The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 15 No 6 - December 2012

The Times' reporting on the Cape Colony's Frontier Wars, 1818-1853

by J S Arndt
University of Illinois Chicago


Between 1818 and 1853, South Africa's Cape Colony was engaged in four wars against the neighbouring Xhosa polities. (For general histories of the Cape frontier wars, see John Milton, 1983, and Noel Mostert, 1992.) While these frontier wars generated a vast amount of information about British soldiers and their Xhosa enemies, they also produced heightened demand for this type of information in the imperial metropole. The Times, a major player in the information network of the nineteenth-century British Empire, played a crucial role in satisfying this demand (Lee, 1976, pp46-7; Brown, 1985, p27). Between 1818 and 1853, it published some 100 articles and more than 30 letters about the Cape frontier wars. However, since The Times rarely had its own correspondents in the Cape Colony before 1855, it mainly reprinted excerpts from colonial newspapers, local eyewitness accounts, and official reports and letters from British military personnel. In doing so, The Times served as a platform that colonial interest groups and British military personnel used to make claims about themselves and the Xhosa in the public sphere of the metropole. Although these claims were always contested, over time they promoted a particular set of stereotypes. By characterizing the Xhosa as marauders, murderers and savages, these claims contributed to their reputation as 'imperial villains' in need of chastisement and conquest and, by creating the image of British soldiers as courageous, imperturbable and victorious men of action, they turned these soldiers into the 'imperial heroes' who rightfully and effectively put the Xhosa in their place. In doing so, The Times' reporting on Cape frontier wars helped establish the hero-villain mythology that helped sustain the British imperial project until the second half of the twentieth century.

Theoretical background

My conclusions are based on a close reading of articles and letters about the Cape frontier wars that were published in The Times between 1818 and 1853. My approach to these historical documents is informed by several theoretical propositions. Like Edward W Said (1979), I believe that colonial knowledge of indigenous peoples was often influenced by European conceptual biases and included stereotypes designed to legitimize conquest, domination, and exploitation. This essay contends that the villain-hero dichotomy that emerged from The Times' reporting on the Cape frontier wars was exactly such a construct. However, I also suggest that these stereotypes did not merely reflect material interests or cultural prejudices of colonial officials and settlers as is sometimes suggested in the literature (Crais, 1992). Rather, I argue that these images were also shaped by the increasing violence of frontier warfare between 1818 and 1853. Although, it is perhaps trite to remark that 'war is hell', I believe it is necessary to keep in mind that the dynamics of frontier warfare influenced significantly how participants and commentators viewed themselves and the enemy. Furthermore, I agree with the argument advanced by Douglas M Peers (1995, pp7, 12) and Heather Streets (2004, p2) that the role of the British Army is often down played in the historical literature on colonialism. Streets especially has successfully drawn attention to the fact that the army - its officers and soldiers - not only fought in the name of the empire, but also participated in the public sphere of the metropole and, in doing so, shaped how the metropolitan public viewed its imperial soldiers and the empire's enemies (Streets, 2004, p2). However, this essay seeks to complicate her argument in one aspect. Whereas Streets identifies the Crimean War of 1854 and the Indian Mutiny of 1857 as the decisive events in raising the British Army's awareness of the power of the press, this essay argues that British soldiers had a significant voice in the public sphere of the metropole at least since 1846. Indeed, as this essay will show, British officers and soldiers contributed most of the accounts, letters, and reports on the Cape frontier wars that The Times reproduced for its metropolitan readership between 1818 and 1853. Accordingly, they played a crucial role in the construction of the hero-villain dichotomy on which, as both Streets and Graham Dawson have argued, the British imperial imagination came to depend during the second half of the nineteenth century (Streets, 2004, p2; Dawson, 1994, pp81-3,146-7).

