The Highveld, 1854—1870

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After Britain relinquished political claims over the emigrant Afrikaners on the highveld, that region continued to be a scene of complex interactions among numerous peoples and polities. Africans were trying to recuperate from the Mfecane disruptions, to regain control of their land, and to preserve their political autonomy vis-à-vis the Whites; Afrikaners were trying to assert hegemony over the region and to safeguard their own autonomy from imperial Britain. The highveld was still peripheral to the capitalist global economy. Communications were primitive. Mails, if any, were entrusted to itinerant traders or African runners. Roads were tracks worn by wagons, horses, and pedestrians. Money was scarce. Nevertheless, increasing numbers of missionaries and traders were penetrating the territory from the Cape Colony and Natal, and the dominant trends were the growth of linkages between the diverse communities, the diffusion of a money economy, the dissemination of Western, especially Christian, ideas, and the enhancement of white power. The outcome, however, was far from certain in 1870.

The Afrikaner population of the region gradually increased, reaching about fifty thousand in 1870. Families were large, and newcomers filtered in from the Cape Colony. They were still uniformly committed to the stockfarming and hunting way of life. Aliens, mainly English-speaking people from the Cape Colony or Great Britain, formed small clusters of traders, clergy, and artisans in such villages as Bloemfontein and Pot-chefstroom, while manual labor was left to Coloured people and Africans. Like the Africans, the wealth of the Afrikaners was in cattle; but unlike the Africans, Afrikaners owned their land individually. The land in the territories under white control rapidly passed into private hands. Since there was very little currency in circulation, these embryonic states were unable to raise substantial revenues and often paid officials in land grants rather than cash. As a result, able and ambitious men who were elected as local administrators and military officers were able to accumulate vast holdings and become a distinctly superior class. Piet Joubert, the future commandant-general of the Transvaal republic, who started his public career as a veldkornet, or local official, had acquired over a dozen farms by 1871; so had Paul Kruger, the future president. In addition, commercial companies based in the British colonies acquired vast holdings in the republics. Most of the land was not used productively. Afrikaners ran their cattle or sheep over parts of their holdings, but acquired their grain from African producers, and the companies were absentee landlords who did scarcely anything to develop their properties.

The Afrikaners south of the Vaal River fashioned a more stable society than those further north. In 1854, the year of their independence, they adopted a constitution that was an amalgam of the old Cape colonial system of local administration, the legislative system that had existed in the Natal Republic, and several ingredients taken over from the United States Constitution, of which an immigrant from the Netherlands had a copy. Their Orange Free State was a unitary republic. The legislature was a unicameral Volksraad whose members were elected by male citizens—white men (not necessarily Afrikaners) who had lived in the republic for six months—provided they had registered for military service. Executive power was in the hands of a president, directly elected for five years, and an executive council composed of officials and Volksraad nominees. Local administration was in the hands of landdrosts appointed by the government and locally elected veldkornets and commandants. American influence was evident in provisions guaranteeing equality before the law, personal freedom, and freedom of the press; prohibiting the Volksraad from legislating against peaceful assembly and petition; and making the entire constitution extremely rigid by requiring the support of three-quarters of the members of the Volksraad in three successive annual sessions for constitutional amendments.

The state-making process north of the Vaal was entirely different. Not until 1860 did the various factions unite behind a constitution, and the document itself, with 232 articles, was wordy, ambiguous, unsystematic, and a curious mixture of substance and triviality. The institutions it created were similar to those in the Orange Free State. The qualifications for citizenship were nowhere defined, but they were implied in Article 9: “The people are not prepared to allow any equality of the non-white with the white inhabitants, either in Church or State.” The internal sovereignty issue, moreover, was obscured. The Volksraad was “the supreme authority and the legislative power of the country,” but “any matter discussed [there] shall be decided by three-fourths of the votes recorded,” while other articles implied that sovereignty was vested in the white population as a whole.

In practice, after a shaky start when a mob ousted the first president, the Orange Free State constitutional framework was a success and the citizens and officeholders developed a respect for law. Among the Afrikaners north of the Vaal, by contrast, political authority depended on the mobilization and application of force uninhibited by constitutional formulas. There, factionalism led to intermittent civil warfare in the early 1860s and contributed to the British annexation of the state in 1877.

