South African History

Read 358 times

A condensed chronological narrative of the events that defined the


Author: Michael David Leicester


Scientists researching the periods before written historical records have established that the territory of what is now referred to generically as South Africa was one of the most important centres of human evolution. It was inhabited by Australopithecines since at least 2.5 million years ago, and modern human settlement occurred around 125,000 years ago in the Middle Stone Age. The first human habitation is associated with a DNA group originating in a north-western area of southern Africa and which is still prevalent in the indigenous Khoisan (Khoikhoi and San).

Professor Raymond Dart discovered the skull of the 2.5-million-year-old Taung Child in 1924, the first example of Australopithecus africanus ever found. Following in Dart's footsteps, Robert Broom discovered a new and much more robust hominid in 1938 (Paranthropus robustus,) at Kromdraai, and in 1947 he uncovered several more examples of Australopithecus africanus at Sterkfontein. In the Blombos cave in 2002, stones were discovered engraved with grid or cross-hatch patterns, dated to some 70,000 years ago. This has been interpreted as the earliest example ever discovered of abstract or symbolic art created by Homo sapiens.

Homo Naledi

Many more species of early hominid have come to light in recent decades. The oldest is “Little Foot”, a collection of footbones of an unknown hominid between 2.2 and 3.3 million years old, discovered at Sterkfontein by Ronald J. Clarke. An important recent find was that of the 1.9-million-year-old Australopithecus sediba, discovered in 2008. In 2015, the discovery near Johannesburg of a previously unknown species of early man was announced, named Homo naledi. It has been described as one of the most important paleontological discoveries in modern times.

San and Khoikhoi People 

San People

Archaeological evidence shows that South Africa was part of a large region, including North and East Africa, in which modern humans first evolved and lived. Hundreds of thousands of generations of Stone Age hunter-gatherers populated the South African landscape for nearly two million years, yet for all of that time little is known of their names, languages, memories, beliefs, wars or alliances.

About 2,300 years ago, hunter-gatherers called the San acquired domestic stock in what is now modern-day Botswana. Their population grew and spread throughout the Western half of South Africa. They were the first pastoralists in the country, and called themselves the Khoikhoi (or Khoe), which means “men of men”. The Khoikhoi brought a new way of life to South Africa and to the San, who were hunter-gatherers as opposed to herders.

Rock art is evidence of the historical widespread distribution of the San people, as paintings and engravings can still be found in almost every district in South Africa. There is no comprehensive list of all of the sites and many have not been recorded, but it is estimated that there are at least 20,000 to 30,000 sites and more than one million individual images. Some of them are not well preserved, but collectively they represent a remarkable record of the beliefs and cultural practices of the people that created them. Eventual encroachment into their hunting areas by migrating black tribes and later by white settlers resulted in a protracted genocide, and the San were driven into remote and previously uninhabited regions of the country, or forcibly assimilated into other cultures.

The Khoikhoi were the first native people to come into contact with Dutch settlers in the mid-17th century. Unfortunately for them, land disputes and livestock theft resulted in a series of conflicts that largely destroyed their way of life, and diseases such as smallpox, brought into the country by visiting sailors and against which they had no natural resistance or indigenous medicines, decimated the population.

Bantu People

Colourful Venda culture

The Bantu expansion was one of the major demographic movements in human prehistory, sweeping through much of the African continent during the 1st and 2nd millennia BC. Bantu-speaking communities reached southern Africa from the Congo basin by the early centuries AD. The advancing Bantu encroached on Khoisan territory, forcing the original inhabitants of the region to move to more arid areas. Some of the migrant groups, ancestral to today's Nguni peoples (Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi, and Ndebele), preferred to live near the eastern coast of South Africa. Others, now known as the Sotho–Tswana peoples (Tswana, Pedi, and Sotho), settled in the interior on a plateau known as the Highveld, while today's Venda, Lemba, and Tsonga peoples made their homes in the north-eastern areas of the country.

Mapungubwe, which was located near the northern border at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers, adjacent to present-day Zimbabwe and Botswana, was the first indigenous kingdom in southern Africa. It existed between AD 900 and 1300, and developed into the largest kingdom in the sub-continent before it was abandoned due to climatic changes. Smiths created objects of iron, copper and gold both for local decorative use and for foreign trade. The kingdom traded through various east African ports to Arabia, India and China, increasing its wealth through the exchange of gold and ivory for other valuable imports.

