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

The Coming of the British

Time went on and many governors followed one after the other. Some were good, and some were bad, and the Cape prospered more or less. But meanwhile Holland sank from its great place among the nations of the world, and the Dutch East India Company became poorer and poorer, getting daily deeper into debt, and nearer and nearer ruin. To pay its debts the Company taxed its colonists more and more heavily, and many of the Cape Boers became very discontented.

Then in the end of the eighteenth century, the French rebelled against their king, and declared their land to be a republic. The shock of the French Revolution, as it was called, was felt by all the countries of Europe, and not only by them, but by their colonies, and many lands wished to follow the example of France.

In Holland two parties arose. One, calling itself the patriot party, wished to make the land a republic like France. The other, called the Orange party, kept true to its ruler, the Prince of Orange. War broke out between the two, Britain helping the Orangeites, and France helping the Patriots. After some fighting the Prince of Orange, finding most of his people against him, fled to England in a fishing-boat. King George III. received him kindly, but Holland meantime became a republic and declared war with Great Britain.

At the Cape, too, people took sides, some declaring for the Prince, and others for the Patriots, while yet a third party of burghers formed themselves into a republic of their own. So the whole Cape was in a great state of confusion.

By this time the British had become very anxious to get possession of the Cape, for they saw what a good half-way house it was to India. They were afraid, too, that the French might seize it, and so strengthen their power in India, and they determined to keep the French out of it at all costs.

So one day ships set sail for the Cape, the commander carrying with him an order from the Prince of Orange to the governor, telling him to allow the British to take possession of the colony. For the Prince believed that the British only meant to take possession of it for him, and give it back when there was peace once more.

But when the ships arrived the governor would not give up the Cape at once. He was an Orangeite, it is true, but the Prince was an exile and wrote from a foreign land, and the governor was afraid to obey him. News travelled slowly in those days, and he did not know what had been happening in Holland. So he tried to put off time, hoping that something would happen before long to show him what was the best thing to do. For some weeks letters passed between the British Commander and the Dutch Governor, but nothing came of it, and although the governor talked very grandly about the duty of defending the colony against the enemy, he really did nothing.

The burghers and farmers, however, gathered to arms, for most of them were Patriots, and wanted to resist the British who came in the name of the Prince. But they were not united, as some wished to be ruled neither by British nor Dutch, but to be a free republic. They did not trust their leaders either, and there was a great deal of confusion.

At last the British soldiers were landed, and after a very little fighting the governor consented to give up the colony. Many of the Dutch cursed him as a traitor, and said that he had sold his country, but with flags flying and drums beating the Dutch soldiers marched out of Cape Town castle to lay down their arms, and give themselves up as prisoners of war.

Thus on 16th September 1795 Cape Colony became a British possession, and the rule of the Dutch East India Company, which had lasted less than a hundred and fifty years, came to an end for ever.

But although the rule of the Dutch was at an end, and the colony in the hands of the British, many of the burghers were very unwilling to yield to their new rulers. The new British Governor tried hard, however, to make the colonists pleased with the change. He did away with all the petty rules and restrictions of the Company. "Every man may buy from whom he will," he proclaimed, "sell to whom he will, and come and go whenever and wherever he chooses. From this day forward there is free trade and a free market for all." No new taxes were imposed, and where it was possible the old ones were made lighter. So, finding that they were really better off, most of the colonists took the oath to be faithful to King George.

Only in a district called Graff Reinet the people would not yield. Here the colonists pulled down the Union Jack, and declared that they would never consent to be ruled by the British. But after a time, when they found themselves cut off from other people, when they found that they could only get guns and ammunition, and all the other things that they required, through the British, they yielded too, and took the oath to the King.

But at home the rulers of the new Dutch Republic were not inclined meekly to allow the rich colony to slip away from them without a struggle, and so nine Dutch ships sailed one day into Saldanha Bay. But the British admiral had heard of their coming, and a strong British fleet shut them in on the sea side, while a British army threatened them from the shore.

