History of South Africa podcast

A series that seeks to tell the story of the South Africa in some depth. Presented by experienced broadcaster/podcaster Des Latham and updated weekly, the episodes will take a listener through the various epochs that have made up the story of South Africa.

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Episode 95 – Sunset for Somerset and Maqoma eyes guns and horses in 1825

We’re going to join one of the biweekly market gatherings held at Fort Willshire in 1825 where amaXhosa, English settlers, trekboers and khoekhoe met to exchange goods. Then we bid Cape Governor Lord Charles Somerset adieu.

The fair that had been established by Sir Rufane Donkin on the banks of the Keiskamma River was flourishing by 1825. Boxes of beads, brass goods, buttons, coils or wire, looking glasses alias spectacles, scissors, cotton textiles, European clothing and shoes, were exchanged for ivory, gum and cattle hides brought by the amaXhosa and khoekhoe.

As the traders travelled to the fair, they would pass elephant that could still be seen roving in the area in great numbers, although the British settlers like the Boers before had taken to shooting these pachyderms down by the dozen so they could also benefit from selling ivory.

The great herds were being shot out of the eastern Cape although they could be found until 1919. That’s when the government passed an extermination order and after the blood letting, elephants could only be found deep in the Knysna forests and in Addo.

The settlers’ mouthpiece publication called the Grahamstown Journal was now publishing, edited by Robert Godlonton, and called for more English expansion into Xhosa country, and the complete subjugation and dispossession of the amaXhosa. They were also railing against a new Ordanance 9 issued by the British, which regulated the right of colonists to open fire on vagrants, trespassers, deserters and escaped convicts spotted on their land. The settlers were now uncertain about what was lawful if they tried to defend their farms – and the trekboers blamed the English – adding to the bitterness they already felt towards these red coated self serving high and mightier imperialists.

Colonel Henry Somerset had served with the Cape Corps as their commander, and fought in the last stage of the Fifth Frontier War, but by 1823 he was installed as CIC of the entire eastern Front. You’ve heard how Governor Charles was facing criticism for his nepotism and spendthrift ways, so we are not surprised by what was going to happen next. The merchants were in his ear, do something, we can’t have these Kosas causing chaos.

Episode 94 – White and black ants in Botswana and Eastern Cape secession

Port Natal and Delagoa Bay are far away from Cape Town and appeared even further in the early 1820s. The Cape Governor was inevitably more concerned with what lay immediately beyond the colonial frontiers than in these distant ports.
Much of what concerned Lord Charles Somerset – and had concerned his predecessors – already lay along the frontiers. The colony had thrown out an ever increasing fringe of loose cannons, skirmishers, traders, trek-boers, escaped slaves, and even rebellious missionaries.
The flood of missionaries turned into a tsunami by the mid-1820s, the London Missionary Society was already at work as you know, and by now they were established along both sides of the Orange River and into the eastern Frontier.
The Moravians had arrived and were carving out new parishers even further east, while the Wesleyans were already amongst the far-distant amaPondo people. The Zulu had been raiding these people from Shaka’s centre of power as you know.
There were a number of Scots from Glasgow who found living amongst the amaXhosa to their liking, and even missionaries from Germany showed up, particularly from Berlin, and they began living amongst the amaXhosa too.
The Rhenish and Paris Evangelicals arrived too, one to work within the colony and the other headed north into Bechuanaland, and then to the Basutho.
The LMS and Paris Evangelicals were moving along the first stage of what became known as the Missionary Road which led all the way from the Cape into Central Africa.
By now the chiefdoms of the Caledon Valley and the open plains north of the Orange River had been squeezed between three expanding zones of instability and conflict.
From the south and south west parties of Griqua, Kora and Boers were raiding for cattle and cheap labour. To the northwest, the rivalries of Batswana chiefdoms were spilling across the Vaal River. To the East, the fighting that had seen the AmaZulu and amaNdwandwe at war, as well as the amaMthethwa, had displaced groups as you’ve heard and some had headed across the Drakensberg.
Then Lord Bathurst the Secretary of State set up an Advisory Council in Cape Town which consisted of the Governor, muttering under his bewigged breath, the Chief Justice, the colonial Secretary, the Officer commanding, the Deputy-Quartermaster-General, the Auditor General and the Treasurer.
The Council was to deal with quite an interesting proposal, and this was allowing the Eastern Cape to be represented by their own council, by some kind of representative assembly. They fired the first round in what was to become a long-sustained but ultimately unsuccessful battle for separation by Eastern Capers.