Specifics of the contact between Bantu-speakers and the indigenous Khoisan ethnic group remain largely unknown, although linguistic proof of some assimilation exists, as several southern Bantu languages (notably Xhosa and Zulu) incorporate many click consonants of the Khoisan languages. The assimilation is not dissimilar to that of the European settlers, who adapted and incorporated the Dutch, Flemish, German and Malay languages into the present-day language of Afrikaans.

Early Portuguese Explorers

Vasco da Gama

A Portuguese mariner named Bartolomeu Dias became the first European to explore the coastline of South Africa in 1488, whilst attempting to discover a trade route to the Far East via the southern cape of Africa, which he named Cabo das Tormentas (meaning “Cape of Storms”). Dias's expedition reached its furthest point on 12 March 1488 when they anchored at Kwaaihoek, near the mouth of the Boesmans River. He wanted to continue his voyage, but was forced to abandon when his crew refused to go any further and the rest of his officers unanimously favoured returning to Portugal.

In November 1497, a fleet of Portuguese ships under the command of Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope. On 16 December, the fleet sailed past the point where Dias had earlier turned back. Da Gama gave the name “Natal” to the coast he was passing, which in Portuguese means “Christmas”. His fleet proceeded northwards to Zanzibar and later sailed eastwards, eventually reaching India and thereby opening up a new trade route between Europe and Asia. Da Gama returned to Lisbon on 29 August 1499, where he was given a hero’s welcome.

Da Gama's discovery of the sea route to India was significant and opened the way for an age of global imperialism and for the Portuguese to establish a long-lasting colonial empire in Asia. Traveling the ocean route allowed the Portuguese to avoid sailing across the highly disputed Mediterranean and traversing the dangerous Arabian Peninsula. The sum of the distances covered in the outward and return voyages made this expedition the longest ocean voyage ever made up to that time, much further than a full voyage around the world by way of the Equator.

Dutch Colonisation

Van Riebeeck landing at the Cape (painting by Charles Bell)

 The Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC) decided to establish a permanent settlement at the Cape. The VOC originally had no intention of colonising the area, instead wanting only to establish a secure base where passing ships could shelter and be serviced, and where hungry sailors could stock up on fresh supplies. To this end, a small VOC expedition under the command of Jan van Riebeeck reached Table Bay on 6 April 1652.

The VOC had settled at the Cape in order to supply their ships, but the local Khoikhoi eventually stopped trading with the Dutch, and the VOC had to import farmers from their home country to establish smallholdings that would replenish the passing ships and support the growing settlement. The small initial group of free burghers, as these farmers were known, steadily increased in number, and they began to expand their farms further to the north and east.

The majority of burghers had Dutch ancestry and belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church, but there were also some Germans, mostly of the Lutheran faith. In 1688, the Dutch and Germans were joined by French Huguenots, who were Calvinist Protestants fleeing religious persecution in France under its Catholic ruler, King Louis XIV.

Van Riebeeck was under strict instructions not to enslave the local Khoikhoi and San aboriginals, so the VOC began to import large numbers of slaves, primarily from the Dutch colonies in Indonesia. The offspring from miscegenation between the settlers and the Khoisan and Malay slaves became known officially as the Cape Coloureds and the Cape Malays respectively.

British Occupation of the Cape Colony

 1820 Settlers arriving in Port Elizabeth

In 1787, shortly before the French Revolution, a faction within the politics of the Dutch Republic known as the Patriot Party attempted to overthrow the regime of William V, also known as the Prince of Orange. Although the revolt was crushed, it was resurrected after the French invasion of the Netherlands in 1794 and 1795, which resulted in the prince fleeing the country. The Patriot revolutionaries then proclaimed the Batavian Republic, which was closely allied to revolutionary France. In response, the prince, who had taken up residence in England, issued the Kew Letters, ordering colonial governors to surrender to the British. The British then seized the Cape in 1795 to prevent it from falling into French hands. The Cape was relinquished back to the Dutch in 1803, but in 1806 the British again inherited the Cape as a prize during the Napoleonic Wars. 

Like the Dutch before them, the British initially had little interest in the Cape Colony, other than as a strategically-located port. The Cape Articles of Capitulation of 1806 allowed the colony to retain all of its rights and privileges, and this launched South Africa on a divergent course from the rest of the British Empire. 

