While Kimberley’s magnates were manoeuvring for advantage, Britain’s imperial ambitions were also on the march. In 1874, a new Tory government led by Benjamin Disraeli had come to power with aims of extending the realms of the British empire and reversing the years of fiscal rectitude and frugality overseas pursued by the previous Gladstone administration. Disraeli proudly called himself ‘an Imperialist’ and appointed as colonial secretary a like-minded expansionist, the Earl of Carnarvon. Carnarvon’s main preoccupation was imperial defence. He regarded the Cape and its naval facilities at Simon’s Bay as being the most important link in the imperial network outside Britain itself, upon which the safety of the whole empire might one day depend. In the words of a Royal Commission on Colonial Defence chaired by Carnarvon, the Cape route was ‘essential to the retention by Great Britain of her possessions in India, Mauritius, Ceylon, Singapore, China and even Australasia’. It needed to be ‘maintained at all hazards and irrespective of cost’. Strategic considerations overrode financial concerns. Furthermore, the Cape provided a vital commercial link. Despite the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, one seventh of all British trade annually passed the Cape. In the event of a war affecting the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, the Cape route would become even more important.

What concerned Carnarvon was the chaotic character of the interior of southern Africa, which offered opportunities for other European powers to meddle and undermine British supremacy in the region. In sum, southern Africa consisted of three separate British colonies, two Boer republics and a troublesome assortment of African chiefdoms, notably the Xhosa, the Zulu, the Swazi, the Pedi, the Venda, the Tswana and the Sotho. It was an area of ill-defined borders where armed conflict appeared to be endemic. Carnarvon was alarmed in particular by the Transvaal’s determined efforts to expand eastwards and gain access to the sea at Delagoa Bay, which would enable it to escape from commercial dependence on colonial ports and break away from British domination. He was adamant that the security of the Cape could not be assured unless Britain controlled the interior.

To forestall the Transvaal’s moves, Britain claimed possession of Delagoa Bay for itself. But when the matter was put to arbitration, Britain lost to Portugal. The Transvaal meanwhile sought to involve other European powers. In 1875, President Thomas Burgers toured Europe in search of German and Dutch aid to build a railway joining Pretoria to Delagoa Bay. Carnarvon concluded that the sooner the Transvaal was incorporated into the British orbit the better.

As colonial secretary in a previous British administration, Carnarvon had gained the credit for launching Canada as a self-governing dominion by amalgamating seven independent provinces inhabited by French-speaking and English-speaking colonists with different traditions and mutual distrust; and he assumed that a similar feat could be accomplished in southern Africa. Carnarvon’s plan was to construct a confederation of its disparate peoples that would serve as a bastion of the British empire and protect both its strategic and commercial interests.

The advantages of confederation, Carnavon told the cabinet, were ‘very obvious’. It would encourage the flow of European immigration and capital; provide a more effective administration at less expense; and reduce the likelihood of demands for aid in the form of money or troops. Furthermore, it would assist the development of ‘a uniform, wise and strong policy’ towards ‘the native question’. In sum, confederation would ensure a great leap forward.

Carnarvon found few willing accomplices in the region, however. There were too many old grievances, too much distrust. For the Boer republics, cooperation with Britain meant only ‘die juk van Engeland’ - ‘the yoke of England’. Carnarvon managed to cobble together a conference in London in August 1876 attended by a variety of delegates from southern Africa, but made no headway.

But just when the cause of confederation seemed hopeless, it was suddenly given new life by a dramatic turn of events in the Transvaal. A war that President Burgers launched against the Pedi leader, Sekhukhune, in the eastern Transvaal went badly awry. On 14 September 1876, the Colonial Office received a telegram from the British high commissioner in Cape Town, Sir Henry Barkly, warning of the Transvaal’s imminent collapse.

Army of President totally routed[.] Deserters pouring into Pretoria[.] Sickakuni pursuing in force[.] Meeting at Landrosts office Lydenburg agreed to ask British government to take over Transvaal[.] Volksraad summoned fourth September[.] Am I to accept the proposed cession[?]

Burgers’ decision to attack Sekhukhune carried high risks. The Transvaal was barely a functioning state. Its government was virtually bankrupt; its burghers refused to pay taxes; banks refused to approve any more advances; public officials went unpaid, and land pledged for public and private debt was unsaleable. The Transvaal possessed no army. Its security depended on a commando system that required widely dispersed farming settlements to provide volunteers, arms and ammunition. The reservoir of white manpower was limited: the total population of about 40,000 whites was scattered over a vast terrain, outnumbered at every turn by indigenous Africans and constantly worried about the possibility of a black alliance rising against them. At most, only about 8,000 men, mostly farmers, were available for military service.