Episode 93 –Shaka survives an assassination attempt and Farewell gets Port Natal

Shaka met Henry Francis Fynn and Lieutenant Francis George Farewell in August 1824 and the traders were seeking his permission to live and work at Port Natal. Cape Governor Lord Charles Somerset had rejected Farewell’s request he annex the region, so that was the only option left for the traders.

In episode 92 I explained how the amazulu reacted to Fynn and Farewell, how their horses in particular were a shock.

The dress code was also a surprise, although their skin colour seemed less of a surprise. These Englishmen by now had been burnt brown by months in the African sun, so there was not much made of their skin colour by the oral history tellers, they were more interested in what the Europeans were wearing.

And as you heard, Shaka was able to talk to these traders because of the amaXhosa convict Jacot Msimbithi who was translating. The only problem was, he was not very good at his job.

Hlambamanzi as he was known to the Zulu, Swim the Seas, mangled English meaning.

However Shaka immediately grasped a few important facts from Msimbithi as they conversed in isiZulu – which is similar to isiXhosa. Firstly, he knew that the traders carried guns and these weapons would be useful. The visitors were also part of a much broader trading powerhouse, Shaka understood that too.

He had heard of the power of the British and wanted to approach the empire, he was not into going to war against them although from his comments, we know he believed his warriors would defeat British soldiers anyway.

And yet, Shaka quickly realized that using the settlers guns, he could overcome some of the chiefdoms that were still refusing to Khonza him.

He welcomed the traders, conferring on them the title of abakwethu, or people of our house, kinsmen, trusted and close confidents.

Then someone tried to stab Shaka to death with a spear. He survived the assassination attempt.

Farewell rushed to Shaka’s side upon hearing of the incident, along with the master of his sloop the Julia, a man by the name of WH Davis. Somehow, at this point, Farewell managed to convince the Zulu king to grant him a sale of land, which he wrote as “in full possession and perpetuity” for the sole use of Farewell and his heirs.

It was signed by Shaka in a huge scrawl, dated both 7th and 8th of August 1824 – pre-dated in other words and witnessed by Hlambamanzi Msimbithi the translator advisor, Shaka’s uncle Mbikwana and two other high ranking members of his counsel.

But did the document grant Farewell ownership or guardianship?

Episode 92 – The monsters from the sea and a Robben Island convict advises Shaka

As years go, 1824 was one for the history books. Not that the others weren’t, but 1824 is a one of those seminal 12 months in southern Africa history. It was the year that Shaka’s main impi south had a disastrous campaign attempting to subjugate the Mpondo and despite their training and their military prowess, Shaka’s amabutho were not invincible.
But more importantly, it was the year that English traders setup their base in Port Natal and immediately altered the social, military and political landscape.
Shaka was busy in 1824 with both conquest and raiding. His impi’s however, did not do well in what you could call their away games. The further they were from their base which the more defective their logistics. And now Shaka had setup his main base on the Mahlabatini plain north of the uMhlathuze River – along the Mfolozi. Later the’d move south as we’ll hear, but in 1824 it was near modern day Ulundi.
Supply lines for military endeavours are fundamental – Frederick the Great summed it up when he said an army marches on its stomach – or more accurately, he said it marches on its belly. And no it wasn’t Napoleon who said that.
Once a chief was defeated, the amabutho had to remain in the field to quash any further resistance and that meant feeding the men. If Shaka wanted to conquer territories, then he needed a quick decisive battle, and that was his strategic intention. As his warriors ranged further, word got out that if you led them on a bit of a song and dance, they’d give up and go home quite quickly.
He was also eyeing the trade with the outside world as a part of the growth of his power. He knew that Delagoa Bay was somewhat overtraded and too far away to service successfully, furthermore the Portuguese and their allies had tied up their routes inlands already. He could not expand Westwards because the Sotho people were too strong, and to the south, the Mpondo had cut off his access to the Cape.
The Zulu King was acutely aware of the advantage of doing business with the English at the Cape, but accessing them was another matter. He had no ships.
And so this is where we return to last episode, because the ships came to him. The Julia in which Henry Francis Fynn would arrive, the Salisbury of Commander King, and the Antelope under Lieutenant Francis George Farewell.

