The fate of Swaziland was next in line. Kruger coveted it for the ready access it would give him to the sea at Kosi Bay in Tongaland. Rhodes favoured giving it to the Transvaal in return for Kruger’s agreement to forsake expansion to the north across the Limpopo, leaving the field there clear for the British South Africa Company. British officials in London were similarly inclined to offer up Swaziland as an appeasement to Kruger. In 1889, the colonial secretary, Lord Knutsford, wrote to the prime minister, Lord Salisbury:
We should be much abused in this country if we let the Boers annex Matabeleland and Mashonaland, as they are rich territories and concessions by Lo Bengula are held by some influential people; but we shall have to face considerable danger of conflict with the Boers, if we bar them from extension to the North. I should be inclined to compromise with them, by letting it be known that if they come to terms with Umbandine [Mbandzeni, the king of Swaziland] we shall not prevent them from protecting or annexing that country.
Encircled by predators - the Boers, the Zulus and the Portuguese - Swaziland had managed to retain a semblance of independence while, all around, other African kingdoms had been struck down by the relentless advance of white rule. Under the terms of the Pretoria Convention of 1881 and the London Convention of 1884, Britain and the Transvaal were pledged to uphold Swaziland’s independence. But the discovery of valuable gold deposits in the De Kaap valley close to the Swazi border in 1884 intensified the menace that Mbandzeni faced.
From an early stage in their encounters with white settlers, the Swazis had sought to collaborate with them rather than oppose them, forming alliances with Boer trekkers against their traditional rivals like the Pedi and the Zulu. The Swazis provided armies to support both the Boers and the British in their campaigns to crush Sekhukhune’s Pedi state; they also helped the British defeat Cetshwayo’s Zulu state. During the 1880s, however, the whites became increasingly acquisitive. First came Boer farmers seeking winter grazing concessions; then came white prospectors - mainly English-speaking - seeking mining concessions. By the end of 1886, the Swazi had lost most of their winter pasturage to Transvaal trekboers; by the end of 1887, they had lost virtually all mineral rights. Mbandzeni next began to sell off other monopoly concessions.
As the scramble for concessions gathered momentum, Mbandzeni decided a white administrator was needed to control the concession business. He turned for help to the Shepstone family in Natal, appointing ‘Offy’ Shepstone, a son of Sir Theophilus, to the post of Resident Adviser and Agent to the Swazi King, believing that he could be trusted. Shepstone arrived at Mbandzeni’s court at Embekelwini in 1887. He was given charge of all business transactions between the king and the whites, along with the revenue they generated. He also set up a White Governing Committee to supervise the organisation of a police force and the courts, and the collection of non-concession revenues like licences and dues. But Shepstone turned out to be an unscrupulous and corrupt administrator who systematically appropriated concession revenues for his personal use. He also began to deal in concessions himself, acquiring a railway concession for agents acting on behalf of the Transvaal.
Seeking to curb Shepstone’s activities, Mbandzeni gave the White Governing Committee greater powers. In 1888, the committee was granted a charter of administrative authority over all whites in Swaziland. But the result was wholesale plunder. Concessions of every conceivable description were wheedled out of the king, ranging from pawnbroking and patent medicines, to banking, customs and rights to the king’s revenues. In failing health, Mbandzeni remarked:
I have white men all round me. By force they have taken the countries of all my neighbours. If I do not give them rights, they will take them. Therefore I give them when they pay. Why should we not eat before we die?
The mayhem over concessions provided openings for both Kruger and the mining magnates of Kimberley and the Rand. As well as acquiring a railway concession, the Transvaal government bought telegraph and electricity concessions, aiming eventually to gain effective control over Swaziland and, with it, access to Kosi Bay. The mining magnates, for their part, saw lucrative opportunities in acting as intermediaries, buying and selling concessions offered to them.
In March 1889, Eckstein and Porges were approached by concessionaires selling various rights, including monopolies to operate a mint for fifty years and to issue licences and permits for any trade, business or profession for fifty years. They initially turned down the offers, considering the price too high. But within a few days, Eckstein was contacted by Kruger’s business associate Hugo Nellmapius, acting, he said, on instructions from the Transvaal government. Nellmapius proposed that an Eckstein syndicate, including himself, should purchase the mint and licencing concessions for £50,000 and hold them on behalf of the government until it had succeeded in annexing Swaziland, at which point the syndicate would be reimbursed at a profit. As an additional incentive, Eckstein was offered access to government concessions in the Transvaal.
A deal was swiftly concluded. On 1 May 1889, under the guidance of officials from the White Governing Committee, Mbandzeni signed an agreement on concessions, accepting a payment of £100 per annum from Eckstein and Porges. In return, he undertook ‘not to give up the independence of his country to any foreign power, excepting with the consent of the concessionaires and to resist conquest or annexation by any foreign power to whom the concessionaires, might object to the best of his ability and, if attacked or threatened, the concessionaires had the right to bring in such foreign powers as they might think fit for the protection of his kingdom’.
