By Gary Oswald
The Great Trek of white settlers away from the British Cape Colony to their own Republics in the interior has been somewhat mythologised and so it is perhaps worth putting it in context.
For a start, it wasn't a Trek of purely white settlers. The Voortrekkers bought with them their black servants and slaves so, as a result, the Trek was composed of around half black people and half white people and the black retainers were crucial for the Boers' military success. We should not allow those retainers to be written out of history.
Secondly the Voortrekker exodus was simply one of many similar treks going on in the same area at the same time. The nature of society and warfare in the period meant whole peoples did just up and move when threatened by another polity. The history of the Sotho, the Tswana, the Matabele, the Gaza and the Bapedi is full of similar migrations. More tellingly perhaps, the Great Trek was not even the first or last of the Treks out of the Cape Colony, black servants and slaves had been doing so for years. The Griquas, Nama, Oorlams, Bergenaars and Hertenaars, black and mixed race descendants of servants, were the first Dutch speaking, Christian, Horse riding, gun wielding, trouser wearing refugees from the Cape and had already earned themselves fearsome reputations before the first White Boers turned up.
For all the fame of the 1838 Battle of Blood River, a devastating Boer victory over the Zulus, it wasn't the first time an enemy with guns and horses had broken an impi charge. That had been when the Griqua had defeated the Zulus in 1826 at Lepelle. The Boers have, over the centuries, largely distanced themselves from the likes of the Griqua or Nama, and emphasised the uniqueness and importance of their Trek. But from an objective point of view the Nama and the Boers share similar histories as refugees from the Cape pushing into new lands and fighting the Bantu Kingdoms there before being conquered by an Imperial power, even to the point of both ending up in concentration camps. Within the context of Southern African politics, the Great Trek was just one of many. It was important largely because white polities were treat differently by Europe.
Laws which banned the sale of Weapons to African Kingdoms, did not apply to the Boers because they were white, nor was there a similar attempt to disarm them by Frere and there was significantly more European sympathy and outrage for the Boers' struggles against imperialism than the Zulus'. Because of this, the British relationship with the Boer states was always slightly different than their relations with the Black African polities.
Different, of course, is not the same as good. The British Army repeatedly fought with Boer Militias, in both Natal and the Orange River area and the defeated Boers were largely driven out of those areas when the British established control. But this was far more their choice than the forced migrations the Xhosa suffered, if the Boers wished to obey British laws, they were welcomed as full citizens. And there is a marked difference between the treaties the British would sign with the Boer states of the Transvaal and Orange Free State and the treaties they signed with Black Africans. With the Boers, the British demanded less and conceded more.
The flipside of that racially motivated respect was racially motivated fear. The British were scared of the Boers in a way they just weren't of Black Africans. There was never a serious risk of a Xhosa state supplanting the Cape Colony as the rightful rulers of South Africa in the eyes of Europeans but a Boer State just might be able to do it. This fear of a United States of South Africa emerging in the Transvaal would motivate a lot of British actions. And the discovery of diamonds (in 1867) and then gold (in 1886) in the interior deepened those fears.
Suddenly, due to this mineral revolution, instead of a backwater, South Africa was thriving. And, particularly post 1886, the economic centres of this new boom country were not British Cape Town or Durban but Johannesburg, Bloemfontein and the other towns near the Kimberley diamond mines and Witwatersrand Gold Fields. As increasingly large amounts of English speaking workers (or Uitlanders) took up work within the Boer Republics, the British felt that union between the British colonies and the Boer colonies was inevitable so that they could have joint policies on economics and the natives.
By the 1890s their big fear was that if this union didn't happen within the Empire it would happen without it. That once inevitable reform opened up the vote in the Republics to their Uitlanders (the Boer Republics operated under a system wherein white Afrikaner men were the only ones who had rights but this was seen as unsustainable) this new entity would take over the area entirely with the impoverished British colonies joining the booming Uitlander ones. The Jameson Raid and Second Boer War emerged from those fears.
