Reign of Queen Victoria - M. B. Synge

Colonists in South Africa

At the Queen's accession our possessions in South Africa were less in area than the British Isles. And though Britain at this time took little interest in the life of the colonists, it is extremely important that readers of English history should understand their growth. Each colony has its own definite history, each is built on the courage, industry, and perseverance of fellow countrymen, each forms a thrilling page in the story of our own times.

Most of Africa was looked on at this time as a barren desert. Little did men think that the sunburnt plains would one day produce a wealth of copper, that the tracts of sweeping veldt would make the finest pasture in the world, or that the land would yield gold and diamonds unequalled anywhere. There were no large towns in the south, elephants and other big game roamed within a few miles of the coast. Only a few hundred scattered homesteads in the neighbourhood of the Cape of Good Hope, occupied by English and Dutch settlers, spoke of the "nation yet to be ".

It was not till the year 1820 that a detailed and glowing account of the country reached England from the Governor at the Cape. He spoke of the wondrous beauty of the land, of the forests with their brilliant foliage, of the rich plumage of the birds, of the delicious air laden with the scent of wild flowers, and the fertility of the soil.

So England sent out twenty-three shiploads of colonists to land at Algoa Bay, the next port, some 130 miles from Cape Town, to settle in the well-watered land behind the barren sandhills of the low coast. Here gradually arose the towns of Port Elizabeth, Albany, and Grahamstown, later three of the most flourishing towns in the Cape Colony. The hardships and difficulties of these early colonists were great indeed. From time to time bands of natives would sweep down and destroy their homes and their farms, kill their wives and children, steal their sheep and cattle.

Difficulties soon arose between the Dutch and British settlers, and the former left Cape Colony to make fresh homes beyond the orange River. Near the present town of Bloemfontein they encountered a band of Matabele natives, who massacred large numbers, till they were defeated by the Boers, and obliged to retreat. Forming a camp near the Vet River, they called it Winburg, in memory of their victory. Then they pushed on into Natal.

Here they were met by fierce Zulu tribes, who fell on them at the foot of the mountains and murdered no fewer than forty-one Boers, with their wives and children, at a place afterwards called Weenen, marked now by a marble obelisk.

Nevertheless, by 1838, having defeated the Zulus at Blood River, they began to settle in Natal, building the town of Pieter Maritzburg in memory of their two dead leaders. It was not till they had proclaimed the Republic of Natal that the English thought it time to interfere.

African Native


Long years before, British settlers had arrived at Natal; they had laid out the town of Durban two years before the Queen's accession, and some British troops had occupied the country since that time. It was a beautiful land, well watered, fresh with breezes from sea and hill, the "Garden Colony" of South Africa.

The British Government awoke to the fact that Natal was slipping away from them, so in 1842 a small force was sent to decide Britain's claim to it, and British and Dutch colonists came into unfortunate collision.

The little British camp at Durban was besieged by 500 Dutch and their position was one of grave peril; indeed, they would have been forced to surrender had it not been for the daring ride of a young English farmer called Dick King to get reinforcements. Having volunteered for this task, he was given by the garrison the best horse they had, and under cover of darkness he started on his famous ride of 600 miles. It was no easy matter to avoid the Dutch scouts posted in the neighbourhood; his track lay through a country of savage natives, where bridges were unknown, and he had to swim the rivers with his horse. At an American mission station on the way he was fed and rested, but he refused to spare himself, spent as he was, while his countrymen were in peril and distress. So he hastened on, till ten days after he left Durban, he staggered into Grahamstown with his woeful news. Help was at once dispatched to Durban and the Boers were driven off. The young colonist had accomplished a feat almost without parallel even in the heroic record of colonial history for sheer pluck and endurance. He had saved Natal.

On May 10, 1843, Natal was proclaimed a British colony, and grants of land were made to all who wished to make homes there. Many of the Boers, however, left the country and pushed northwards beyond the Vaal River, to an unknown land, known later to history as the Transvaal, and now included in the British Empire.

Sixty years ago there was no Transvaal, and to-day it is larger than Great Britain. Here each farmer secured 6,000 acres of virgin soil, which was compensation for having lost the sea-coast of fair Natal. They had boundless plains of high plateau, forests of yellow wood and cael thorn, valleys with streams of water, and immense quantities of game.

No one dreamed of gold-fields at this time. The Boers led a pastoral life, only disturbed by frequent raids of natives. But, owing to constant difficulties, in 1852, Britain, by the Sand River Convention, gave the Boers of the Transvaal the right to manage their own affairs, and two years later another convention was signed at Bloemfontein, by which the Boers in the Orange Free State were declared a free and independent people. So we get the birth of the two Dutch Republics—the Transvaal and the Orange Free State—far away inland in British South Africa, which at this time consisted only of Cape Colony and Natal.