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A brief history of South Africa

Queen Adelaide Province
& British Kaffraria

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




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Warfare was endemic along what was known as the eastern frontier of the Cape Colony. In that region, the isolated Dutch trekboers or frontiersmen met up with the much denser Xhosa population, held together in a lose tribal federation.

Both groups of people were pastoralists and it was therefore inevitable that they would vie for the same grazing land and water spots. Because the Dutch balanced their inferior numbers with superior firepower, the various conflicts that erupted tended to end in stalemate.

When the British established permanent control over the Colony after 1815, however, the governors were given access to greater resources. Thereafter, the conflicts started to become more one-sided, although still having a tendency to make major inroads into the Imperial budget.

Since all the governors until 1854 were military men, they tended to take a military stance as regards threatened conflict. In short, their philosophy was to mobilize early so as to conduct the entire campaign within enemy territory.

This was certainly the philosophy behind Sir Benjamin D'Urban's campaign beyond the Keiskamma River when the 6th Frontier War erupted in December 1834.

The Governor personally supervised the campaign and by May 1835, when much of the fighting was over, he devised a scheme for carving out a new British territory between the Keiskamma and Kei Rivers, which he named the Province of Queen Adelaide after the wife of his good friend, King William IV of England.

The amaXhosa would be driven over the Kei River and a new buffer zone would come into existence, possibly with White settlements to maintain order, although it is not certain what precisely the Governor intended by the annexation.

Queen Adelaide Province was divided up into a series of small fiefdoms, each under the control of special magistrates who resided at the various Chiefs' Great Places. Lieutenant Colonel Sir Harry Smith controlled the whole process from the military camp and mission station which took the grandiose name of King William's Town. The form of martial rule was almost solely of Sir Harry's own making.

Governor D'Urban, however, soon discovered that Queen Adelaide Province was not at all to the liking of the Colonial Office. The problem was that both Sir Benjamin and Sir Harry had embroidered their official reports with copious references to the brutality with which they had conducted their military campaigns.

Their anecdotes spoke of a war of revenge in which enemy soldiers were senselessly slaughtered, crops destroyed, huts razed to the ground, and women and children rounded up and led away almost as slaves.

It was the wrong time to embark upon such descriptions. By 1835 the Romantic Age was peaking in Europe and the British Government was at the summit of its philanthropic pilgrimage. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Colonies (Lord Glenelg) took particular exception to what he was reading.

To consign an entire country "to desolation", he wrote, and a whole people "to famine" was an "aggravation of the necessary horrors of war, so repugnant to every just feeling, and so totally at variance with the habits of civilized nations". The "honour of the British name" therefore demanded a satisfactory explanation or, failing such, the Province of Queen Adelaide would have to be abandoned.

The Governor slowly collected his evidence to substantiate his case, but he had succeeded in antagonising too many people. He also failed to supply the necessary explanations to the Colonial Office, causing the latter to order a return to pre-war boundaries.

Indeed, by December 1836 Lieutenant-Governor Sir Andries Stockenstrom was already in King William's Town signing new treaties with the Chiefs by which their independence was restored.

This was not to be the end of the episode. In December 1847, Sir Harry Smith returned as Governor of the Cape Colony, and with instructions to annex the territory between the Keiskamma and Kei Rivers, this time under the title British Kaffraria.

Although the Colonial Office had given much thought to this scheme, Sir Harry somehow managed to alter the plans and to resurrect his own legal system that had been in operation during the earlier debacle. The Province of Queen Adelaide therefore lived on, but under a new name.

By 1846, yet another frontier erupted (the War of the Axe). By then a substantial change had taken place in both the Colonial Office and in southern Africa. In the decade which had followed D'Urban's recall, the humanitarian sentiment had lost ground, to be replaced by a more pragmatic approach.

The Colonial Office became more inclined to ratify a governor's decision provided that he was able to justify it and guarantee that no further expense would be incurred.

