top of page

Africa During the Scramble: The Spider in the Web

By Gary Oswald

Portrait of Sir Henry Bartle Frere, 1st Baronet. Painting by George Reed.

British Policy towards Southern Africa was always somewhat hot and cold, depending on who was in Power in London, in terms of both whether the government was Conservative or Liberal and whether the Colonial Office was more interested in balancing the books or painting the Map. While there were certainly periods of expansion, there were also periods of retreat. In the 1830s they had turned down a request to make the Natal a British colony, something that only happened reluctantly. Likewise, during the 1850s, numerous opportunities for expansion were turned down, in terms of refuting Harry Smith's annexation of the Orange River Sovereignty and of refusing Sechele's offer for the Tswana to become a protectorate.

The mineral revolution of the 1860s and 70s, wherein diamonds and gold were discovered within the interior of South Africa leading to what previously been a backwater getting increasingly rich and industrialised, changed that. Disraeli's second government resolved to assert British control over all of Southern Africa as a stable self-governing dominion. The man they sent to do that was Henry Bartle Edward Frere. Frere had two main goals, he wanted to disarm the natives entirely and thus reduce the chance of another rebellion and he wanted to join the British two colonies into a Federation that included the major polities outside of British control, the two Boer states and the Zulu Kingdom. If this federation could be founded it would reduce British expenses, in terms of defence, massively. Once arriving there, he added to that the goal of removing the elected government of Cape Town which opposed both war and forced federation.

Bartle Frere came close to having completely achieved all three goals but he made too many enemies and was eventually sacked and faced charges of misconduct, while his dreamed federation collapsed in warfare during the early 1880s. Frere felt that he was opposed during his time in South Africa by a Black conspiracy of natives led by a spider in the web plotting his downfall. He wasn't, obviously, but there was one man whose actions as much as Frere's own would play a huge rule in the fall and rise of the dream of South African Federation.

His name was Sekhukhune of the Bapedi.

The Bapedi had a large Kingdom in the Transvaal under their leader Thulare at the turn of the 19th century, but he died in 1820 and in the years that followed, the Bapedi would be increasingly battered by waves of Zulu expansionism. When Mzilikazi split his tribe off from the main Zulu nation, he scattered the Bapedi and conquered their land in around 1823, setting up the Matabele Kingdom there. The Matabele would, in turn, be driven out of the Transvaal by the Boers in the 1840s and would eventually settle in Zimbabwe, where they conquered the Shona. But their fate will be detailed in full in a later article, for this article it suffices to say that the Pedi people were reduced to landless exiles by the invasion.

But not for long. After four years of nomadism, Sekwati, the only one of Thulare's sons to survive Mzilikazi's invasion, took back the fortress of Phiring from the Matabele and regained control over the small portion of their former lands surrounding it. This new Bapedi nation was immediately attacked by both the Zulus under Dingane and the newly independent Swazi under Sobhuza who had broken away from the Zulus in the 1830s and were competing for land with it. Sekwati responded by building a second major fortress at Thaba Mosego, which would become his main base. Thanks to their impressive mountain fortresses, skill at ambushes and a refusal to be withdrawn into open combat, the Bapedi survived both invasions as an independent country. Sekwati would however send tribute every year to Dingane as a way of gaining his goodwill. Not that this worked entirely, the Bapedi would be routinely targeted by Swazi, Matabele and Zulu raiders until 1851, though none of them achieved much against the Bapedi defences.

In 1845, with Mzilikazi having been pushed out of the Transvaal by the Boers, Sekwati sold half of his land to the Boer leader Hendrik Potgieter. Meanwhile a rival group of Boers bought rights to all of the Bapedi land from the Swazi who claimed to be the rightful owners of that land and that the Bapedi were squatters who should be driven off. The Boers were thus under the impression that Sekwati was living on their land as their subject and Sekwati very much did not think that.

Inevitably then, war broke out between the Boers and the Bapedi in 1847 and Sekwati, disturbed, began purchasing guns in large numbers, though he was at least helped by the British arranged Swazi-Zulu peace deal of 1852 which largely ended attacks on his land by those Kingdoms. In 1857, a Bapedi-Boer peace treaty was also signed which ended ten years of on and off inconclusive fighting and firmly marked a boundary between Bapedi and Boer territory. Bapedi living on the West side of the Steelport River, in the land Potgieter had bought, were Boer subjects but those living on the East side, where Thaba Mosego and Phiring were, were confirmed as independent of both the Boers and the Swazi. Sekwati died in 1861, having taken his people from landless exiles to a firmly recognised Kingdom and his son Sekhukhune, while not the favoured heir, violently seized control upon his death.

