Go to The Time Traveller homepage

A brief history of South Africa

British Imperialism &
the South African War

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
(Contact the Project Coordinator)

It is with great sadness that we have to announce that the creator of Knowledge4Africa, Dr T., has passed away. Helping people through his website gave him no end of pleasure. If you had contact with him and would like to leave a message, please send us an e-mail here.

The 19th century was characterised by two waves of British imperialism. The first, from the 1830s until the 1870s, was what JS Galbraith calls "Reluctant Empire" in which the Empire expanded inexorably but by accident. From the 1870s to 1902 the British Government embarked on a course of deliberate land-grabbing, not only in South Africa but in Africa and in other parts of the world.


From about 1835 colonial boundaries in British South Africa expanded continually but against the will of the Colonial Office in London. It was not a time of prosperity in Britain but, since the Cape Colony was neither self-sufficient nor self-governing, all territorial expansion had to be financed by the British tax-payer.

It was commonly believed, on the other hand, that many of the Cape merchants, especially those in Grahamstown, were war-mongers who deliberately provoked frontier wars because of the lucrative trade that would follow with the presence of so many imperial troops in the country.

A major factor here was the immense power that was placed in the hands of the Cape Governor. Up until 1853 he ruled dictatorially. The colonists had no say whatsoever in the government and could therefore not curb the Governor's excesses.

At the same time, because sailing vessels took three months to complete the journey from London to Cape Town, there was always a six month gap between the Governor's despatch and the Colonial Office's reply.

Since the time delay would often have prejudicial effects if the Governor's decision was vetoed, there was the tendency therefore to accept his decisions but recall the man in disgrace if he really did overstep the mark.

That philosophy had major implications for the Cape. In the first place, it meant that the colonial boundaries were continually extended, usually against British interests. The Empire therefore continued to grow throughout the 19th century but "reluctantly". On the other hand, most of the Cape Governors were withdrawn in disgrace.

It does explain, however, why it was that the colonial boundaries continually expanded. At the same time, the Colonial Office was quick to recognise the existence of the two Boer republics (Transvaal and the Orange Free State) in 1852 and 1854 respectively.

In the meantime, such extravagant schemes as Sir Benjamin Durban's annexation of Queen Adelaide Province (1835), Sir Harry Smith's annexation of Trans-Orangia (1848) and Sir George Grey's confederation scheme (1858) were all repudiated by the Colonial Office.


By the mid-1870s circumstances were changing in Britain. It's not easy to explain the change but there was an obvious link with growing nationalism in Europe: the unification of Germany (1870) and Italy (1870), growing French antipathy for Germany based on the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine (1871), the signing of the military Dual Alliance between Germany and Austria (1878) and the rise of Social-Darwinism.

Although the Cape gained responsible government in 1872, the action coincided with a British change of attitude. Within a matter of years, the Colonial Office began interfering in the Cape's internal affairs and involving itself in the disputes of southern Africa.

Lord Carnarvon of the Colonial Office attempted to initiate his own federation scheme for South Africa (1875) and, when it began to founder because of the Cape's resistance to his blatant interference in local affairs, he tried to ram it down everyone's throats through the annexation of the Transvaal (1878).

At the same time, the Governor meddled in government during the 9th Frontier War (1879) by deposing Prime Minister Molteno and foisting his own man on the Cape (Sir John Gordon Sprigg - Member of Parliament for East London).

As yet the change of attitude had not yet affected the whole of the British government and the Transvaal was to regain its independence (1881). By the mid-1890s, however, imperialism was rampant. Britain was hard at work laying claim to vast chunks of Africa and was supported in the Cape by the ardent imperialist, Cecil John Rhodes.

The result was the Jameson Raid to try to topple the Kruger Government in the Transvaal (1896), followed by increasing interference in the affairs of that republic. Ultimately, Kruger lost his temper in October 1899 and declared war but it can be argued that he had no option. Britain wanted Transvaal and was determined to get it.

Circumstances changed rapidly thereafter. Although the two republics succumbed and became British colonies in 1902, the war had done Britain's image a great deal of damage. Friction with Germany grew steadily, culminating in the Great War (1914-18).

British imperialism was already a spent force. The four colonies in South Africa became a Union in May 1910 and fell into the hands of the Afrikaner nationalists in 1924. The Afrikaners, in turn, have never forgiven Britain for that wave of imperialism and still beat the battle-drums of independence in various parts of South Africa.

See also:

Contact: The Project Coordinator