This article is the text of a talk given by Mr A. L. Harington, MA, to the S.A. Military History Society in June 1973. Mr Harington, a senior lecturer in the Department of History at the University of South Africa, is presently engaged in research on ‘Sir Harry Smith and South Africa, 1834-1852’, which is the subject of his thesis for a Ph.D. degree.
Writing history is an art, the essence of which lies in knowing what to leave out. In the case of Sir Harry Smith, Henry George Wakelyn Smith or, as his juniors sometimes called him behind his back, Sir Hurry Wackalong Smite, this is particularly necessary and peculiarly difficult — necessary, because his career was so long, difficult because it is so interesting. None the less he has been pretty well forgotten, despite having received the full treatment in accordance with that old South African tradition whereby all manner of public facilities and institutions are named after persons in positions of, generally mercifully, temporary political prominence. Indeed it was the frequent repetition of the question, ‘Who was Lady Smith?’ during the famous siege in the South African War of 1899-1902, that inspired G. C. Moore-Smith, a Cambridge scholar, to publish his great-uncle’s autobiography.
Two courses suggest themselves to anyone writing about Harry Smith for readers interested in general military history: to give an outline of his whole career or to deal with one or more incidents in some detail. I have chosen to give a sketch of his life, with special attention to the part he spent in South Africa. Such a procedure is known as ‘falling between two stools’.
Harry Smith was a Rifleman, a member of the 95th Regiment, later the Rifle Brigade, who wore dark green jackets, not the traditional scarlet. ‘When he joined it, it was still very new, but it was already renowned and was soon to be famous.
The regiment had no privates. Only ‘Riflemen’ were
fit to wear
‘the black and the green,
the finest colours that ever were seen’,
and they marched at a quickpace, which, it is recorded, made the ordinary line regiment look slow and clumsy. Their peculiar bayonets, which resembled and were called ‘swords’, and their ‘standing to their fronts’ rather than coming to attention also served to distinguish them from mere ‘red soldiers’, as, rather more importantly, did their being armed with rifles, not muskets, and their high standard of marksmanship.
When I visited their headquarters, the Peninsular Barracks, at Winchester, I was surprised to find that Smith was not held in especially high regard. It was an elderly retired N.C.O., in charge of the regimental museum and archives, who gave me a clue to this puzzle. Speaking as though the man had died in 1960 rather than 1860, he remarked, deprecatingly, ‘I don’t think all that much of Sir Harry Smith; he was a bit of a “pusher”’. Thinking over that remark has given me a better understanding of Smith. Britain is still class-conscious, but late eighteenth and early nineteenth century England was class-conscious to a degree that egalitarian colonials like ourselves find hard to comprehend. Though it was not a caste society — ascent from a lower to a higher class was possible — it was, on the whole, best to be born at the top.
Harry Smith was not; he was born in a modest house in the village of Whittlesea, in the county of Cambridgeshire, in 1787. He was one of a family of eleven and his father was a surgeon. He was therefore of no account whatsoever socially. In late eighteenth century England the greater aristocracy regarded themselves as immeasurably superior to mere physicians, surgeons, lawyers and clergymen. Under exceptional circumstances the clergyman might be admitted to the nobleman’s table; the others would be expected to eat in the steward’s or housekeeper’s rooms.
Not only did Smith’s plebeian background render him practically ineligible for a commission in one of the most famous regiments, his father could not have afforded to buy it for him, still less to maintain him in proper style. It was sheer luck that in 1805, aged 17, and a member of the humble Whittlesea Troop of Yeomanry Cavalry, he caught the eye of Brigadier-General Sir William Stewart, one of the two founders of the then ‘experimental Corps of Riflemen’. Impressed by the boy’s eagerness, Stewart offered to make him a second lieutenant, ‘. . . a Rifleman, a green jacket, and very smart’. It was the 18th August 1805 and a highly successful military career had begun.
Smith first saw action in January, 1807, when a force,
including the Rifle Brigade, was landed near the mouth
of the Plate River and succeeded in capturing the town of
Montevideo, then in the possession of Napoleon’s ally,
Spain. A rather costly victory was followed, in July 1807,
by an attack on Buenos Aires, which ended in the defeat,
destruction and capture of a large part of the invading
force, including Smith who only returned to England in
December, 1807. He had learned Spanish and his fluent
knowledge of it was to be most useful in Spain where he
served, first, under Sir John Moore, from October 1808
to January 1809, in the campaign which ended in the
evacuation of the British Army at Corunna after a retreat
which gave as much cause for genuine pride as many a
victory. In July 1809 he was landed in the army of Sir
Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington), and
served throughout the long and desperately-fought
campaign which only came to an end after the battle of
Toulouse, in April, 1814, and the fall of the Emperor.