Imperial villains

By and large the Xhosa did receive negative press coverage in The Times between 1818 and 1853. The reports, which most commonly originated in the Cape Colony and then were merely reproduced in the metropole, described the Xhosa as marauders, robbers, murderers, barbarians, and savages. In this sense, the articles and letters published in The Times characterized the Xhosa as the 'imperial villain' who was in need of chastisement, conquest, and, as some commentators argued, extermination.

A breakdown of the words most commonly used to describe the Xhosa and their actions is an instructive exercise. In the Fifth Frontier War (1818-1819), the Xhosa were usually characterized as 'marauders' who were roaming and plundering through the colony. By 1834, the reports no longer described the Xhosa as mere marauders but as 'treacherous barbarians' and accused them of murdering innocent settlers. Although the word 'savage' appeared occasionally in reports on the Sixth Frontier War (1834-1835), it became a standard image associated with the Xhosa in the Seventh Frontier War (1846-1847). The association of the Xhosa with treachery and savagery continued in the Eighth Frontier War (1850-1853) when they were also accused of committing atrocities. An excerpt from the Cape Town Mail reprinted in The Times on 7 March 1851 illustrates how the Xhosa were stereotyped in this manner:

'The ... war which has now commenced ... seems likely to be the most desperate and sanguinary of all the wars those faithless and rapacious Savages have provoked their civilized neighbours .... The worst passions of savage nature were let loose upon the unsuspecting colonists .... At midday, while the peaceful inhabitants were seated at their Christmas dinners, the savages surrounded their dwellings, and in a few minutes nothing but smoking ruins, and corpses horribly mutilated, marked the sites where the villages had stood.'

Two things are important about these descriptions. Firstly, it is noteworthy that almost all of these stereotypes originated in the Cape Colony. Most of the newspaper articles, official military reports, and letters reprinted in The Times were written by colonists, former colonists, or soldiers who served or had served in the Cape Colony. For example, in the frontier war of 1818-19, The Times (Monday, 14 June 1819) reprinted a proclamation issued by the Governor Charles Somerset, stating that the Xhosa were responsible for 'these calamities' and that 'those marauders' needed to be driven 'over the known boundaries of His Majesty's settlements'. In the subsequent frontier war, The Times also relied on colonial newspapers for information about the progress of the war. Reprinting an excerpt from the Graham's Town Journal, The Times informed its readers on Tuesday, 3 March 1835 that the 'wives and families' of the colonists were 'surrounded by [Xhosa]' and that 'the most horrid murders are committed.' (Note: In the nineteenth century, whites usually referred to the Xhosa as 'Kafirs', 'Kaffirs' or 'Caffres'. I have followed Peires' logic [Peires, 1989, xii] for substituting these insulting terms with the word 'Xhosa' in square brackets in direct quotations.) Reliance on colonial sources continued during the seventh war. Reprinting an excerpt from the African Journal, The Times reported on Saturday, 24 October 1846 that '[t]he aim of the savage will not be to fight, but to surprise and butcher ... ' Although colonial newspapers continued to be a crucial source of information during the Eighth Frontier War, The Times published an increasing number of letters from colonists and soldiers who were fighting or had fought against the Xhosa. A typical example was submitted by a former resident on the eastern frontier of the Cape Colony. In this letter, the writer claimed that the Xhosa had a 'treacherous and hyena-like character' and were 'born robbers and murderers' who merely brought 'bloodshed and misery' to the colonists (The Times, Friday, 14 March 1851).

Given that The Times based its coverage of the frontier wars almost exclusively on the impressions and opinions of (former) colonists and soldiers, it seems appropriate to argue that the metropolitan image of the Xhosa was shaped by the specific events on the colonial frontier. Furthermore, these findings suggest that, in addition to physical proximity, it was the violence of frontier warfare that shaped the stereotypes about the Xhosa in significant ways. This 'intimate' relationship between knowledge and violence is often down played by historians who focus on the role that material interests play in the creation of colonial stereotypes. However, The Times' reporting on the Cape frontier wars suggests that, although competition over land, cattle, and labour-power certainly played a role in how Europeans viewed the Xhosa, it was war that acerbated these assessments of the Xhosa. Whereas the former produced stereotypes that focused on the alleged indolence, thievishness, and dishonesty of the Xhosa, the latter portrayed them as imperial villains and accused them of robbery, murder, atrocities, treachery, barbarism, and savagery (Crais, 1992, pp129).