President Burgers had come to office in 1872, aspiring to establish the Transvaal as a modern state. A liberal predikant from the Cape, educated in Utrecht in Holland and married to a Scots girl, he launched a number of ambitious schemes but lacked the means to implement them. He introduced a new code of laws but had few magistrates or courts to enforce them. He borrowed heavily hoping to build a railway link to Delagoa Bay incurring loan commitments at exorbitant rates of interest that ruined state finances. Moreover, Burgers soon clashed with conservative factions. His attempts to establish a secular system of education were attacked for ‘taking the Bible out of schools’. When alluvial gold deposits were found in the Lydenburg district of the eastern Transvaal in 1873, he encouraged uitlanders (foreigners), mainly English-speaking prospectors, to settle there, awarding them two seats in the Volksraad; one of the seats was taken up by Herbert Rhodes, Cecil’s brother. To capitalise on the gold discoveries, Burgers had gold sovereigns struck bearing an image of himself, causing further outrage among conservatives.

His efforts at reform, furthermore, were overshadowed by a series of prolonged disputes over land, labour and taxation with Sekhukhune’s Pedi state, the most powerful chiefdom in the Transvaal region. Sekhukhune’s army was fully equipped with guns purchased by Pedi migrant labourers with earnings from the diamond fields of Griqualand. His capital at Tsate in the Leolu mountains was heavily fortified. Nevertheless, responding to clamour from eastern Transvaal settlers for action against Sekhukhune, the Volksraad voted for war. Aware of the risks, Burgers assembled the largest expeditionary force the Transvaal had ever mobilised - 2,000 burghers, 2,400 Swazi warriors and 600 Transvaal African auxiliaries - and led it into the field himself, wearing a top hat and presidential sash.

Burgers’ campaign soon disintegrated. From the outset, morale amongst the burghers was low. The bulk came from commandos outside eastern Transvaal - from Pretoria, Potchefstroom and Rustenberg - areas facing their own problems. Within days, the Swazi contingent deserted, complaining of the lack of burgher support. An initial attack on the Pedi capital quickly collapsed and burghers refused to advance further. ‘We are all entirely unwilling to storm Secoecoeni’s Mountain for the reason that we see no chance of safeguarding our lives or of conquering the kaffer,’ they declared in a petition. As the commandos streamed home, Burgers was obliged to leave the campaign in the hands of a mercenary force - the Lydenburg Volunteers - recruited from ‘very rough characters’ from the diamond fields and the gold fields with promises of pay, booty and land. Its first commander was the German officer Conrad von Schlickmann, who had participated in the Black Flag revolt in Kimberley; after his death, the Irish republican Alfred Aylward, also of Kimberley fame, was chosen as commander. The Lydenburg Volunteers were soon notorious for atrocities against the black civilian population.

News of the Boer retreat, though not in fact as dramatic as described in Barkly’s telegram, galvanised Carnarvon into action. He immediately scribbled a note to Disraeli seeking permission to take control of the Transvaal. ‘My hope is that by acting at once we may prevent war [over southern Africa] & acquire at a stroke the whole of the Transvaal republic after which the Orange Free State must soon follow and the whole policy in S. Africa for wh. we have been labouring fully and completely justified,’ he said.

With Disraeli’s approval - ‘Do what you think wisest’ - Carnarvon appointed Sir Theophilus Shepstone to act as special commissioner to the Transvaal. Ostensibly, Shepstone’s remit was to report on the state of affairs there and to assess the threat that native wars posed to British territories in southern Africa. In secret, he was given instructions to annex the Transvaal if ‘a sufficient number’ of its residents were willing, or even if they were not willing, and to install himself as the first British governor.

For thirty years, Shepstone had served as a Natal administrator, first as Diplomatic Agent to Native Tribes then as secretary for native affairs, exercising a paternal overlordship over Natal’s Nguni population. An austere, secretive man, the son of a Wesleyan missionary who landed in the Cape with 1820 Settlers, he was regarded as the foremost authority on the Zulu and a general expert on African matters, fluent in several Nguni dialects. He was known by the Zulu honorific of Somtseu meaning ‘Father of the Nation’. Though he had less experience of dealing with the truculent Boers of the Transvaal, Carnarvon regarded him, according to Disraeli, as ‘heaven-born for the object in view’. He was a committed imperialist, keen to extend British paramountcy to the highveld and convinced of the merits of Carnarvon’s confederation scheme. Knowing his views, Carnarvon had invited Shepstone to attend the London conference, hoping his involvement would help boost the case for confederation, and had arranged for him to receive a knighthood while there. Now he was despatched back to southern Africa in haste, leaving on 23 September, having no time ‘to say goodbye to any one’. To support Shepstone on his mission, Carnarvon promised a battalion of troops would be sent from Britain under the guise of relieving a regiment already stationed in the Cape.