Smith distinguished himself in numerous major and minor
engagements and was present at the capture of Badajos
(6 April, 1812), where the British succeeded in breaking
into the heavily fortified town after some of the most
ferocious fighting of the entire Napoleonic war and after
suffering the most fearful losses. The assault began at
10 p.m. By midnight Wellington was on the point of
ordering a withdrawal when the news came that a foothold
had been gained and, by 5 a.m., the attackers were
masters of the town. As the last resistance died away so all
discipline evaporated. Mad with excitement and triumph,
the troops broke into the wine cellars and, within minutes,
an army had become a frenzied, drunken, murderous
mob. For two days and nights they looted and burned,
raped and killed. ‘The atrocities’, Harry Smith said later,
‘committed by our soldiers on the poor innocent and
defenceless inhabitants of the city, no words suffice to
depict.’ It was during this deplorable affair that two
Spanish noblewomen requested the protection of two
British officers. Apart from having had their ear-rings
ripped out of their ears, they were then, though terrified,
still comparatively unharmed. That fortunate state of
affairs could hardly have lasted much longer, especially as
the younger, a mere child of fourteen, was, as one of those
officers later wrote:
‘A being more transcendingly lovely (than I had ever) before seen . . . to look at her was to love her; and I did love her, but I never told my love, and in the meantime another and more impudent fellow stepped in and won her.’
‘I confess,’ Harry Smith remarks in his autobiography, ‘myself to be the “more impudent fellow”.’ Doubtless he found his command of Spanish an advantage, though he implies that his triumph was due to his masculine charm alone. Nevertheless there must have been something about the dashing young soldier, for two weeks later Juanita de los Dolores de Leon became Juanita Smith and, in so doing, abandoned home, family, friends, country and church, no easy thing for a Spanish girl in the opening years of the nineteenth century, or for any girl, at any time.
In May, 1814 Smith was appointed assistant adjutant-general to the force sent to carry on the war against the United States the war of 1812. The army landed in Chesapeake Bay on 19 August, and on the 24th fought in the battle of Bladensburg where, in his own words, ‘. . . we licked the Yankees and took all their guns and we entered Washington for the barbarous purpose of destroying the city’. Smith had no objection, naturally, to the demolition of military installations but was horrified by the order ‘to burn the elegant Houses of Parliament and the President’s house’, and admits that the behaviour of the British army could be compared with that of ‘the Red Savages of the woods’. The ostensible reason for this behaviour was that with Washington eliminated New York City might, temporarily at least, have become the capital of the United States, which would have been to Britain’s advantage, for the north-eastern states were reputed to be opposed to the continuation of the conflict. Petty vindictiveness on the part of British politicians, who still resented the very existence of the United States, was probably quite as important a cause. Smith next accompanied Sir Edward Pakenham’s force, sent to seize New Orleans. On 8th January, 1815 Pakenham was killed and the attack beaten off with heavy losses by an American army under General Andrew Jackson. As Assistant Adjutant-General, Brevet Major Smith was sent to negotiate a two days’ truce, so as to bury the dead and succour the wounded. He had some difficulty but found Jackson ‘very courteous’. Rather than risk another attack on New Orleans and the near certainty of another defeat, it was instead decided to attack Mobile, about one hundred miles to the east. Before this could be done the news arrived that peace had been concluded at Ghent, on 24 December, 1814, about seven weeks before.
Smith was back in England in time to take part, as General Lambert’s Brigade-Major, in the battle of Waterloo, on 18 June, 1815. Juanita accompanied him as far as Antwerp where she remained waiting, while the battle was fought and won. On 20th June she was at Brussels where she met ‘some of our Rifle soldiers’ who told her that Brigade-Major Smith had been killed. Griefstricken and despairing, Juanita made for Waterloo itself where she was eventually found, as she later described it, on ‘the awful field of Sunday’s carnage, in mad search of Enrique’. She was rescued by a mutual friend who was able to explain that it was Brigade-Major Smyth, not Smith, who had been killed. Presumably her Spanish ear had betrayed her or her informants had themselves been mistaken. ‘Enrique’ was alive and well and his services were now rewarded with the Waterloo Medal, in addition to the Peninsular Medal, a Companionship of the Bath and promotion to Lieutenant-Colonel. His reputation as a soldier had been made, but his chances of further promotion were much diminished now that peace had returned. This is why, after further service in Ireland, Nova Scotia and Jamaica, he was still a Lieutenant-Colonel when he was appointed deputy quartermaster-general at the Cape of Good Hope, in July, 1828.