Episode 91 – An early history of Port Natal and its treacherous sand bar

It’s the steamy coast of south east Africa 1824, Port Natal to be exact.

It’s now called eThekweni from the Zulu word for port itheku, although some say it is actually from the word emateku meaning the one-testicled thing. It of course was not a port during pre-settler times and original and ancient local name for this bay was isiBubulungu – that was what locals called it in 1824 - isiBubulungu means membership.
So I suppose we could call it eThekweni iNatali just for fun.
To further complicate the nomenclature, Port Natal was not a port back in 1824, it was a bay with a swooping sandy beach and a dangerous bar across its entrance that produced huge standing waves.
People have lived near this bay for more than 100 000 years, and the last people before the settlers arrived were pre-Zulu. Then in 1497 Vasco da Gama sailed up the coast from the south and called the whole coastline Natal which means Christmas in Portuguese. That’s because it was the Christmas period as he passed Natal trying to find the most direct route to the spice islands and India.
Sailing back and forth along this part of the coast were traders. By 1824 ships such as the Leven, Barracouta and Cockburn were captained by Captain WFW Owen who had taken to the region. Others were Commodore Nourse, who was commander at Simon’s town and who’d headed off in 1822 in the Andromache to meet Owen.
These were adventurers who wanted to make their names and fortune from this unique part of the world. Nourse’s brother Henry heard of their tales and being well off, decided to sponsor an upcoming business venture to Port Natal.
By March 1823 Owen was back in Delagoa Bay and bumped into a ship called the Sincapore from Calcutta, and the Orange Grove owned by Henry Nourse. Owen’s crew began to die from malaria, and he left after press ganging 12 black crew from the nearby villages. It was a thousand kilometer trip to Port Elizabeth, when Owen met up with two more ships that are to feature in the story of Port Natal.
One was the Jane, the other, the Salisbury. There is an island in Durban harbour which is called Salisbury island and named after this ship. The Salisbury’s captain was James Saunders King, a crucial character in our tale.
These two, Farewell and King, formed a tight pair speculating on possible maritime business. They had bought a 400 ton ship called the Princess Charlotte, then sold it earning a profit. A third character in this part of our story – a man who was to marry into the Zulu clans and whose family now dominate part of KwaZulu Natal, Henry Francis Fynn, pops up. Fynn and Farewell chartered the Salisbury from King, and began to sail between Rio de Janeiro, the West Indies, Mauritius.

