820s. They had fought for their own land, mauling the Zulus at Lepelle and joining in on the Boer-Zulu pile in on Mzilikazi that saw him retreat from the Transvaal to Zimbabwe and as a result they were able to establish their own businesses and cattle farms outside British control. It was to these lands that the new exiles fled, forming new polities. It was in the Griqua lands that the diamonds of Kimberley were found and, after disputes with the Boers, the Tswana and British miners, both would be eventually annexed by the British Empire, with the Griquas once again side-lined. The Nama would instead push into what is now Namibia where a darker fate would awake them.

Weirdly, however the British seemed to realise they had driven the Kat River Khoisan into a corner and that there needed to be a less violent way for them to argue for their side. When, in 1853, the Cape Colony need to set up a franchise, they deliberately made it so that black people could also vote, on the basis that, as William Porter put it, 'I would rather meet the Hottenot voting for his representative than the Hottentot with his gun on his shoulder'. Give than the Ballot or they will, once again, give us the bullet.

A minimum property ownership of £25 qualified the male Cape citizen to vote or to stand in parliament. As this included all forms of property ownership, including traditional African communal land tenure, it was very low, relative to the suffrage qualifications that applied elsewhere in the world at the time, and there was no literacy requirement until decades later and no racial distinction. A considerable amount of both the Mfengu and the Khoisan were suddenly given suffrage.

But around 40% of the Mfengu within the colony were also quietly removed, by pressure from hostile neighbours, to Fingoland, new land conquered from the Pagan Xhosa, which wasn't part of the Cape Colony and where they could not vote. In this way, the fact that African residents within the Cape could vote also led to a discouragement of British expansion by Cape politicians, because the more black people's land they annexed into the Cape, the more black voters they got.

For this reason the annexation of Griqualand East was delayed a year while the position was argued about as the territory would earn two seats in the Cape parliament when it was incorporated. Though in the end the 1870s would see the Cape annex huge amounts of black territory, such as Fingoland and most of the Xhosa lands. And while initially most eligible black citizens didn't vote, by the 1890s, there had developed a politically actively African movement within the Cape which combined with the huge amount of new territory annexed, threatened for the whites to be outnumbered entirely as had been feared.

Thus from 1887 to 1892 this voting system was slowly eroded by Cecil Rhodes and his imperialistic Progressive Party which raised the franchise requirement to 75 pounds, added a literary requirement and excluded tribal forms of tenure from the property qualifications for the vote.

By 1892, the Black and coloured people of the cape were cut out of politics. The ideas of the Kat River experiment, that is to win over the loyalties of the Christian Africans with laws to help them so that they would become productive members of society and fight off the pagan unconquered peoples, had been abandoned. To an extent this was because the Cape Colony was much more secure, the Xhosa wars had been won and they didn't need any alliances to protect themselves. In 1878, during the last months of the very last Xhosa War, the gun act disarmed all natives, the Xhosa, the Mfengu and the Khoisan, no black man could legally own a gun and no black men could now serve in the Cape Army (with the exception of a brief respite in 1880 thanks to a rebellion). The Mfengu and the Khoisan had made up the majority of the British Armies of the Cape for 70 years but with the Xhosa defeated they were no longer needed to be armed, so they weren't. The path from there to 1892 is an obvious one.

If you no longer fear the bullet, why give them the ballot?

So how can this be avoided? How can the spirit of the Kat River settlement and the Cape Franchise be maintained?

Well, the cynical part of me, who has read a lot of accounts of colonial atrocities which researching this series, would argue that white supremacy was always likely to win out over liberalism simply due to the nature of settler colonialism. Colonial wars are an inevitable result of people with different views on private ownership and a comfort with violence on both sides living next to each other. And those Colonial Wars tend to breed contempt and hatred which becomes racialised, the insecurity of living in someone else's land means you're always scared of them driving you off.

Moreover settlers come to settler colonies for land and so are eager to dispossess even friendly natives to claim that land off them, because that's why they came here. And once they have land, they want natives working there for low pay and so they want to discourage them from having other options. You see those same patterns in Algeria, in Namibia and even in Liberia. In Natal, the Hlubi and Putuni people were massacred and their lands taken by white settlers in 1874-75 for no reason whatsoever, unlike the Kat River people, they hadn't even rebelled first.

But this take is perhaps too cynical. This is a likely result of settler colonialism but it's not the only possible result. There were settlers who did want a fair deal for all involved. The Bishop of Natal, John Colenso, took up the cause of the Hlubi and Putuni in the wake of the massacres and managed to win them some meagre compensation which they could use to buy land once more. And within the Cape, the Kat River settlement and the Cape Franchise both did happen. Given those steps happened, it's nihilistic to argue they could never remain enforced. So how can we do that?

Well, avoiding the Kat River rebellion probably wouldn't actually help. The situation was already bad and if anything that rebellion was what gave the push for a racially blind franchise. Avoiding Cecil Rhodes probably does help but he was a voice of a pre-existing faction. A more active black block of voters within the existing party structure probably avoids that faction taking power but that's difficult to achieve.

A bigger problem is the collapse of Xhosa resistance to the Cape and so the removal of the need for local allies. If the Xhosa remain a stronger opponent, the position of the Mfengu and the Khoisan is probably better. And in the next article we will look at how that can happen.


Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' Anthology.


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