Smith was by then not only well-known for his exploits, but also for his excitable nature, appalling temper and unfortunate habit of ferocious swearing. The temper and the swearing were, of course, aspects of his excitable, impetuous nature, but I am certain that they were partly the product of nervous strain, caused by his having made his own way by his own efforts, in a milieu where birth meant more than ability. I am sure that he would never have been as successful as he was, had it not been for his tremendous self-confidence which characteristic is very apparent in his autobiography and in his letters and despatches. As far as soldiering and administration went no one could do better, in Harry Smith’s opinion, than Harry Smith himself. What is more he seems to have been quite certain that most, if not all the people whom he encountered, shared this opinion. He was perfectly satisfied that his own countrymen — especially his soldiers — and later in South Africa, the Boers, the Hottentots, the Xhosa, all these, his ‘children’, as he was inclined to regard and call them — admired and liked him. Together with this self-confidence and doubtless related to it, went a well-nigh invincible optimism which helped him to face all, and overcome many, of life’s setbacks. As far as Harry Smith was concerned the situation was almost always good and under perfect control, for which he would not hesitate to take credit, although he was also generous — too much so, if anything — in his praise of others. When, in the midst of ruin and confusion, it became obvious that things had gone very wrong he remained seemingly certain that he would soon have them right again. Self-confidence and optimism are assets up to a point, but Smith’s were such that his judgement seems to have been warped by them. In the Eastern Cape Frontier War of 1850-53, unwillingness or inability to see and describe things as they really were was his undoing, for his unfailingly cheerful despatches aroused false hopes in Whitehall, expectations which, when unfulfilled, contributed to his recall by an exasperated and disappointed Cabinet.
Like many successful military leaders Smith played to the gallery. He was constantly acting a part in order to inspire his men, impress potential or actual enemies and draw attention to himself. Some of his behaviour is reminiscent of his illustrious contemporary, Napoleon, and also of some modern soldiers like Patton, MacArthur and Montgomery. Much of it was so eccentric that it only succeeded in making him look ridiculous.
The Smiths had a fast passage to the Cape where they arrived in October, 1828, after a mere eleven weeks at sea. Harry soon settled into the rather humdrum garrison routine, relieved only by shooting expeditions inland and by breakneck riding to hounds across the Cape Flats. The little Rondebosch cottage, ‘Charley’s (sic) Hope’, where he and Juanita lived, still stands in a sadly battered condition in the grounds of Rustenburg Girls’ High School. This tranquil colonial existence had lasted for six years when, in the last week of 1834, the news arrived that the uneasy peace on the Cape’s eastern frontier, the Fish River, had been abruptly shattered on Xmas Eve when some 12 000 Xhosa warriors burst across it, carrying fire and destruction, murder, ruin and despair deep into the Colony, on a front extending from the Amatola and Winterberg mountains to the sea. Hundreds of farms had been devastated, thousands of cattle driven off and dozens of Europeans and Hottentots killed, while resistance had been confined to small pockets, such as Grahamstown and its immediate environs, Bathurst (temporarily) and fortified posts, such as Fort Beaufort. To enter into a consideration of the nature and roots of this conflict is irrelevant. It has been said that in South African history the more things change the more they are the same. The same applies to the history of opinion concerning South African affairs. Though the dominant trend varies, there have always been some who are unable to conceive of a black man’s being in the wrong, while there have always been others who see the white man’s presence as a civilizing mission which he conducts out of a sense of altruism at considerable expense and trouble to himself. The truth lies between these extremes. Suffice it to say that both groups wanted more land and that each could only obtain it at the expense of the other.
Smith took a simpler view still. As far as he was concerned civilized people had been treacherously attacked by a horde of savages who would have to be punished and sent back to wherever they belonged. Further, he would have at least to begin the process, for the Governor, Sir Benjamin D’Urban, had ordered him to the east, granting him whatever civil and military powers he might need to organize the defence, pending D’Urban’s own arrival on the frontier. That was likely to be some time, for despite a good military record and reputation, he was a painfully slow and cautious man. He offered Smith the use of a naval sloop which, with luck, would have got him from Simonstown to Algoa Bay in ten days, but his impatient subordinate decided, correctly as it turned out, that it would be quicker to ride. The distance from Cape Town to Grahamstown was rather less than 600 miles but it was a formidable undertaking for a man in his mid-forties, even when he had the advantage, as did Smith, of regular relays of post-horses. It would indeed have been a formidable undertaking for anyone, for there was no real road, only the roughest of rough tracks which often lost themselves in the bush, and there being no bridges, the numerous rivers had to be forded or swum.
Smith, accompanied by a single Hottentot, set out from Charley’s Hope at approximately 4.30 a.m. on 1 January, 1835. He had spent the previous two days in frenzied activity despatching stores and military reinforcements, both by sea and wagon, and had actually been in conference at Government House in Cape Town until 12.30 a.m. As he made his way up Sir Lowry’s Pass, ‘the heat raging like a furnace’, he admits, in his autobiography, to being ‘half-tired’. However by 3.00 p.m. he had reached the home of ‘Field-Cornet Leroze’ (sic), twenty-five miles beyond Caledon, and the end of his first stage.