British sovereignty of the area was recognised at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the Dutch accepting a payment of 6 million pounds for the colony. As one of their first tasks, the British outlawed the use of the Dutch language, with a view to converting the European settlers to the British language and culture. 

In 1820, the British authorities persuaded about 5,000 middle-class British immigrants (most of them “in trade”) to leave Great Britain with the promise of free farms in South Africa. They were settled in the region around modern-day Port Elizabeth and East London, creating a buffer zone between the existing farmers in the Cape Colony and the marauding black tribes which were sweeping down from the north. Even in modern times, this area is still referred to as “the Border”.


Shaka: Zulu Militarism and Expansion

Modern-day Zulu warriors re-enacting a battle

Sigidi kaSenzangakhona was born in July 1787, the illegitimate son of the chief of a small clan called the Zulus. When the elders of the tribe discovered that his mother was pregnant, his parents tried to deny it, and claimed that her bloated belly was a symptom of iShaka, an intestinal and parasitic beetle. This is how the boy acquired the nickname by which he would later become so famous.

When he was six years old, Shaka and his mother were exiled from his father’s kraal and they later joined a different tribe, the Mthethwa. In his late teens, Shaka was assigned to an amabutho, a military regiment of young men based on age group. During this time, he caught the attention of the premier chieftain, Dingiswayo. Shaka displayed great valour, skill, and strength, and an impressed Dingiswayo became his mentor.

After the young warrior had led his troops to victory in a number of skirmishes, Dingiswayo made Shaka his commander-in-chief, and helped to organize a reconciliation between Shaka and his estranged father. But as he was illegitimate, Shaka had no valid claim to succession. After his father died in 1816, he killed his half-brother Sigujana and took over as chief of the Zulus. At this stage, his army consisted of just 1,500 warriors.

Inter-tribal battles at this time consisted of a show of strength with very little bloodshed. The opposing forces would line up in two long lines facing one another just more than a spear-throw apart. They would begin by hurling insults, then warriors from either side would run forward and throw a spear at their opponents. Many could be warded off with a shield or dodged. If one side received more casualties than the other, this would be seen as a sign that it was not a very auspicious day and they would usually retreat, with the resolve to seek a return engagement on a more favourable occasion.

But Shaka set about to revolutionise traditional weaponry and tactics, with far more deadly intentions. Rather than using long assegais that were thrown at an enemy, Shaka adapted the spear into a close-quarters weapon with a short, thick handle and a massive blade known as the iklwa, so called because of the sound it made when it was thrust and pulled out of an enemy’s body. Shaka also introduced a larger, heavier version of the Nguni shield, and he taught his warriors how to use the shield's left side to hook an enemy's shield to the right, exposing his ribs for a fatal spear stab. Instead of all-out frontal charges, Shaka developed the famous “bull horn" attack formation, composed of three elements; the “chest”, a main frontal force normally comprised of senior veterans; the “horns”, which would flank the enemy from both sides and encircle them; and the “loins”, a reserve force hidden behind the “chest”.

Shaka imposed a rigorous system of discipline on his troops, and drilled them without mercy. He organised various grades into regiments, and quartered them in special military kraals, with each regiment having its own distinctive name and insignia. He forced them to practice his encirclement tactics, and to undertake marches that sometimes covered more than 50 miles a day in a fast trot over hot, rocky terrain, usually without any footwear. Any warriors that could not keep up or that objected were killed.

In 1818, Shaka began a massive programme to expand his kingdom. He used various methods, including forging alliances, negotiation, diplomatic pressure, patronage and reward, but if none of these was successful, he killed, enslaved or assimilated any tribes that resisted his forces. As more and more tribes and territories became incorporated into Shaka's empire, others moved away to be out of the range of his impis, becoming in turn aggressors against their neighbours. The ripple effect caused by these mass migrations would become known as the Mfecane (“the crushing”).

Within ten years, the Zulu nation had ballooned to a total of about 250,000 people covering a vast territory, and the warrior king ruled over his lands with an iron fist. He could assemble more than 50,000 warriors at any given time, and he would ruthlessly crush any uprising or resistance amongst his subjects. Shaka was known for his cruelty, and it is estimated that he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, although this figure is sometimes hotly disputed.