To underpin the whole operation, Carnarvon prevailed upon Sir Bartle Frere, one of the empire’s elder statesmen, to take up the post of high commissioner and governor of the Cape, giving him greatly increased powers. Frere’s distinguished career included forty-one years of service in India; he had also led a successful mission to Zanzibar to persuade the Sultan to ban the slave trade. He was a personal friend of the royal family, a Privy Councillor, a former president of the Royal Geographical Society and a fervent evangelical Christian. Though he knew next to nothing about southern Africa and had no experience of dealing with pugnacious white colonists, he shared Carnarvon’s vision of pushing forward the frontiers of empire, admired Carnarvon for his feat in uniting the Canadian states in a single dominion, and believed firmly in the goal of establishing a southern African confederation under British control.

Carnarvon provided Frere with a wide remit. He proposed that Frere should go out to the Cape ‘nominally as Governor, but really as the Statesman who seems to me most capable of carrying my scheme of Confederation into effect’. Frere’s reward was to be appointed the first governor-general of a new British dominion.

But Carnarvon’s ambition did not stop there. He began to fashion the idea of a ‘Cape to Cairo’ policy, envisaging even greater swathes of Africa coming under British control, out of reach of other European powers. In a letter to Frere on 12 December 1876, he wrote:

I should not like anyone to come too near us either on the South towards the Transvaal, which must be ours; or on the North too near to Egypt and the country which belongs to Egypt.

In fact when I speak of geographical limits I am not expressing my real opinion. We cannot admit rivals in the East or even the central parts of Africa: and I do not see why, looking to the experience that we have now of English life within the tropics - the Zambesi should be considered to be without the range of our colonisation.

On 15 December 1876, Sir Theophilus Shepstone, accompanied by an escort of twenty-five troopers from the Natal Mounted Police, a small band of officials and an assortment of African grooms and servants, set out from the Natal capital of Pietermaritzburg, heading for the Transvaal highveld. His staff included Melmoth Osborn, Captain Marshal Clarke and a 20-year-old junior official, Rider Haggard. Haggard’s venture into the African interior was to provide him with a wealth of material for his novels King Solomon’s Mines, She and Allan Quatermain.

Their journey to Pretoria was conducted at a leisurely pace. In his autobiography, The Days of My Life, Haggard recalled spending ‘moonlit nights of surpassing brilliancy’ sitting around a roaring camp fire, listening to tales of ‘savage Africa’, many of them told by Shepstone himself. Though Shepstone had the reputation of being a saturnine figure, silent and self-contained, Haggard found him more approachable. ‘He had the power of silence, but he observed everything and forgot little. To me, however, when the mood was on him, he would talk a great deal.’

Among the servants was Umslopogaas, Shepstone’s head attendant, a son of the Swazi king, who made several appearances in Haggard’s novels. Describing him in The Days of My Life, Haggard wrote: ‘He was a tall, thin, fierce-faced fellow with a great hole above the left temple over which the skin pulsated, that he had come by in some battle. He said that he had killed ten men in single combat . . . always making use of a battle-axe!’

On 27 January 1877, Shepstone and his party arrived in Pretoria. The Boer capital had begun its existence in 1854 as a kerkplaas, a place where a travelling dominee (priest) called at intervals to officiate at weddings and baptisms. It was still little more than a village, with a white population of only 2,000, notable for its simple cottages surrounded by gardens full of roses, willow trees and rows of vegetables. An avenue of blue gum trees led into the town from the south. At the centre was Church Square around which stood the Dutch Reformed Church and public buildings. It was here every three months that far-flung farming families and local residents would gather for nagmaal, a religious and social event when babies were baptised, marriages were celebrated and the square was cluttered with market stalls, tents and wagons. On the south side of the square stood the Raadsaal, a simple, single-storeyed thatched building where parliament assembled.

Visiting Pretoria in 1877, Anthony Trollope recorded its charm but also noticed ‘a certain flavour of untidiness’:

Brandy bottles and sardine boxes meet the eye everywhere. Tins in which pickled good things have been conveyed accumulate themselves at the corners. The straw receptacles in which wine is nowadays conveyed meet the eye constantly, as do paper shirt-collars, rags, old boots, and fragments of wooden cases. There are no dust holes and no scavengers, and all the unseemly relics of a hungry and thirsty race of pioneers are left open to inspection.

And yet in spite of the mud, in spite of the brandy bottles, in spite of the ubiquitous rags, Pretoria is both picturesque and promising.

To Shepstone’s relief, he was given a cordial reception. The arrival of the British was seen as a welcome defence against the possibility of an attack by Sekhukhune’s army. Moreover, the British affirmed publicly that they intended to respect the Transvaal’s independence. In discussions between the two sides, however, it soon became evident that Shepstone was bent on annexation. Though British citizens living in towns like Pretoria, numbering in all about 5,000, welcomed the prospect of British rule, opposition to the British presence among the Boer population began to grow.