Five days later and six from Cape Town, he entered Grahamstown in justifiable triumph. He had plunged through rivers, penetrated forests, ascended and descended mountains and forcibly relieved a Boer farmer of his horse when his own had foundered. Nor was that all. Among the perils of the journey, and not least among them, were numerous well-meant but unwelcome ceremonial dinners which he was obliged to attend, before retiring to dictate the gigantic despatches characteristic of the times until all hours of several nights. Through it all he had, while in the saddle, averaged no less than fourteen miles per hour, ‘on Dutch horses living in the fields without a grain of corn’.
Smith was not much impressed by his first encounter with the gallant Settlers of 1820. In fact he had a job not to burst out laughing, so absurd did they appear to him, festooned with muskets, pistols, hatchets and old swords, cowering behind the barricades which crossed the streets at every corner. As far as they were concerned a Xhosa lurked behind every bush around the town and he was quite sure that any alarm in the night would set them all firing at each other. Later he became more sympathetic, when he had acquired a better knowledge of the situation of the people concerned and of the nature of the experience — all the more horrible for being entirely novel — through which they had just passed. In the meanwhile he formed the opinion that the sooner they acquired a rather more offensive spirit and realised that safety lay in taking the initiative, not in sheltering behind barricades, the better. So he ordered the removal of the defences and made some sharp remarks about Englishmen being afraid of a lot of black fellows armed with nothing more formidable than knives tied to the ends of sticks. While hardly fair to the settlers his assessment rather accurately described the Xhosa and explains why they were defeated with comparative ease. During January, 1835, regular reinforcements arrived from the Cape and the burgher commandos of the eastern districts were called out and organized. Smith himself undertook the training of two battalions of Hottentots from among, what he called ‘the loose vagabonds’ of Grahamstown and its surroundings.
The subsequent campaign was little more than a series of scuffles in the bush, with nothing resembling a pitched battle. Consequently the Xhosa did not suffer anything like the casualties that, for example, the Zulus did at Blood River, a little more than three years later.
D’Urban’s objective was the complete ejection of the Xhosa beyond the Kei, and on 30 April, 1835 Hintsa, their paramount chief, whom the Europeans wrongly saddled with the ultimate responsibility for a war which had cost the Colony 22 colonists and about 80 Hottentots murdered; 456 houses burnt down and some 5 700 horses, 115 000 cattle and 162 000 sheep stolen, was induced to conclude a peace. He was to ‘order’ his ‘subordinates’, sub-chiefs such as Maqoma and Tyali, to cease resisting and to withdraw beyond the Kei, a stipulation which betrayed ignorance of the Xhosa socio-political system. On 10 May, 1835, D’Urban extended the Cape frontier to the Kei, by proclamation. The larger part of the newly acquired and, it was fondly believed, conquered territory, between the Keiskamma and the Kei, was to be ‘The Province of Queen Adelaide’, with its capital at King William’s Town, on the Buffalo, where the Reverend John Brownlee’s mission station had stood. D’Urban left for Cape Town in June, leaving Smith in charge of the new province and with the immediate task of completing the expulsion of the Xhosa. By the end of August 1835 it had become obvious that this was probably impossible and, on 17 September, 1835, Smith concluded a rather more realistic peace with the tribes, though not with Hintsa who had been murdered by a settler, George Southey. (Though not himself actually implicated Smith helped to present this incident in the best possible light at the subsequent inquiry.) The new treaty, recognizing the impossibility of driving the tribes across the Kei, made British subjects of them and provided that they should be confined to reserves where, it was hoped, they could be taught the elements of civilization and the more barbaric of their customs and superstitions obliterated. The remainder of the territory, known to us today as the Ciskei, was to go to white settlers, especially the areas around the forts or military posts which had been built during the war. This settlement is a landmark in South African history; it was the first time that African tribes had been taken under direct European rule and, as such, it represents a considerable initial step in that long process which was to make complete territorial racial segregation a vain hope.
Smith made as good a job of administering the new territory as was possible. He was probably the first white official to see the need for some form of codification of African law; as things were he relied on martial law and common sense. Fortunately, perhaps, he did not have this difficult task for long. By October, 1836 the Queen Adelaide territory had been abandoned, the British government having decided that the Xhosa had been provoked and that basically they had been in the right. It was this decision and the attitude it revealed that helped to set the Great Trek in motion.
