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German Settlers to the Eastern Cape

Why the legionnaires
were a success

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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In 1952, Dr E.L.G. Schnell submitted his doctoral thesis on the German Settlers. His research cannot be faulted and his conclusions are generally sound, even though he omitted all reference to the Kennaway Girls beyond just one sentence.

Despite his admirable work, however, Dr Schnell did propagate one dramatic myth: that the German Military Settler scheme was a failure. Indeed, proof of failure was that 50% of the soldiers signed up in 1858 to do duty in the Imperial Army during the Indian Mutiny.

Why are the centenary celebrations for the arrival of the German settlers always held to honour the peasant farmer settlement of 1858? Why not for the arrival of the legionnaires in 1857? The answer lies with Dr Schnell's tragic myth.

Schwär and Pape thereupon went to great lengths in their centenary booklet of 1958 to explain the reasons for this failure, even concluding their discussion of the military settlement with the heading, "Why the military settlements failed".

The problem is that the yardstick for the success or failure of the Legionnaire scheme is itself incorrect. Sir George Grey had a definite plan and, even if only 20% of the soldiers had remained, the settlement should still be rated a success as long as his fundamental objectives had been fulfilled.

In any case, why should 50% be rated a failure when our universities rate 50% a success?

Let's then look at the fundamental objectives behind the Military Settler scheme and then determine to what extent these objectives were fulfilled.


Sir George Grey was the first civilian governor, and one who approached the frontier problem in a civilian light. Incessant wars were costly in terms of loss of life, property and capital consumption. Sir George wanted a different plan: to acculturate the amaXhosa, making Black Englishmen of them.

He would do this in a number of ways. They would use English as their spoken language while becoming a productive labouring class through the introduction of public works. This would also make them dependent on money which in turn would break the power of the chiefs.

They would worship in English churches, wear English dress, bow to the Crown of England and, by doing all of this, they would eventually become the yeast to ferment civilization to the tribes beyond the Kei River.

To do this, Sir George wanted between 1,000 and 5,000 retired army officers to create small farming communities in British Kaffraria. As soldiers, they could be relied upon to defend the territory but, as Englishmen and farmers, they would become the yeast to achieve the acculturation plan.

They would also be married and have children -- an essential condition -- which would provide a fundamental balance to the scheme. Because of the outbreak of the Crimean War, however, less than 100 retired officers volunteered and the plan was cancelled.

With the war drawing to a close in 1856, the War Office had a problem of its own: what to do with more than 8,000 soldiers of the British German Legion who could not return to Germany because their oaths of allegiance to Queen Victoria had made them traitors in their mother countries.

The War Office offered the legionnaires to Sir George, but the Governor was lied to. It was fundamental to have married soldiers whereas the vast majority of the legionnaires were single. Sir George was nevertheless promised that most of them would in fact be married.

The soldiers themselves were also fed a meal of lies about the wonderful prospects of British Kaffraria. "Snow and ice are unknown and the whole country abounds in game of all kinds, as the waters do of fish," a trusted Swiss officer told his men.

"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."


The legionnaires arrived between January and February 1857 but almost immediately problems began to surface. First was Baron von Stutterheim's late arrival, reaching East London after the legionnaires had already arrived. This meant that some essential decisions had to be held in abeyance.

More critical was the lack of wives. Indeed, only 10% of legionnaires were in fact married and Sir George immediately feared for the success of the settlement. "Great immorality" would result from it, he wrote. With no wives to tie the men down, it would be impossible to detain the soldiers in their villages.

They would then "roam over the whole country" in search of females "and would be frequently murdered" by the native population. As a military force, they would be "quite useless" for the defence of the colony. The only solution was to keep the soldiers tied down by military discipline.

This solution would have been very costly because it would have kept the settlers on full pay instead of half pay, which would have been fine for just one year but it could not last more than that. It was imperative therefore that females be sent to British Kaffraria as soon as possible.

