One cannot help feeling it to be extremely unfair that when after much anguish and grief the Voortrekkers had at last secured their position in Natal, it was immediately threatened by the rooineks. For a new British governor at the Cape had resolved on a military occupation of Durban.
From the very beginning of the Great Trek the colonial authorities had shown concern about the way Cape Colony was being denuded of wealth and people. As Sir Benjamin D'Urban pointed out a little petulantly to Whitehall, 'It is a matter of deep regret that a large proportion of the farmers who have emigrated are of the oldest and most respectable of the districts to which they belonged, and are in themselves, as a brave, patient, industrious, orderly and religious people, an incalculable loss to the Colony in whatever way they may be regarded—whether as the cultivators, the defenders, or the tax-contributors of the country which they have quitted, and from which they have naturally carried away all their property and possessions, as well as such movables as of cattle, sheep and horses.'
But the counter-measures which had been taken were both timid and vacillating. Admittedly the promulgation of the Cape of Good Hope Punishment Act in 1836 had implied that the emigrants could not unilaterally dissolve their allegiance to the Crown and that Britain might still legally assert her authority over them below the 25th degree of latitude South, but no attempt had been made to apply these provisions. This was a law without teeth, and it certainly had done nothing to prevent the best type of settler from leaving the Colony.
But a more forward slant to government thinking became apparent in 1838 after Sir George Napier had replaced D'Urban at the Cape. He was concerned less with the weakening of the Colony by the massive Afrikaner emigration than with the treatment the trekkers might mete out to the Africans whose land they were in the process of appropriating, and he feared too that disturbances would follow which might involve the Cape's eastern frontier. He believed it to be in British interests to conclude a peace between the Boers and Dingaan, and, moved by humanitarian motives rather than political reasons, Napier on his own initiative made up his mind to occupy Durban. This step would provide him with a position of strength from which to act as mediator, and it would embarrass the Afrikaners. 'One of my principal motives in taking possession of Natal,' the Governor explained later, 'was to mark my disapproval of the emigrants' proceedings by throwing such impediments in their way as I could.' For by controlling their only supply port Napier believed he could bring effective pressure to bear on the trekkers, and persuade them against continuing the struggle with the Zulus.
Accordingly Napier sent a Major Samuel Charters with 100 Highlanders of the 72nd regiment by sea to Port Natal and they landed there without opposition on 4th December 1838. Twelve days later, after building a fort, and while the battle of Blood river was actually in progress, Charters ran up the Union Jack amid 'tremendous firing both of great guns and small arms'. Afterwards the British officer retired to the Mess tent to drink the Queen's health and toast absent friends. There was no question at the time of annexing Natal: Charters was careful to stress in a proclamation that his occupation of land was limited to two miles from the 'sinuosities of the bay'.
The news of this military occupation greeted the Wen [Victory] Commando on its return from Umgungundhlovu at the close of 1838 and it was enough to set Cilliers writing sepulchrally that 'again another calamity was waiting for us'. For here again were the perfidious British dipping their fingers into the trekkers' affairs, and he could only console himself with the comforting thought that the Highlanders had arrived too late to prevent the Boer victory at Blood river. For Cilliers goes on to say that despite his people's concern 'We thanked our Lord God. The battle had been fought.'
It was noted too with relief that the British had refrained from outright annexation of Natal, and the Boers decided to ignore the soldiers drilling at the coast and draw up a constitution for their new republic as though they did not exist. They named the country Natalia and elected a Volksraad of twenty-four elected members to govern it. The unpopular Charters, the Boers were happy to see, did not stay long at the port: he very soon handed over his command to the placatory Captain Henry Jervis who made it plain that he was far more interested in acting as a mediator between the Boers and the Zulus than with contesting Afrikaner rule in Natalia. Dingaan, who by now had established himself on the Vuna river, turned out to be reasonably conciliatory too: he professed himself agreeable to return all the stock stolen from the trekkers and to recognise the Tugela as the boundary between Natalia and Zululand. At the same time the Natalians, despite Jervis's appeals, refused to renew their allegiance to the British Crown, and Pretorius declared that if necessary he would fight to protect their independence. Napier was getting precious little support at the time from the Imperial Government and in the face of such intransigence he had to give way. Orders were sent to Jervis instructing him to withdraw from the port, and at Christmas time in 1839 the red-coats sailed away.
The Natalians naturally regarded this evacuation as the final abandonment by Great Britain of any claim to Natal. Durban was reoccupied and the Bay resounded again to the noise of gunfire as the horsemen rode in from Pietermaritzburg, fired off a ragged volley and hoisted the flag of the Natalian republic. Its colours were described rather obscurely as being 'similar to the Dutch but placed transversely instead of horizontally'. In fact it was made up of red, white and blue triangles, with the white one on the outer edge.
