The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 12 No 3 - June 2002

The Khoekhoe soldier at the Cape of Good Hope
How the Khoekhoen were drawn into the Dutch
and British defensive systems, to c 1809

By V C Malherbe

The Khoekhoe soldier at the Cape of Good Hope

Before the era of mercantilism and the acquisition of colonies, European armies of conquest consisted mainly of mercenaries whose stake in warfare was plunder, and whose loyalty could not be relied on. The new colonial powers - for present purposes, the Dutch and British - required long service professional soldiers to protect distant possessions. But recruitment was limited by the home economy, which could be damaged by withdrawing large numbers of productive members. In 1776 Adam Smith declared that in the Europe of his time: 'It is commonly computed that not more than one hundredth part of the inhabitants of any country can be employed as soldiers, without ruin to the country which pays the expense of their service.'(R H Campbell et al, II, 1976: 696).

In 1757 the burden of Britain's home defence was placed on militias formed of male inhabitants who were conscripted, or pressed to volunteer for service during a fixed term of years.

Militia duty was exacted also of freemen in the colonies. As settlers spread out, each new community was seen as a strategic military post, with the requirement of each individual settler to safeguard life and property. Slave colonies like the Cape, where slaves were imported from 1658, were alert for resistance by the labour force, as well as for enemies who might approach by sea or from the hinterland: It has been said that in each colony the militia was a reflection of the whole social order. (C Hamshere, 1972: 106; J van Doom, 1968: 46; J W Fortescue, 1905: 2, 26). When colonies were under threat, militias reinforced the garrison of regulars. In times of peace they made it possible for garrisons to be reduced. This provided an important saving because it was more costly to maintain regular troops.

The Cape establishment under the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was puny, despite the station's importance. It became clear that the VOC would have to look beyond the Dutch vrijburghers (the Company servants it released to farm) for reinforcement. Although they eventually outnumbered the burghers, the slaves were never embodied at the Cape - as from necessity, they sometimes were elsewhere. Free blacks, comprising manumitted slaves as well as convicts whose sentences had expired, and persons banished from the Company's eastern holdings, were the main constituents of the militia formed in 1722. But they were never more than a tiny percentage of the population.

In the 1730s the soldier O F Mentzel noted the weakness of the regular force-men who 'wear uniforms and remain underarms' - and recommended recruiting the offspring of Khoekhoen-European connections, who were 'good marksmen and faithful' (O F Mentzel, II, 1919: 149, 151). By Mentrel's time, 'Hottentots' and 'Bastards' were being incorporated by the settlers in commandos, as the burgher militias had come to be called. As time went on the VOC ceded control over the policing of the moving frontier to burgher war councils in the outlying districts - a process in which many indigenes, as allies or as victims, experienced settler military practice.

The idea gained ground that loyal Khoekhoen and Bastards (Khoekhoen are equivalent to 'Hottentots' but as Bastards - individuals of mixed race - were frequently subsumed with the latter in the documents, the term Khoekhoen as used here often stands for both) should be armed to resist in case the colony came under attack due to Dutch involvement in a European war. In 1781 such a threat was foreseen, and Khoekhoen, as well as men of the type whom Mentzel had described, were constituted as a unit. This Corps Bastaard Hottentotten was disbanded after fourteen months.

A new unit, the Corps Pandoeren, was raised in 1793 when France declared war on the Netherlands. (H C J Bredekamp, Aug 1995). The onus fell upon the Boer farmers to release their servants and furnish them with weaponry. The recently established Moravian mission at Baviaanskloof (later Genadendal) was also an important source of recruits. Included on the first list of Pandoers were three Hottentot captains. (Cape Archives Depot, C 697, 1793: 91-3). In the early days of settlement, the Europeans had met the leaders of tribes, embracing clusters of clans (extended family groups) whom they recognised as chiefs. These large entities disintegrated as the Dutch advanced, and the clans, headed by captains, became the most important social units. In due course the VOC acted to co-opt the Khoekhoe captains, appointing some itself, and bestowed staffs of office which were passed from father to son. The manner in which the authority of captains on the strength of the Corps was reconciled with the military's chain of command is obscure.