Some highveld Africans first viewed the incoming Afrikaners as liberators and assisted them in driving the Ndebele out of the Transvaal, but they soon found that they had exchanged one oppressor for another. As their strength increased, Afrikaners vigorously sought to recreate the relationships that had existed before the British reforms in the Cape Colony. Africans who lived on white farms—which in many cases were located on the lands of their ancestors—did so under a variety of conditions, ranging from providing labor services to paying rent in cattle or sheep. To satisfy the white demand for labor, commandos raided neighboring African chiefdoms to capture male children and train them as servants. They called them apprentices to avoid the charge of slavery and to minimize the risk of British intervention. Anglo-Irish immigrant J. M. Orpen, who served for a while in the 1850s as a landdrost in the Orange Free State, recorded ample details of this traffic. In the Transvaal it was more devastating still. In their search for security, moreover, both republics prohibited Africans from possessing firearms and required them to carry passes when traveling. All such laws were enforced unevenly. The outcome in each time and place hinged on such contingencies as the relative density of the white and the black populations and the energy of the veldkornets and the African chiefs.

The Africans living in chiefdoms and kingdoms around the periphery of the republics were subjected to intermittent attacks by commandos. Quickly appreciating the value of firearms, they made great efforts to arm themselves. Many traders made handsome profits by supplying arms in defiance of republican and colonial laws. The republican Afrikaners tried to stop this illegal trade by punishing gunrunners severely. In an episode that became notorious, a Transvaal commando once destroyed the property of David Livingstone, the missionary and explorer, when Livingstone was absent from his mission station, on the grounds that he had been arming the Kwena chief Sechele or repairing his guns. The mob that ousted Josias Hoffman, the first president of the Orange Free State, in 1855 did so because he had given the Lesotho king Moshoeshoe a small keg of gunpowder as a diplomatic gesture. But the trade continued; in fact, traders could not transport sufficient arms to the African territories to meet the demand. The shortfall was met by Africans traveling to the Cape Colony or Natal, working there for white people for several months, and receiving payment in cattle or sheep, which they bartered with colonial traders for guns and ammunition. To defend themselves while traveling through republican territory, Africans formed bands of a hundred or more. Peter Delius has shown that Pedi from homes in the eastern highveld used Lesotho as a staging post. In defiance of the Sand River and Bloemfontein conventions and republican and colonial laws, the Sotho, the Pedi, the Tswana, and the Venda thus managed to equip themselves with firearms and ammunition. Although their guns were generally obsolescent models in European terms and they often ran short of ammunition, Africans increased their capacity to resist the invaders.

The Tswana occupied open terrain between the Transvaal republic and the Kalahari Desert. Divided among half a dozen major chiefdoms that had a history of conflict between one another and were also rent by internal rivalries, they never succeeded in cooperating against their successive invaders. Instead, under Afrikaner republican pressures, several chiefdoms split into two or more entities, some of which were incorporated in the Transvaal republic, others of which preserved their autonomy on the edge of the desert. Searching for allies against republican aggression, the Tswana were particularly susceptible to missionary influences. Several of their chiefs converted to Christianity and tried to enforce their missionaries’ social prescriptions, outlawing such customs as the payment of bride-wealth and the convening of initiation schools—actions that created yet another line of cleavage in a sorely divided society.

The medley of Bantu-speaking communities that occupied the northeastern highveld was more favored by the terrain. During the 1840s and 1850s, white prospectors, hunters, and adventurers of many nationalities were attracted to the area because it was a rich source of elephant ivory, and a settled population became established there. Tsetse flies and mosquitoes, however, decimated the settlers in the lowlands, whereas the Soutpansberg provided defensible mountain refuges for Venda chiefdoms close by. In 1867, Paul Kruger’s punitive expedition of four hundred men to the area was repulsed by the Venda and by disease, and the settlement collapsed.

During the 1850s, the Pedi chief Sekwati checked Afrikaner expansion in the fertile and disease-free eastern Transvaal by creating a loose-knit kingdom centered on a defensible mountain stronghold. After Sekwati’s death in 1861, however, the kingdom was rent by a civil war rooted in rivalry between two of his sons—a setback that was typical of the mixed-farming societies of Southern Africa. This cleavage, accentuated by a bitter religious controversy resulting from the activities of German Protestant missionaries, prevented the Pedi from consolidating their state and maintaining a united front against Afrikaner aggression. Even so, most Pedi remained autonomous throughout the 1860s.