On 3 May, Kruger made an offer to the British government to relinquish all Transvaal’s claims to the north in exchange for political rights in Swaziland and a road across Tongaland to Kosi Bay. He then concluded a private agreement with Eckstein which required his syndicate to cede their concession to the government, as and when instructed to do so, in exchange for a payment of £53,000, and in the meantime to promote the annexation of Swaziland by the Transvaal. In a letter accompanying the contract, Nellmapius told Eckstein: ‘It is quite impossible that Swaziland should remain independent for another year . . . and immediately it loses its independence the Agreement comes into force and we get out money from one or other who gets possession of the country.’ On 29 July, the White Governing Committee passed a resolution in favour of incorporating Swaziland into the Transvaal.
As Mbandzeni’s authority waned, he ordered a wave of executions and killings of his opponents, throwing Swaziland into even deeper turmoil. By the time he died of jaundice in October 1889, his kingdom existed only in name. With some concessions sold several times over, he had ‘conceded’ more than the total area of his country.
The Transvaal and Britain both moved to fill the vacuum. Kruger laid claim to Swaziland, demanding sole control. The British sent an official, Sir Francis de Winton, for an on-the-spot investigation. De Winton concluded that much of the Transvaal’s case was sound. But he recommended that in exchange for any official recognition of its rights to Swaziland, the Transvaal should be required to relinquish all claims to the north of the Limpopo, to accept free trade in Cape products and to allow the Cape to extend its railway to the Witwatersrand.
All these issues were discussed at a meeting between Kruger and the British high commissioner, Sir Henry Loch, held in March 1890 at Blignaut’s Pont on the Vaal River; Rhodes attended the meeting as a representative of the British South Africa Company. Kruger proposed a deal whereby he withdrew Transvaal’s rights to northern expansion in return for gaining Swaziland:
Seeing the desire of Her Majesty’s Government to have Matabeleland and Mashonaland, and also in view of the concession lately granted to the English by Lobengula, it appeared to me that an opportunity arose for encouraging the prosperity of South Africa - I supporting Her Majesty’s Government upon my side, and Her Majesty’s Government giving me rights I ask for in Swaziland, and a sea-border on the east.
Loch, however, refused to allow such a link between the future of Zambesia and of Swaziland. Zambesia, he said, was already within Britain’s sphere of influence. After considerable argument, Kruger agreed to separate the two, and volunteered to support the British government efforts in Matabeleland. ‘In case it should be necessary to resort to arms in Matabeleland, I could offer inducements to my burghers to go in and help Mr Rhodes if he wants them . . . Mr Rhodes must not think that my policy is to stand aside; it is to help him as much as I can.’
Turning to the issue of Swaziland’s future, Loch insisted that instead of giving Kruger sole control there, Swaziland should come under joint administration. Kruger objected: ‘How can two great farmers live together in the same house?’ Loch was equally adamant over the arrangements allowing the Transvaal access to the sea. Britain, he said, was prepared to give Kruger a coastal port at Kosi Bay; it would permit a railway to be built there along a corridor traversing Swaziland and Tongaland; but it would not concede control of Swaziland and Tongaland to the Transvaal as Kruger wanted. Kruger retorted: ‘How, if I cut my hand off and throw it away, can I still call it my hand?’
Towards the end of the day, Loch introduced a new issue. ‘There is one point that I should have mentioned before,’ he said. If the Transvaal government was given a seaport it would be on condition that it joined a customs union within three years. Kruger replied that he would be willing to join a customs union if he acquired a harbour on the coast, but he wanted more land on the coast than he was being offered.
Kruger left the meeting, saying that he needed to consult the Volksraad. When the Volksraad rejected the deal, Loch prevailed upon Jan Hofmeyr to negotiate with Kruger, using the threat of force as an additional spur.
The Convention that was eventually signed in August 1890 - without any consultation with the Swazis - placed Swaziland under joint control and authorised the Transvaal to acquire a three-mile-wide corridor to build a railway through Swaziland and Tongaland to Kosi Bay.
Kruger then used the Convention to tighten the Transvaal’s grip over Swaziland. By 1892, the ‘Joint-Government’ was deemed a failure. A second Convention in 1893 gave effective control over the administration of Swaziland to the Transvaal. When Swazi elders were presented with the terms of the Convention, they refused to accept them, but were given short shrift.
In 1894, the British government retreated further. ‘I am coming to the conclusion that we shall have to let the Boers go in,’ the colonial secretary, Lord Ripon, wrote to the foreign secretary, Lord Kimberley, in September. ‘I greatly dislike the measure - but the only practical alternative that I can see is to run [the] grave risk of war with the Boers which I regard as out of the question.’
Once more, the Swazis were given no hearing. On 10 December 1894, Britain agreed a third Convention consigning Swaziland into the hands of the Transvaal as a ‘Protectorate’. According to Loch, this was ‘the price which must be paid to avert war between the two white peoples of South Africa’.
The Swazis remembered this passage of their history as a time when ‘the documents killed us’.