Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

The War of the Axe

Meanwhile another enemy had risen against the Boers. While the fight with the natives was still going on, a British officer with a Highland regiment arrived at Durban. He took possession of the town in the name of Queen Victoria, who had just come to the throne. The Boers, however, would not admit that this officer had any right to interfere with them. There was no fighting. The British officer simply told the Boers that they were still British subjects, and they went on acting as an independent nation. At last the British officer and his soldiers sailed away and went back to the Cape. And although the governor there still kept on saying that "Her Majesty could not acknowledge the independence of her own subjects," the Boers were left alone, and they believed that they should always be left alone to rule themselves as they pleased.

So for a time the Boers did rule themselves. But they were for the most part ignorant men. They knew no history, they knew nothing of how other countries were ruled, and got most of their ideas from the Bible. So really there was very little government at all, and most men did as they chose. There was a good deal of quarrelling and jealousy, too, among them.

At last, for various reasons, of which it would take too long to tell, the British Government decided to force the Boers to own themselves British subjects once more. So again an officer and troops were sent to Durban.

When the officer arrived, the Boers told him that he must go, for they were now under the protection of Holland. This was not true, but at the time the Boers really believed that the Dutch would help them against the British. So little did they know of what was going on in Europe that they thought that Holland was still the great state it had been two hundred years before. They could not believe that it had sunk to a small state, and that the King of Holland had no power to help them even if he would.

But the British officer refused to go. "I shall not go, I shall stay," he replied, and fighting began.

At first the Boers had the best of the fighting. But more soldiers were sent from Cape Town. Then many of the farmers, already tired of fighting, went back to their farms. And at last, after a great deal of talking and trouble, the Boers owned themselves once more British subjects. This was in August 1848, nine years after the Great Trek began.

But although they had been forced to own themselves British subjects, many of the Boers were as determined as ever not to live under British rule. They trekked away again, so that by the end of 1848 there were not more than five hundred Boer families in all Natal. In spite of all the suffering that they had endured they were ready to endure as much again, rather than live under a rule they hated. Some went to the part now known as the Transvaal, and some to what is now the Orange River colony.

Meanwhile the British had begun to make treaties with the natives who lived in the country bordering on Cape Colony. By these treaties some of the native chiefs were recognised as kings over great stretches of land to which they had no claim at all. But the British seemed to think that they had some claim, and that by acknowledging them as kings they would be sure of a line of friendly states between Cape Colony and the wilder tribes of the north. It would also, they thought, help to cut off the Boers from trade, and force them to come back to the colony.

One of these chiefs claimed the Orange River district into which some of the Boers had trekked, and new trouble began. For although the British recognised the natives as a free people, living under their own chief, they still looked upon the Boers as British subjects who were now living under a black king, and bound to obey his rule. This made the Boers angry, and they refused to obey these puppet kings, who before the treaties had really been of very little importance and who never could have been powerful without the help of the British.

A quarrel soon arose in which the British sided with the natives. There was a little skirmish (for it could hardly be called a battle) at a place called Zwartkopjies, in which the Boers were beaten. After that, most of the farmers gave in, and swore again to become British subjects. But some still would not take the oath. Rather than do that, they trekked away again to join their fellows in the Transvaal, and for a little time there was peace in that part of the country.

But about this time a new war with the Kaffirs began on the eastern border of Cape Colony. This was called the War of the Axe, because of the way in which it began.

A Kaffir stole an axe, and with some other prisoners he was sent to Grahamstown to be tried. But on the way, Kaffirs swooped down upon the party, killed one of the guards, and carried off the man who had stolen the axe.

The governor then sent to the head of the tribe ordering him to give up the thief and the murderers. But the chief refused. Upon that the governor decided that he must force the chief to obey. The guard who had been killed, although a Hottentot, was a British subject, and the crime had been committed within the borders of the British colony. The chief must be made to see that such things could not be done in British territory. Year by year, too, the raids of the Kaffirs upon the farms of the colonists had been growing worse and worse, for each time that they were left unpunished they grew bolder. The governor hoped to put an end to that too, and so war began.

But at first the war was badly managed. An enormous train of baggage and stores fell into the hands of the Kaffirs. Then they, exulting in their success, poured in swarms into the colony. There, as was their custom, they drove off the cattle, burned the houses and destroyed everything that they could not carry away. But this time the farmers were not unprepared. They gathered together into fortified posts, and few were killed, though many lost all they had, for they were obliged to leave their farms to the mercy of the savages.

On and on over the colony the black hordes swept, leaving a track of ruin and desolation behind them. But against them gathered a far larger army than had ever been seen in South Africa before, both of regular soldiers and of farmers. The great difficulty, however, was not so much finding people to fight as finding means of feeding and clothing them. For there were few roads and no trains at all. It was difficult to carry inland all the food that was needed for a great host when there were only bullock wagons in which to carry it, and at times the army came near being starved.

For nearly two years the war dragged on. Then the Kaffirs grew tired of the fight, and peace was made, but the savages were not by any means subdued.

Sir Harry Smith now became governor of the Cape. He was that Captain Smith who had ridden so far and so fast at the time of the sixth Kaffir war. He soon saw that the British treaties with the black peoples along the borders of Cape Colony had proved worse than useless, and he made up his mind to do away with them.

Part of the land from the eastern boundary of the colony to the sea he proclaimed to be British Kaffraria. This land was not annexed to the Cape, it was, he said, to be kept entirely for the blacks, but it was declared to be under the rule of Queen Victoria, and the governor of Cape Colony was to be the Great Chief, whom all the other chiefs were bound to obey.

Next Sir Harry made a proclamation adding all the land between the Orange and the Vaal rivers to the British dominion. This he called the Orange River Sovereignty, and all the white people living in that part were declared to be British subjects.

But the Boers who lived there resolved not to give up their independence without a struggle. They had suffered a great deal in order to be free, so as soon as Sir Harry went back to the Cape they rose in rebellion, under Andries Pretorius. The British officer who had been left to govern the new Sovereignty could do nothing. He had only a few Hottentot soldiers and about a dozen raw recruits. He gave in at once, and Pretorius and his men marched the British officers out of the country and set them across the river into Cape Colony. But as soon as Sir Harry Smith heard the news he gathered an army and came marching against Pretorius with about eight hundred men.

At a place called Boomplaatz the two armies met and fought. For three hours the battle lasted, both sides fighting bravely, but at length the Boers were beaten. They were not strong enough or united enough to fight longer, so Sir Harry again proclaimed Queen Victoria's rule over the land. Many of the farmers then settled down quietly once more, but others trekked away and joined their comrades across the Vaal beyond British territory. Pretorius was among these. He was made an outlaw with the price of £2000 upon his head. But across the Vaal he lived freely and openly, no one trying to attack or take him prisoner.

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