A further complication arose when reports reached Pretoria claiming that on 16 February Sekhukhune had signed a peace treaty with the Boers, thus removing the threat of war that was the main justification for British intervention. According to Pretoria’s negotiators, Sekhukhune had agreed to become a subject of the Transvaal state and submit to its laws, and had signed a document to that effect. The following week, however, a German missionary involved in the peace negotiations, Alexander Merensky, sent a letter to Shepstone denying that a peace treaty had been signed and insisting that there were still areas of dispute; Sekhukhune, he said, had specifically refused to become a Transvaal subject. Accompanying Merensky’s letter was a note from Sekhukhune addressed directly to Shepstone: ‘I beg you, Chief, come help me, the Boers are killing me and I don’t know the reasons why they should be angry with me.’

To ascertain the facts, Burgers and Shepstone agreed to despatch a commission to Sekhukhune’s territory, consisting of two representatives of the Transvaal government and two from Shepstone’s staff. Osborn and Clarke were selected; Haggard was chosen as secretary.

Riding in the heat of summer, Haggard’s small party made their way through the ‘fever country’ of the eastern Transvaal, reaching Sekhukhune’s mountain stronghold at Tsate on 27 March. ‘It was an uncanny kind of place,’ wrote Haggard. ‘If you got up at night, if you moved anywhere, you became aware that dozens or hundreds of eyes were watching you.’ After a restless night, they were taken to meet Sekhukhune, ‘a man of middle age with twinkling black eyes and a flat nose, very repulsive to look on’. As Haggard sat on a log taking notes, Sekhukhune dismissed the treaty as a fraud. ‘I will not stand under the law. I am unwilling to pay taxes. I have to live by my people and any tax payable by them should come to me as their chief.’

Back in Pretoria, meanwhile, Shepstone manoeuvred to deliver the coup de grâce. He brushed aside a Volksraad resolution angrily rejecting annexation and claimed in a letter to Carnarvon in March that he had received petitions from 2,500 residents supporting annexation. ‘To this number must be added many who were prevented from signing by the terrorism that is exercised in some districts, and especially in Pretoria.’ He further claimed that a million natives ‘placed like a dark fringe round a widely spread white population’ resented Boer rule. Moreover, not only did Sekhukhune still pose a threat to the republic, but the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, ‘is known to entertain a great antipathy towards this State’. Cetshwayo was keen, said Shepstone, to ‘wash his spears’ in white blood. In discussion with Burgers and his officials, Shepstone raised the spectre of a Zulu invasion.

On 9 April, Shepstone informed Burgers that he intended to annex the Transvaal, whereupon Burgers informed Shepstone that he intended to issue a public protest. Two days later, at eleven in the morning, a group of eight British officials assembled in Church Square amid the jumble of oxen and ox-wagons to announce the decision, nervous about the reaction that might come. ‘In a country so full of desperadoes and fanatical haters of anything English,’ wrote Haggard, ‘it was more than possible that . . . a number of men could easily be found who would think they were doing a righteous act in greeting the “annexationists” with an ovation of bullets.’

Putting on his spectacles, Melmoth Osborn, secretary to the mission, proceeded to read Shepstone’s proclamation, listing a host of reasons for annexation: the country was bankrupt; commerce was destroyed; the white inhabitants were divided into factions; the government had fallen into paralysis; ‘neighbouring native powers’ were tempted to intervene.

And whereas the ravaging of an adjoining friendly State by warlike savage tribes cannot for a moment be contemplated by Her Majesty’s Government without the most earnest and painful solicitude . . .

Osborn’s voice faltered and his hands trembled so violently that Rider Haggard had to take the printed text from him and continue reading the proclamation.

And whereas I have been satisfied by numerous addresses, ceremonials and letters . . . that a large proportion of the inhabitants of the Transvaal see . . . the ruined condition of the country . . . and therefore earnestly desire the establishment within and over it of Her Majesty’s authority and rule . . .

A small crowd, mostly English, gave a few cheers and the officials, breathing a sigh of relief, departed. There was no flag-raising ceremony to mark this latest acquisition of the British empire. Shepstone thought it prudent to await the arrival of British troops from Natal.

Immediately afterwards, Burgers’ counter-proclamation was read out in Church Square by a member of the executive council. To avoid violence, he declared, the Transvaal government had agreed under protest to submit to British rule. He advised burghers to remain calm. Addressing his officials in the Volksraad Zaal, he told them: ‘We bow only to the superior power. We submit because we cannot successfully draw the sword against this superior power, because by doing so we could only plunge the country into deeper miseries and disasters. ’

Promised a pension by Shepstone, Burgers left the Transvaal by ox-wagon, complaining bitterly that during his term of office he had been ‘driven almost to despair by betrayal and corruption on all sides, ruined in my private estate as well as in health’.

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