Episode 90 – Slaves, Somerset and the SA Commercial Advertiser

This is episode 90 and it is 1823. The small coastal harbour town of Port Elizabeth had been founded but it still had no proper jetties, no lighthouse, nor a breakwater. Passengers were forced to disembark precariously through the angry surf.
The place was described as an “ugly, dirty, ill-scented, ill-built hamlet…”
Resembling some said, the worse fishing villages on the English coast. It also was known as disorderly, drunken and a place of immorality. Further up the coast, two separate towns had been founded on the Kowie River, settlers on the west bank named their little hamlet Port Kowie, and those on the east called their equally small hamlet Port Frances after Governor Lord Charles Somerset’s daughter in law.
These days we call it Port Alfred.
Many settlers who remained in Albany were now trading deep into the interior beyond the boundaries of the colony and legally too. They bartered goods with the amaXhosa, cloth, iron utensils, beads, buttons and copper were exchanged for cattle hides, ivory and gum often at the weekly market held in Grahamstown.
Monitoring all of this were the men of the Cape Regiment, the Khoekhoe or the Cape Mounted Rifles as they became known. Lord Charles wanted his eldest son Henry to take over as OC - nothing like a military command to accelerate your place in life he thought.
As you know, Henry was not the sharpest tool in the Somerset shed and furthermore, he could not be a commander of a regiment without attaining the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and he couldn’t be promoted immediately because Lieutenant colonel Fraser was in charge. However, Fraser was seriously ill and died in October 1823. Henry of course, was appointed commander although without the necessary rank. Nepotism, corruption, poor governance. Take your pick.
By now as you know, Thomas Pringle, that Scots lad who’d been an editor in the UK then travelled to his farm in the Bruintjieshoogte with other Scots, had taken up his appointment at the SA Public Library. A man of letters, Pringle then invited a fellow Scot called John Fairbairn to help found a school to promote English language and literature in South Africa. It was to be known as the Classical and Commercial Academy, a bit like studying towards an MBA but partly in Latin.
They were joined by a Dutch Reformed clergyman and educator called Abraham Faure. By January 1823 that Pringle and Faure applied for permission to publish a monthly periodical and promised to avoid
“the discussion of all controversial or agitating topics…”
Somerset refused the request, then wrote secretly to the Secretary of State Earl of Bathurst, calling Pringle an “arrant dissenter…”
But the need for an independent voice in South Africa was obvious and George Greig who was to launch the SA Commercial Advertiser knew a good business idea when he saw one.

Episode 89 – Shaka’s mojo and the debate about the Mfecane

This is episode 89 and it’s the first years of the 1820s and we are still in Zululand. By now Shaka began concentrating his power in the area around Mahlabatini, to Qulusini, which is the area just north of the White Mfolozi River.
That’s north of the town of Ulundi.
After Zwide of the Ndwandwe was chased away, Shaka began developing a dense cluster of imizi in Mahlabatini under Mmama, Mnkabayi’s twin sister – and the largest of these was oSebeni near Nhlazatshe mountain.
Most were previously Mthethwa homesteads including kwaKandisa, oNyangek kwaGuqu, Mdadasa and Nomdayana.
I mentioned last episode that we need to attend to the various myths about Shaka’s sexuality. Most of the salacious myths are indeed, myths, and I’ll explain why. Some suggest he was gay, others that he couldn’t have sex, he was sexually disabled. We must attend to this part of the story because a whole phalanx of myth-making has developed based on misconceptions.
Most Zulu oral story tellers and written evidence that Shaka had no children. I’m going to explain why. He had an isigodlo of several hundred women, yet never had a child – how come?
This movement of people around Zululand was going to nudge others further afield. I mentioned the concept of the Difaqane or Mfecane last episode. This is a theory about what happened at precisely this time in Southern African history where it’s postulated that Shaka’s immense power and violence led to the scattering of clans and tribes away from his zulu powerhouse which in turn, disrupted other people’s further afield.
That people were now moving more than they had been in preceding decades is uncontestedly true. But it’s disputed and quite virulently about why this happened.
It's known as the Difaqane or Mfecane.