The Dutch were caught as in a trap. They could neither go back nor forward. Resistance was useless, and they gave in without a shot being fired on either side.

A great many of the soldiers whom the Dutch had brought with them were Germans who had been taken prisoner by the French, and forced to fight for Holland. They did not at all mind changing sides, and soon hundreds of them were wearing British uniforms ready to fight for the very men they had been sent out to fight against.

But now that the British had secured possession of the Cape, the Prince of Orange discovered that they had no intention of handing it back to him. They kept it for themselves, and Lord Macartney, an old Irishman, was sent out as governor.

Lord Macartney was a good ruler but very severe. He put an end to free trade, which made people angry. But they had to be careful how they talked, for if they so much as said that they liked the French or the Dutch, they might find themselves clapped into prison or fined a large sum of money.

After him came another governor, during whose rule nothing very important happened. There were troubles with the natives and with the colonists, but in spite of them the colony grew in wealth and greatness. It was not for long, however, as when at last peace was made in Europe by the Treaty of Amiens, the Cape was given back to the Dutch.

So one day the governor made a proclamation setting people free from the oath that they had taken to King George, and on Sunday evening the 20th February 1803, as the sun set, the Union Jack was hauled down. When the sentries were changed, Dutch soldiers once more took the place of British redcoats, and when the sun rose next morning the Dutch flag was hoisted. The Cape once more belonged to Holland, and all the British officers and soldiers went home. The Dutch, rejoicing greatly that their country had been given back to them, held a day of thanksgiving. In the churches there were services of joy, and afterwards the new Dutch Governor was set in his place with solemn ceremony.

But although the Cape again belonged to Holland, the Dutch East India Company with its petty tyranny was gone for ever. The colony was now under the direct rule of Holland, and the colonists were well pleased with the change. Hardly three months, however, had passed, before the nations of Europe were once more at war. Then the Dutch Governor, well knowing that the British would again try to take the Cape, gathered all the soldiers and ammunition he could.

But for three years nothing happened. The Cape was left in peace, for the British had enough to do fighting at home. Then one day, almost without being noticed, a British squadron set sail, and turned southwards. And while Napoleon was marching triumphantly over Europe, while the fleets of France and Spain were being shattered in Trafalgar Bay, the little squadron still sailed on southwards, and at last, one January morning in 1806, anchored in Table Bay.

Guns were fired, beacons were lit, and from hill to hill the message flashed, calling the Dutch to fight for their country. Leaving half his men to guard Cape Town, the governor marched with the other half to meet the enemy. His army was a mixed one. In it were Dutch and French and German soldiers, Boers and Hottentots, and slaves from Java. And with such an army he had to fight a well-trained British force of twice the number.

The two armies met on the plains of Blueberg, some miles north of Cape Town, in the cool, fresh, early morning. The battle was not long. From the very beginning there had been little doubt of how it would go, for many on the Dutch side were not fighting for their country. They were merely paid to fight, and when they saw the great force against them they fled. They were not paid to die. The burghers, indeed, stood their ground for a time. But when a regiment of Highlanders, uttering their fierce war-cry, charged upon them with fixed bayonets glittering in the sunshine, they too gave way, and, fleeing from the field, sought shelter in the hills.

In a few hours the contest was over, and the Cape once again became a British possession. Once more the Union Jack was hoisted, once more the burghers took the oath to be faithful to King George, and a British Governor ruled the land.

Then a few years later, after Waterloo had been fought, and the wars of Napoleon were at an end, the great powers of Europe acknowledged British rule in South Africa. And Britain for this and for some other lands, paid six million pounds to the Prince of Orange, who had returned to Holland as its ruler. Thus the Cape became a British possession by right of conquest and by right of purchase. But, although the rulers had changed, the people remained Dutch. Except in Cape Town there were few English-speaking people in the land, and the Boers did not willingly settle down under British rule. The British Governor had no easy time, for there were troubles with the Boers, troubles with the natives, and sometimes troubles between the natives and the Dutch.

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