Even during the time of the first British occupation of Durban the Natalian Boers had eagerly spread out through the country between the Tugela and the Umzinkulu (and, obeying their trekker instincts eve,: beyond these, their republic's boundaries). Farms were marked out; townships were established at Pietermaritzburg which was nominated as the capital, at Congella close to the Bay of Natal, and at Weenen—Weeping—near the site of the Bloukrans massacre. For now with the British gone the Natalian Government began to act with more confidence. Pretorius, whose dream it was to reunite the trekker communities, rode up the Drakensburg to confer with the overberg Boers and he persuaded not only the settlers of Transorangia but even the reluctant Potgieter to agree to a loose form of political federation under the hegemony of Natalia. It was decided that local matters in Potgieter's fief, which was based on his twin 'capitals' of Winburg and Potchefstroom, should be dealt with by an 'adjunkraad' but that it should be represented too by delegates in the Natalian Volksraad. It seemed that the old dream of a united Afrikaner Empire with an outlet on the Indian Ocean had been realised, and throughout 1840 and 1841 there were high hopes that Great Britain would grant recognition to the United Voortrekker republic.
Pretorius presently even felt strong enough to retire the troublesome Erasmus Smit; the pastor and his mournful air disappear from now on into an abyss of intemperance, and his place as spiritual leader of the trekkers is taken by the more presentable David Lindley whose missionary work among the Zulus had proved to be unrewarding. Lindley held his services in the church built during 1841 in Pietermaritzburg (where eighty houses were now standing) in fulfilment of the vow made during the anxious days before Blood river.
There was a wonderful sense of achievement and spaciousness about Natalia during the first months of its existence, but it must be admitted that events did not go entirely smoothly in the new republic. The Volksraad went about its business slowly and with a delightful air of impromptu. Nor would the Boers have been true Boers had they not quarrelled bitterly over the allocation of their farms and the distribution of the cattle which were slowly extracted as an indemnity from Dingaan. Then there was the problem of their black labour. The country they had occupied had been swept almost bare of people by the Mfecane and they needed servants to run the farms. Admittedly now that they felt themselves safe from Zulu raids many Africans returned to their old homelands and were prepared to work for the white men; but their numbers at first were insufficient and the Boers tackled the problem by seeking opportunities of taking African children (who they said were orphans and rather euphemistically called 'apprentices') and put them to work as herders.
Then again there was trouble between the Volksraad and Pretorius; he had been confirmed in his position as Chief-Commandant, but even so he very frequently failed to see eye to eye with the legislative authority, and it need hardly be added that its members were always at loggerheads with each other. Jervis had been well aware of the dissensions which would inevitably rack the members of the Natalian Government. Before he sailed from Natal he had reported: 'In regard to their uniting under one head I see no probability of it; for even of their Volksraad, it is said, scarcely two of them agree, and they are equally difficult to come to an agreement in the choice of their magistrates.' And he touched too on the Natalians' other harassing problem—the chastened but still formidable Zulu army—when he noted that 'Their greatest object was to make peace with Dingaan. But how to bring it about? They spoke of it as an impossibility; and even said he invariably put their messengers to death. The consequence is they have been kept in a most unsettled state, and which I have reason to believe they are determined to end by entering his country, and compelling him either to succumb and treat, or to destroy him.'
Jervis was of course perfectly right in stressing the Volksraad's overwhelming concern lest Dingaan rallied the Zulus and renewed the war; the snake had been scotched but it was not dead: the trekkers in Natalia could never really feel secure until Dingaan's power had been utterly eliminated. The subject was never far away from their thoughts. Lindley wrote that the Boers 'are more afraid of his treachery than of all his warriors, and on this account are perhaps more uneasy now than when they were at open war with him'. For his part Pretorius confided in his journal that he was 'anxious to give the last death blow to the now humbled hound'.
The Boers' freedom of action had of course been made easier by Jervis's withdrawal and, in the casual way that things happen in Africa, only a few months earlier circumstances had further played into their hands when Mpande, half-brother to Dingaan, fled across the Tugela into Natalia together with 17,000 followers. The Volksraad interrogated him at length. After making certain that he was willing to turn traitor on his half brother, it granted him land in the republic, embraced him as an ally, and in a queer little ceremony held in a marquee at Pietermaritzburg Mpande was proclaimed 'Reigning Prince of the emigrant Zulus'.
In fairness to Mpande, we should note that his treachery was forced upon him by Dingaan's all-too-obvious preparations to do away with him, but no one can doubt that he did very well for himself when he defected to the Boers. He was to succeed his brother as King of the Zulus and to reign over them until 1872. At the same time it is never easy to admire a renegade, especially when he is unaffectedly timid as well as being grossly fat. For Mpande could hardly walk because of obesity; the level-headed Henry Cloete who came to know Mpande well described him as 'an indolent pampered being, measuring nearly four feet six inches round his naked waist'.