Sir George also thought of sending at least 1,000 peasant-farmer families to British Kaffraria to partially solve the female/male ratio. He had in mind the many teenage girls who would then grow up amongst the soldiers, enticing them to work really hard to make themselves marketable as future husbands.

He was not able to convince the Colonial Secretary, however, because Henry Labouchere simply did not understand about the teenage girls but, instead, took the bizarre decision to send out a single boatload of Irish women to become wives for the soldiers -- 153 women for 2,000 soldiers!

It was this lack of women which caused the legionnaire scheme to flounder. Females would have created stability and would have instilled a sense of responsibility. Without them -- with or without the incentive of extra pay -- the majority of soldiers gave themselves up to a life of debauchery.

As a result, the military settlements limped towards ruin. Few of the men became actively involved in tilling their fields and few went to the trouble of building any form of housing beyond makeshift shacks of wattle and daub. There was also indecision about whether the men were settlers or soldiers.

In December 1857, a series of reports were drafted by Special Magistrates which pointed to the disaster waiting to happen. While military discipline could have forced the soldiers to build houses and cultivate their fields, there was in fact no discipline whatever. The settlers were on a glorious paid holiday.

The essence of the reports caused Baron von Stutterheim to resign his commission. Since it was under his authority that the scheme was floundering, he had little option but to fall on his sword -- although he cited family matters as his reason for leaving.

Sir George then tried to rescue the settlement by placing it directly under the command of General Sir James Jackson, Commander of the Armed Forces at the Cape Colony. It was an unfortunate decision because General Jackson had no concept of how to run a successful military settlement.

As a result, the legionnaire villages continued to flounder without any hope of salvation. To make matters worse, the War Office grew tired of Sir George's many lies as to why the soldiers were being kept on full pay instead of the contractual half-pay.

In March 1858, Sir George was instructed to halve the salaries but he knew that such a move would be tantamount to a death warrant for the entire scheme. The alternative of asking the Cape Colony to pay the wages of some 2,000 soldiers would certainly have been rejected. It was a no-win situation.


It was in July 1858 that the Governor had a lightbulb moment for saving the military settler scheme. A mutiny had broken out in India and Sir George had been instructed to send more and more soldiers and horses to help quash the rebellion.

What if the German soldiers were offered a choice of re-enlisting for active duty or of remaining in British Kaffraria as settlers but it being a condition that, if they stayed, they had to buckle down, build their houses and cultivate their fields?

The offer saw an almost 50/50 split. Half the soldiers re-enlisted, while the other half chose to remain as settlers. The solution was a brilliant one. With one dramatic sweep, those troublesome ne'er-do-well soldiers who were doing nothing to promote the settlements were packed off to India.

Only those who were keen on making a success of the settlement stayed behind. The decision also halved the wage bill so that the Cape Parliament was quite happy to keep the remaining men on full pay.

Ultimately, however, it was not just half the soldiers who stayed. One of the conditions for re-enlistment into the Imperial Army was that the volunteers could return to their plots in British Kaffraria once the Mutiny had been quashed, and under the exact conditions as before.

Eventually, some 30% did indeed return, which meant that, ultimately, about 63% of the legionnaires were still in British Kaffraria when the scheme was disbanded after April 1860.

The soldiers who remained throughout the entire contract period became vital elements in the future German settlement in British Kaffraria. Indeed, without their presence, it is almost certain that the subsequent peasant-farmer scheme itself would have failed.

Conditions upon the agriculturists' arrival in British Kaffraria were so excruciating that only the existence of a stable military element in the various villages gave the poverty-stricken farmers the will to survive.

There is no way, therefore, that a valid judgement of the military settlement could conclude in any other way than with a very resounding thumbs up. It was close though. The settlement nearly failed but ultimately it was dragged back from the brink at the very last hour.

[Paper read at the German Settler Conference, Amathole Museum, July 2008]

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