In the 1870s, before the gold rush had fully taken off, however there was more hope in attracting the Boer states into a union peacefully. The Cape Colony was not happy with this aim, they had passed a relatively progressive qualified franchise and worried that being unified with racial segregated states like the Boer republics would ruin that (a take that would prove sadly prophetic). London however believed that a full union with the Boers was necessary if South Africa was to become self sufficient in terms of its defence and so they could stop paying for troops there.
Initial talks for voluntary union, in 1875, were rejected by both the Boer states and the two British colonies. But, as discussed previously, in 1877, in the aftermath of the Boer-Bapedi War, the British annexed the Transvaal territory entirely on the basis that the debt ridden Republic was a failed state. The British initially managed to take over without any serious opposition but that didn't last. In December 1879, a vote for independence was arranged and its organisers arrested for High Treason. The Boer leaders were still hoping for a peaceful independence and prevented things escalating but a violent War could still have broken out then in their followers got out of their control, or, for that matter, it could have broken out even earlier. An 1878 rebellion, for instance, is likely to have massive effects on the Bapedi, the Sotho and the Zulu.
The 1879 Anglo Zulu and Anglo Bapedi Wars also very much hurt British status and encouraged Boer Rebels. Both because they suffered losses in both campaigns and so proved themselves beatable and because they had removed British allies which the Boers feared. In 1877, the British and Zulu alliance was still strong and there was genuine fear in Pretoria that a Boer rebellion would see 50,000 Zulus marching into the Transvaal with 10,000 British regulars. After 1879 that possibility was dead. Likewise they could focus on the British without any particular fear of Sekhukhune stabbing them in the back, as he was in Prison.
In April 1880, William Gladstone became PM of the UK and as he had spoken out against the annexation, the Boers hoped he might peacefully give them their independence. He did not, it would have been a hugely brave decision for any new government to make. With that hope extinguished, Boer newspapers began openly arguing for violent revolution.
In late 1880 the British began pursuing tax from Boer Farmers in arrears and many Boers responded by saying they would pay taxes only to the rightful government, not foreign occupiers. In November the first shots between Boer Farmers and British officials were fired and in December, the Boer Leaders, chief among them Paul Kruger, Piet Joubert and Marthinus Wessel Pretorius, declared independence.
Their first martial blow was an ambush of a British column at Bronkhorstspruit which saw all 256 British soldiers killed or captured. That was an 8th of all the British forces in the Transvaal, with most of the troops having been withdrawn earlier that year, and it rather set the tone for the coming conflict. The Boers simply had much better guns and were better shots than the majority of Africans that the British forces were accustomed to fighting.
In January 1881, the Boers went on the offensive, sieging and eventually capturing the British garrisons within the Transvaal. British relief forces were sent to reinforce those positions but were outmanoeuvred by the mobile Boer forces and their sharp shooters, losing every major encounter to their innovative fire and manoeuvre tactics. Poor intelligence, leadership and discipline on the British side saw them take heavy losses throughout the conflict, losing more than ten times as many men as they killed. The final pitched battle of the war at Majuba Hill, wherein a British patrol holding a hill was dislodged from it by Boer commandoes storming uphill with the Boers suffering only one loss to Britain's 151, has been described as one of Britain's most humiliating ever military defeats. And it was one the Army certainly remembered, with 'remember Majuba' becoming a catchphrase of the Second Boer War.
Having said that, this was a relatively low scale conflict. It lasted only three months, was not particularly well known in the UK and it involved relatively few men, being mostly bloody skirmishes between small groups of fighters. Over the entire conflict, the British lost less than a third of their losses at the single battle of Isandlwana. This was a very different conflict to the one twenty years later and arguably gave the Boers unfounded confidence in that one. The Boers didn't defeat the British Army, they just defeated the local forces and the British then didn't send anyone else in.