Once the alliance with Mpande had been concluded the Volksraad proceeded to pick a quarrel with Dingaan, and this was a matter of no great difficulty since the king was being uncommonly slack in fulfilling his treaty obligations to return looted cattle. And when no immediate satisfactions was forthcoming from its indignant protests the Commandant-General was instructed to proceed at once to Zululand and either negotiate the surrender of 40,000 cattle or seize them by force, which of course meant engaging Dingaan in a decisive battle.
Relishing again the pleasant flavour of a military campaign especially as it was relatively free from risk (since he intended Mpande's Zulu emigrants to do most of the fighting) Pretorius on 14 January 1840 led a commando across the Tugela. With him travelled Mpande in the dual role of distinguished ally and hostage for the good behaviour of Nongalaza who led the allied Zulu army on a parallel course some way to the north. The Boers followed closely to the road which had taken them before to Blood river, but they travelled this time in a vastly different mood from that of thirteen months before. There was no sense of danger now nor of urgency: the 500 beasts they drove with them alone limited the speed of the march. Everyone on commando seemed assured of their military superiority, and they knew very well that Dingaan's hold over the Zulus was falling apart. And so the Beeste Commando's campaign bears something of the atmosphere of the last phase in the corrida when the bull is failing and the torero steps into the ring to finish it off with a single deft thrust of his sword.
March discipline may have been slacker this time, but there was of course no let-up in the religious observances which played so large a part in all the military adventures undertaken by the Voortrekkers. But the holiday atmosphere continued even when the expedition entered Zululand: Delegorgue who accompanied the commando tells us that during a two-day halt when they were not intoning psalms and hymns the men spent their time in roasting meat and indulging in meaningless games of wrestling without any artistic skill and seeking to shine by the rudest jokes'. He incidentally formed a very poor opinion of Pretorius's military prowess: the Commandant-General he says bluntly had 'his own system of tactics, and that was to have no tactics at all'.
On 29th January the commando reached the Blood river battlefield, and a strange episode now occurred. Pretorius threw down a gage to Dingaan by executing his chief councellor, Tanbuza who had fallen into the hands of the Boers. For when he heard that a punitive expedition was mustering, Dingaan had dispatched Tambuza to Pretorius with a douceur of 250 cattle and a request for more time to pay off the indemnity negotiated by Jervis. Tambuza was accompanied by his servant Kombesana. Pretorius, however, chose to regard the two men as spies rather than as envoys and when the commando rode off to begin the campaign, Tambuza and Kombesana accompanied it in chains. Mpande hated Tambuza; he insisted that it was he who had presented Dingaan to massacre Retief and his followers, and (what was worse) had recently incited the king to kill Mpande himself. So now, near the cairn which the victors of Blood river were to erect to commemorate the battle, Pretorious convened a court martial to consider Tambuza's guilt. Delegorgue was at his most scathing when describing the constitution of the Court. It was, he said, 'composed only of judges and reporters', and he compared 'this council of weak and cruel people' with a 'revolutionary tribunal ... in the days of the Terror'. Reading his description of the trial it is not difficult to imagine the scene after all these years: the bearded Boers of the Court sitting stern and implacable, Tambuza and Kombesana standing opposite them and seeing only death in their eyes, the remainder of the commando crowding round to listen with gaping curiosity, all making a strange little tableau amid the strangely expectant hush which falls across all old battlefields. Tambuza obstinately refused to plead his case: he freely admitted all Mpande's charges and with quiet dignity accepted the inevitable sentence of death, asking only that the Boers might spare the life of his servant who, he pointed out, had committed no offence against them. Pretorius then spoke rather unctuously to the condemned man about his having to face the judgment of God besides his own, but one feels that Tambuza had the last word: according to one of the trekkers present, the Induna replied to Pretorius's moralizing by saying 'that he had but one master, Dingaan; that it was his duty to remain faithful to hat master till the last, and that after having so acted the Master on high, if there was one, would not fail to approve his conduct'.
And so Tambuza and Kombesana, naked and manacled together, were shot to death by a Boer firing party. There seems something very wrong here: Pretorius, usually compassionate and correct, is behaving quite out of character, and one's mind searches about for the reason. It may be that by this single act which seemingly disfigures his great career Pretorius was trying to grapple Mpande's loyalty to the trekkers; perhaps he had submitted to the mere seeking of vengeance for the deaths on Kwa Matiwane; possibly he was attempting to frighten Dingaan into submission without a fight.
