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German Settlers to the Eastern Cape

Queen Victoria's
request

Keith Tankard
Knowledge4Africa.com
Updated: 14 October 2009
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By March1856, the Crimean War was drawing to a close and it was now highly unlikely that the British German Legion would see action, despite months of training at camps in England. What should be done with them once the war was over?

Theoretically, Britain had no further responsibility. Indeed, the contracts could simply have been enforced which would have given the privates a year's wages as well as the option to settle wherever they chose -- except, perhaps, in England.

It was the officer corps which proved problematic. They would have received only three months salary upon disbandment but this would have reduced many of them to penury because they had run up debts which were supposed to have been wiped out by months on the battlefield.

They also had nowhere to go. They had joined the Legion clandestinely and had taken an oath of allegiance to Queen Victoria. Should they return to Germany, they could be arrested for treason. Queen Victoria herself brought their plight to the notice of Lord Panmure.

"They have gone to great expense," she wrote, "and will find themselves in a very painful position in their own countries for having ventured to enter the Queen's service. If they were not considered or treated with generosity, the effect on the Continent would be most mischievous as regards this Country."

What could Lord Panmure do? Then he remembered that Sir George Grey had wanted officers to settle on the frontier, and here were officers enough to satisfy even him. If, on the other hand, the privates could also be persuaded to join them, Sir George would have as many as 8,000 soldier-settlers.

The Colonial Secretary quickly dispatched Major John Grant to Cape Town to persuade the Governor. Of course, Sir George smelt a rat. After all, he didn't want just soldiers. He wanted married soldiers. The Colonial Office, however, overcame his apprehensions with a very simple ruse: it lied to him.

The vast majority, he was told, would indeed be married. Oh, what a lie! Nevertheless, the Governor was convinced and he even persuaded Parliament to vote £40,000 towards the project. Then he and Major Grant undertook a tour of British Kaffraria to map out the sites for the new settler villages.

Soon the loose ends were being tied up and the contracts formulated. Now the task was to persuade the legionnaires to volunteer. They too were lied to -- or at least painted a vastly exaggerated picture of British Kaffraria.

"Snow and ice are unknown and the whole country abounds in game of all kinds. If you want a good meal, just shoulder your gun and in a few minutes time you can shoot a deer, or go down to the sparkling river and catch the nicest fish in the universe. Gather in baskets full of figs, pears, plums, apricots, bananas . . . in the nearest grove."

Nevertheless, not enough privates were willing to accept. Many had already made their own arrangements. Some wanted to settle in America. Others were simply so deep in debt that they needed the money immediately to become solvent once more.

The shortfall in privates meant that there would be more officers than soldiers -- an intolerable situation. The officer corps itself therefore had to be pruned. Ultimately a compromise was struck: some officers were still allowed to volunteer but only as "gentlemen cadets".

There was, however, the question of the almost two thousand unmarried men. It was known that wives would be few and far between on the frontier, and so the men were given permission to marry any woman who was willing to join him on the adventure.

This was a tempting offer for working class women in England who had few prospects during the Industrial Revolution. Mass marriages thereupon took place, some on the dockside, others aboard H.M.S. Britannia -- although the reality is that the vast majority still sailed without a wife.

Then, in November 1856, the troop ships began to set off for East London.

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