In the words of the artist, this drawing represents a 'figure of a young
Hottentot in his regimentals (no shoes) lectured by his corporal for
some little inadvertancy' (Source: Cape Journals of Lady Anne Barnard, 1797-8,
p281, National Library of Scotland)

About 1770, in the dying years of Dutch rule, when expansion was stalled by the fierce resistance of massed Bushmen and Bushmen-Hottentots, efforts were made to identify all useful manpower resources: 'It would not be an exaggeration to state that it was the exigencies of military defence that prompted the official mind to attempt to categorise the phenomena of Bastards or Bastard-Hottentots. Increasing attempts were made by the government to record the particulars of Bastards and Khoi as the century progressed. (N Penn, 1989: 16-17). Shortly before the Corps Bastaard Hottentotten was formed to meet a specific threat, a militia called the Korps der Vrijen had been launched in Stellenbosch. The significance of this was the apparent increase in racial consciousness. Hitherto, men of colour had served in the burgher militia. The 'Free Corps' was designed for those who were not white, and occupied a lower rank. From this time on, if not before, it was certain there would be no integration on an equal footing of the forces for defence. (R Elphick & H Giliomee, 1989: 547).

In 1795 the British captured the Cape, imposing another element on a society already diverse. Their first task was to assert control over a large tract which had been weakly administered for some time past. The VOC had been unable to suppress rebellious burghers in its eastern districts. The new rulers concluded that enlisting Khoekhoen in a regimentwould bind that class of subject to the Crown and, by the same stroke, intimidate the fractious burghers. It was a policy decision frankly actuated more by political than military views. This perception resonates with the thesis that states: '... conceptualised their publics in terms ofethnic identifications; and they used those conceptualisations to determine what manpower pools to draw on during different sorts of conflicts'. (C H Enloe, 1980:2, 11-16, 57-8; G M Theal, RCC, I: 354, 359).

Eastern Frontier Observation Posts (Source: C G Coetzee, Forts of the Eastern Cape:
Securing a Frontier; 1799-1878, University of Fort Hare, p59)

The bulk of recruits to the rank and file of European armies had come from that stratum of society most susceptible to pressure from recruiting officers - poor men, drunks, criminals, and those down on their luck. But greater professionalism was the aim by the time that Britain captured the Cape. Wars of conquest against large armies on distant terrain had impressed the colonial powers with the advantages they enjoyed by dint of discipline and clear chains of command, as well as their technological edge. Adam Smith had urged: 'As it is only by means of a well-regulated standing army that a civilised country can be defended, so it is only by means of it that a barbarous country can be suddenly and tolerably civilised.' But standing armies on foreign soil incurred substantial costs and ways were found to secure the ends which Smith outlined at less expense.

The corps was seen as perhaps the best way to transform the indigenous people of the Cape, whose alleged sloth was taken as fact after centuries of bad press. More generous than most, Lord Macartney, governor from I797, remarked: 'The Hottentot is capable of a much greater degree of civilisation than is generally imagined, and perhaps converting him into a soldier may be one of the best steps towards it.' (Theal, RCC, II: 371; Campbell et al, II,1976: 706). In 1801 permission was granted to form a 735-member corps, constituted as a British line regiment. The members of this unit - in its various guises until it was disbanded in 1870 - were the 'only regular soldiers recruited in the country' by the Dutch and British rulers at the Cape of Good Hope. (H A Reyburn, 1934: 45).

Of colonies it has been pointed out: 'When a colonial government calls on natives to supply manpower, critical decisions are made concerning the number of men conscripted or permitted to enlist; their ranks and duties within the forces; and their relation - whether or not segregated into separate units - to other enlisted men and officers'. (L Doob, 1982: ix).