With most of the regular Army busy in Afghanistan, there were only five battalions in South Africa, and a considerable amount of those Troops were tied up fighting the Sotho. Moreover those battalions were beset by desertion, drunkenness and lack of basic training. And there were worrying reports of the Transvaal Republic reinforcing itself with new volunteers coming in droves from the Orange Free State and even the Cape Colony. It was clear that if the British wanted to win this war, they'd need to reinforce South Africa with forces from elsewhere and prepare for a long slog. Gladstone wasn't ready to do that, he was sympathetic to the Boers and was not really willing to escalate the conflict further. He hadn't even wanted to fight Majuba in the first place, let along avenge it, he'd already offered Kruger a ceasefire prior to that battle, which British troops ignored. The endless wars in pursuit of a dream of Federation were unpopular both in London and in South Africa and they didn't want to pay the bill for another drawn out affair.
A longer Boer War was possible, the Government were ready to send out an extra 10,000 troops to avenge Majuba if peace negotiations fell apart, and would have changed the history of Southern Africa massively, but it really requires Disraeli to have won the 1880 election rather than Gladstone. The Liberal government didn't really have the heart for it, much like they didn't have the heart for a campaign in the Sudan five years later during the Siege of Khartoum.
The First Mahdist War and the First Boer War are interesting to compare to each other. In both cases initial rebel victories successfully caused a relatively un-imperialistic government (compared to other European governments at the time) to just accept their independence rather than fight a gruelling campaign of reconquest. In both cases the Army however very much did not forget this humiliation and would be back later to avenge the loss when under more aggressive leadership from London. To an extent this underlines the power imbalance of any relationship between a Global Empire and a state with only local reach. Because the fighting took place so far from the imperial heartlands, even defeat left that Empire intact and ready to come back, while victory was complete. The Boers needed to win every time, the British only once.
While the initial peace agreement was a face saving one which saw the Queen remain as head of the Republic, this was replaced by the 1884 London convention wherein the Transvaal won full independence. The only concessions the Boers made was that any treaty with any nation, other than the British or the Orange Free State, would require approval from the British first. The other good news for London was that the Boer states remained largely economically interlinked with the British, with Boer minerals being exported to British colonies on British railroads and paying British rail duties. At least, of course, until the opening of the 1890 Railway from Pretoria to Portuguese Maputo threatened that entirely. The plans for that Railway had first been approved in the 1870s, but Britain had cancelled it upon annexing the Transvaal, something that damaged their relationship with both the Boers and Portugal but maintained their captive market.
The main victims were in fact the Swazi Kingdom, Britain's ally in the wars against the Zulu and Bapedi. Having essentially been cut off from the British, by Boer independence, they were abandoned to the mercies of Pretoria, and saw huge areas of their land annexed before the Rump Kingdom was made a Boer protectorate with their foreign policy ran by the Transvaal Republic.
The existence of the Boer states as not only independent actors but expansive ones, hugely influenced British Policy throughout the 1880s and 1890s, which aimed to limit the influence of their rivals. The Anglo-Zulu war of 1879 had ended with the Zulus broken but not annexed, it was the Boers moving in first that led to the British actually annexing Zululand. Likewise a Boer invasion of Botswana prompted British control there. And of course Rhodesia, modern day Zimbabwe and Zambia, was conquered in the hope that Rhodes could find a second Rand, only this one fully within British control. A South Africa with the Boers integrated would act very differently.
So how possible was that? For either the rebellion to be avoided and the Transvaal Boers reconciled with British rule or the rebellion to be put down? Well the former is unlikely, the Transvaal Boers were largely made up of people who had already left the British Empire twice, first from the Cape and secondly from Natal, but not impossible.
Many British Colonial officials blamed the Treasury and its penny pinching for the rebellion. The British had taken over a bankrupt country, but then they hadn't actually invested within it. Their unwillingness to spend meant the British hadn't improved the Colony or given the Boers any reason to welcome them.
I'm not that convinced by this perspective. The British spent quite a bit of money (around one and a half million pounds) removing the Bapedi and Zulu threats, something which benefited the Boers hugely and didn't result in any feelings of gratitude. Beyond that there was a 100,000 pound grant issued to Pretoria (though corruption meant not all of this got to the Boers) which was used to pay off debts and build a new 30,000 pound telegraph line.