In 1846, moreover, the Whigs had come to power in Britain and were faced with another war in the Cape Colony which was to cost more than 1 million. In southern Africa, the Great Trek had placed a substantial group of the Dutch-speaking population outside of the colonial borders. A new colonial policy was therefore seen as necessary to accommodate the altered circumstances.

Earl Grey and Lord John Russell agreed to implement Sir Benjamin D'Urban's plans but in a modified form. The scheme was partly formulated by Sir Henry Pottinger, who had had experience of the system of indirect rule in India.

The idea involved the creation of a form of protectorate of what was to be known as British Kaffraria, in which the Chiefs and their people would acknowledge the Queen as their protector and would recognise their subordination in civil and military affairs to a British military commander.

This system would establish imperial control with a simple (if arbitrary) form of government which would retain those tribal customs which would enhance the imperial authority.

Pottinger himself was considered the ideal person to implement the new system because of his experience in India and because he was in Britain at the time, with no immediate assignment.

He, however, preferred to return to India and his acceptance of the post was conditional to its being a claim to a higher position in India as soon as one became available. He also demanded that he be known as "High Commissioner" in addition to that of "Governor".

Pottinger, however, was not able to implement the new system. When he arrived at Cape Town in January 1847, he discovered that the war was still being waged and his task had therefore to be devoted to ending the conflict.

He believed that it would be neither wise nor dignified to annex the territory until such time as peace had been procured. In the meantime, his desired post in India had materialised, and it was left to his successor to implement the Colonial Office plans.

Soon after his arrival in Cape Town in December 1847, Sir Harry Smith set out for the frontier and, in quick succession, proclaimed the extension of the northern boundary of the Cape Colony to the Orange River, declared the Keiskamma River to be the eastern boundary and, at a meeting of what he termed the "Cis-keian" Chiefs and Councillors, he announced the annexation of British Kaffraria.

When Smith had set sail from Britain, however, his instructions for the settlement of British Kaffraria (called the Letters Patent) had not yet reached him. Rather than await their arrival, he decided to settle the frontier in terms of the authority supposedly vested in him as High Commissioner.

By doing so, therefore, he created a precedent because the proclamation was now grounded upon the powers of the High Commissioner and his form of rule was reminiscent of the discredited system he had operated under the direction of Sir Benjamin D'Urban in 1835-6, rather than the carefully put together plans of the Colonial Office.

Nevertheless, until the official instructions arrived, Smith was unable to install a civilian government in the territory. This had still not happened by the time that Sir George Grey took control of the territory in December 1854 and, not wishing to have his hands tied by legal issues, the new governor deliberately keep the "Letters Patent" in abeyance.

In the meantime, Sir George attempted a grand scheme of making little Englishmen of the amaXhosa. To achieve this, he brought out many missionaries to spread the Word of the Church of England among the Black population. At the same time, he devised two distinct immigration schemes to settle a White farming population in British Kaffraria.

His original scheme of bringing out retired English soldiers failed, and was replaced by another whereby German soldiers of the Anglo- German Legion came out. Since they were not particularly good settlers, however, Sir George enlisted German peasant families.

As a result of these schemes, the region took on a distinctly German flavour. It also saw a serious protest from the amaXhosa who, realising the failure of previous military action, resorted to a strange millenarian attempt to overthrow the British through the destruction of their own cattle.

It was only in 1860, when Grey had been recalled, that he at last published the Letters Patent and so turned British Kaffraria into a regular Crown Colony with a civilian government. Lieutenant Colonel John Maclean was thereupon appointed the territory's first (and only) Lieutenant Governor.

An economic recession during the early 1860s, however, put pressure on British Kaffraria. Unable to balance its books without support from the British Treasury, British Kaffraria was forced to look to the Cape Colony for salvation.

In 1865, therefore, the territory was incorporated into the Colony, thus ending a fifteen year period of economic and legal confusion.

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