Whatever the reason for it may have been, Tambuza's execution turned out to be unnecessary. By the time it had taken place the military issue with Dingaan had been resolved. For soon afterwards news reached the commando that Nongalaza had brought Dingaan's warriors to battle a little to the north of the Mkuze river and had won. The Boers learned that the remnants of the loyal Zulu impi had made off to the Pongola river in disorder. It had been a murderous fight: between six and nine thousand Zulus had been slain and according to Lindley the losses had been shared equally between the two sides. It was the end of Dingaan. The king fled to Swazi country and from there reports presently filtered south that he had been stabbed to death by hostile tribesmen in the wild country among the Lebombo hills, perhaps on the instructions of Pretorius.
The trekkers had finally won the long struggle with Dingaan and at the end without firing a shot other than the bullets which had killed Tambuza and Kombesana. Mpande received his due reward. On 10 February 1840 Andries Pretorius pronounced his accession to the Zulu throne, and noted rather quaintly that his protege was 'filled with excessive joy from head to heels' by the announcement. Four days later in a curious little ceremony Mpande was invested as King of the Zulus. The coronation must have made up an unlikely scene: the Natalian dignitaries in the frock coats which they had thoughtfully brought along on commando; Mpande, proud and corpulent, sitting on an old chair which did duty as a throne; his wounded impi strangely quiet and watchful in a great circle round him. The size of Mpande's kingdom had been drastically reduced for the Commandant-General had pronounced Natalia's annexation of all the country up to the Black Umfolozi as well as of Saint Lucia Bay, and the new monarch was to be subordinate to the Volksraad at Pietermaritzburg. He was poorer in cattle too, for Mpande was obliged to hand over 41,000 head of cattle to his kingmaker; they were duly driven back to the 'deel laager' outside Pietermaritzburg for division and distribution, but we may note in passing that not all the beasts reached this, their proper destination: a disappointed burgher recorded that many were spirited away 'in a riot of selfishness and greed', and another man on commando declared that in the end only 31,000 were available for distribution. Still Pretorius could look back on his latest expedition with the utmost satisfaction, and he was sure it would be usher in a new period of peace and promise for the trekker republic of Natalia.
And indeed prosperity now lapped over the republic. The mobile phase of the Great Trek appeared to be over; its burghers were united by federal bonds to the overberg Boers, some of the few British settlers remaining at Port Natal may have become discontented but they could now be safely ignored, the Zulu danger had been removed once and for all, many so-called after-trekkers were pouring into the republic whose white population soared to past 4,000, an impromptu land office worked overtime surveying farms for the settlers, and Whitehall was known to be considering the recognition of Natalia. And even the native problem which had arisen as more Africans entered the republic looked as though it could be solved by the enforcement of a policy of segregation.
It is of some interest at this point if we consider this solution of the Afrikaners to the Bantu problem because it reflects their contemporary attitude to matters racial.
Thousands of Africans had flocked into Natalia once the Zulu menace had been removed by the Wen Commando and the Beeste Commando. In a sense this was a tribute to the Boers who had replaced chaos in the country with security, and it allowed the Bantu to answer that primitive instinct which drives human beings to return to their old homes when conditions become more favourable. But these people were unorganised, very few of them were under the control of a recognised chief, and as squatters they presented a serious problem to orderly government.
For the former kraals of many of the returning Africans now lay on farms marked out and worked by the Boers. To avoid overcrowding the farm lands the Afrikaners found it imperative to limit the number of squatters on their farms to five families, a figure which would satisfactorily provide for their labour requirements without being dangerously large. (Pretorius as Commandant-General was allowed ten families.) These Bantu were unenfranchised and subjected to numerous by-laws: thus those living on European farms were not allowed to ride a horse or carry a gun or drink intoxicating liquor without their master's permission. The problem of the 'surplus natives' on the other hand was solved by segregation in ad hoc reserves where they were stringently controlled by pass-laws. By an unfortunate mischance some of them were sent off to settle on land claimed by Faku, paramount chief of the Pondos, and this was to bring far-reaching consequences to the infant republic of Natalia.
Meanwhile another source of trouble was approaching like a thundercloud: for towards the end of 1840 the Natalian Volksraad had made a profound error of judgment whose effects were blown up into what we would nowadays call an international incident.
The circumstances were these: a Bhaca chief named Ncaphayi or Nkapi, who was a neighbour of Faku's Pondo tribe beyond the southern boundary of Natalia, was accused by the Boers of rustling some of their cattle. On the instructions of the Volksraad, Pretorius took the field once more with a punitive expedition. He crossed the Umzimvubu river on 19 December 1840 and attacked Ncaphayi's kraals. In Cilliers' words he there 'punished him well, and took so many cattle from him that whoever had suffered from his thieving was amply repaid'. The affair brought the missionaries of Pondoland out in full cry and the reports they circulated owed nothing to understatement. The Cape Government received them with particular anger for it regarded both Ncaphayi and Faku as living under its protection. In addition Sir George Napier learned that besides capturing cattle the commando had killed forty people during the foray and carried off seventeen children as 'apprentices'. All the Governor's humanitarian instincts were aroused afresh. Up to this time the emigrant Boers could fairly claim that they had fought with Africans only in self-defence but this raid on the Bhaca appeared at Cape Town to be an unprovoked aggression in which children had been carried off into virtual slavery. Episodes of this sort, moreover, Napier believed, would spark off all kinds of new tensions on the sensitive eastern border of the Colony and lead inevitably to serious trouble. He was still smarting over the abandonment of Port Natal a year before and his reaction was swift. During the January of 1841 he dispatched a Major Smith with 150 soldiers to Pondoland to reassure Faku and defend it from attack. And this little force of red-coats had another obvious function: it was poised to invade Natalia if after renewed representations from the Governor the Colonial Office decided after all on annexation.
