History and heritage


South African history: colonial expansion

As the colonists began moving east, they encountered the Xhosa-speaking people living in the region that is today's Eastern Cape. A situation of uneasy trading and more or less continuous warfare began to develop.

By this time, the second half of the 18th century, the colonists mainly of Dutch, German and French Huguenot stock had begun to lose their sense of identification with Europe. The Afrikaner nation was coming into being.

As a result of developments in Europe, the British took the Cape over from the Dutch in 1795. Seven years later, the colony was returned to the Dutch government, only to come under British rule again in 1806, recaptured because of the alliance between Holland and Napoleon.

The initially somewhat cautious regulations aimed at ameliorating the conditions under which, for instance, Khoi servants were employed, caused discontent and even open rebellion among the colony's white inhabitants.

The Cape frontier wars

At the same time, British military strength began to tell in the conflict with the Xhosa. In 1820, some 5000 newly arrived British settlers were placed on the eastern frontier as a supposed defensive buffer against the Xhosa a strategy that failed when many of them gave up the struggle with uncooperative land and turned to other occupations in Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown.

The Xhosa reacted with heroic defiance at the additional pressure on their land and independence. But this ended tragically with the mass starvation that followed an 1857 prophecy that the whites would return to the sea if the Xhosa slaughtered their cattle and destroyed their crops.

After 1806, philanthropist missionaries had begun arriving, their liberalising influence reaching its high point in the activities of John Philip, friend of the British abolitionist William Wilberforce and local superintendent of the London Missionary Society.

The Great Trek

This development and, in particular, the emancipation of slaves in 1834, had dramatic effects on the colony, precipitating the Great Trek, an emigration north and east of about 12000 discontented Afrikaner farmers, or Boers. These people were determined to live independently of colonial rule and what they saw as unacceptable racial egalitarianism.

The early decades of the century had seen another event of huge significance: the rise to power of the great Zulu king, Shaka. His wars of conquest and those of Mzilikazi a general who broke away from Shaka on a northern path of conquest caused a calamitous disruption of the interior known as the mfecane.

Ironically, it was this that denuded much of the area into which Trekkers now moved, enabling them to settle there with a belief that they were occupying vacant territory. But this belief was by no means accompanied by an absence of conflict with the Zulu armies and others.

Initially, many Trekkers moved east into the Natal area, today the province of KwaZulu- Natal, under the leadership of Piet Retief. Intending to negotiate for land, Retief was murdered with a party of followers and servants at the kraal of Dingane, Shaka's successor.

The Battle of Blood River

In the war that followed, the Boers won victory at the Battle of Blood River. They began to settle in Natal, but smaller conflicts followed and the British fearing repercussions in the Cape Colony annexed Natal, where a small British settlement called Port Natal (later Durban) had already been established.

On the highveld, however, two Boer republics were formed: the central Orange Free State and South African Republic (Transvaal or ZAR Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek) to its north.

By the mid-1800s, the tiny refreshment post at the Cape of Good Hope had grown into an area of white settlement that stretched over virtually all of what is today South Africa.

In some areas the indigenous Bantu-speakers maintained their independence, most notably in the northern Natal territories, which were still unmistakably the kingdom of the Zulu. Almost all were eventually to lose the struggle against white overlordship British or Boer.

One territory that was to retain independence was the mountain fastness where King Moshoeshoe had forged the Basotho nation by offering refuge to tribes fleeing the mfecane. Clashing with the Free Staters, Moshoeshoe asked Britain to annex Basotholand, which was done in 1868. Known today as Lesotho, this country is entirely surrounded by South Africa, but has never been a part of it.

SAinfo reporter

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Shaka, the great Zulu king

An 1824 sketch of Shaka (1781 - 1828), the great Zulu king, four years before his death. By James King, it is the only known drawing of Shaka (Image: South African Government Online)

Battle of Blood River

The Battle of Blood River. The Boers used their oxwagons as a defensive barrier against the Zulu army, which they eventually defeated (Image: South African History Online)

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