Episode 88 – Somerset’s printing press paranoia and Shaka’s Inkatha power

This is episode 88 it’s the period of 1821/1822 heading into a decade of disaster, drought, despondence and disorder.
As we heard last episode, the 1820 Settlers were suffering the effect of a crops losses and pestilence.
These years would also be characterised by an expanding Zulu empire, and trekboers leaving the Cape once the English emancipation laws took effect, and a general mass movement of people across the sub-continent.
There are many theories about all of this. I’m going to stick to the facts as we know them rather than speculate on any main reason for what became known as the Difakane or Mfecane. There’s a propensity for historians to finger point about this decade, so I’ll explain each supposition as we go.
But enough about esoterics, let’s get on with this episode.
Something had arrived in the Cape as part of the 1820 Settlers fleet that had put the fear of God into Lord Charles Somerset, and he’d immediately banned the object in question.
This of course was a printing press.
Nothing strikes fear in a bureaucrat more than the public’s power to spread their own messages. Ask Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin if they are more afraid of Twitter than an F16 fighter jet and the answer will be She Dah and Dah respectively.
Yes in other words.
Just as an aside, isn’t it interesting that Dah is part of the word yes in both Russian and Mandarin? Makes it easier to agree with each other when they vote on the Security council I suppose.
By 1821 Shaka had subjugated the major group the Qwabe and the Mkhize, and had just sent the Ndwandwe packing – Zwide had fled to the area of modern day Mpumalanga, at the headwaters of the Komati River.
Back in Zululand, or more specifically, the area around the Umhlatuze to the black Mfolozi, and down to the Thugela, Shaka was now the major force in the region. It’s time to focus more specifically on what was going on socially behind this new power.
Shaka had followed the ritual of a new king, and what an amazing process it was. We need to dig deep into this process to fully understood in its complexity to appreciate the fact that it is carried out to this day.
And we hear about the crucial inkatha yezwe yakwa Zulu – a venerated object, a circular grass coil and the most important ritualised object in Zulu tradition.

Episode 87 – San poison, the world in 1821 and an MP “hectic spectacle"

This is episode 87 and it’s time to talk a bit about the terrifying power of San poison and then a quick revisit to the frontier of 1822 which of course is exactly two hundred years ago.

As part of the picture of the past, at times when there’s a bit of a lull in the action so to speak, I’ll concentrate on aspects of historical themes or interesting titbits and today we’re looking into South Africa’s first people and specifically – their deadly poison arrows.

All the way through these episodes, you have heard about how the amaXhosa, the Khoe and the Boers, then the British, exploited or subjugated the San – previously known as the Bushmen.
We have enough DNA evidence to point to the fact that they were not only the first people of South Africa but given their DNA diversity, are the first people of planet earth. But this didn’t stop everyone from trying to either kill them, or co-opt them through the thousands of years that their lives have intersected with the lives of newer folks returning home so to speak.
The San were particularly terrifying because they could manufacture various types of poison for use with their arrows. Based on the results obtained from various artefacts spanning historical, Later and Middle Stone Age phases particularly at sites along the cape coast archaeologists believe poisoned bone arrowheads may have been in use in southern Africa throughout the last 72,000 years.
Its now time move refocus on to what was going on across southern Africa and the world in 1821 as we step back to assess matters.
In the east, Shaka Zulu was starting to flex his imperial muscles as you know while in Cape Town, Lord Charles Somerset was back from his sabbatical and facing the ruin of most 1820 Settlers.
But the newspapers were also obsessing about other matters at the end of 1821.
Napoleon Bonaparte had died of stomach cancer in exile in St Helena. Europe was increasingly unstable as the agreements signed at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 were coming apart.

Episode 86– Somerset vs Donkin and dueling missions

This is episode 86 and we left off with things heating up along the Orange River after hearing about the arrival of the 1820 Settlers and back in Cape Town, there were more moves afoot. Governor Lord Charles Somerset was still on long-leave, on sabbatical if you like, leaving Sir Rufane Donkin in charge as Acting Governor.
Perhaps he’d have been better off taking his holiday in sunny Southern Africa, because there was big trouble brewing for Somerset. There must be something about the Cape, or Cape Town, because he’d been indulging, shock, in corruption and nepotism.
IT had become a favourite sport of the VOC Dutch officials for a couple of centuries, and Somerset while ostensibly reducing corruption, was playing fast and loose with ethics.
Donkin was not Somerset. He was motivated and focused. That’s what happens when you’re a technocrat and you beloved wife has died. Donkin had barely decided to create the new town in Algoa Bay called Port Elizabeth after his departed wife, when he began to organize the colony.
So naturally he peered closely at Somerset’s Cape Town lifestyle – he did what we’d now call a lifestyle audit – feared by contemporary politicians and for good reason – because like with contemporary politicians, Somerset had been a very naughty boy.
Watching these changes with open mouths were the missionaries. They realised that Donkin was a new man, and particularly, the London Missionary Societies Doctor John Philip who recognized the acting governors’ anti-slavery philosophy.
What Philip really wanted, more than the right to head east and try and prothelitise the amaXhosa which Somerset had rejected, but the right to head up the Orange River – or rather to send someone by the name of Robert Moffat up the Orange.
Now folks, there are few names you need to remember in this vast saga of south African history, but this is one you really must remember. Moffat’s effect on the entire sub-continent cannot be underestimated as you’re going to hear. He’s forgotten these days, but after you hear the full story, you’ll probably agree his reach extends across the centuries like a religious bungee chord.

