English Colonial History


Like the Dutch, the English at first did not see South Africa as anything more than a strategic port. Initially they let the Dutch colonists enjoy many of the same rights and privileges as they had before the English administration. However, they eventually tried to outlaw the use of the Dutch language, with intent of converting the Dutch population to English culture. The law only made the Dutch move to the fringes of English territory. The English also paid 5,000 of their citizens to relocate to their new dominion. These settlers helped Anglicize the region, though tensions were high between the former Dutch and the new English. The two European cultures clashed, as the English were more urbane and invested in politics, while the Dutch Boers were mostly rural and uneducated. 

The British Empire's abolition of slavery in 1834 further deepened the divide between the Boers and the British. The Boers viewed abolition as a perversion of the natural, God-given order. The economics of the slave trade had obviously greatly benefited the Boers and abolition threatened ruin to many families financially. The British offered to pay the Boers for freeing their slaves, but the Boers believed their slaves were worth more than the one million pounds offered by the British government. Furthermore, the money could only be received in person in Britain, an impossible journey for many Boers to make. 

However, it should not be believed that the British colonizers were making radical changes to the colonial system. The British had a deeply ingrained belief in racial superiority and made only modest reforms to protect former slaves. Furthermore, backlash to abolition led to “Masters and Servants Ordinances” which gave Boers new ways to exploit their former slaves. 



The rise of the Zulu as a regional power had profound effects on the ongoing culture battle between the English and the Boers. The Zulu Kingdom originated from a minor tribe formed at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Shaka Zulu, warrior and illegitimate son of a king, rose to prominence in the early nineteenth century, forming the Zulu Kingdom in 1818. He instituted many reforms to centralize the Zulu State and won a showdown with the religious leaders, ensuring their subservience to his will. One of the reforms was integrating people from defeated tribes into his kingdom on the basis of equality. Harkening back to his status as an illegitimate son, promotions in the army and civil society were based on merit rather than familial connections, simultaneously ensuring a strong and loyal kingdom. Almost singlehandedly Shaka made the Zulu a force to be reckoned with throughout nineteenth century South Africa. Nevertheless, in enacting some of the reforms he created many enemies among his own people, particularly those who had benefited from the previous systems. His half-brother, Dingane, assassinated him and became King of the Zulus in 1828. 



Meanwhile the Boers had had enough with the English. In 1835 a series of emigrations known as the Great Trek out of English territory began.  These ultimately resulted in the founding of the Boer republics. Leaving colonial territory brought the Boer trekkers in conflict with a number indigenous civilizations and tribes, including the Zulu and their enemies. The Boers attempted negotiations with the Zulu to acquire land. The Boers’ demands for land undoubtedly contained poorly veiled threats to the Zulu if their demands were not met. Additionally the Zulu king could not permanently give the Boers land that rightfully belonged to the Zulu people. 

In response to the threats, the Zulu massacred hundreds of Boers, many of whom were women and children. This resulted in a series of conflicts with the Zulu. The trekkers would undoubtedly have lost these battles if not for the increasing unpopularity of Dingane, the Zulu King. Mpande, one of Dingane’s half-brothers and leader of a large faction of the Zulu, allied himself with the Boer trekkers to make himself king. When the trekkers were victorious in 1839 they founded the Natalia Republic, which was allied with the Zulu kingdom. 



However, the Boer victory, which they attributed to divine intervention, was short-lived and in 1843 the British annexed the Natalia Republic to make the Natal Colony. The Boers increasingly felt suffocated by the British on one side and the indigenous people on the other. In the meantime the British attempted to establish sugar plantations in Natal. Their efforts were curbed by uncooperative Boers and a Zulu population unwilling to do the intensive labor required on a sugar plantation. The British resorted to importing indentured Indians to work in the awful conditions of the sugar plantations. By 1910 an estimated 150,000 Indian workers had been imported to South Africa. 

The Boers continued their searches for independence. In the latter half of the nineteenth century they founded the South African Republic (ZAR) and Orange Free State. Despite being extremely poor, lacking industry and subsisting on minimal agriculture, these states seemed to be on the path to self-sufficiency. The discovery of diamonds turned the Boer’s vision on its head. The English quickly annexed the republics and thousands of Europeans and Africans flooded into shantytowns, ignoring what the Boers thought of as the proper separation of whites and blacks. Furthermore the leaders of the Boer republics did not benefit from the discovery of diamonds, leading to further anger at British tyranny. 

The British were not content annexing the territory of the Boers. The British had a vision of a united South Africa. Aberrations such as the Boer republics and the Zulu Kingdom would have to be brought under their control. Sir Henry Frere was sent to South Africa to put this plan into action as High Commissioner. In December of 1878 he presented Cetshwayo, King of the Zulu, with an ultimatum calculated to bring the two countries to war. If the Zulu did not respond by laying down their arms and accepting British rule of their land, the British would attack. Cetshwayo did his utmost to avoid the war but could not accept the terms. The Zulu fought valiantly to protect their sovereignty and won a few early victories, such as the Battle of Isandlwana. Inevitably, they were crushed, their land partitioned, and steps were taken to ensure that they could never again unite under a single king. 



With the Zulu “threat” disposed of the British shortly returned their attention to the Boer republics in their goal to federate South Africa. The British did not count on the level of resistance the Boers were willing to put up. Tired of decades of British tyranny, and valuing their independence over industrialization, the Boers fought back in a series of conflicts known as the Boer Wars

The First Boer War was a setback for the British and a triumphant victory for the Boers. Lasting barely a total of three months, the conflict barely merits the term ”war”. Each battle was relatively small. Despite having superior forces in training, number, and equipment, the British struggled to root out the more mobile and unconventional fighting force of the Boers. The British government, believed the cost of winning the war to be too high and ordered a peace. The final peace treaty resulted in a suzerainty: the British maintained control over diplomatic relations and the Boers accepted nominal British rule, while the Boers were free to govern themselves domestically. 

Ironically, the discovery of gold in the Boer Republics dealt another blow to their continued quest for independence. More British subjects came to the country to pursue the gold rush, further pushing the Boers to the edges of the political sphere and limiting their ability to self-govern. In 1895 a miner with imperialist aspirations attempted to stage a coup over the South African Republic. Though acting independently, Paul Kruger, the Boer leader, suspected the miner had at least tacit approval from the Cape Colony. 

The situation finally boiled over when the British demanded that the ZAR grant the 60,000 British subjects living within the country the right to vote. Kruger refused to enfranchise the British subjects and also demanded that the British withdraw all troops from the ZAR’s borders. Both sides, unwilling to give in to the other’s demands, declared war in 1899. The British won the war in 1900, despite early losses and a predominant opposition to the imperialist war on the home front, due to an overwhelming offensive into Boer territory where they outnumbered the Boers four to one. 

Despite nominal defeat in the war, the Boers continued to resist British hegemony using guerrilla tactics for another two years. To put a stop to the war, the British forcibly relocated the civilian Boer population to concentration camps where the Boers died by the thousands due to disease. Some estimates to the deaths in the camps are as high as 26,000, mainly women and children. Emily Hobhouse, a British woman from England, campaigned to improve the conditions of the camps. Her advocacy on behalf of the Boers is partially what turned English public opinion against the war. 



Eventually the Boers conceded to British terms. The Boers acknowledged British sovereignty, while the British committed themselves to rebuilding the regions they decimated with scorched earth tactics. With their victory in the war the British began the process of unification. Their goal was to create a country called the Union of South Africa, consolidating the Cape Colony and the four main Boer republics into one nation. The South Africa Act of 1909 realized the goal of the British Empire of a unified South Africa. The legislation made South Africa an independent dominion of the British Empire on par with Canada, Australia, and New Zealand; as such, it was ruled by the monarch’s representative the governor-general. 

Unification brought harsh segregationist laws to the country. The black majority was denied the right to vote. Furthermore, the Natives’ Land Act of 1913 essentially legalized territorial segregation by making land reservations for black natives. Only 8% of land was available for black occupancy, while the other 92% was available for white occupancy. The Afrikaner and British population was around 20% of total population. Furthermore, black natives could only live outside the reservations if they could prove that they were employed. This act formed part of the basis for segregational policies that would come to be known as apartheid.



Despite the unification, the people of South Africa remained split along racial and cultural lines and there were several attempts at insurrection and rebellion. World War I brought renewed chaos to the reason. Despite many Boers becoming respected members of the Imperial War Cabinet, factions of the former Boers, particularly those of German descent, refused to fight for the British and entered into open rebellion. The rebellion was swiftly crushed and its leaders imprisoned. 

Support for the war remained divided along racial and cultural lines. British elements supported the war, as did Indians such as Mahatma Gandhi and some African natives who believed helping in the war would advance their fight for civil rights. Meanwhile Afrikaners, particularly those in rural areas, resented South African involvement in the war. Nearly 250,000 South Africans served in World War I in some capacity, though only about 30,000 of these saw active duty on the Western Front. Others protected French ports, fought against German colonies in southwest Africa, or contributed as laborers. 



Many South Africans, particularly blacks and Indians, were embittered at the lack of progress in terms of racial segregation in postwar South Africa. At the outbreak of WWII there was debate about whether to join the war on the side of the Allies or the Axis Powers. The Prime Minister initially tried to remain neutral, but was deposed. Instead Jan Smuts, a veteran of World War I, became Prime Minister and declared war on the Axis Powers. Over 300,000 South Africans volunteered for military service and many served with distinctions in battles such as the Battles of Britain, Madagascar, and the campaign in North Africa. Smuts joined the British Imperial War Cabinet, a move that would later destroy his political career as postwar anti-British sentiments rose. 

South Africa emerged from the war with greater prestige and recognition than previously. Prime Minister Smuts represented the country in various peace treaties, particularly in the creation of the United Nations where he urged the new international coalition to “have teeth” in order to prevent more world wars. Despite increased recognition on the world stage, anti-British sentiment at home led to Smuts defeat in the 1948 election. 



Smuts' defeat saw the rise of the National Party, the group that cemented and formalized the laws that would come to be known as the apartheid. Laws were passed that legalized the forced removal of thousands of Africans to the Bantustans, or Bantu homelands. These ten territories served the purpose of consolidating ethnic groups. They were partially autonomous, though dependent on South Africa, often receiving more than 85% of their budgets from the South African government. 



In 1961 South Africa received full independence from the British. Despite both domestic and foreign opposition to the apartheid regime, the government furthered the legislation. This resulted in the formation of several anti-apartheid organizations such as the African National Congress, the Azanian People's Organization, and the Pan-Africanist Congress. These groups fought the apartheid in a number of ways from guerrilla warfare to urban sabotage. They also fought each other as they vied for power domestically. Nelson Mandela, later president of South Africa, was a prominent figure in the ANC. Though initially committed to peaceful resistance, he was arrested in 1962 for conspiring to overthrow the government and in 1964 was sentenced to life in prison.

Apartheid became highly controversial throughout the latter half of the twentieth centuryl, resulting in international sanctions. In 1966 the United Nations voted the apartheid to be a crime against humanity. This resulted in an arms embargo against South Africa and the expulsion of the country from the UN. The United States circumvented the arms embargo by using Israel as a middle-man. The US would sell arms to Israel, who would in turn sell them to South Africa. Meanwhile, resistance groups such as the ANC and the South African Communist Party relied on weapons from the Soviet Union to resist the apartheid state.