As there were only a few white hunters and traders living in his kingdom during this period, Shaka never came into conflict with any of them. Indeed, he accorded them favoured treatment, ceded them land, and permitted them to build a settlement at Port Natal. He was curious about their technological developments, was anxious to learn more about European military methods, and he was especially interested in the culture that they represented. Moreover, he was alert to the advantages that their trade might bring.

Shaka was an undisputed ruler and a cruel tyrant, but he had always maintained very close ties with his mother, Nandi. When she died from dysentery in October 1827, he proclaimed a period of national mourning which would last for 12 months. He ordered that no crops should be planted during the following year, no milk should be consumed, and that any woman who became pregnant was to be killed along with her husband. At least 7,000 people that were deemed to be insufficiently grief-stricken were executed. The killing was not restricted to humans; even some of his cows were slaughtered so that their calves would know what it was like to lose a mother.

On 24 September 1828, Shaka was assassinated by his half-brothers Dingane and Mhlangana. His corpse was dumped in an empty grain pit, which was then filled with stones and mud. The exact location of his final resting place is unknown, although a monument was built at one alleged site.

Much of the legend and mystique around the figure of Shaka has been garnered from African oral history and praise poetry, and from the few written accounts of his interactions with European settlers. There is some dispute amongst modern scholars as to the veracity of the stories, but there is no doubt that he was a both a brilliant military tactician and a brutal despot. Despite his violent methodology, Shaka created a large and powerful nation that would forever leave its mark on the history of South Africa.

The Great Trek

The Great Trek - Painting by Red Skelton

The rural descendants of the Cape’s original European Settlers, now known collectively as “Boers”, became increasingly unhappy with the British administration during the 1820s and 1830s. The replacement of Dutch with English as the language used in the Cape's judicial and political systems put the Boers at a disadvantage, as most spoke little or no English. Great Britain's alienation of the Boers was also particularly amplified by their decision to abolish slavery in all of its colonies in 1834. 

Bridling at what they considered an unwarranted intrusion into their way of life, some of the Boer community began to consider selling their farms and venturing deep into South Africa's unmapped interior to pre-empt further disputes and live completely independently of British rule. Others were frustrated by the apparent unwillingness or inability of the British government to extend the borders of the Cape Colony eastward and to provide them with access to more prime pastures and economic opportunities. They resolved to trek beyond the colony's borders on their own. 

On 8 September 1834, an exploratory expedition was sent out to reconnoitre routes and to establish treaties with the black tribes that they would encounter along the way. They arrived in Port Natal (now Durban) in February 1835, exhausted after their long journey. They were welcomed with open arms by the few hunters, traders and missionaries that had settled there. After some rest and replenishment, they departed Port Natal in early June 1835, and followed more or less the same route back to the Cape, arriving in Grahamstown in October 1835. Feedback meetings and talks took place in the main church to much approval, and the first sparks of Trek Fever began to take hold. 

Calling themselves the “Voortrekkers” (literally meaning “early migrants”, but better translated as “pioneers” or “pathfinders”), six large groups left the Cape Colony between January 1836 and April 1837. There was no clear consensus amongst the Trekkers on where they were going to settle, but they all had the goal of settling near an outlet to the sea. Initially all of the groups moved north, to an area between the Orange and Vaal rivers (the present-day Free State province) but after this they split up into three main directions; north-west, north, and east. 

The Voortrekkers faced incredible hardships, including the mountainous terrain, wild animals, and diseases such as sleeping sickness and malaria. But it was conflict with the local black tribes that was to cause the most damage. Despite pre-existing peace agreements, the Voortrekkers were hounded and attacked, first by the Ndebele and later by the Zulus, whose intent was either to steal cattle or to protect tribal lands, or both. Despite superior weapons and tactics, sheer weight of numbers often resulted in heavy losses on the Boer side, and sometimes even in complete annihilation of the trekking parties. 

One of the biggest and the most famous of these battles was the Battle of Blood River, which took place on 16 December 1838. A Trekker scouting party brought news of a gathering of Zulu forces, so Voortrekker leader Andries Pretorius formed his wagon train up into a fortified laager next to the Ncome River. There were 468 Boers, 3 Britons, and about 60 black helpers in the group. 