Episode 85– Honey birds, leopards, gardens of cattle and a bloody ochre harvest

This is episode 85 and as we’ve heard, the English settlers have just arrived in the Albany district – the year is 1820.
It had taken three months and now all 5000 new settlers were ensconced on their land. For these settlers, it was an epic of pathetic naiveté and makeshift survival. They would need to adapt or disappear.
It was bewildering to most, they originated from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, survived the landing at Algoa Bay, and then they’d been driven to their farms on the frontier by ox wagon where they were left without so much as a helping hand.
No effort was made to offer advice, and they were forbidden to approach the amaXhosa or Khoekhoe for help. Their sons were going to herd the livestock and till the fields, unlike the Boers who used Khoehoe and mixed race men and women to do their hard work.
This landscape appeared perverse, waterless and yet vegetated. The wildlife was breathtaking, elephants would roam about beside thorn fences hastily erected. Thomas Pringle’s party had arrived at Bruintje’s Hoogte when after a few days, their first lion began to roar at midnight.
The Scots poet and humanitarian Thomas Pringle who was shocked by how the Boers treated their Khoekhoe slaves initially, then seemed to approach the matter of race relations in a more philosophical bent. This is where Miles Bowker, remember the man descended from Elizabeth Bouchier who married Oliver Cromwell, this is where his family began to excel. The Bowkers turned rather rapidly into what some called “a tough lot…” survivors of the first order remoulding themselves into Africans.

Episode 84 – The 1820 Settlers ramble among Algoa Bay shrubbery

Between December 1819 and the first quarter of 1820, 21 ships left England and Ireland bound for the Cape carrying five thousand men, women and children.
The ships docked at Cape Town after weeks at sea to take on food and water, and for officials to come aboard. Settlers were not allowed to leave the ships, which then sailed onwards to anchor in Algoa Bay starting in April 1820. The rest would follow through to the end of July, the mid-winter in South Africa, and not the best time to land a ship on the coast.
You can imagine the immigrants shock as they looked out over the bay from these vessels, because there was nothing in the way of settlements, just bush, and the landscape was alien – at least at first.
The Eastern Cape is a remarkably beautiful area, but its rugged, full of succulants, dry, but when it rains, seemingly covered in vegetation.
Who were these people, these 1820 settlers? The Colonial Office initially had instituted rigid conditions to ensure that those of sound character were shipped out. But these rules were broken almost immediately.
Some were parties under the leadership of men of means and ability as you’ve heard, those who could take indentured servants, labourers and mechanics. The Colonial Office’s original idea of taking only agricultural men and women who’d been dispossessed of their land in Britain was poorly instituted.
IT appeared that many of these farmers were not farmers at all, but artisans, tradesmen and mechanics, who’d changed CVs so to speak, they pretended to be men of the earth when they were really men of settlements. They had grand dreams of paradise, after all the Times and other newspapers had published glowing reports of this new land of milk and honey and would do anything to get out of Britain. Some parishes sought to unload their less productive citizens and falsified their skills on the resumes.
Why did so many people want to escape from England at this time? Basically, it was hell back home. Riots, uprisings, land theft, economic decline, government oppression, it all tore at the fabric of British society and for many of these people escape to South Africa – or virtually anywhere for that matter – was better than staying at home. Ironic then that in the 21st Century, Africans are trying to make the reverse trip.
Times change.

95 episodes

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