Sekhukhune I

Once in control, Sekhukhune began actively welcoming in refugees from the Swazi and Zulu nations thus expanding the number of Bapedi people rapidly. By 1879, they were 75,000 strong of which 15,000 were armed men capable of combat. He initially played nice with the Boers but as his power grew, he became bolder. He expelled missionaries and Christian converts, openly supported raids against Boer farms and eventually annexed large areas of the territory Sekwati had sold to Potgieter. Soon, huge areas of land which theoretically paid taxes to the Transvaal Republic were instead under Bapeli control. Pretoria under President Thomas Bergers, who had ambitious plans to build new railways to Mozambique through the land Sekhukhune claimed, declared war in 1876 after a Bapedi chief refused to allow logging in his land, which was West of the Steelport. The Boer war effort was hampered by disunity from the off with the fundamentalist followers of Paul Kruger refusing to take part at all on the basis that Bergers (who was of the liberal tradition in the Dutch Reformed Church) was an heretic and so God would doom his efforts.

Sekhukhune sent our raiders to burn Boer farms and pulled his main army back to his central fortresses which the Boers were repulsed from after multiple failed assaults. The Boers, defeated, gave up on a quick victory and instead withdrew to the highland passes to undertake a long siege of the mountain strongholds of the Bapedi, hoping that they could at least cut Sekhukhune off from his farmlands and starve him out. This was a decent plan and it would have worked for Bergers, except British mine workers in the Transvaal panicked at the withdrawal of Boer troops. From their perspective, Bergers had declared war on an independent chief for reasons that they didn't care about and then lost a major battle and was now withdrawing his troops, leaving them at Sekhukhune's mercy. They spread that story to the British at Natal and the Cape who worried that the Boer's weakness might encourage other African polities, such as the Zulu or Swazi, to join Sekhukhune in a much larger war.

In response, the British sent an envoy, Theophilus Shepstone, to Pretoria to investigate the situation, arriving in January 1877. Bergers quickly pushed the starving Bapedi to agree a peace which he could then present to Shepstone to prove he had regained control. Sekhukhune however, saw in this an opportunity as he disputed the terms of the treaty, being willing to return only to the 1857 boundaries and not, as the Boers wanted, become a subject of the Transvaal himself. He wrote to Shepstone disavowing his signature, which had been taken under false pretences, and asking for British protection.

Shepstone thus discredited the treaty Bergers was brandishing to him, arguing not unreasonably that since Sekhukhune was lied to about the terms of the treaty and had not intended to sign away his independence, further war was inevitable. With Sekhukhune still a threat and the Transvaal practically bankrupt, Shepstone decided that the only proper way to guarantee the safety of the British mine workers was for the Transvaal to be annexed into the British Empire. Which he quickly arranged to happen, with the Boers too unorganised to effectively resist. To prove the benefits of this new situation, to the residents of the Transvaal, Shepstone then moved to do what Pretoria could not, neutralise Sekhukhune.

Sekhukhune had handed Bartle Frere one of his main goals, control over the Transvaal Republic, and after British victories in wars against the Xhosa and Griqua had seen all native polities south of the Zulus crushed and the Cape Parliament had been dismissed, Frere was on the up. All he needed to do now was annex the Orange Free State, who had already proved willing to joining the British Empire a generation earlier, break the power of the Zulus and, of course, deal with Sekhukhune.

Frere does seem to have been working under the impression that Sekhukhune was himself a Zulu working for their Kingdom. This was, in itself, not hugely surprising. The British knew who the Zulu were but had difficulties grasping their reach and tended to view every Bantu polity in the Natal as being the Zulus, hence the battle of Mbholompo in 1828 where in the British attacked and destroyed a completely different African polity, the amaNgwane, because they thought they were a Zulu army sent against the Cape. And Cetshwayo, King of the Zulu, does seem to have referred to the Bapedi as his dogs in conversations with the British, on the basis that their tributes and mutual hatred of the Swazi meant they could be relied on to fight for him if needed, which Frere took to mean the Zulu controlled the Bapedi. In this both Cetshwayo and Frere vastly misjudged Sekhukhune.

So too did Shepstone, who used the Bapedi's lack of food to force them to agree to be British subjects and pay a cattle fine to the Transvaal farmers as war reparations. If however, he thought Sekhukhune would be more placid when faced with British power, he would be quickly disabused of that notion. In March 1878, with a new harvest collected, Sekhukhune declared war once again. But cunningly only on the British, not on the Boers, to the point that Boer cattle were carefully not stolen in the hope of playing divide and conquer between the two. The British sent an army against Sekhukhune in September 1878, but like the Boers two years earlier, they were defeated by Bapedi defences and retreated. Two further attacks would also be repulsed.

At this point Frere made the awful decision that the best way to remove Sekhukhune, was attack his master Cetshwayo who Frere had always wanted to remove anyway despite the fact that both London and Durban thought the Zulus were more useful as allies. I have talked about that War before, but suffice to say, while the British did defeat the Zulus, it was not an overwhelming success for them. Sekhukhune's actions had done a lot to make the South African Federation seem plausible, by weakening the Transvaal Republic but he would also do much to ultimately to unravel that dream, by inadvertently provoking the British into a disastrous war.

Frere would be sacked after the disaster of Isandlwana, where the Zulus wiped out a column of 1,800 British troops, and with an increasing number of men needed to end that war, none were free to attack the Bapedi. Cetshwayo had, in desperation, asked Sekhukhune to come to his aid against the British but he refused. The Bapedi had no particular desire to bleed for the Zulus and they'd probably have been cut down if they'd attempted to leave their fortresses and push into Zulu lands. They instead preferred to rebuild their strength while the British were distracted and, by all accounts, Sekhukhune was reasonably content with his situation.

As far as he was concerned, a Boer revolt in the Transvaal was inevitable, especially now the British had been stupid enough to turn on their Zulu allies who the Boers were frightened of. And Sekhukhune figured that once the Boers and the British were at war, he would be an afterthought. All he needed to do was stay alive long enough to take advantage of it.

Here, however he had forgotten about one more player in this game who had reason to hate both the Zulus and the Bapedi. King Mbandzeni of the Swazi. In the aftermath of the British victory over the Zulus at Ulundi in July 1879, the Swazi would sweep down upon their old Zulu enemies in their thousands seeking plunder. And the British, short of man power, would let them act as enforcers of their rule there. And in this army, the British General Wolseley decided he had at last found the instrument that would bring Sekhukhune to heel.

In November 1879, around 7,500 British soldiers (3,000 of which were African levies) would march against the Bapedi and while this force pinned down the Bapedi with a frontal assault, an army of 8,000 Swazi arrived unexpectedly at their rear and smashed them. Wolseley had used himself as bait, so that Mbandzeni could deal the killer blow. It worked perfectly for the allies. The fearsome Bapedi Army, which had defeated all comers for 40 years, was shattered with heavy casualties. Sekhukhune was captured at the front lines and his lands annexed. From then on, the Bapedi would be forced to pay hut tax to the British and then later to the Transvaal Republic and they were confined to an area of only area of 1,000 square kilometres with their chiefs made to follow European laws and executed if they refused.

Whether the Bapedi could have avoided this fate by resisting the invasion if the British had not had Swazi help or for that matter whether the Swazi would have committed so many troops without the reassurance that the Zulu were broken are open questions. My instinct is that the Swazi would have been reluctant to send out their entire army past Zulu lands if Cetshwayo was still on the throne. However if all the British troops mustered for the invasion of Zulu were instead sent against the Bapedi, Wolseley probably would have won even without Mbandzeni though the victory might be less decisive. For that matter, it is not impossible for Cetshwayo to be bribed into attacking Sekhukhune himself, he had better relations with the Bapedi then Mbandzeni but he was hoping for a chance to blood his, very unexperienced, army and this would be one.

Two more 'what if's' also come to mind here. First of all, the hoped for Boer revolt would indeed come in 1880, helped by the fact that, with Sekhukhune and Cetshwayo both imprisoned, the Boers had no African threats to wish British protection from. This was however a year too late to do the Bapedi any good. So 'what if Sekhukhune had hung on until the first Boer war', whether due to successfully neutralising the Swazi or that war breaking out earlier? If the Boers won their independence, he could perhaps have wrangled concessions out of Pretoria the way the Swazi did. In this manner the Bapedi, like the Swazi, would become a protectorate of the Transvaal Republic and so avoid the direct annexation they suffered in OTL. And that might mean we see a Pedi state alongside Eswatini and Lesotho in the modern day.

Alternatively given the characters of both Sekhukhune and Paul Kruger, it's not unlikely that they might end up going to war again with neither settling for anything less than complete victory and with Kruger and his men no longer refusing to participate, this time you'd imagine the Boers would do better. Given Sekhukhune's character, your best bet for the Pedi state enduring is for him to bloody their enemies and then die, so that someone less aggressive can steer them into peacefully being a vassal as he seems unlikely to agree to that himself. Having said that, Sekhukhune apparently mellowed in captivity, where he enjoyed friendships with the Christian missionaries who he had despised as King, so perhaps the same mellowing might happen with old age, anyway.

And secondly, 'what if Sekhukhune had never taken power in the first place'. Under Manpuru, the favoured heir, it is likely the Bapedi would have taken a much less aggressive tone. They would still likely fight for their independence but would probably not directly invade Boer Lands. It's too much to say that completely removes the Anglo-Zulu and First Boer Wars, Frere's motives are still there, but it probably changes their complexion. Without the Bapedi fighting Pretoria, there's a good chance the Transvaal isn't annexed in 1878. Without that happening, and without the mistaken impression that the British were fighting a Zulu subject, it'd be much more important for the British to keep the Zulus onside. Instead of the next war being the British with Boer subjects attacking the Zulu, the next war might instead see the British with Zulu allies attacking the Boer.


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


bottom of page