Smith stayed in Pondoland for a whole year, while the Government at Whitehall pondered over the situation. There were strategic reasons in plenty to justify the occupation of Natal: it would deny the coast to any alien power which might use it as a base for threatening the sea lanes to India; the seizure of its only harbour would effectively control all imports into the trekker republic; and rich coal deposits had been reported in its hinterland. But in the end what swayed the British Cabinet was a humanitarian concern about the Volksraad's enforced resettlement of surplus Africans on land claimed by Faku between the Umtamvuma and Umzimvubu. In the December of 1841 Napier announced that the military occupation of Durban would be resumed and at the end of the following March Major Smith led his augmented force of 260 regulars northwards into Natalia.
Smith was a veteran who had been through the mill. At the age of nine he had joined the Royal Navy but soon transferred to the Army. An adventurous career followed. Smith was wounded three times during the course of the Peninsular War and once again at Waterloo. Now in 1842 Smith was a major and although he may have been a born scold and something of a fuss-pot, he was very much the soldier all the same and he commanded a military force which by contemporary South African standards was a powerful one. Its bulk was made up of riflemen from the Inniskilling Fusiliers; the remainder consisted of a handful of sappers and gunners together with fifty green-jacketed troopers of the Cape Mounted Rifles. With them marched a daunting number of women camp-followers, a clumsy train of sixty wagons, a howitzer and two small field pieces, as well as a herd of 600 ration-oxen. Accompanying the column too was the Reverend James Archbell (who four years before had been an indignant witness of Retief's shoddy seizure of Sekonyela) with his family. Smith's instructions were to occupy Port Natal but again the Government had not yet made up its mind about annexing the hinterland. Only that January Sir James Stephen at the Colonial Office had bleakly minuted that to do this 'would merely be to throw away so much money and to multiply our relations and responsibilities towards barbarous tribes, from which nothing could come, but the consumption of treasure, the waste of human life, and a warfare alike inglorious, unprofitable and afflicting'. It was not even considered that Smith would have to remain long at the Port: his presence was to be temporary and no more than a warning to the Boers against intrigues with foreign powers and any more adventures like the foray against Ncaphayi.
When he left his Umgazi camp in Pondoland Smith embarked on no mean task. With an unwieldy wagon column he had to cover 260 miles of rugged, uncharted and practically unknown ground which might well be disputed by hostile Boers. Every few miles the country was intersected by rivers swollen with summer rains. The first that had to be negotiated was the broad Umzimvubu and the troops, still in fine fettle, approached it with a lusty rendering of 'We fight to conquer'. Thereafter their troubles began. The bugler of the 27th Regiment, Joseph Brown, has fortunately left us a beguiling account of Smith's forgotten military expedition. He starts off by telling us that 'Two women were quickly delivered on the first night and next day'; then we find him complaining that the soldiers
'suffered much from marching in the sand, it got into our boots and cut our feet to pieces, and the sun reflecting the sand burned our faces. In like manner the men had many fatigues in repairing the roads every four or five miles they went along.'
We learn from him that the expedition had to negotiate no less than 122 rivers, and Brown writes with feeling that 'the most of them we had to swim over'. But the soldiers had their compensations: there was a feeling of excitement about this march through virgin country and it was spiced by the dangerous possibility of running into a Boer ambush; the bathing off the lovely beaches they passed was a never-ending delight; everything about them was novel and the men gaped at all the wonders they saw — the tremendous skeletons of whales which had been cast ashore, the buck which they encircled and ran down, and the delicious oysters that could be gathered from the spume-sprayed rocks.
Near the Umkomaas river the column rested before undertaking the final lap of the journey; here they were greeted by a piratical party of British settlers from the Port who had ridden out to meet the column 'all armed with swords, pistols and double-barrelled guns' and delighted with the prospect of evicting the Boers. A few days later the soldiers marched into Port Natal without meeting any opposition. It was 3 May 1842. They tore down the Republican tricolor and raised the Union Jack over their tents. Despite all difficulties the march had been brilliantly successful; the second occupation of Port Natal had begun, and this time as things turned out the red-coats had come to stay.