Smith returned to Cape Town and resumed his former duties. He was naturally disappointed but his promotion to Colonel in January, 1837 must have been some consolation. In June 1840 he left the Colony for India where he had been appointed adjutant-general to Her Majesty’s forces. He and his wife returned to England in April, 1847, eighteen years after they had sailed for the Cape. He was by then famous; his services in two campaigns, and five major battles, including that of Aliwal on 28 January, 1846, where he was in command, and which he conducted in a manner that won the unstinted praise of Wellington himself, had brought him a knighthood, a baronetcy, the award of the Grand Cross of the Bath, the formal thanks of both Houses of Parliament, of Wellington, (as Commander-in-Chief), the freedom of the cities of London and Glasgow and, in 1847, the honorary degree of LL.D. from the University of Cambridge where the students, (whose views appear to have differed from their latter-day successors), cheered the imperial conqueror hysterically. Smith and Juanita were not in England long. Yet another frontier war had been raging in the eastern Cape, since 1846, and Smith produced a memorandum on how to deal with such a situation. This so impressed Wellington that Smith was appointed Governor and Commander-in-Chief, Cape of Good Hope, and sent to apply his principles. Whitehall, Cape Town and Grahamstown, temporarily in accord, felt that there could hardly have been a more suitable choice. In this they were mistaken, as Smith himself had been in his assessment of the situation in the eastern colony, while Wellington, as his later comments were to show, was entirely ignorant of its true nature.
Sir Harry governed the Cape from 1 December, 1847 to 31 March, 1852. During his term of office, he was involved in disputes or clashes with the Boers beyond the Orange, the white colonists (English and Dutch) of the Cape, especially the western province, and with the Xhosa tribes beyond the Keiskamma. The unfortunate, and not entirely deserved, effect was that his reputation was severely damaged.
It is probable that Sir Harry’s Indian triumphs, the lionizing to which he had been subjected in Britain and the awareness that his own merits and energy had carried him from obscurity to fame went to his head, so that the very qualities which had helped his ascent were now to lead him into disastrous errors of judgement, both of men and of situations. Thus his self-confidence and optimism contributed as much to his fall as they had to his success. Be this as it may, his outward behaviour had become extremely and sometimes offensively eccentric. He and Lady Smith had hardly arrived in Cape Town to a tumultuous welcome than he departed on a journey which was to take him first to the eastern frontier, where the last embers of the war of 1846-1847 were on the point of extinction, and then to the Trans-Orangian highveld and Natal, where the relations between Boers, Africans, Griquas and British positively demanded attention. Arriving by ship at Port Elizabeth, Sir Harry made a very foolish mistake when he publicly humiliated the Xhosa chief, Maqoma, who was made to crouch before him. Placing his booted foot upon the chief’s neck, the Governor said, ‘This is to teach you that I am come hither to teach Kafirland that I am chief and master here, and this is the way I shall treat the enemies of the Queen of England.’ Subsequent events indicate that the effect of this arrogance was the opposite to that intended. Pausing in Grahamstown for a tumultuous welcome, Smith made for the former site of King William’s Town which he ordered to be rebuilt. There, on 23 December, 1847, he again annexed what had been the Queen Adelaide Territory, this time calling it British Kaffraria, and invited the assembled chiefs to signify their choice of war or peace by touching either a sergeant’s baton which he called ‘the staff of war’, or a pole with a brass top (apparently a brass doorknob), ‘the staff of peace’. Naturally they chose peace after which, sitting on his horse, he gave them a sharp lecture, consisting mainly of threats and promises. Next they had to kiss the toe of his riding boot, in token of submission. He then dismounted, shook hands with them, called them ‘his children’ and dismissed them with a gift of cattle to feast upon. This ceremony also failed to have the desired effect. Smith did not realise that to be primitive is not necessarily to be humble, stupid or childish. Two weeks later, on 7 January, 1848, he summoned the chiefs to yet another great meeting where, in order to make it quite clear that their independence was no more and that the system of treaties which had regulated their relations with the Colony since late 1836 had come to an end, he tore a piece of paper to shreds before them and, strewing the pieces to the wind exclaimed, ‘There go the treaties. Do you hear? No more treaties.’ He also showed what would happen to them if they did not keep the peace, by having a wagon loaded with powder blown to fragments.
Leaving the Xhosa of British Kaffraria to learn something of the arts of peace and civilization under disgruntled chiefs who had been divested of most of their power and privileges, Smith made for Pietermaritzburg by way of Bloemfontein and Winburg. Throughout the vast area of the Trans-Orangia (roughly the modern Orange Free State plus Lesotho) and Natal (then a struggling British colony between the Umzimkulu, the Drakensberg and the Tugela) relations between Europeans, especially the Boers many of whom had left the Cape on the Great Trek, and Africans, especially the Zulus and Basuto, and Griquas or Coloureds, had reached the stage where Smith decided that British rule was required. On 3 February, 1848 he accordingly annexed the Trans-Orangia as the Orange River Sovereignty, in the full confidence that ‘his children’, this time meaning the Boers, the people most capable of serious resistance, would accept. Some did while others, notably Andries Pretorius, the renowned Voortrekker leader who was convinced that Smith would not take action until he, Pretorius, had sounded opinion among the Boers north and south of the Vaal, were outraged. By 1 March, 1848, Smith was back in Cape Town, having left a garrison of fifty or sixty Cape Mounted Riflemen to protect the reluctant empire’s most recent acquisition. Meanwhile Pretorius came south, gathering support, some of it enthusiastic, some of it less so, until he entered Bloemfontein at the head of an apparently strong commando, on 17 July, 1848.
