HIS 311 Lecture on Southern Africa 1800-1875

by Jim Jones (Copyright 2002, All Rights Reserved)

This file contains notes for the October 25 lecture, based on reading from Kevin Shillington's HISTORY OF AFRICA, 2nd edition, pages 265-274.

Overview of the week
Oct 21: The Dutch in southern Africa
Oct 23: The Zulu

New words: Xhosa, "Hottentot Law", Ordinance 50 (1828), Voortrekkers, Boer, Griqua, Rolong, Ndebele, Limpopo, Natal, Orange Free State, Transvaal, Sand River Convention, Blomfontein Convention, Moshoeshoe, Sotho

Maps: "The Boer Trek and African resistance, 1836- 1840" (p269)
"Southern Africa in 1870" (p274)


The British seized the Dutch Cape Colony in 1795; returned it to the Dutch in 1803; and seized it again in 1806. After 1806, they remained in control of Cape Colony and gradually extended their control along the coast to the east. The Boers did not accept British rule gracefully, however, and the resulting friction caused warfare until 1900.


British control brought economic benefits to the Boers by increasing the export opportunities for farmers who produced Merino sheep and wool, and hunters who obtained ivory from the interior. But British legal reforms angered the Boer farmers. For instance, the British abolished slavery in 1807, but in response to Boer complaints, quickly created pass laws to control black movement (the "Hottentot Law" of 1809). Under the pass laws, any black found without a pass (which listed the name of employer and location of residence) could be taken by any white for labor. British liberal opinion was appeased by the provison that required whites to provide a written contract to their black workers, and gave blacks the right to sue their employer in court for breach of contract. In 1812, a judge toured the rural areas to hear suits brought by African workers, but that provoked Boer opposition. The Boers rejected the African right to sue .

Boers were further annoyed by the action of English Christian missionaries who arrived in southern Africa after 1815. The missionaries championed African rights and got the government to pass Ordinance 50 in 1828, which removed the most restrictive provisions of the 1809 "Hottentot Law."

Boer resentment at British labor policies spanned class differences. When the Cape government outlawed the ownership of slaves in 1834, poorer Boers who owned only a few slaves could not pay enough in wages to attract replacement labor. Meanwhile, the richer Boers who owned large numbers of slaves protested the liberation of their slaves, which meant the loss of a huge capital investment.


The British introduced a standing army and based it at Cape Town. The standing army altered the balance of power between whites and Africans in the Boer/Xhosa Wars. During the first three wars , the Boers had the technical advantage (guns), but their commandoes were short-lived because they became distracted by the antagonistic aims of chasing the enemy and protecting their family. British professional soldiers could pursue the enemy with single-minded intensity, and in the fourth Cape/Xhosa War (1811-1812, the first that featured British troops), they drove the Xhosa back to the east of the Fish River.

When overcrowding among the Xhosa east of the Fish River led to civil war, the British intervened and triggered the fifth "Cape-Xhosa" war in 1818-1819. This time, the British pushed the Xhosa even further east, beyond the Keiskama River, and tried to populate a buffer zone with loyal Africans (Khoisan and coloured).

When the Xhosa tried to return west of the Keiskama River, the sixth war 1834-1835 took place and the British advanced as far as the Kei River. However, because the cost of defending territory so far from Cape Town was too expensive, the British refused to allow Boers to occupy the new land, so the Boers became disgusted and left. (NOTE: British land speculators were also disappointed when the British returned land to the Xhosa.)


1. 1779: border between Fish & Sundays Rivers
2. 1793: border moved west to Sundays River
3. 1799-1803: border at Sundays River
4. 1811-1812: first British intervention, border at Fish River
5. 1818-1819: Xhosa withdraw beyond Keiskama River
6. 1834-1835: Xhosa withdraw to Kei River
7. 1836: British return land between the Kei and Keiskama Rivers to Xhosa


The Great Trek of the Boer was a migration to the interior by Boer families to escape the British. The first "Voortrekkers" were from the poorer eastern provinces, where overcrowding was the worst and the Xhosa threat the greatest. They had a number of grievances against the British administration, included the 1828 Ordinance 50 which ended pass laws , the 1834 law that ended slavery , British-appointed magistrates who had replaced locally elected Boer officials, and British land ownership policy which violated the customary Boer practice of loan-farms from the holders of the original 6250 acre grants (switch to privatization of land ownership). The last straw was the British refusal to allow the Boer to occupy the land between the Keiskama and Kei Rivers in 1834.

The Trekboers headed for the Middle Vaal River, but they were totally decentralized and traveled in small groups, so the Boer advance was very uneven. Boer families tended to settle in regions that were depopulated by Mfecane/Difaqane, and organize themselves as local clans with little centralized leadership. Instead of a centralized state, the Boers tended to produce many small "Boer Republics."


The Trekboers found African allies among the Rolong people who wanted Boer military help against the Ndebele. A combined Boer/Griqua/Rolong attack drove the Ndebele north of the Limpopo in 1837. But then the Boers claimed right of conquest over the Ndebele kingdom and the Rolong were shunted aside to fulfill Boer labor and tax demands.

Farther north and east in the Limpopo watershed, strong African states (Swazi, Pedi, Venda) kept Boer republics small and expelled them from Soutpansberg in the 1860s. The Pedi began to stockpile firearms.

In the southeastern lowveld, the Zulu Dingane (Chaka's half- brother and successor) wiped out the first Voortrekkers until 1838, when the Boers discovered how to use a wagon laager to defeat a massed Zulu army at the Battle of Blood River on 16 December 1838. Afterwards, the Boers declared the establishment of the "Republic of Natal," but withdrew from Zulu land. Natal was formally annexed by the British in 1843.


Britain recognized the independence of two Boer Republics, the Orange Free State and Transvaal, in 1852 and 1854 at the Sand River and Blomfontein Conventions, respectively. The Boers managed to reduce Moshoeshoe's Sotho kingdom in the high mountains, forcing him to ask for British annexation in 1868.

The remaining Africans between the Kei River and Natal were placed on native "reserves" in the 1850s. Since these African reserves were on poor land that did not permit the residents to grow enough food, Africans had to seek work on white-owned farms.

By the 1870s, blacks and whites had achieved political stability. White expansion into the interior slowed as Africans obtained guns and prepared defenses. Only a major power like Britain had the resources to challenge this balance of power, but the local economy based on hunting skins did not offer a reason to intervene. However, the discovery of diamonds in the 1870s and gold in the 1880s changed that. (see HIS312)