Cape Colony became an important resupply depot for ships of the Dutch East India Company as they travelled to and from the Spice Islands with their valuable cargoes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Dutch East India Company allowed Protestants from Europe to augment the Dutch colony in order to promote the colony's growth. Consequently there was a large influx of French huguenots to supplement the Dutch Boer farmers.
Over the course of a century and a half, the Boers would slowly encroach upon the lands of tne Khoi and San. In some cases the settlers intermarried with these Khoi and San. The technological gulf was vast between these two civilisations and the Khoi and San were unable to resist the growth of the Cape Colony. Many of them were coerced into labouring for the Dutch. Many disappeared into the harsh deserts to avoid the Dutch. This in turn meant that the Dutch would import other slaves from elsewhere in their empire to fill the labour gap.
The colony spread out from Cape Town. The land immediately adjacent to Cape Town was rich and lush and could support many European agricultural crops. However, the further North and East the Boers travelled, the worse the land would become and the more infrequent the rainfall. In fact, the North would quickly descend into virtually uninhabitable desert. For these reasons, the Boers moved eastwards. They also turned to livestock rather than crops as the marginal land was more suitable for grazing. These farms would need to be huge because of the poor quality land. This meant that the Boers would spread themselves thinly out over a huge area. It also mean that they would come into contact with the far more intimidating Xhosa.
The Xhosa would provide an altogether tougher challenge for the Boers than the Khoi and the San. They were more sophisticated and had stable and strong central authorities. They traded ivory and gold with Arabs and Europeans and so had access to money and wealth. Most importantly of all they had large populations with well defined military structures. The Xhosa were also cattle breeders and so the two groups would compete for livestock and good grazing areas. The Boers created small defence units named Kommandoes to protect themselves whilst the Xhosa had warbands of their own which could raid isolated Boer farms with relative ease. After many skirmishes there was an uneasy frontier agreed along the Fish River.
The British were to enter the equation as a result of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. They occupied the strategically vital port of Cape Town from 1795 as the Netherlands fell to the French army under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte. Reacting to the weakness of the Dutch holdings, a British army under General Sir James Henry Craig set out for Cape Town in order to secure the colony. The governor of Cape Town refused at first to cooperate, but after the British threatened to use force, he capitulated. He did so all the more readily due to the fact that the Khoi and San eagerly deserted their former masters and flocked to the British. They would leave it in 1803 as the result of the general truce negotiated back in Europe.
As that truce collapsed the British moved back into Cape Town in 1806. After a battle in January 1806 on the shores of Table Bay, the Dutch garrison of Cape Castle surrendered to the British under Sir David Baird. The Royal Navy was delighted with anchorage of the port and its strategically important staging route to India was obvious to all British statesmen. So at the end of the war, the British did not intend handing it back to the Dutch. Instead they paid them compensation of 6 million pounds for control of the colony.
Many Boers in the interior were unaware of the significance of the change of government. Being so far removed from Cape Town, they felt free to run their farms and businesses as they saw fit. They were about to find out the British were more efficient administrators than their predecessors had been. They had rules, laws and customs that would conflict with those of the Boers. First amongst these was to be over slavery. London buzzed with reports of the callous treatment of blacks by their Boer owners. In the opinion of General Dundas, the Boers were 'the strongest compound of cruelty, of treachery and cunning.' Magistrates were encouraged to hear complants by blacks. When a Boer farmer refused to appear in court to hear a complant against him there was a revolt which resulted in the hanging of five Boers at Slagter's Nek in 1815. During the hanging, the rope broke sending four of the condemned to the ground. Despite their pleas for mercy, they were picked up and hanged again. These would become some of the first martyrs for the Boers against the British. This clash of cultures would continue for the next century.
While the Boers railed against the new regulations, Xhosa along the Fish River regarded themselves as subject to no one but themselves. The British attempted to secure the eastern frontier by building a fort at Grahamstown in 1812 and then a string of forts along the Fish River. A nearly successful attack on Grahamstown in 1819 led Governor Somerset to expand the frontier eastwards to create a buffer zone beyond the Fish River. The Governor planned to hold this eastern frontier by creating a model farming settlement at Albany which would not use slavery at all. It was assumed that the settlers would automatically be enrolled into a militia to police the frontier. The timing was inauspicious as crops failed for three successive years. The experiment was a failure, although those with sufficient funds to withstand the initial reverses successfully introduced merino sheep and would ultimately make considerable fortunes.
The assault on Boer culture was far from over. In 1827 English replaced Dutch as the official language of the colony. British missionaries were to be given permission to proselytise in place of Dutch missionaries. These missionaries would energetically take up the cause of Africans in cases of any injustice with their Boer masters.
The last straw for many Boers was the abolition of slavery in 1834. Some forty thousand Boer owned slaves would have to be released. Compensation was available for slave owners but the small print specified that this could only be collected from London. The Cape Boers were unable or unwilling to make the trip personally or even to be able to acquire agents to represent them there.
For many Boer farmers this was one indignity too many. Piet Retief handed a document to the Grahamstown Journal in 1837 that read: "We complain of the severe losses which we have been forced to sustain by the emancipation of our slaves... We complain of the unjustifiable odium which has been cast on us by interested and dishonest persons, under the cloak of religion, whose testimony is believed in England..."