During the night of 15 December, six Zulu regiments with an estimated 15,000 soldiers crossed the Ncome River and started massing around the encampment. The battle started at dawn on the 16th, and for two hours the laager was stormed by successive waves of warriors, the Boers managing to successfully repel each attack. Pretorius then ordered a group of horsemen to leave the encampment and engage the Zulus in order to disintegrate their formations. The Zulus withstood the charge for some time, but rapid losses led them to scatter, and the Trekkers pursued their fleeing enemies for another three hours. 

The Zulus lost an estimated 3,000 warriors in the battle. Amazingly, none of the Voortrekkers had been killed and only three had been wounded, including Pretorius himself. 

Before the battle, the Voortrekkers had taken a vow that, if victorious, they would observe the date forever afterwards as a Sabbath. The 16th of December is still a public holiday in South Africa; prior to 1994, it was known as the “Day of the Covenant”, and after that as the “Day of Reconciliation”. 

By early 1840 the Great Trek had largely ended, although another smaller migration would take place after the British annexation of Natal in 1843. Altogether about 12,000 persons had taken part, about one fifth of the Cape Colony’s population at the time. The event was a defining moment in South Africa’s history, as it opened up the interior of the country, changed the dynamics and distribution of the black tribes, and led directly to the founding of several autonomous Boer republics. 


British Annexation of Natal

Durban in modern times

The British had established a trading post at Port Natal (now Durban) in 1824, and in that same year they signed a treaty with Shaka ceding them Port Natal and about 50 miles (80 km) of coastline to a depth of 100 miles (160 km) inland. They made little attempt to develop the interior, which continued to be decimated by the Zulus during the mfecane period.

The British settlement at Port Natal did grow, however, and in 1835 Captain A.F. Gardiner secured from Dingaan (who had succeeded Shaka as the Zulu chief) a treaty ceding the southern half of Natal to the British. The apparently empty interior was entered in October 1837 by the Voortrekkers. They crossed the passes of the northern Drakensberg Mountains under the leadership of Piet Retief and others. Retief obtained from Dingaan the promise of nearly all of Natal if he recovered some stolen cattle for the Zulu leader. Retief’s promptness in this task so alarmed Dingaan that he had Retief and more than 60 of his followers massacred in February 1838. After the Battle of Blood River, Dingaan was replaced by his brother Mpande, who made concessions to the Boers and established himself north of the Tugela in a vassal state known as Zululand.

The Afrikaners established the Republic of Natalia with its capital at Pietermaritzburg and its northern border at the Tugela River. The new Boer republic was soon unsettled by an influx of indigenous tribes returning to Natal to repopulate the lands they had abandoned to the Zulus. The British, moreover, opposed the establishment of any independent state on the coast of southern Africa, and annexed Natal in 1843 after a few minor skirmishes. In response, many of the former republic’s Afrikaner inhabitants left for the Transvaal and the Orange Free State and were replaced by new immigrants, mainly from Britain. Natal was given a local administration but remained basically an adjunct of the Cape Colony until 1856, when it was made a crown colony and given its own legislative council.

Establishment of the Boer Republics


After the demise of the short-lived Republic of Natalia and the British annexation of Natal, many of the Boer families living in the region trekked back over the Drakensberg Mountains to join up with the Voortrekker communities that had established themselves in the central and northern parts of the country.

The scattered Trekker groups had started to form what they called “Republics”, but in essence these usually consisted of an established town (e.g. Winburg, Potchefstroom, Lydenburg and Utrecht) and its surrounding area. At least 10 of these republics were established in the period from 1836 to 1854. As alliances evolved and boundaries changed due to ongoing wars or treaties with the indigenous peoples, these communities started to band together, eventually ending up with two main groups; those to the north of the Vaal River as well as the eastern part of the highveld plateau, and the group located between the Orange and Vaal Rivers in the central region of the country.

The British, at this stage, had no interest whatsoever in these developments. As far as they were concerned, they controlled the Cape, Natal, and virtually the entire coastline of the country, and the Boers were welcome to the hot, dry and apparently worthless interior. Besides, they had enough problems with the Xhosa on their eastern frontier and the Zulus in Natal. They agreed to recognise Boer independence, and the South African Republic (Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek, usually known as the ZAR) was officially established on 17 January 1852 with the signing of the Sand River Convention. The Republic of the Orange Free State (Oranje-Vrijstaat) followed two years later, on 23 February 1854.