The most dramatic events of the 1850s and 1860s were played out in and near the Caledon River valley (map 6). There, the Sotho occupied terrain similar to the country of the Pedi: a fertile valley and defensible mountains. In addition, the Sotho had one exceptional boon: the skillful leadership of Moshoeshoe, who had been creating the kingdom of Lesotho out of the debris of the Mfecane. During the 1850s, Lesotho conquered and absorbed the rival southern Sotho chiefdom of Sekonyela and several other communities that had been clients of the short-lived British administration. Conflict with the Orange Free State was inevitable. The British had shed responsibility for the region without attempting to consult Moshoeshoe or settling his boundary with the Orange Free State. The Afrikaners and Sotho thus jostled one another for control of the land and raided each others’ cattle. Open warfare broke out in 1858, when Afrikaner commandos invaded Lesotho from both north and south, capturing cattle and ravaging villages and mission stations, and converging on Thaba Bosiu. There, they faltered. Mustering some ten thousand men, all mounted on horses and equipped with firearms, the Sotho defended their fortress and raided Afrikaner farms, seizing livestock and burning homesteads as the Afrikaners had been doing to them. White morale collapsed. The commandos disbanded, leaving Moshoeshoe the victor.

When war broke out again in 1865, the relative strengths of the contestants had changed. Moshoeshoe, nearly eighty years old, was losing control over his sons, who were intriguing for the succession and indulging in uncoordinated raids. The Orange Free State, meanwhile, had grown in population and had acquired an able president in J. H. Brand. This time, the Free State commandos destroyed Sotho property so relentlessly that Molapo, Moshoeshoe’s second son, whom Moshoeshoe had placed as his chief in the northern part of the kingdom, surrendered, and Moshoeshoe himself signed a treaty ceding much of the kingdom. But hostilities continued. The Free State was on the verge of achieving a complete victory over a demoralized and famished enemy when, dramatically, Sir Philip Wode-house, governor of the Cape Colony and British high commissioner for South Africa, annexed Lesotho.

Moshoeshoe had been appealing for British protection since the early 1860s, in the belief that Britain had less interest than his aggressive neighbors in exploiting his people. For their part, British officials doubted the wisdom of the conventions soon after they were signed. In 1857, High Commissioner Grey checked a movement toward the unification of the two republics by threatening to cut off their ammunition supplies. In reasoning similar to that which had led to the British annexation of Natal, he argued that a united highveld republic might create disturbances along the colonial frontiers. Wodehouse agreed with that analysis. Sympathetic to the Sotho in their distress, he thought that the convention policy had produced divisions, conflicts, and poverty. As the dominant power in Southern Africa, Britain should resume its responsibilities and, as a first step, take Moshoeshoe’s people under protection. In December 1867, the British cabinet accepted that argument and instructed Wodehouse to incorporate Lesotho in the colony of Natal; but Wodehouse, finding that the Sotho chiefs were strongly opposed to rule by Natal and its arrogant administrator, Theophilus Shepstone, annexed Lesotho as the separate British colony of Basutoland, on March 12,1868. Faced with a threat to prohibit the supply of arms and ammunition, the Free State government reluctantly accepted Wodehouse’s decision.

In February 1869, Wodehouse and Free State commissioners settled the Basutoland boundary without consulting the Basotho. Basutoland was to consist of the land between the Caledon River and the mountain escarpment, minus a triangle between the lower Caledon and its junction with the Orange. Stripped of the fertile area north of the Caledon, the Sotho were confined to a small proportion of the arable lands that their ancestors had occupied before the Mfecane and far less than Governor Napier had recognized as coming under Moshoeshoe’s sway in 1843. The Sotho were profoundly disappointed with that outcome. They still refer to the lost lands as “the conquered territory”.

By the time the agreement was signed, Moshoeshoe was ailing, and he died on Thaba Bosiu on March 11, 1870. He had experienced all the crucial changes that had taken place on the highveld—from the comparative stability of his youth, through the anarchy of the Mfecane, to the intrusion of French missionaries, Afrikaner farmers, and British officials. More skillfully than other Africans confronted with similar problems, he had managed to create a kingdom out of chaos and to steer that kingdom through manifold dangers to what was probably the best destiny open to it in the changed world of the late nineteenth century.

In December 1867, the British cabinet thought they were authorizing the resumption of responsibilities in the interior because to fail to do so would risk further instability, with repercussions throughout the region. They were not doing it because they believed the area had great economic promise. But in that very month a prospector named Carl Mauch was in Pretoria claiming to have found gold in Tswana country, and a stone was on exhibition in Cape Town that had been identified as a diamond.