Retief led three thousand Boers through the Drakensberg Mountains in what would be known as the Great Trek. Initially they moved into the green fertile land of Natal. A tiny British settlement there was expelled and the Trekkers set up their Republic of Natalia with Pietermartizburg as the capital. The British back in the Cape were less than impressed at this development and claimed that the Cape Colony's jurisdiction and laws applied there too. Most of the Boers reloaded their wagons and headed back over the Drakensberg Mountains but headed further north to the High Veld and to the Orange River - away from the British. This was deep into African territory. Several of the rulers here had treaty relationships with the British and were baffled by the appearance of these Europeans in their midst. They were less impressed by the actions of these Boers who kidnapped their children for use as slaves, stole cattle and destroyed their property. The Cape authorities would feel the repercussions of these movements for many years as the Africans and Boers lived uneasily and with deep suspicion in each other's company.
Not all Boers had left with these Trekkers. Plenty remained behind. Some were resentful at the British but were just unwilling to leave their farms and homesteads. Other Boers simply adapted to life in the colony and got on with their lives. They would remain a large and powerful minority within the colony.
South Africa was one of the few destinations on the African continent that was relatively safe and comfortable for European settlers. It had none of the nasty tropical diseases of the West Coast. It also was out of the Rinderpest zone which meant that unlike most of Central Africa, horses could be used here. Another key factor was its location, many settlers on their way to the Orient or Australia may have been impressed with what they saw at Cape Town and decided to remain and try their luck in this colony. British settlers were attracted to the colony but often found that the best land had already been taken. Some of these moved on to Natal, others would move on to Australia and New Zealand instead. Although the British would gain a majority of the white population in the Cape Colony it would never be so overwhelmingly large as to allow them to ignore the demands and wishes of the Boer there.
The complicated ethnic mix in Southern African made federation a much more difficult proposition than with the other white settler colonies like Canada or Australia. Natal was a similar enough colony with a British majority of white settlers, but the Boer colonies of the Orange Free State and Transvaal made it clear that they wanted little to do with the British - although they did ask for British protection from African tribes on a few occasions. In fact, the large quantity of strong African tribes further complicated any political considerations.
The Cape Colony would expand further North by a diplomatic sleight of hand in the 1860s and 70s. In 1867, diamonds were discovered in Griqualand West on the lower Vaal. The Griqua were a mixed race predominantly African group who had undergone their own treks to avoid European rule in the recent past. The discovery of diamonds brought the interest of the Boers and the British to this valuable land. The Transvaal claimed the land on the basis of the Bloemfontein Convention. The African Griqua declared that they were entitled to British protection, probably regarding them as the lesser of two evils. An independent arbitrator found in favour of the Griqua and against the Transvaal. The British formally annexed the area in 1871, declared it a Crown colony in 1873 and incorporated it into the Cape Colony in 1880. The Boers were understandably annoyed at the British connivance and annexation of the diamond bearing areas.
Large numbers of British soldiers would pass through the Cape Colony en route to the various wars that were fought on the frontiers and beyond. The Sekukuni, the Zulus, the Galekas, the Gaikas and of course with the Boer Republics. The frontier was an extremely volatile place and was costing a lot of money to pacify. The British had actually given the colony self government in 1872 in part to attempt to get the colony to fund itself and its own defence. However, the British taxpayer would still be called upon to pay a lot more yet.
Meanwhile the British had attempted to conciliate the Boers in the colony by giving them the right to operate within the Dutch language. This helped to facilitate the growth of a small but important Boer political grouping known as the Africander Bond. The first British annexation of Transvaal and the first Boer War of 1880/1 had given the Boers a reason to be suspicious of the motives of the British. The Bond was set up to try and create a greater Boer South Africa free from British rule. More powerful in the Orange Free State and Transvaal it still developed a considerable following amongst the Boer population of the Cape Colony. It would also provoke some British settlers to set up their own Empire League in opposition to the goals of the Bond.
The discovery of gold would transform the fortunes of all of South Africa, and not always for the best. The majority of the gold lay inconveniently in the Boer Transvaal colony. The Cape Colony politicians would rue their geological misfortune. The premier of Cape Colony, Cecil Rhodes, would go so far as to try and provoke the Boer Republics to try and find an excuse for annexing them. The so called Jamieson Raid of 1895 that was supposed to spark an uprising against the Boer republic failed miserably and caused the resignation of the Cape Premier.
The failure of Rhodes did not mean that powerful forces were not interested in appropriating these huge gold deposits for themselves. Imperialists like Chamberlain and Alfred Milner would make clear their intentions for adding Transvaal and the Orange Free State to the Empire one way or another. By 1899, the Boer Republics concluded that their best chance at avoiding being annexed by the British was to launch a pre-emptive strike into parts of the Cape Colony, Bechuanaland and Natal.
Their initial successes would bring the full force of the British Empire onto the Boer Republics. However the military defeat of the Republics would only mean that the war would move into a longer drawn out guerilla phase of warfare for the next two years. The human and physical costs would be enormous for all involved. A small localised problem became a huge international embarrassment for the British. The determination and skill of the Boers took all by surprise and forced the British Army to seriously question its tactics and approach to modern warfare.
The ultimate consequence of the war would be the Union of South Africa. Paradoxically, for such a long and difficult war, the British awarded surprisingly liberal terms for their foe with the Treaty of Vereeniging. The British would gain formal control of the two Republics but would give considerable rights to the defeated Boers and committed themselves to rebuilding the Boer Republics. 1910, would see this formalised yet further with the Union of South Africa between the Cape Colony, Natal, Transvaal and the Orange Free State.