By Narisa Silver
Prior to the 1870s, South Africa was considered a relatively insignificant country unworthy of exploration or time by the colonial powers of Europe. However, the discovery of precious metals in the country during the 1870s brought about drastic change to the country, especially to native Africans.
Afrikaners,” claiming that they were destined to be the owners of Africa, and used their ideology of white supremacy as the basis for their claim. Though they did not carry Enlightenment ideals with them, and were actually a very small population, they still provided an obstacle for the British conquest of South Africa. The Boers were nationalistic and were not willing to give up the land that they felt entitled and destined to own. This would provide a significant problem for the imperialistic and highly competitive British forces.
The majority of scholarly work that centers upon explaining the British conquest of South Africa neglects the role the Afrikaners played in the British conquest. Like the native Africans, they had a visible presence in the country, and fiercely defended their own territory. The conflict that erupted between these two European groups led up to the Boer War; a war between the Boers and the British and determined who would ultimately reign sovereign over the conquered African nation. There is, however, a lack of scholarship regarding what factors and groups specifically led to the defeat of the native South Africans. It is necessary to understand how and why this occurred, because not only does it explain why the vast majority of a country’s citizens were overcome by a smaller, non-native force, but it also gives further insight into the inter-European conflicts that emerged. The conflict between the British and the Boers did not end after the defeat of the native Africans, but rather continued for decades, with constant warfare between the two groups over who would reign supreme over the conquered nation of South Africa. Exploring how the two groups interacted during the conquest of the native South Africans can help explain how the relations between the British and the Boers developed, and how politics were to be set for the future between the two. In their takeover of South Africa, were the British solely responsible for the exploitation and defeat of the native South Africans? Though the Boers did help them conquer the native Africans, the British and their imperialistic policies provided the heart and soul behind the brutal conquering of the native Africans.
Great Britain during the early Victorian Era in the last half of the 19th century was a country that strongly prided itself on its colonial expansions and supposed intellectual and philosophical supremacies. Stories of adventure in the dark, mysterious expanse of Africa were popular, and just a few years after the initial entrance of British forces into the country in the 1870s, there was “scarcely any person in the United Kingdom was unaware of the existence of the Witwatersrand and its riches…newspapers teem…almost every daily journal has conceded a special column…all this upheaval emanates exclusively from the activity in the mining market” (Magubane 223). Great Britain was proud to have their stake in the colonial scramble for Africa, and popular culture wholly embraced this. However, they soon came to realize the issue that they were not the first Europeans to enter the country, although they were the first to attempt to conquer with such ambitious goals and massive manpower.
After arriving in South Africa, the British realized that they not only had to conquer and defeat the native Africans, but also figure out how to deal with the unique European group of the Boers. The Boers had arrived nearly a century ago at Cape Town, and these Dutch immigrants decided against starting a port city and actually lost contact with the mainland of Europe. They created their own culture as they traveled deep into the lands of South Africa. The Boers had their own farming communities, which were relatively harmless to their African neighbors, for they lived in their own isolated communities. They had their own history to be proud of – they were “the descendants of the thousands of Afrikaans-speaking frontier farmers…who had left Cape Colony fifty years earlier in an organized exodus – the Great Trek…Fiercely nationalistic and independent, the Boers resented…imperialistic ideas and Britain’s intervention in what they regarded as their internal affairs” (Liebenberg 132). The Boers were unique in their position, because they opposed imperialism and just wanted to cultivate their own isolated society, but they were also highly nationalistic and were strong believers in white supremacy. Although they were clearly racist and detested their neighbors, they did not bother fighting them, since they believed in the ideology of separate development. This was to be the root of the apartheid ideology that would later emerge in South Africa’s future, a system in which all races lived in isolated, separate areas and could not enter the areas of other races. While the Boers simply wanted to avoid the natives and develop their own hybrid African-Dutch culture, the British were invasive and wanted to integrate European teachings into the world of the natives of South Africa, educating and ruling over the “noble savages.”