Smith’s reaction was predictable. The day that the news of the invasion reached Cape Town (22 July, 1848) he issued a reward of £1 000 for the apprehension of Pretorius, and sent orders for two companies of the Rifle Brigade, two of the 45th Regiment and two of the 91st, together with two squadrons of the Cape Mounted Rifles and three guns, to march from Grahamstown to Colesberg where he himself arrived on 9th August, after an extremely rapid journey, having been only eleven and a half days on the road, an average of six miles per hour.
By the 20th August the entire force, some 1 200 men with three guns, 117 wagons and supplies for thirty days, had assembled at Botha’s Drift for the crossing of the Orange River. The stream, estimated to be some 240 yards wide, was flowing strongly and would have been a serious obstacle, had Sir Harry not brought one of the newly invented caoutchouc (unvulcanized rubber) pontoons which greatly expedited matters. Within six days they were all across and the column started its march on Winburg, the centre of republican sentiment, on the 27th August. At midday on the 29th they were approaching the farm Boomplaas, the position of which was roughly marked by a low range of koppies. An undetermined number of Boers was known to be somewhere in the immediate vicinity but Sir Harry, riding at the head of the column, was so confident that they would never dream of attempting to shoot him that he had deliberately put on the white trousers and blue jacket he had worn when interviewing Pretorius in Natal seven months before. He must have been the most surprised man present when the slopes of the hills ahead were seen to be lined with Boers who began shooting almost at once. A fierce little battle followed. The essence of the story is that Smith, himself under fairly heavy fire, although only struck once by a spent bullet on the heel of his boot, managed to get his guns into action, which must have disconcerted the Boers, totally unused as they were to such treatment. At the same time he sent the 45th Regiment and the Rifle Brigade forward on his right to turn the Boers’ left flank. This they succeeded in doing; the Boers retreated and, after two brave attempts at making a stand each of which was frustrated by the artillery, they made off across the plain to the north, as fast as their horses could take them. Fortunately for them Smith had no cavalry for pursuit. He would certainly have used it, for his fighting spirit was thoroughly aroused, but it was probably wounded self-esteem that led to his shooting his solitary Boer prisoner, one Dreyer, who was found guilty of rebellion, on arrival in Bloemfontemn. A deserter from the 45th Regiment suffered the same fate, equally undeserved. On the 7th September the column reached its objective, Winburg, then a village of three houses and a few huts, and there the Sovereignty was again proclaimed to a 21-gun salute. Having thus re-established Britain’s shaky authority north of the Orange, Smith returned to Cape Town which he reached on 21st October.
Although his force suffered more severe casualties than the Boers, Smith’s easy victory contrasts markedly with less impressive performances by his successors fifty years after. The difference can, however, be explained fairly easily. Just as after Majuba, the Boers had an exaggerated contempt for the military prowess of British soldiers so, before it, they had an exaggerated respect. This could have been the case, particularly with Pretorius himself, for about six years before he had been chased out of Port Natal by a British force with humiliating ease. Secondly many of Pretorius’s followers were unenthusiastic. Thirdly, although the Boers employed the same tactics they were to use more successfully two generations later, i.e. taking cover in a strong defensive position and letting the British attack, their long muzzle-loading ‘roers’ were nothing like as effective as the Mauser rifles of their grandsons. The muzzle-loader’s rate of fire was far slower at the best of times, and it was slowed down still further by the difficulty of loading while remaining under cover, crouched or lying behind a rock. Once loaded, this primitive weapon had nothing like the range or accuracy of a modern rifle. All this, I submit, gave the onrushing British a better chance to reach the Boer positions.
Late in 1848 Smith was back in Cape Town. The next two years were free of military alarms and incidents but nevertheless the governor had as much cause for care and concern as ever. In 1849 he had to handle the political crisis which arose in consequence of the Colonists’ fierce objections to the British government’s decision to transport convicts to the Cape.
No sooner was this unfortunate and, as it later turned out, unnecessary affair over, than Sir Harry found himself involved in further bitter political disputation, this time over the arrangements to give the Cape a parliamentary form of government. The basic cause of what appears, in retrospect, to be rather absurdly vindictive squabbling was the hostility between the western and eastern provinces, kept apart, as they were, by insufficient communications and very different circumstances.
By this time, 1850, Smith was sixty-three and constant strain had begun to affect him. He developed a carbuncle on the neck, a complaint which, while distressing and uncomfortable, is not potentially mortal. But it was very different in those times of rudimentary medical knowledge, and for some days his doctors regarded his life as being in serious danger. His eventual recovery was probably due to his physical fitness and abstemious habits (he loathed smoking, drank little and avoided overeating), but he was hardly well before he was required to grapple with the greatest emergency in South African history to date, the eighth frontier war of 1850-1853. Many will dispute this and mention the South African War of 1899-1902. Comparisons are difficult, as historical situations should be reviewed within the context of their times, but there is justification for the belief that the threat to the survival of white civilization was more serious in 1851 than at any other time up to the present.