Nongqawuse: The Dead Will Arise

Nongqawuse on the right

A series of battles historically known as the Frontier Wars started in 1779, during which the Xhosa tribe and the Boer and British settlers clashed intermittently for nearly a hundred years. This was largely due to farming expansion along the eastern frontier of the Cape Colony. The wars would continue right up until 1878, but a sequence of unfortunate events occurred in 1856 and 1857 which would have a dramatic effect on the Xhosa nation, changing their fortunes forever.

In April 1856, a 15-year-old girl named Nongqawuse was sent to scare birds from her uncle's crops in his fields near the mouth of the Gxara River in the Wild Coast region of South Africa. When she returned, Nongqawuse told her uncle and guardian Mhlakaza, a Xhosa spiritualist, that she had met the spirits of two of her ancestors.

She claimed that the spirits had told her that the Xhosa people should destroy all of their crops and kill all of their cattle. In return, she said, their dead ancestors would arise and help the Xhosa to sweep the British settlers into the sea. Their granaries would be replenished, and their kraals would be filled with healthier and more beautiful cattle.

Somehow the Xhosa chiefs and leaders believed her and became convinced that her prophecy would be fulfilled. In the eight days leading up to 18 February 1857, the date of the predicted apocalypse, most of the tribe slaughtered their cattle and burned their crops. It is estimated that between 300,000 and 400,000 cattle were killed.

The prophecy never did transpire, and the resulting famine decimated the Xhosa population, reducing their numbers from 105,000 to 27,000 over the next few years, a decrease of about 75%. Nongqawuse blamed the failure of her prophecy on a small minority of the nation that had refused to obey her instructions, but the people turned against her and she fled to live with a white family near Alexandria. She died in 1898.

Discovery of Diamonds

The history of diamond mining in South Africa began in early 1867 on the land of a poor Boer farmer, Daniel Jacobs, near the small isolated settlement of Hopetown on the Orange River. Jacob’s son, Erasmus, collected some pretty stones, including a shiny pebble, along the south bank of the river that he and other children wanted to use in games. His mother noticed it and showed it to a neighbouring farmer, Schalk van Niekerk, who was so intrigued by its appearance that he offered to buy it. The woman laughed at this idea and gave the pebble to him.

The farmer thought it might have some value and showed it to several individuals in Hopetown and nearby Colesberg, but found little interest. The civil commissioner in Colesberg, Lorenzo Boyes, examined the pebble and discovered that it could scratch glass. He then sent it to Dr. William Guybon Atherstone, a physician and amateur geologist residing in Grahamstown who, based on its physical properties, pronounced it a diamond weighing 21.25 carats.

This surprise discovery prompted Boer farmers along the rivers to look more carefully for “blink klippe” (bright stones). As news of the initial diamond discovery spread, small parties of prospectors rushed into the region to search for similar gems. Over the following months, additional diamonds continued to be found, and by 1869 the river diggings had yielded hundreds of diamonds (including the discovery of the 83.5 carat diamond known as the “Star of South Africa”). Much of the scientific effort during this time was directed toward finding the host rock in which the diamonds had originally formed.

In 1870 diamonds were being found in some abundance on the Bultfontein farm, 20 miles south-east of the river diggings, in what came to be called the “dry diggings” (later recognized as diamonds occurring in the upper weathered and decomposed sections of a volcanic pipe). These events started a rush of thousands of people of all backgrounds and from a number of countries to lay claim to sections of land to prospect for diamonds over a large area. Within two decades, many rich deposits were found that would later become the famous diamond mines of South Africa.

The 1st Gold Rush: MacMac and Pilgrim’s Rest

 Pilgrim's Rest in modern times

A number of insignificant gold deposits were discovered in the northern parts of the South Africa between 1840 and 1870. But the first gold rush in the country took place in 1873, when payable gold was discovered on the farm Geelhoutboom near Sabie. President T.F. Burgers, when he visited the site, officially named the area the New Caledonian Gold Fields, but jokingly referred to it as “MacMac”, because many of the miners had Scottish surnames. The name has stuck until the present day.

One of the diggers, Alec “Wheelbarrow” Patterson, left the crowded MacMac diggings and went off on his own to explore new territory. He had earned his nickname when he arrived at the diggings pushing a wheelbarrow with all of his belongings in it. He had gotten rid of his donkey after it kicked him, and had decided that a wheelbarrow was a less painful mode of transport. He had pushed it all the way from Cape Town – a distance of about 1,000 miles.