The second important observation is that, over the course of the four frontier wars, the colonial discourse about the Xhosa became more pessimistic and more racist. Alan Lester and other scholars have rightfully argued that this change in rhetoric about the Xhosa had its roots in the recurring frontier wars (Lester, 2001, pp147ff; Price, 2008, pp127-47). However, I would argue that it was not merely the reoccurrence of these wars that contributed to this development. Rather, I suggest that the changes in the characterization of the Xhosa over time - the transition from marauder to murdering savage - derived from the changing dynamics of frontier warfare (I have argued this point extensively in Arndt, 2010, pp709-35). It is important to recognize that frontier warfare underwent significant changes between 1818 and 1853. For one, the wars became longer and less decisive. The first conflict, known as the Fifth Frontier War lasted from 1818 to 1819. It was one of the shortest conflicts and ended with a decisive defeat of the Ndlambe Xhosa in the Battle of Grahamstown. In the subsequent war, however, it took the British Army and its auxiliaries more than ten months to defeat an alliance of various Xhosa chiefs. Unlike in the previous con flict, this war included no decisive battles and ended with a negotiated peace settlement. The Seventh Frontier War was even longer. It lasted twenty months and included in the Battle of Gwanga the only engagement that the British forces were able to claim as a decisive victory. Finally, the Eighth Frontier War began in December 1850 and ended in March 1853 after 27 months of arduous campaigning, guerrilla and counter-guerrilla warfare.

The key reason for the increasing duration of the wars was the changing nature of warfare. Having learned from their earlier mistakes, such as the Battle of Grahamstown, the Xhosa switched from set-piece battles to guerrilla tactics. As a result, British military operations against the Xhosa became more arduous, more deadly, and less decisive over time. Campaigning came to consist of long marches through bush, mountains, and plains, and exposed the British soldiers and colonial levies to drenching rain or scorching heat (Mostert, 1992, p689). The Xhosa became particularly successful at ambushing British military columns and inflicting humiliating tactical defeats on the best professional army in the world. For example, in the Seventh Frontier War, the Xhosa successfully ambushed a British military column near Burns Hill (The Times, 29 July, 1 August 1846. See also Bisset, 1875, pp 63-9 and Adams et al, 1941, pp124-5). During the subsequent war, they severely mauled another British force at the Boomah Pass, at a place where the infantry had to march in single file and the narrow space prevented the cavalry from coming to their aid (Bisset,1875, pp 132ff; King, 1855, pp 89-90). While the wars became longer and less decisive, carnage and violence increased. British casualties (soldiers and settlers) increased from 100 in the Sixth Frontier War to 1 400 in the Eighth Frontier War at the same time as reports of Xhosa torture and mutilations became more numerous and more descriptive. (For casualty returns, see The Times, 2 November 1836 and 7 March 1853. For reports of torture and mutilations, see Bisset, 1875, pp65-6, 102; Adams et al, 1941, pp 191, 194, 195; and The Times, 30 September 1846).