They established camp in the flat ground below the Berea ridge and settled down to watch the Natalian burghers who were mustered a mile away at the tiny hamlet of Congella. From his diary it would seem that Bugler Brown was more apprehensive of disease than of the Boers: the water at the camp, he grumbles, was
'as black as ink and full of different insects, and stinks in the bargain. I am very much afraid it will make away with the whole of us before long.'
The next three weeks passed in fruitless parleys between Smith and Pretorius. The Boers at Congella were well armed and truculent enough, although unwilling to open hostilities. But they succeeded in making it quite clear that they had no intention of submitting to a second British occupation of the port. Smith sought around for an opportunity of pulling off a coup by capturing the Boer leaders, but they were too well guarded for this to be attempted;
'I wish to God', grumbled Napier at the news 'that scoundrel Pretorious [sic] could be caught as well as Bosoff [sic], old Rose and Breda — but fear they are so cunning as they are cowardly, and will never show their faces in any place where there is a chance of catching them.'
And even as they waited, morale in the Boer camp was vastly stimulated by an unexpected event — the arrival in Natal from Amsterdam of Johan Arnold Smellekamp. It was the beginning of a strange little interlude in South African history.
News of the Voortrekkers' adventures in southern Africa had already reached Holland and aroused enormous interest there. In the hope of establishing trade relations with these kinsmen of the Dutch a public-spirited merchant, G. G. Ohrig, fitted out a schooner with all sorts of merchandise and the boat sailed into Port Natal towards the end of March only a few days before Major Smith started off from Faku's country. An agent acting for Ohrig named Smellekamp was on the schooner (he is always referred to in contemporary accounts as its 'supercargo'), and as soon as he had landed the 'supercargo' travelled up to interview the Volksraad in Pietermaritzburg. There he was received with enormous enthusiasm: the streets of the little town were so gaily decorated that, when all available flags and bunting had been strung up, even underclothes were pressed into service. For the Natalians had jumped to the conclusion that Smeflekamp's arrival signified full-scale intervention by the Dutch on their behalf. Overcome by his sudden importance, the excited agent did nothing to enlighten them as to his real role and, on 25 April 1842 when Smith was still a few days' march from Port Natal, the enraptured Volksraad, in the hope of pre-empting the British, handed Smellekamp a document which offered Natalia as a colonial possession to King William II of Holland.
It is a little sad to note that before the year was out King William had apologised to White hall for the fuss that had been caused, and roundly denounced Smellekamp and all his works, but for the time being Pretorius and his men were convinced that they had a European ally and could afford to take a harder line with the British. Smellekamp once he had got over his delirious welcome departed with his precious document for Holland in a cloud of popularity and speculation. Unfortunately he had to travel by the Cape now that Smith was installed at the Port and he suffered the indignity of temporary detention at Swellendam before being allowed to proceed to Europe.
Pretorius had turned as well to the overberg Boers for assistance against the British; Hendrik Potgieter received his messengers without enthusiasm and excused himself from becoming involved in the trouble at Port Natal by explaining that Mzilikazi was on the warpath again: it seemed that the federal links between Pietermaritzburg and Potchefstroom were not strong enough to withstand the prospect of hostilities with Great Britain. Pretorius's envoys, however, had a better reception farther south when they visited Transorangia: for the fiery Johannes Mocke promised to raise the settlers around Bloemfontein and the Caledon river, and bring them to the aid of their fellow countrymen in Natalia.
But before their arrival Pretorius had become tired of waiting although still resolved not to fire off the first shot: on 22 May he reacted to some commandeering of provisions on Smith's part by suddenly ordering a raid to carry off the Britishers' cattle which were grazing peacefully around their camp. It was an overtly hostile act, an Afrikaner version of Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon.
Smith's response may have been quick but it must be counted the very extreme of incompetence. He decided to make a surprise attack on the Boer camp under cover of darkness. The idea might have been a good one if the assault had not been made on a bright moonlight night and so forfeited all element of surprise. This never stuck Smith, however, and just before midnight on 23 May 1842 he led 138 men round the shores of the bay trailing two field-pieces behind them and kicking up a tremendous din. As a master stroke Smith had trundled the howitzer into a boat and had it rowed parallel to the troops' march with the intention of using it to provide covering fire from the flank. Inevitably the attack ran into a chain of mishaps which are unrivalled even in the dolorous annals of British military affairs in South Africa. The Boers were thoroughly alert and were waiting for the soldiers from behind the tangled cover of mangrove trees which grew above the beach. They drove in a sudden hot fire which took the troops completely by surprise while still in column and it cut them to pieces; to make things worse the oxen drawing the field-guns stampeded at the first shot and got tangled up in their traces while the scow carrying the howitzer ran aground on a sandbank and the British secret weapon never came into action. Smith kept his head and ordered an immediate retreat but he left 49 men dead or wounded behind him as well as his precious field-guns. The Natalians had had things all their own way: they could rejoice in as easy a victory as any the Boers had gained against the Zulus and Matabele.
'We took two beautiful guns and their carriages,' boasted one of the burghers, and added with only a slight refraction of the truth, 'and not a single man of ours was wounded.'
Smith had floundered forward and got into a battle he could not handle. Now he had no option but to accept investment in his camp which was hurriedly fortified, and pray for relief. More useful than his prayers, one night Dick King slipped away from the fort with a single African companion, and made a remarkable ride to Grahamstown, 600 gruelling miles away. He accomplished the journey in ten days. The Cape authorities were overwhelmed with consternation at the news he carried, and indeed something very significant had occurred. The skirmish at Congella may have been a remarkably small battle as such things go, but it marked a landmark in South African history. British troops had met the Afrikaners in fair battle and had been defeated. Imperial prestige now must be restored, and suddenly everyone in the Colony began to envisage the annexation of the trekker republic. Strong reinforcements were started off at once for Port Natal by sea while Smith sweated out a 26-day siege. It was not hard pressed: his chief enemy was famine rather than the trekkers. All through their history the Boers have been averse to attacking a prepared position and although after Mocke's arrival their numbers amounted to 600 men, they were content to do no more than lob shells into Smith's camp after Pretorius had chivalrously allowed the British women and children to take refuge on a captured British vessel in the bay. Admittedly the Natalians snapped up an isolated fort which the soldiers had set up on the Bluff commanding the entrance to the harbour but no real effort was made to carry the main camp. By the third week in June the British counted 651 cannon balls which had fallen in their makeshift fort and the soldiers by now were in a pitiable condition. Twenty-six men had been wounded and the garrison was reduced to half rations of biscuit and ten ounces of horse flesh. On 25 June Major Smith counted himself lucky to breakfast on a dead crow.
But relief was at hand; a British frigate appeared off the bar that same day and discouraged the Boers who had taken up positions on the Bluff and the Point with a thunderous broadside. This allowed boats loaded with soldiers to run the gauntlet into the bay next day and Pretorius saw that the game was up. The siege was raised at once: eight soldiers and four burghers had been killed during its course.
The dragging pace of events which followed in Natal give the impression of a slowed-down movie, and one can only understand the protracted course of the consultations which now decided the fate of Natal by recalling that Napier was unable to negotiate a final settlement with the Natalian Boers until he had got definite instructions from Whitehall and that in the days of sail it took six full months for him to send off a proposal to London and receive a reply. But in fact there was no need for haste: all through the long months of waiting which followed the relief of Durban on 26 June 1842, the republic of Natalia was falling apart like a piece of soggy blotting paper.
The Volksraad in the capital, Pietermaritzburg, had lost its nerve. It knew that the Boer commandos would never stand up to the large number of troops now landed at Durban; its members were also well aware that their faithful ally Mpande, who having seen which way the wind was blowing, had suddenly begun to seek an accommodation with the British and was anxiously inquiring whether it would help if he attacked the Boers.
The trekker women were made of sterner stuff than their government. One of them, the redoubtable Mrs Erasmus Smit (long used to hectoring her husband), led a deputation to the British Commissioner and with some bluster announced her companions' determination to walk barefoot over the Drakensberg rather than submit to his terms. But such gestures failed to influence their menfolk and as early as 15 July 1842 the Natalian Volksraad formally tendered its submission to the British Crown. Yet for two more years the trekkers of Natalia continued to govern themselves from Pietermaritzburg while British sentries threw long shadows at Durban, and Whitehall perfunctorily considered the anguished appeals addressed to it by the penitent Voortrekkers.
At last on 12 December 1842 the British Cabinet did finally decide on the annexation of Natal, and in the following May, Napier proclaimed the country to be a British colony. (7 In size the new territory was to be considerably smaller than the republic of Natalia: to the south-west a large segment of land beyond the Umzimkulu was ceded to the Pondos, and suzerainty over the Zulus was abandoned so that Mpande was pleased to find himself ruling over an independent state beyond the Tugela and Buffalo rivers.
British troops were sent up to garrison Pietermaritzburg, and all the last-ditch Boers' vague thoughts of resistance died away when a delegation which had met Smellekamp at Lourenço Marques returned with the news that Holland had not the slightest intention of supporting them.
In December 1845 the republic of Natalia formally ceased to exist when a Lieutenant-Governer named Martin West arrived in Pietermaritzburg. It was a saddening moment. Long years after they had quit Cape Colony, Pharaoh in the shape of a British official had finally caught up with the Voortrekkers.