But there certainly was a sense of neglect and perhaps further investment in roads, bridges, hospitals and railways would have tilted the scales. For instance Shepstone cancelled the planned railway from Pretoria to Mozambique, if he hadn't there'd have been maybe less bitterness, but given its construction directly weakened Natal's economy it seems hard to save when Natalian traders are calling the shots. Or for that matter if self governance rather than direct rule had been allowed, as Shepstone had promised but London had not followed through on, that would help things but again it seems difficult to get there.
The Rebellion being put down is more likely but it would require a huge commitment from the British. Something best illustrated by the effort needed to conquer the Boer states entirely when it did happen a few decades later. If the 10,000 new troops did arrive to burn down the Transvaal not only would the Orange Free State almost certainly be dragged into the fighting, there were genuine fears of the Cape Colony breaking out into civil war between the Afrikaans and English speakers there.
In both cases, the conclusion has to be that the Anglo-Zulu war was a huge blow for British hopes in keeping the Transvaal. With the soldiers lost in that conflict still alive and Cetshwayo and his 50,000 warriors still allied to the British, the UK are both more likely to avoid a rebellion and more likely to win one. Frere's decision to invade the Zulu lands ultimately undid Shepstone's work in annexing the Transvaal entirely.
Shepstone had told the Transvaal Boers during his annexation speech that Cetshwayo would have invaded the Transvaal in support of Sekhukhune if the Bapedi war had continued for longer. This was a lie but Shepstone was trying to position British Rule as the only alternative to the much worse prospect of Zulu rule, a plan that only works if Zulu rule looks remotely possible, which it didn't after 1879. Though I shouldn't blame Frere alone, Shepstone was also pushing an anti-Zulu line. He had made a huge misjudgement in reopening the matter of the disputed lands between Transvaal and the Zulus in the hope that he could win his new Boer subjects more land only for the report to find out that the Zulus were completely in the right. That affair did little for winning hearts and minds in Pretoria and it embarrassed Shepstone, leading him to support the invasion to try and right that wrong.
And without the vast expense of the Zulu war maybe more money is available to spend on hospitals in the Transvaal. You can even go further and say that while the Liberals' victory in the 1880 election had many causes, and can primarily be put at the feet of a poor economy, there is an argument to be made that if you need Disraeli to win, you also have to avoid Isandlwana and the blow to prestige it represented.
Frere's paranoia in viewing the Zulus as the biggest threat was something that wasn't really widely shared by the British government and so is relatively easy to avoid, neither London nor Durban wanted war. While I think avoiding an Anglo-Zulu war in the 1870s likely just gives you one in the 1890s, once a confident Britain decides to turn the screws on the Zulus, in the short term it puts the British in a far stronger position for the Boer and Sotho wars.
But would a British Transvaal even lead to an early South African Federation as the likes of Frere had hoped? After all, the Cape, Sprigg aside, was still against it, the Free State, while more Anglophilic than the Transvaal, was still independent, and Natal largely disliked all their neighbours. But to some extent the hostility of the Cape to Federation was provoked by the Transvaal Boers. The Afrikaners at the Cape made up the majority of the white voters and had been told by Paul Kruger to oppose federation so as to avoid 'washing their hands in the blood of their brothers'. With the Transvaal quiet, Federation may prove more popular.
The difference in voting rights, which is why Liberals in the Cape opposed federation, would still have to be accounted for, however. And well the easiest way to do that would be for Anglo and Afrikaans whites to just sell out the black and coloured votes, which is what they did in OTL. I don't think it's impossible for the Anglo and Afrikaans blocks to instead bring in non white English and Afrikaans speakers for extra votes and so rely on Mfengu or Cape Malay voters but that would have to happen outside of a union with three states with limited franchise rather than within it. The best way of maintaining the Cape's non racial franchise is a much looser federation than London was arguing for. An earlier union is likely to be along Canadian lines and so mean an earlier end to Cape Liberalism.
Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' Anthology.