Numbers were always contested at the Cape. Most colonial Khoekhoen had no option but to work for farmers, who frequently resisted the recruitment of needed servants. The drain on labour loomed large in arguments for disbanding the corps, and was countered by the claim that enlisting Hottentots harmed agriculture less than would the calling out of Boers. With regard to ranks, the private soldiers and some non-commissioned officers were Hottentots, while all commissioned and some non-commissioned ranks were filled by Europeans.

The Khoekhoen's access to superior ranks seems not to have improved with the passage of time. As for duties, they were valued marksmen. 'The Hottentots being in every respect particularly well calculated for sharpshooters. The Cape Regiment has from its first formation been regularly trained as such.' (Theal, RCC, VII: 275). They were also prized as escorts, trackers and guides. Recruiters were urged to target Khoekhoe wagon drivers able to manage the large spans of oxen which were indispensable for transport at the Cape. From time to time officials were reprimanded for detaching soldiers for work outside the military on farms, at road building, and as postmen, surveyors' assistants, or leaders and drivers for all and sundry.

In their relationship with other soldiers, the popularly named Hottentot Corps had an ethnic identity, setting it apart from other British regiments that came and went. The nomenclature did not reflect the fact that Hottentot identity was fluid: Some were in fact Bastards; many Bushmen were becoming Hottentots; and slave admixtures increased.

Another feature of the corps' separateness was its confinement to service at the Cape.

The Dutch units raised in 1781-82 and 1793-95, and the steps the British took as short-term occupiers of the Cape between 1795 and 1803, are the subjects of De Villiers' contributions to this journal. His articles include details of the numbers enrolled; their uniforms; officers and camps; and of some events and actions where the corps played a part. When the Cape reverted to the Dutch in 1803, the unit's survival was again in doubt. But fairly soon the Batavian rulers found it expedient to enlist Khoekhoen into a Corps Vrijen Hottentotten which, shortly after, was enlarged as a battalion of light infantry.

Army service survived as an option for male Khoekhoen for many decades from that point. It is important to note that, although it was men who filled the corps, entire families were frequently involved: 'The Hottentot soldier is always a married man,' wrote an observer in 1803. (A van Pallandt, 1917: 22; J de Villiers, June 1975: 77-78; J de Villiers, June 1976: 158-65). A regimental chaplain reckoned he had ministered to more than 400 women, as well as children, who had joined their husbands or fathers in the period 1806-1817. (J de Villiers, Nov 1975:17).

Maintaining these dependants was regularly objected to by the opponents of the corps.

Inside Rietrivierspos, C 1815-1817. This fort, which lay approximately 6,5 km west of the
Kowie River, appears as Rietfontein on the map. (Source: Sketch by Lt Matthew Macinnes,
Ref 75/1121, MuseumAfrica, Johannesburg)

The Batavians were energetic systematisers. In their short term at the Cape (1803-1806), they compiled lists of Khoekhoen and Bastards on farms and at the missions. With the founding of the London Society's Bethelsdorp, these numbered two. They also instructed ward officials, the field cornets, to find communities still living under captains - the so-called independent kraals - to record their whereabouts, the numbers present and absent, their sources of livelihood, and other data. It appears that these communities had entered a new relationship with government during the 3rd Frontier war of 1799-1803, when men in groups who sought protection were enrolled by the British in the corps. Those new recruits who marched - many with families - to the unit's camp at Rietvlei near Cape Town, fell under several captains who, after the war, were given plots of ground and remained answerable to the government's calls.

By the time the Batavians left the Cape, statistics had been amassed for the effective tapping of Khoekhoe manpower. They drew on all these sources when they mounted their defence against the second British takeover. We find, for example, this report: Aan den Captn. Stoffel afgegeeven ses en dertig pond Brood en vleesch voor 57 Man - den 7th january l806. (To Captain Stoffel given 36 pounds bread and meat for 57 men - 7th January 1806). (Cape Archives Depot, 1/STB 10/155, 7 Jan 1806 and 1/GR 8/2, Box 1, 16 July 1805).