Both the violence of war and the stories about Xhosa atrocities were reproduced in The Times, contributing to the metropolitan stereotype of the Xhosa as the imperial villain. For instance, an extract from the Cape Town Mail, dated 4 January 1851, was reprinted in The Times on 7 March 1851. It claimed that British soldiers on patrol near Debe Flats encountered the victims of a recent Xhosa ambuscade and 'were horror-struck by the sight of the corpses of 14 soldiers of the 45th Regiment, mangled and stripped by the [Xhosa] ... They were all waylaid and brutally murdered ... ' The article then went on to describe similar scenes of horror at the military villages of Woburn, Auckland, and Juanaburg: 'The savages surrounded their dwellings, and in a few minutes nothing but smoking ruins, and corpses horribly mutilated, marked the sites where the villages had stood. Imagination shrinks from picturing those few moments of horror, agony, and despair. More than 70 individuals, including men, women, and children [murdered; unreadable]'. An addendum was later issued that showed the latter assertions to be untrue (The Times, 7 March 1851). The Xhosa had not killed women and children after all, but the damage to their reputation had been done: the label of savage killers stuck. 'Now the bubble has burst in "showers of blood" of English women and children', one commentator wrote in The Times five days later, 'Let the British public be no longer deceived ... let unceasing "razzias" practically expel the banditti from their jungles ... As for "friendly" [Xhosa], those who know the people laugh at the humbug. No such animal exists, except in the minds of silly missionaries and officials' (The Times, 12 March 1851).

The increasing duration and intensity of frontier warfare, the enemies' increasingly successful guerrilla tactics, the increasing number of casualties suffered at the hands of the Xhosa warriors, and the real and imagined atrocities contributed to the changing characterization of the Xhosa between 1818 and 1853. Indeed, it was in response to changing nature of frontier warfare that British colonists and soldiers increasingly described the Xhosa with essentializing and racializing stereotypes. As a result, the marauding Xhosa of 1818, who allegedly roamed, pillaged, and plundered, had, by 1834, evolved into the treacherous and murdering barbarian. The increased intensity of the wars of 1846 and 1850 further radicalized these descriptions to the extent that by the end of 1853 British reports primarily labeled the Xhosa as treacherous savages and merciless barbarians. In this sense, the colonial stereotypes of the Xhosa, which The Times reproduced uncritically for the metropolitan readership, identified the latter as the imperial villain who was in need of chastisement, conquest, and, as some individuals argued, extermination.

Imperial heroes

In contrast to the Xhosa, the British Army - its officers and soldiers - did receive a more positive press coverage in The Times between 1818 and 1853. The reports described British soldiers as men of action who demonstrated gallantry, zeal, and courage in their military operations against Xhosa. In this sense, the articles and letters published in The Times characterized them as 'imperial heroes' trusted with the defence of British colonists and imperial interests against alleged Xhosa aggression. However, over time the army's inability to contain the Xhosa threat became more apparent and some colonists and soldiers began voicing criticism about the conduct of the war. Frustrations and criticism did not only lead to a radicalization of the rhetoric about the Xhosa (as shown above), but also radicalized the means of war. Indeed, by 1851, the British military commanders changed their tactics and turned a war of frontier pacification into a total war of conquest. These radical methods not only forced the Xhosa into submission by 1853, but also helped restore the notion that British soldiers were imperial heroes who effectively chastised the villainous Xhosa.

The British Army and its soldiers were not only at the centre of the military action but also at the centre of public attention during the four frontier wars. In the articles, letters, and eye-witness accounts published in The Times, both soldiers and regiments were mentioned by name and associated with gallantry, bravery, and victorious military actions against an allegedly savage foe. In the process, British soldiers were turned into imperial heroes with whom metropolitan readers could readily identify and sympathize. It was of course convenient that many of the reports reprinted in The Times had been composed by military men and did not reflect the assessment of independent observers. Indeed, many of the accounts published by The Times were verbatim copies of official battle reports composed by British officers evaluating their own performance. As Heather Streets has demonstrated, British officers were well aware that these reports had a significant effect on their career and public reputation. As a result, they presented their actions in the most favourable light and constructed 'accounts that emphasised victory and the gallantry of their own forces' (Streets, 2004, p54). However, while Streets sees the Crimean War of 1854 and the Indian Mutiny of 1857 as the decisive events in raising officers' awareness of the power of the press, evidence from The Times' reporting on the Cape frontier wars suggests that this process started already in the frontier war of 1846-7 and accelerated in the war of 1850-3. Furthermore, as James Belich (1986, pp12-14) has demonstrated in the context of the New Zealand Wars, the bias inherent in official military reports and private letters often gave a distorted impression of the dynamics of frontier warfare. In the case of the Cape frontier wars, this bias consisted of a complex set of images designed to detract readers' attention from the indecisive nature of anti-Xhosa warfare.