In 1870, Southern Africa was occupied by numerous small agrarian societies, loosely linked by the dynamic forces of settler expansionism and merchant capitalism originating in northwestern Europe. In spite of its temperate climate, the entire region had attracted a minute proportion of Europe’s emigrants, capital investment, and overseas trade. It contained only about 250,000 people regarded as white; more than a hundred times as many lived in the United States. Most members of the white population depended on numerous imported commodities—not only clothing, hardware, guns, and gunpowder but such foodstuffs as coffee, tea, flour, and sugar. Even so, the total value of imports was only about £3 million a year. Exports—mostly in the form of wool and ostrich feathers from the eastern districts of the Cape Colony—amounted to rather less than that. In 1870, furthermore, the annual revenues of the four white states amounted to only about £750,000—nearly three-quarters of that being the Cape Colonial revenue. Cape Town, in the extreme southwestern corner, with nearly 50,000 inhabitants (about half of them white), was the only town of more than 30,000. Durban and Pietermaritzburg had fewer than 7,000 inhabitants each; the highveld towns were smaller still. In the entire region, there were only 70 miles of railroad track; there were 3 8,000 in the United States.

Nevertheless, by 1870 the region was poised to take advantage of the mineral discoveries. Cape Town and its suburbs had a wide range of small-scale industries—steam flour mills, coach and wagon builders, cabinet makers, saddlers, leather and soap manufacturers. Elsewhere, in numerous small towns entrepreneurs and artisans were gaining industrial experience. There were wool-washing establishments throughout the Cape Colony, notably at Uitenhage; sugar mills on the Natal coast; tanneries near Bloemfontein. In addition, the banking industry was overcoming its teething troubles. There were many small, local banks, and one institution, the Standard Bank of British South Africa, with headquarters in London and a capital of nearly £2 million, had branches in Natal and the Orange Free State, as well as the Cape Colony.

Wherever Afrikaners had settled, they tolerated scarcely any social interaction with black people except as masters with servants. Indeed, they went a long way toward preserving the patriarchal relationships that had originated in the seventeenth century, minus the overt practice of slavery. The British settlers in the Cape Colony and Natal, and in the towns and villages in the republics, had rapidly complied with the established mores.

In spite of their setbacks as a result of the Mfecane and white expansion, the African peoples of the region were proving to be remarkably resilient. They showed no signs of disintegrating like the aboriginal peoples of North America and Australia. In 1870, they were probably more than ten times as numerous as the Whites in the area covered by the modern Republic of South Africa. Independent African territories formed a semicircle around the colonies and republics, stretching from the Tswana chiefdoms in the northwest, through the Venda in the north, to the Swazi, Zulu, and Mpon-do in the east. The colonial and republican states were fragile entities. There were large areas within the boundaries they proclaimed where they had little influence. In the Transvaal, in Natal, and in the Transkei many African communities still had effective control over their own lives. Numerous Africans, moreover, were adapting to the opportunities as well as the constraints created by the invaders. Although some were being reduced to serflike status, most were keeping control of enough of their ancestral land to feed themselves and produce a surplus of grain for consumption by Whites.

Great Britain, unchallenged by European rivals, dominated the external trade of the region. In spite of the ambitions of their creators, the Afrikaner states were inexorably part of the informal British Empire. As the Orange Free State had discovered, the British had a powerful lever in the threat to apply sanctions against the flow of arms and ammunition. The Trans-vaalers had tried but failed to open up an outlet to the sea on Delagoa Bay; and victory, even had they succeeded, would have been pyrrhic, since Portugal was a virtual client of Great Britain.

In 1870, South Africa was an imbroglio of peoples of disparate African, Asian, and European origins and cultures. Unresolved conflicts over land and labor were accentuated by different ideological assumptions and by contradictory perceptions that created tensions in each community. Whites were dependent on the services of black laborers but (with some exceptions in the Cape Colony) were determined to exclude Blacks from participation in their social and political systems. Africans were striving to preserve their freedom but were becoming dependent on manufactured commodities and interested in Western technology and Western religion. The imperial power was spending little money in the region but was committed to maintaining control of the sea route via the Cape of Good Hope and to exercising some responsibility for the stability of the region. The mineral discoveries accentuated these tensions and inaugurated a new phase of South African history.