The Xhosa were grievously dissatisfied with the settlement which Smith had imposed upon them in 1847. There was a fearful drought, they needed land, they resented the way in which those who had been their ‘dogs’, the Mfengu or Fingoes, apparently prospered beyond the Keiskamma, in alliance with the white man, and they were bewildered by attempts to obliterate those ancient and to them altogether sensible customs, lobola and witch-hunting. In circumstances such as these it was all the more easy for the chiefs, furious that their power and privileges had been diminished, fearful lest they diminish still further and hopeful that, in the aftermath of the anti-convict agitation, the colonists would not support the imperial authorities, to arouse their subjects. A convenient prophet, Mlanjeni, was produced, preaching war and promising success, while the Xhosa, especially the people of Sandile and his formidable half-brother, Maqoma, bestirred themselves for a gigantic effort. The colonists nearest to the east began to withdraw themselves and their flocks and herds from the frontiers, while their servants, sometimes with vague warnings, slipped away in the opposite direction.
From the middle of 1850 war had seemed increasingly likely to all except Sir Harry who remained unconvinced and apparently as optimistic as ever, even after a visit to the Eastern Province during late October and early November. Nor was he aware, and here others shared his innocence, of the ominous dissatisfaction among the Hottentots who had given the Colony valuable support in the earlier frontier wars. For years they had been badly treated by the colonists and the local authorities, although both these parties would have strenuously denied this. However, the fact was, that the Hottentots, including those in the uniformed ranks of the Cape Mounted Rifles could no longer be relied upon.
Smith was scarcely back in Cape Town, on the 24th November, 1850, than it became obvious that the frontier situation was desperate, and he returned in haste with the 73rd Regiment. He landed at the Buffalo Mouth (later East London) on 9 December and the same evening, reached King William’s Town. He was dangerously short of troops, for his optimistic temperament and a desire to please an economy-conscious imperial government had led him to reduce the garrison.
From King William’s Town Sir Harry made for Fort Cox, beneath the Amatola Mountains, the stronghold of the most hostile tribes. Fighting broke out suddenly, on 24th December, when a strong patrol, which he had sent out from Fort Cox in an attempt to arrest Sandile, was suddenly attacked in the Boomah Pass, a gorge on the upper Keiskamma River. The following day, Christmas day, the military villages or settlements of Woburn, Auckland and Juanasberg were overwhelmed and their male inhabitants slaughtered, and by the next day Fort Cox and Sir Harry were cut off by hordes of determined men who swarmed through the bush in such numbers that they were able to beat off desperate attempts at rescue by Colonel Somerset, commandant at Grahamstown, who twice advanced from Fort Hare and was twice forced to retreat — on the second occasion after hours of continuous fighting during which the Xhosa resisted with a sustained violence hitherto unknown.
It would have been ironical if Sir Harry Smith’s career and life had been terminated by the Xhosa, those ‘black fellows armed with knives tied on the end of sticks’, but for a time it seemed quite likely, for Fort Cox was not well stocked with food and ammunition. On 31 December he did what was probably the best thing left to do; dressed himself in the uniform of the Cape Mounted Rifles and sallied forth with an escort of these troops. A desperate ride to King William’s Town followed, the first twelve miles of it under desultory fire. The last and most serious attempt to stop him was at Debe Nek, after which the rather shaken Governor found his way clear to safety.
The war, which Smith had now to conduct from his headquarters at King William’s Town, lasted until early 1853. He was, however, recalled a year before it ended, sacrificed by a falling government in a vain attempt to save itself. It was the longest, the most expensive and the most desperate of the frontier wars. One can hardly visit the Hogsback, Katberg, Grahamstown or King William’s Town area without thinking of those British soldiers, scrambling through the bush and over rocks, toiling across the plains and up the mountains and marching incredible distances. By August 1851 the 73rd Regiment had covered 2 838 miles!
The study of the past is of interest in itself and needs no other justification. However, knowledge of it confers many benefits, among them a better sense of proportion and a better understanding of current problems. Readers have all doubtless encountered, and read articles by, those prophets of doom who doubt whether the white man has any future in South Africa. Similar doubts were being voiced in 1851, possibly with better reason. Whatever the validity of historical comparisons the situation, as Sir Harry fought his war on the defensive until well into 1851 but, with the arrival of reinforcements, gradually taking the offensive and sending out columns to scour the country and bring the Xhosa to battle wherever possible — has interesting parallels with a potential situation in Southern Africa today. An account of his problems should make this clear. The main reason why this war was so formidable was that the Xhosa had acquired thousands of firearms. They had of course no artillery but artillery was of little use in this war. Occasionally Smith used rockets or ‘English assegais’, as the Xhosa called them. With regard to the weapons that mattered, the black man was nearly as well off as the white, and the 8th Frontier War in fact marks the beginning of a short period during which this was generally true. It came to an end late in the century, when the tribes were disarmed and the introduction of automatic weapons put the Europeans in an apparently unassailable position.