It was the paternal ideology of the British, rather than the separatist and avoidance policies of the Boers, that caused war to break out against the native South Africans. The British takeover of South Africa did not begin with massive bloodshed and war. They started at first by entering native areas and hastily attempting to be their new masters, and to teach them a new way of life. The magistrates entered areas, and their behavior was “tactile and personalized…the arrival or departure of a magistrate could substantially reshape the local political landscape” (Crais 36). It is safe to conclude that it was “of questionable wisdom…the rapid extension to the magistrates of authority which had hitherto belonged entirely to the chiefs” (Brookes 74). The transfer of power to the British provoked a negative reaction from the natives and the Boers. In his letters to the French newspaper Le Figaro, French journalist Paul Deleage observed that conquest would “require several years, much sacrifice, great energy…The Englishman, in all his African possessions, is more feared than respected” (Deleage 94). The negative reaction to the British imperialists was most strongly seen among the natives, not because they were more vicious or powerful than the Boers, but rather because they were far larger in numbers and thus more able to cause a noticeable movement against the British colonists. As demand for South African precious metals grew, more British forces were brought into the country to both work the mines and to rule over the lands of the country. Ironically, due to their experiences in the American colonies, the British decided to make their system of rule as integrated and adjusted to the situations of the colonized land as possible. Their strategy was to have many magistrates come in, and then they would have “gradually devolved power to its South African possessions…British colonies therefore had a measure of independence from Britain in the era of the…scramble for Africa” (Crais 30). Thus, it can be seen that these British colonial leaders were able to gradually leave British influence and manipulate their own ideologies of rule over the local areas to their desire, with no limit external regulation over their rule. This was all done while projecting images of paternalistic humanity and success when reporting back to their home country of Great Britain, bringing in more funds and support for their seemingly romantic conquest of South Africa.
An incident that strongly reflects the presence of British leadership in the domination and defeat of the natives is the disturbing incident of the skinning of British magistrate Hamilton Hope in 1880, about a decade after British colonial rule in South Africa was established. His illogical and authoritarian rule brought instability into his dominion and led to a civil war. In a bloody rebellion, illiterate guerrilla warriors set up a traditional native ceremony in which Hope expected to be a part of. His paternalistic logic failed him in this case, as the ceremony was actually a trick to trap him into being ritualistically murdered. The native warriors sat in his chair mockingly with “his body stripped…part of it transformed into medicine to be used to strengthen the chief and his warriors in their impending conflict with the Cape Colony” (Crais 27). Though such guerrilla attacks could not overthrow the ultimately overpowering grip of British government, they did set a scene of “disorderly and frequently violent politics of conquest” (Crais 30). Though the natives did truly despise the British for their abuses of power and attempted to fight back, these incidents caused little more than shock and astonishment, as opposed to major political change. This is also because the many diverse native groups living in South Africa were unable to unite due to a lack of advanced technology and collective leadership. Although British rule did start off relatively decently, with attempts to build an education system for both black and white youths, things changed as power was devolved to the British magistrates who held power on a local level. These magistrates did not have any oversight from Great Britain. The relations between the British and the natives became grossly unequal, with natives receiving significantly worse schooling and healthcare—their basic human rights were severely degraded. Despite all this, natives kept hoping to fight back through “many of their national characteristics … Had it not been for these qualities they would have been exterminated … But their struggle … is not yet over … the ‘benevolent’ and ‘enlightened’ administration of the British … turned Basutoland into a veritable poorhouse – the few remaining liberties threatened” (Padmore 149). Though they would inevitably be defeated by the immense Western colonial superpower of the British, the natives put up a genuine fight and display of pride in their viciously attacked culture and civilization.
It is indisputable that the native Africans were brutally defeated, but upon further examination of evidence regarding the methods and strategies used to defeat the many native African groups, it is questionable if British imperialist forces were solely responsible, but rather that they were the only group held accountable. Commonly viewed as a sedentary farmer group, the Boers undoubtedly played a role in the conquering of South Africa. It could be argued that although the British have been recognized by scholars as the primary force behind the conquest of South Africa, the Boers definitely played a major role and contrary to common belief, acted as more than a sedentary farming group during this time of conquest. Though they lived alongside each other, the Boers and native Africans were by no means allies. The arrival of the British only served to complicate relations between them. As the British conquered and created various social classes in the new and rapidly expanding colonial society, the Boers began to devolve into lower-class whites as the natives were organized and subjugated to certain types of work and schooling.