The British were soon reminded that none of these sources - farms, missions, independent kraals - was uncontested. In 1808 antagonisms flared at Captain David Stuurman's village, an outstation of Bethelsdorp near the Gamtoos River. The landdrost complained that Stuurman declined to fetch his staff of office due to a 'trifling difference' with a recruiting officer. For their part, the missionaries, who had been warned not to hinder recruitment, found themselves accused by some of their wards of coming 'merely to tame the Hottentots for military service'. The Earl of Caledon, who wrestled endlessly with military matters while he was governor, reflected tensions on the farms: 'The ignorance of the Hottentot, and the anxiety of the Boer to retain his service, when opposed to the zeal of the recruiting officer, gives rise to constant altercation.' (Theal, RCC, VII: 174; Cape Archives Depot, 1/UIT 15/1, 12 Jan 1808; ZL 1/3/3, 30 Jan 1808; V C Malherbe, 1980: 47-64).

Caledon enacted far-reaching reforms affecting the Khoekhoen for good or ill. By his proclamation of 1st November 1809, surviving captains were shorn of all vestiges of traditional power. But they retained the title, and for many years to come received annual grants 'to promote the enlistment of recruits from their respective kraals'. Expenditures designed to bind the captains to the Crown had to pass the scrutiny of treasury auditors in Britain. In 1808 it was recommended that Bushman captains be 'allowed some trifling pay, which might be procured by placing them on the strength of the Cape Regiment'. In 1812 the corps' commanding officer proposed that, when a captain died, his successor be chosen from the unit's ranks, and so receive 'the pecuniary advantages' awarded such men by the government. (Cape Archives Depot, CO 2582, 1 Sept 1812; Theal, RCC, VI:350; Theal, RCC, XXXV:20). By this stratagem, two objects might be achieved at the price of one.

Although coercion was proscribed, maintaining the corps, or any unit, at full strength where the service was not popular, made compulsion likely. A vivid account dated 1823 reveals the methods employed when recruiting parties of NCOs with rank and file - 'being steady natives' - led by white officers, toured the colony. There were no volunteers at the farmsteads they visited. At the mission stations, by then fairly numerous, the Khoekhoen proved reluctant to enlist. A few did so to escape creditors; others were found later to be under contract. Recruiters at Hoogekraal (Pacaltsdorp - a London Society station, near George) took along 'a quantity of brandy and tobacco' to encourage enlistment. But 'notwithstanding every inducement', they observed, 'the spirit of volunteering seems to have ceased amongst the free Hottentots'. In one officer's words: 'Nothing but compulsion will induce the Hottentots to enter the service.' Things went a little better in Swellendam where, of 53 enrolled, 47 came from Genadendal. Twelve 'fine lads' signed on after the Khoekhoe captains there, 'whose good offices I purchased by a small bribe' produced their young men for a recruitment parade. (Cape Archives Depot, COl86).

In the course of its less-than-century-long life, the corps' size was adjusted up and down according to the current rationale. It ranged from just 150 men to near 1 000 at its height. A military faced with a manpower shortage could do one of several things. It could offer a bounty, or increase the bounty if one existed. It could lower the physical standards it had set. It could broaden the search to reach men in the target group who were eluding the recruitment net. In places ethnically diverse, the government could embrace a previously excluded group. (Spiers, 1980: 37-40). At some stage the corps began to recruit colonial whites, and to enrol private soldiers transferred out of other British regiments.

By 1809 the Cape Regiment had emerged from its 'nursery' stage, when its continued maintenance was often in doubt, and its formal shape still in the making. Until that time it was quartered near Cape Town, at Stellenbosch, Hout Bay, Rietvlei and Wynberg Camp. In 1799 a detachment of 50 men accompanied British regulars sent east to deal with threats on the frontier. But not until 1810 were large numbers stationed there permanently. Barracks were erected first at Uitenhage. As the Fourth Frontier War of 1811-12 drew to a close, a site in the Zuurveld, somewhat west of the Fish River, was selected for its headquarters. Soon afterwards the place was named Grahamstown after the corps' commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel John Graham.

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