Other aspects of the situation were quite as alarming. The first shots had hardly been fired when the Hottentots of the eastern province, hitherto the staunchest of allies, rose in rebellion whilst those in the Cape Mounted Rifles mutinied and went over to the enemy, taking with them their equipment, arms, ammunition and military training. Stunned and dismayed, Smith regarded this rebellion, ‘. . . this almost general disaffection of the coloured classes within the Colony as of far greater moment than the outbreak of the Kaffirs’. It is interesting, if depressing, to note that our white settler ancestors were mostly unable to see that the Hottentots had real and serious grievances and unable to conceive of a coloured man co-operating with a black. They regarded the rebellion as evidence of the innate treachery of the Hottentots, and the vindictiveness with which they demanded that they be crushed and punished probably stemmed from shock and fright.
The colonists were themselves in no position to help the authorities. The rebellion made it impossible to leave the women and children unguarded and many of the men who would normally have gone on commando preferred to protect their homes and families against their ex-servants, with the result that Smith was left to his own slender resources. Until the arrival of reinforcements in May 1851, the regular British troops at his disposal amounted to only 1 700 of whom 900 were garrisoning various strongpoints. Only 800 were available for service in the field. He might have been compelled to abandon King William’s Town and fall back on Grahamstown, thus giving the enemy encouragement which might have drawn other tribes farther east into the struggle with unforeseeable consequences, had it not been for the loyalty of Phatho and ‘the incredible exertions’ of Mr. John Montague, the Cape Colonial Secretary. The latter raised a force of 3 000 Hottentots in the western province and, as fast as he could, packed them off to the east where they served reliably enough during the six months for which they had signed on. Phatho was the chief of the Gqunukhwebe tribe who occupied the coastal land between Buffalo Mouth and King William’s Town. Despite considerable pressure, he kept the vital road open for supplies to reach Smith.
Another ominous possibility was that the Basuto might become involved in the war which would have then become altogether too much of a black-white confrontation. That this disaster did not materialize was due to caution on the part of the Basuto chief, Moshesh, rather than ability on the part of Major Warden, the British Resident at Bloemfontein.
Some thirty years later an observer of the ‘Gun War’ against the Basuto wrote, only too correctly, that ‘... there is, without doubt, deep down in the heart of every black man, an intense desire to drive the white man out of South Africa and, when disaster overtakes the white forces engaged against natives, the smouldering ashes of this longing are blown into a flame, and rebellion soon begins to spread’.(1) During the last year of Smith’s governorship this danger was very real. It was only by the most violent exertions that he got the situation back under something like control, despite some sheer bad luck, such as the wreck of the ‘Birkenhead’ and the consequent loss of badly needed reinforcements. He had every reason to be aggrieved when he was recalled early in 1852. It took his successor, Sir George Cathcart, another year to finish the war. In both the Cape and Britain it was thought that Smith had not been properly treated. He arrived home in time to attend the last of Wellington’s famous Waterloo dinners, on 18 June, 1852. The Prince Consort, the Dukes of Wellington and Cambridge and over thirty generals drank to his health. Exactly five months later he was the standard-bearer at his host’s great funeral. He himself died in 1860, after holding several garrison commands, and was buried at Whittlesea.
Perhaps it is appropriate to conclude with Smith’s opinions on two military topics of perennial interest. Who make the best soldiers and who won the battle of Waterloo?
As regards the best soldiers, Smith put the men of southern France in a class of their own, followed by the Hottentots who had, he thought, a truly remarkable natural aptitude for soldiering.
And Waterloo: ‘To those who say the ultimate success of the day was achieved by the arrival of the Prussians, I observe that the Prussians were part of the whole on which His Grace calculated, as much as on the co-operation of one of his own Divisions; that they ought to have been in the field much sooner, and by their late arrival seriously endangered His Grace’s left flank, and had Napoleon pushed the weight of his attack and precipitated irresistible numbers on our left, he would have forced the Duke to throw back his left and break our communication with the Prussians. . . . Napoleon fought the battle badly; his attacks were not simultaneous, but partial and isolated, and enabled the Duke to repel each by a concentration.’(2)
1. H. S. Taylor, Doctor to Basuto, Boer and Briton, 1877-19O6, Memoirs of Dr Henry Taylor, ed. P. Hadley, Cape Town, 1972, p. 55.
2. H. G. W. Smith, The Autobiography of Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Smith . . ., G. C. Moore-Smith, Vol. 1, London, 1901, p. 276.