“Wheelbarrow” Patterson struck it rich in a small stream a few kilometres away from MacMac, later named Pilgrim’s Creek. He was a solitary man and did not share his find with anybody, but soon afterwards another digger named William Trafford also found gold in the same stream, and registered his claim with the Gold Commissioner in MacMac.

This sparked off the biggest gold rush of the time, and on 22 September 1873, Pilgrim’s Rest was officially proclaimed a gold field. By January 1874, some 1,500 diggers were working about 4,000 claims in and around Pilgrim’s Creek. By 1876 most of the tents had been replaced with more permanent structures (usually made from timber and corrugated iron) and various businesses began to trade, supplying the diggers with the necessary equipment and provisions.

Most of the gold in the area was alluvial gold – gold dust recovered by washing the gravel from the beds and banks of the streams. But there were nuggets too, lumps of solid gold occasionally found under or wedged against boulders. The largest of these was the “Breda” nugget, which weighed in at 214 ounces (more than 6 kg), but legends of nuggets weighing as much as 11 kilograms were told around the campfires.

The Anglo-Zulu War

Battle of Isandlwana (Painting by Charles Edwin)

After finally defeating the Xhosa in a series of frontier wars which had lasted for 99 years (1779–1878), the British now turned their attention towards the Zulus in Natal. Sir Henry Bartle Frere, the High Commissioner, on his own initiative and without the approval of the British government, decided to instigate a war with Cetshwayo, the Zulu king at the time. He did this by issuing a long list of demands, knowing full well that his terms would be completely unacceptable. When Cetshwayo refused to respond to his ultimatum, Bartle ordered an invasion of Zululand. 

The campaign had a disastrous beginning. Three columns of British troops under the overall command of Lord Chelmsford crossed the Buffalo River into Zululand on 11 January 1879, and by 22 January the centre column was encamped near Isandlwana. Chelmsford was lured eastward, with much of his centre column, by a Zulu diversionary force, whilst the main Zulu army of about 20,000 warriors attacked his camp. The ensuing battle became a massacre; the British camp was annihilated, with heavy casualties as well as the loss of all its supplies, ammunition and transport. Of the 1,700-plus force of British troops and African auxiliaries, about 1,300 were killed. The defeat left Chelmsford with no choice but to hastily retreat out of Zululand. 

After a few more battles and skirmishes, and some British successes at Kambula, Gingindlovu and Eshowe, Chelmsford started to prepare for a second invasion. He had a pressing reason to proceed with haste; Sir Garnet Wolseley was being sent to replace him, and he wanted to inflict a decisive defeat on Cetshwayo's forces before then. Chelmsford reorganised his forces and again advanced into Zululand in June 1879, this time with extreme caution. 

Cetshwayo, understanding that the newly-reinforced British would be formidable opponents, attempted to negotiate a peace treaty. Chelmsford was not open to negotiations, and he proceeded to the royal kraal of Ulundi, intending to crush the main Zulu army. On 4 July 1879, the armies clashed at the Battle of Ulundi and Cetshwayo's forces were comprehensively defeated, thus ending the war.

The 1st Anglo-Boer War

Battle of Majuba Hill

Having originally discounted the interior of South Africa as worthless, the British became increasingly perturbed by the discovery of diamonds near Kimberley and the early gold strikes in the Eastern Transvaal. Even though they had recognised the independence of the Boer Republics in 1852 and 1854, they now arrogantly decided to rescind their decision. 

On 12 April 1877 a proclamation of annexation was read out in Church Square in Pretoria, the capital of the ZAR. Although highly incensed by this, the ZAR Volksraad (government) initially decided on a path of passive resistance, and sent a number of delegations to London to argue their case, but to no avail. The UK government insisted that the ZAR remain under British authority. 

Realising that they had no other option, the Boers began to prepare for active conflict. They surreptitiously surrounded the six British garrisons that had been established in the territory after the Anglo-Zulu War, then waited for an excuse to start hostilities. 

This came when a farmer named Pieter Bezuidenhout refused to pay extra fees on his wagon, saying that he had already paid his taxes. The British authorities then confiscated the wagon and his oxen. On 11 November 1880, a commando of 100 men under General Piet Cronje took back his goods from the British bailiff and returned them to Bezuidenhout. 