Because the Boers felt threatened by the imperialist influence in the country and the establishment of an organized bureaucracy, they decided to try to fight and hold down the natives to allow room for their own advancement. It can then be theorized that they joined the British in the fight to conquer the natives to essentially form an alliance of Europeans that would work to ensure white domination of South Africa. The Boers had “self-contained communities … as time went on and railways began to open up the country…social differentiations began to develop among the Whites” (Padmore 163). The bureaucratization of the country complicated inter-European relations, and the Boers were infuriated that they had to give in to the larger British capitalist system and risk losing their positions to the black natives. An example of how the Boer ways of life were disrupted is how they and their farms—the very centers of their lives—were “sold out to wealthier farmers…and drifted to the cities in search of jobs…they too swell the ranks of the ‘poor Whites,’ a class worse off than the natives with whom they cannot compete” (Padmore 163). Fiercely nationalistic, the Boers felt humiliated and degraded that they had to sink to this position. Racial tensions intensified, and “the Boers…concerned with their own fortunes, were eager to be rid of troublesome, importunate neighbours” (Deleage 23). During his travels through South Africa, journalist Paul Deleage noted the conflicts between the Boers and the natives. Both of the European groups in the country had a natural alliance in their nationalism and assumptions of superiority over the natives, and working together would be ideal. The Boers worked together with the British to profit off the mines, and specialized in gathering coal. Because the natives generally lived in hunter-gatherer societies, with the exception of occasional maize farming at subsistence quantities, the Boers were eager to mine and aggressively take resources from the natives before they sunk to any lower level or status in society. They were appalled at the idea of sinking to the level of working alongside the natives, so it was a profitable and logical choice for them to join forces with the British to conquer the natives and seize their resources.
Though the argument of the Boers working alongside the natives is quite viable, the argument can be defeated. Despite the fact that the Boers also undoubtedly wanted their share of wealth in South Africa and had conflicts with the natives, the idea of advanced mining industries and pure profit did not bring as much interest to the Boers and their hybrid culture. Their dialect of the Dutch language, called Afrikaans, and their name for themselves – the Afrikaners, prove that they viewed themselves as a group meant to permanently stay and establish themselves in Africa as an established group, rather than one there simply to conquer, exploit, and establish an imperial business. It was the British who had the interest to bring about “a new period in the comprehensive surveying and mapping of British Africa…the British government was painfully aware of the negative consequences of the lack of a sound survey system in South Africa” (Liebenberg 131). The British had focused upon mapping out the country and essentially turning it into a bureaucracy oriented towards pure profit, while the Boers took pride in their history and their ancestors who had traveled deep into the land without maps or intentions of returning to their home country. Though they both had conflicts with the natives, the two groups had their own respective reasons for doing so, and the Boers even had an almost equally strong hatred of the British. Journalist Paul Deleage noted that the “Boers and Cafres agreed on one point – the hatred with which they regard anything English” (Deleage 94). Cafres was a term for the native Africans, and it can be deduced from Deleage’s observations that the Boers joined the British in the mining industry not because of an intrusive hate for the natives, but rather because they felt it was an “eat or be eaten issue” – they had to do what they could to survive and sustain themselves. With this case they had the advantage of their white pride and their ability to team up and work alongside the British as fellow Europeans. The Boers worked to regain the independence they once had that was being clearly threatened by the British system of imperialism, and working with the British to prevent them from falling further down the social ladder in South Africa was what they considered the best choice to preserve themselves as a people.
The colonization of South Africa by the British was a very tumultuous and violent period for all groups involved. There was much unrest in the colonies, and all three of the main groups – the British, Boers, and native Africans – involved risked violence and conflict with each other every day. It is vital to understand the complex issue of who exactly brought about the defeat of the native Africans because not only does it fill in an gap in scholarly works and explain a complex relationship between the three groups that is often overlooked, but it also helps explain how the scene was set for further conflicts in colonized South Africa. It helps to resolve the misconceptions about the intricate relationship between the groups, and clarify the different goals that they had with the country that they hoped to accomplish. In this chaotic state of warfare, it can be seen among all sides that there was “no evidence of…humanity being acknowledged…inhuman and mechanistic regime” (McClendon 60). A conclusive view on the invasion of the British and the conflict that arrived with their entry into the country is the metaphor of seeing colonialism as a snake – there was a “crushing embrace of colonialism…The warm embrace of the protective patron turned darkly into a swallowing and crushing python” (McClendon 60). The python of British imperialism caused great bloodshed and conflict among the three central groups of the British, the Boers, and the native Africans, and it is crucial to understand why this all occurred in order to comprehend the logic behind the conquest of Africa and how roles were played out in the grand scheme of South Africa’s European takeover.