But many of them refused to be absorbed by the expanding British empire. For in the new colony there was to be no colour bar and conditions were in effect returning to those which had existed in the Colony before the Great Trek took shape. Slowly the Boers withdrew from contact with the British, concentrating at first in the Weenen district as though seeking moral sustenance from where they had known their greatest sufferings. Then they began trekking away to the still independent high veld, driving their creaking wagons up the Drakensberg passes which they had descended with such relish and visionary hopes five years earlier.
'The mass of the people,' Major Smith had warned Sir George Napier earlier, 'are determined not to submit to British authority, and will move farther inland to be out of reach.'
He was perfectly right of course. The trekkers felt themselves more than ever to be burghers of a real nation now; the events of the Great Trek had developed a burning sense of Afrikaner nationalism; the martyrdom of Piet Retief, the horrors of Bloukrans, the heroism of Marthinus Oosthuizen, the death of Dirkie Uys when he had gone back to help his father at Italeni, the victories at Blood river and Congella, and the vow which they renewed each year, had all at last bound them together as a valid community. The events of the last decade had enthralled and entrapped the trekkers in a mystique of their own: they had become incorporated in a legend which stated their aspirations and expressed some obscure truth which could not otherwise be stated.
There were other reasons than their dislike of an alien government and a desire to live their own lives in liberty led to that Afrikaner exodus from Natal which has been termed the Second Trek. Natal. in the end had been something of a disappointment. Its lush grasslands had proved less productive than had been expected; cattle did not thrive as well on them as they did on the undulous pastures of the high veld, and sheep were apt to be affected by mystifying diseases. And so the Voortrekkers packed up their wagons again, the Great Trek regained its mobility, a trickle of Natalian emigrants grew into a steady stream, and the centre of trekker activity swung back to Potgieter's fief on the high veld.
Andries Pretorius stayed on in Natal longer than most of his countrymen. He was loth to leave his splendid farm near Weenen, he did not relish the idea of settling down in country dominated by his arch-rival Potgieter, and he hoped still to obtain better terms from the British. In September 1847 he rode 600 miles to Grahamstown to lay his people's complaints before the Cape Governor, Sir Henry Pottinger. There was still time he said, to find an accommodation in Natal which would prevent a final Boer exodus.
But Pottinger refused Pretorius an interview, and here one comes across an example of the petty action of a paper-shuffling bureaucrat which can alter the course of a nation's history. Pottinger instead insisted that Pretorius submit his suggestions in a memorandum, explaining that 'I cannot devote time to personal interviews; and besides, it has been a rule with me through a long public life, that written communications are to be preferred, as utterly obviating misunderstanding.' Pretorius flew into a rage at what he considered to be a calculated insult, and late in 1847 he decided to abandon Natal for the high veld. With him marched nearly all the Afrikaners who still remained in the new colony, and together they began climbing up the Berg passes.
It was at this point in time that Sir Harry Smith succeeded Pottinger as Governor at the Cape. He had known many of the Voortrekkers during his previous service in South Africa; they liked him and he had great sympathy for them. Smith accordingly hurried to the Drakensberg in a last-minute attempt to halt the Second Trek; there he met the Boers, promised reparations to them, and persuaded a few to turn back to Natal. But the large majority continued up the passes. Sir Harry was genuinely appalled by their situation and the description he has left of it better than anything else records the miserable conditions which were again gladly accepted if they were to lead to genuine independence:
'On my arrival at the foot of the Drakensberg mountains,' Smith writes, 'I was almost paralysed to witness the whole of the population, with few exceptions, trekking! These families were exposed to a state of misery which I never before saw equalled, except in Massena's invasion of Portugal, when the whole of the population of that part of the seat of war abandoned their homes and fled. The scene here was truly heart-rending. I assembled all the men near me, through the means of a Mr Pretorius, a shrewd sensible man, who had recently been into the colony to lay the subject of dissatisfaction of his countrymen before the Governor, where he was refused an audience, and returned after so long a journey expressing himself as the feelings of a proud and injured man would naturally prompt. At this meeting I was received as if among my own family. I heard the various causes of complaint — some I regard as well-grounded, others as imaginary, but all expressive of a want of confidence and liberality as to land on the part of the Government. I exerted my influence among them to induce them to remain for the moment where they were with their families, which they consented to do. The scene presented by about 300 or 400 fathers of large families assembled and shedding tears when presenting their position was more, I admit, than I could observe unmoved, each exclaiming"Our friend Colonel Smith, we were living quietly under a government which we were attached to; our loyalty has been suspected, our lands have been sparingly given or refused — we were not even allowed to purchase. Kafirs have been located on our lands and intermixed with us. These are the causes which have led us to abandon our houses, our crops standing, and the gardens which we planted with our own hands, abounding in fruit and produce. We are seeking a home in the wilderness."
All Hendrik Potgieter's old doubts about the suitability of Natal in the end had been vindicated. As for the Boers from Natal the best that could be said for their prospects was that farms in plenty were awaiting them beyond the mountains.