Following this event, between 8,000 and 10,000 Boers gathered at Paardekraal, near Krugersdorp. A triumvirate of leaders was appointed, and on 13 December 1880 they proclaimed the restoration of the ZAR. Three days later they raised their flag at Heidelberg, thus rejecting British dominion and precipitating a war.

The fiercely independent Boers had no regular army; when danger threatened, all of the men in a district would form into loose groups called commandos and would elect their own officers. Being civilian militia, each man wore whatever he wished, usually everyday dark-grey, neutral-coloured, or earth-tone khaki farming clothes such as a jacket, trousers and a slouch hat. Each man brought his own weapon, usually a hunting rifle, and his own horse. The average Boer soldier had spent almost all of his working life in the saddle and was both a skilled hunter and an expert marksman. Boer commandos could also live off the land, negating the need for supply lines. 

British infantry uniforms at that time consisted of red jackets, black trousers with red piping on the side, white pith helmets and pipeclayed equipment, all of which formed a stark contrast to the African landscape. This made them highly visible, and enabled Boer troops to snipe at them from long range. British military tactics emphasized the traditional values of command, discipline, formation and synchronized firepower. The average British soldier was not trained to be a marksman and had received very little target practice. 

On 16 December 1880, the Boers laid siege to the British garrisons, cutting off all supply lines and effectively removing these troops from the hostilities. The first battle of the war took place on 20 December near Bronkhorstspruit, when an Irish unit marching to relieve the siege of Pretoria was halted by a Boer commando. The Boer leader, Piet Joubert, ordered the column to turn back, but the British refused; the Boers opened fire and most of the British soldiers were killed. The battle took just 15 minutes. 

With all of the British troops in the Transvaal under siege or defeated, the Boers concentrated their forces on the south-eastern border with Natal, where the remnants of the British army were located. Over a period of just 29 days, three major battles took place. The first of these was the Battle of Lang’s Nek, on 28 January 1881, during which the British were heavily defeated. The second battle (the Battle of Schuinshoogte) took place on 8 February 1881, again resulting in an almost complete annihilation of the imperial forces. 

On 26 February 1881, the British commander, Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley, led a night march of his troops to the top of Majuba Hill, which overlooked the main Boer position. Early the next morning, the Boers saw the British occupying the summit and started to ascend the mountain. Exhausted from their climb the night before and unprepared for this assault, the British soldiers offered little resistance and the battle turned into a rout. Colley himself was shot and killed almost immediately, as were many of his officers; the rest of the troops suffered heavy losses, some of the casualties occurring by men falling to their deaths off the mountain. The Boers suffered only one killed and five wounded. 

The British government realised that any further action would require substantial troop reinforcements, and that a continuance of the war would be costly, messy and protracted. They requested a truce which was granted on 6 March 1881, subsequently followed by a peace treaty on 23 March. The British surrender and the Boer right to self-government was officially ratified on 3 August 1881 with the signature of the Pretoria Convention. 

The 1st Anglo-Boer War was the first conflict since the American War of Independence in which Britain had been decisively defeated and forced to sign a peace treaty under unfavourable terms. It would also be the last time that the British would sport their famous “Redcoats”, and the final occasion on which a British regiment would carry its official regimental colours into battle.

Next week: The 2nd Gold Rush - Barberton 


Subscribe to our Newsletter

Sign up to receive our weekly newsletter with News and Updates from Mountain Passes South Africa

Subscribe to our Site

Subscribe for only R300 a year (or R210 for 6 months), and get full access to our website including the videos, the full text of all mountain passes articles, fact-file, interactive map, directions and route files.



Mountain Passes South Africa

Mountain Passes South Africa is a website dedicated to the research, documentation, photographing and filming of the mountain passes of South Africa.

Passes are classified according to provinces and feature a text description, Fact File including GPS data, a fully interactive dual-view map and a narrated YouTube video.

Master Orientation Map

Master Orientation Map We are as passionate about maps as we are about mountain passes. A good map is a thing of beauty that can transport you into the mists of time or get your sense of adventure churning. It is a place to make discoveries about deserts and seas, mountains and lakes; of roads leading into places you have not been before; a place to pore over holiday destinations or weekend camping trips. A map is your window to the world.

View Master Orientation Map...