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German Settlers to the Eastern Cape

Frontier Challenges

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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The Eastern Cape frontier was home to the amaXhosa who had occupied the territory for more than a millennium. They were pastoralists, with their economy centred on the private ownership of cattle but holding the land in common.

During the second half of the 18th century, however, they were confronted by the expansion of Dutch pastoralists from the south-western Cape whose economy was also centred on livestock but who held the land as a private possession.

Opposing cultures and economic systems thereafter saw perpetual friction which led regularly to the outbreak of frontier wars. Three such conflicts had already taken place even before the British annexed the Cape in 1806. Further wars would then punctuate British rule for most of the 19th century.

All the British governors until 1854 were military men and their solution to the frontier challenge tended to be of a military nature. Yet up until 1834 the Governor had a standing army of only 1,800 soldiers which meant that a commando system of armed white farmers had to augment the military.

The economy too was critical. The Cape's chief value to Britain was in relation to the Empire's trade with the east, while the interior of the Colony was of little worth from a commercial point of view.

On the other hand, once the Imperial Government had allowed the settlement of British people on the frontier -- as it did when it introduced the 1820 Settlers -- it was obliged to protect them. This obligation then proved to be a two-edged sword.

The Colonial Office believed that the Graham's Town merchants thrived on fighting and magnified even minor events into a war. The more soldiers on the frontier, the argument went, the greater the profit to the merchants through their trade with these soldiers.

The probability is that the merchants did not want a war but they did desire a large military presence which would offer them protection while raising the value of their property. There were therefore continual calls to strengthen the frontier forces.

The merchants' claims were substantiated by allegations of possible attacks on the Colony. The tribal leaders in turn became nervous -- and so warfare was never very far away.

Unlike India, which paid for its own conquest, the Cape Colony was actually a drain on the British Treasury, which was in direct conflict with British policy. Although few at the Colonial Office wanted to sever the ties between Britain and its colonies, they did believe that the colonies should pay their own way.

The slow system of communication was another factor because it placed a heavy burden of responsibility on every Governor. Sailing vessels took about three months to make the journey between Cape Town and Britain.

Six months could therefore pass before a Governor received any reply from the Colonial Office. De factor power of the local authority had therefore to be as wide as possible, and his responsibility was consequently great.

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