|South Africa Table of Contents
The British adopted contradictory policies in ruling their newly acquired Cape Colony in the first three decades of the nineteenth century. Having seized the Cape from the VOC in 1795, the British returned the colony to the Dutch government in 1803 when peace had been concluded with the French. In 1806, however, with the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars, the British again took the Cape in order to protect the sea route to their Asian empire. Like the VOC before them, the British tried to keep the costs low and the settlement small. Local officials continued the policy of relying on imported slave labor rather than encouraging European immigration with the latter's implication of permanent and expanding settlement. They also introduced racially discriminatory legislation to force Khoikhoi and other so-called "free" blacks to work for as little as possible. The Hottentot Code of 1809 required that all Khoikhoi and other free blacks carry passes stating where they lived and who their employers were. Persons without such passes could be forced into employment by white masters.
The British attempted to alleviate the land problems of Boers in the eastern Cape by sending imperial armies against the Xhosa of the Zuurveld (literally, "sour grassland," the southernmost area of Bantu-speaking settlement, located between the Sundays River and the Great Fish River). They attacked the Xhosa from 1799 to 1803, from 1811 to 1812, and again from 1818 to 1819, when at last, through ruthless warfare, they succeeded in expelling the Africans into the area north of the Great Fish River. Thereafter, the British sought to create a fixed frontier by settling 5,000 British-assisted immigrants on smallholder farms created out of land seized from the Xhosa south of the Great Fish River and by clearing all lands between the Great Fish River and the Keiskama River of all forms of African settlement.
But other policies and developments worked against these measures. In 1807 Parliament in London ordered an end to British participation in the slave trade everywhere in the world. This decision threatened the basis of the Cape's labor supply, for farmers in the eastern areas as well as in the west.
British missionaries, who were active in South Africa for the first time in the 1810s and who had a sympathetic audience in Britain, condemned the cruel labor practices often adopted by Trekboers against their slave and Khoikhoi workers and decried the discriminatory provisions of the Hottentot Code. Although British officials did not rescind the legislation, they did respond to this criticism by establishing a circuit court to monitor conditions in the western Cape. This court offended many Boer sensibilities by giving equal weight to the evidence of "servants" and "masters," black and white alike. The British also raised a force of colonial police, including Khoikhoi regulars, to enforce the court's authority. In 1815 a Dutch-speaking Afrikaner farmer who refused to answer a court summons for mistreating a Khoikhoi employee was shot dead while resisting arrest. Relatives and neighbors rose in what became known as the Slachter's Nek Rebellion, but their resistance was soon crushed, and the British hanged five of the rebels.
British policies on the eastern frontier also engendered growing Boer hostility. The attempt to close the frontier in 1819-20 following the defeat of the Xhosa and the importation of British immigrants only exacerbated land shortages. British settlers found that they could not make a living from small farms, and they competed with the Dutch pastoralists for the limited arable land available, thereby intensifying Boer-British tensions.
The British government, acting largely at the behest of the missionaries and their supporters in Britain in the 1820s, abolished the Hottentot Code. Ordinance 50 of 1828 stated that no Khoikhoi or free black had to carry a pass or could be forced to enter a labor contract. Five years later, the British Parliament decreed that slavery would no longer be permitted in any part of the empire. After a four-year period of "apprenticeship," all slaves would become free persons, able, because of Ordinance 50, to sell their labor for whatever the market would bear. Moreover, slaveowners were to receive no more than one-third of the value of their slaves in official compensation for the loss of this property. The Boers felt further threatened when, in 1834 and 1835, British forces, attempting to put a final stop to Boer-Xhosa frontier conflict, swept across the Keiskama River into Xhosa territory and annexed all the land up to the Keiskama River for white settlement. In 1836, however, the British government, partly in response to missionary criticism of the invasion, returned the newly annexed lands to the Xhosa and sought a peace treaty with their chiefs.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress