The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 5 No 6 - December 1982

Rebellion in East Griqualand

by F.M. Lonsdale

It was November 1914. The beam of the searchlight played across the hills that surround Matatiele, a besieged, scattered village in the heart of lovely East Griqualand. Its main streets were criss-crossed in places with barbed-wire entanglements and the Court House was sandbagged to protect the women and children who, it was intended, were shortly to be evacuated to the capital, Kokstad. Foot and mounted police patrolled the streets continually and the civilian manpower in the village was on stand-by. All this unusual activity in the once peaceful hamlet was designed to protect it against the threatened rebellion against the Government, which had reached a critical stage. Certain tribes in the area had already begun resorting to violence by looting trading stations, destroying telegraph wires and damaging cattle-dipping tanks. The Hlubi tribe, an offshoot of the Basuto, both in the Matatiele and Mount Fletcher districts, were particularly lawless in their opposition to and resentment against the Government order for cattle-dipping once a week.

How had this situation, portending a possible full-scale rebellion, arisen? It is important to examine in some depth the underlying reasons for this unrest on the part of the native population. Whereas the dipping regulations designed to counter the threatened outbreak of East Coast Fever, which had just erupted in the Transkei, were the actual flashpoint, there was undoubtedly far more to the problem. The sullen discontent of the natives had grown for a variety of reasons which the Government of the day had patently failed to appreciate.

The Commissioner, an ex-Chief Magistrate, Mr W.E. Stanford, had made a very careful study of the conditions that had given rise to the unrest in East Griqualand. It must be borne in mind that few of the native people in their uneducated state believed in the efficacy of dipping cattle. Whenever the orders of the Government were in fact carried out, obedience was due more to their submission to authority than to faith in the preventive powers of the practice. When the order for weekly dipping was announced, it was found that the native people, not only in the districts of Mount Fletcher and Matatiele but in other parts of the Transkei, were disinclined to obey. They had suffered for several seasons from failure of their crops, with the result that food had to be purchased. Their cattle industry had been hampered for many years by restrictions imposed upon the movement of cattle and the war with Germany had resulted in diminished earnings from manual labour in many parts of the country. When they came to sell their wool clip at the usual shearing, the price had fallen to as low as 2 pence per lb (0,454 kg) for a six months’ clip. The dilemma facing the tribesmen can well be imagined, for even in ordinary times a weekly payment for dipping fees would have been difficult to meet for a native living under ordinary tribal conditions. He could have better faced a single payment to cover a definite period rather that frequently recurring demands, even for small amounts. Hence, it will be seen that the Government order concerning compulsory cattle-dipping upon a weekly basis fatally coincided with a period of economic ‘down-turn’ for the tribesmen of the region (accruing from the depression of their cattle industry and the fall in the price of wool, combined with a decline in earnings from manual labour). New economic demands thus juxtaposed with a decline in economic well-being seriously affected the small needs and comforts of womenfolk and children. Hence the fact that, in the resultant disturbances, the women were to be found stationing themselves at the dipping tanks and driving away the cattle brought there to be dipped. Women thus aroused can form a dangerous element in any people.

According to the Commissioner deputed by the State to investigate the causes of the unrest, the people had, through proper legal channels, submitted their grievances to the Government, but without avail. The feeling of discontent thus engendered existed, not only in Mount Fletcher and Matatiele, but in the whole of the Transkeian Territories. Owing to the fact that the Transkeian Territories General Council (the body comprised of all the Magistrates, Chiefs and Headmen who conducted the affairs of the Transkei on behalf of the Union Government) had assumed control of the dipping arrangements for both cattle and sheep, opposition to dipping had engendered a detestation of the Council system itself. At one meeting that the Commissioner had attended a speaker had shouted, ‘We do not want to dip and we do not want the "Bunga”.’ (‘Bunga’ was the colloquial name for the Council.) This remark had met with vociferous and general applause. At Mount Fletcher a headman whom the Commissioner met, and had known for years, and to whose words he attached some weight, said, ‘The demands made on the people are causing them to hate both the Magistrate and the Council.’

The entire problem was seriously compounded by the attitudes of the Whites. However, this factor was complex, and assumed four distinct forms; the former attitudes of officials in the Transkei and East Griqualand with regard to dipping, which led to understandable confusion on the part of the tribesmen in their attitudes towards the practice; exploitation by European farmers and speculators in the region; overtures of German agents; and collusion with those who were sympathetic to the rebellion of 1914.

With regard to the former attitudes of officials towards the practice of cattle-dipping, the tribesmen in the Territories had long memories, and they remembered that, when rinderpest had broken out in 1897, Maj Sir Henry Elliot, then Chief Magistrate of Tembuland and the Transkei, and Mr Walter Stanford, the Chief Magistrate of Griqualand East, had successfully opposed the policy of shooting their affected cattle. Later, when inoculation was introduced those same officials again resisted an endeavour by their superiors to make inoculation compulsory. Thus, when East Coast fever threatened the district in 1914, there were many tribesmen understandably confused by the contradictory attitudes shown by officialdom a decade earlier. There were, of course, enlightened voices among the tribesmen, who supported the Government’s standpoint regarding dipping in 1914. This viewpoint, however, favoured longer intervals between dippings.

With regard to the exploitative practices of Europeans, for several years the removal of cattle from the districts of Mount Fletcher and Matatiele had been restricted and thus the rural stock owners had been prevented from reaching their usual markets at first hand. Regulations had indeed been promulgated whereby cattle located in a ‘clean’ district could be removed to the markets for sale. However, these regulations had been so framed that only Europeans could take advantage of them. The cattle to be removed must have been segregated for at least three weeks; they must have been dipped three times during that period; and the temperature of each animal had to be taken to test freedom from fever. However, the tribesmen had no paddock in which they could segregate their cattle nor could they know how to arrange for the testing of their animals. As a result they were at the mercy of white men (who could easily have made available a fenced paddock and an adjoining dipping tank near a native location or area). The Commissioner found that there had been cases on record of oxen being bought from tribesmen at £2 (R4) and cows and heifers at 30 shillings (R3). One competent authority estimated that these beasts would, on removal from the location in which they were situated, readily fetch £10 (R20) to £12 (R24) for oxen and cows, and for heifers £6 (R12) to £7 (R14) each. This resentment against European exploitation of the restriction upon movement of cattle was exacerbated by a feeling of discrimination on the tribesmen’s part. With few exceptions the European farmers in the district did not dip regularly. Whereas these farmers might have actually been bound by the Council’s regulations as they affected tribesmen, their non-compliance with these regulations did not escape the notice of the latter, who must have felt a deep sense of discrimination and frustration.

With reference to the overtures of German agents, seditious influences emanating from this source infiltrated the idea that the British Empire had been conquered by the Germans, that as a result South Africa also would soon be occupied by the conquerors, and that the Germans would soon stop cattle-dipping and abolish the Council. The war with Germany further reacted upon the situation through its association with the Rebellion of 1914 in the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. Those supporting this rebellion circulated rumours among the tribesmen that Beyers and De Wet were to form a new Government in South Africa, and that they also were opposed to the dipping of stock and the Council. The tribesmen, and in particular the members of the Hlubi tribe, lent ear to the suggestion that they should join forces with the rebels of the old Republics. Secret meetings were held and the movement might have extended beyond the districts immediately involved but for the loyal attitudes of certain influential Chiefs, of whom George Moshesh of the Basuto tribe and Mncisana, Paramount Chief of the Bacas, were prominent.

It is apparent from the foregoing that the seeds of a very serious insurrection were germinating in East Griqualand and the Transkei. However, the threatened rebellion was largely still-born. That it was so, was due in very large measure to the actions of the Magistrates of Matatiele and Mount Fletcher. These officials acted in a manner displaying great courage, for they took the risk of personally visiting the areas of unrest in order to discuss the problem of the Hlubi tribe with their Chiefs and Headmen. In this connection it is germane to quote from a letter addressed to the writer long after the events discussed in this article, in which the author of the letter comments upon the attitudes of the Magistrates in the troubled areas of Matatiele and Mount Fletcher. ‘Did I ever tell you of a very interesting experience I had years ago when we and the Rob Bennies lived in old ‘Matat’. Rob had asked me to drive down with him to Bethseda (part of the Matatiele district) to meet someone there who had known, loved and respected the old Magistrate of Matatiele. On arrival I was introduced to a dear old Reverend black gentleman who shook my hand and who told me how during the very worst of the 1914 rebellion, the Magistrate and his constable had ridden down there, unarmed, and spent six weeks there living with, speaking to the people and generally trying to calm them down. This was just after two white traders had been murdered in East Griqualand. The old man said that he had never seen such bravery and true devotion to duty. ‘Do you remember that we used to hear the beating of the drums and the war songs of the warriors who were out on the hills surrounding ‘Matat’? I have never forgotten that savage sound.’ The Resident Magistrate of Matatiele*, together with his deputies, made frequent visits to the Hlubi locations involved in the unrest, when those officials endeavoured to dissuade the tribal leaders from the warlike actions upon which they appeared bent. He had also been in touch so often as possible with the Chief Magistrate, based at Umtata, with the Chief of Police and with the loyal tribes of the district, particularly the Basuto under Chief George Moshesh and the Bacas under Paramount Chief Mncisana. Upon his own shoulders, however, rested the ultimate responsibility and, in his wisdom, he had decided to place the district under Martial Law and to call for substantial police re-inforcements.

In conclusion one may relate two interesting incidents attached to the threatened rebellion. The first, gleaned from the official Matatiele District Records, relates to one of the traders ooerating in the area, a Mr E.G. Pike. His particular trading store was situated some 35 km from the Matatiele village of some 400 inhabitants, in the heart of an area in which tens of thousands of Hlubi tribesmen lived in their various kraals. One day in his store, when business was particularly brisk and the shop packed with native customers, a friend, one of the local headmen, asked if he could have a private word with him. As soon as they were able to talk without being overheard, the headman informed Mr Pike that plans were being laid to murder Mr Pike and to loot his shop. Thereupon, upon the pretext of closing the shop to have breakfast, Pike handed his keys to the headman who promised to do his best to protect the shop and the trader’s property. The trader then slipped out the back way to the stable where he had his horse ready saddled and made off. By the time that Pike’s absence was discovered the trader was well out of reach and safe. It is of interest to note that, at the close of the troubles, Pike’s store was the only one in the entire district that had not been broken into. This story appears to illustrate the different attitudes of the native people of the Transkei and East Griqualand; on the one hand there were tribesmen prepared to murder the trader and loot his shop, and on the other there were those, friendly with him, who warned him of the intentions of their fellow tribesmen.

The second incident concerns the ‘searchlight’, which was referred to in the opening paragraph. This apparatus was, in fact, a converted cinema projector, and was the work of the cinema projectionist, one Jimmy Butterworth. This instrument played a major role in the troubles. Many believed it to have been the most important deterrent when the tribesmen were reputed to have been gathering in the surrounding hills in preparation for a night attack upon the village during the early stages of the unrest. It is popularly stated that those tribesmen, when they first saw the searchlight beam, were filled with fear and horror saying ‘This is the eye of God.'

* Editors’ note: This was the father of the writer of this article.

Return to Journal Index OR Society's Home page

South African Military History Society /