The image of numerical inferiority was a crucial element in this regard. British military men were well aware of the fact that a partial victory or even a marginal defeat was not disgraceful if the enemy had enjoyed numerical superiority. As a result, British officers tended to overestimate the enemy's numbers and it was not unusual for them to claim that a mere handful of soldiers had defeated or repulsed 1 500 or several thousand Xhosa (The Times, 29, 30 June, 20 August 1846). Alternatively, the officers described the number of Xhosa antagonists in vague terms such as 'large bodies', 'overpowering forces', or 'overwhelming masses' (see, for example, The Times, 30 June, 2 July, 1846; 7 March, 11 June, 12 December 1851). The tendency to overestimate the numbers derived in part from the British belief that the Xhosa could field up to 40 000 combatants, as reported in The Times, Thursday, 20 August 1846. There are several indications that this number was a gross exaggeration. For one, we need to keep in mind that the approximate population size of the Xhosa was about 100 000 at that time (Peires, 1982, p3). Missionaries who were active among the Xhosa fifty years later argued that the number of healthy adult males could be estimated by dividing the total population by fifteen. (In 1903, Free Church of Scotland Missionary Brownlee Ross noted the following in an editorial letter on the Labour Problem in South Africa: 'It is an axiom among men who know anything of these people that to get the adult male population you must divide the total population by eight. This gives adult males. Now, consider that there are large numbers of old men, delicate men, and men not able-bodied enough to be fit to leave home for continuous manual labour, and you will realise that to get the able-bodied labourers out of a total population of 4 000 000 you must divide by, say, fifteen; this gives you, instead of Mr Rule's 500 000, 266 000, roughly speaking. See National Library of Scotland, Scottish Foreign Foreign Mission Records, United Free CHurch, MS 7800, Newspaper extract, Response of Reverend Brownlee Ross to a letter of Robert Rule on the labour problem in South Africa, 12 Feb 1903, p9). If one applies this division of fifteen rule to the period of conflict under review, the best estimate for the number of Xhosa combatants is a maximum of 7 000 and not 40 000.Having overestimated the Xhosa combatants by a factor of seven in the aggregate, the soldiers were prone to overestimate their number also in their specific encounters with them.

Closely linked to the image of numerical superiority was trope of disproportionate casualties. The idea behind this image was the belief that as long as the Xhosa suffered more casualties than the British troops, the engagement could be considered a victory. As a result, British officers tended to inflate the number of Xhosa casualties and it was not unusual for them to claim a casualty ratio of at least one to ten (see, for example, The Times, 29 June and 20 August 1846; 10 May, 11 June and 12 December 1851). On occasion (see, for example, The Times, 29,30 June, 2 July 1846; 18 April, 6 November 1851), they preferred to describe the number of enemy casualties in vague terms claiming that the Xhosa had suffered 'many slain', 'a severe loss', or a 'severe punishment'. Probably the most extreme image of disproportionate casualties was reprinted in The Times on 30 June 1846. This report stated that the British had defended an outpost with so much vigour and zeal 'that the dead bodies of the enemy actually dammed up the river'.

When combined, these images created the impression that the British troops had acted with great gallantry while, at the same time, detracting from the fact that the soldiers had actually suffered a tacticval reverse. For example, during the Seventh Frontier War, The Times on 29 June 1846 reprinted an official report stating that 'a party of dragoons pursued a body of [Xhosa], numbering 1 500, and ... attacked them. They were however forced to retreat, though the [Xhosa] are said to have many slain, while the troops lost but one...' As is evident from this excerpt, the Xhosa repulsed the party of British dragoons. However, the image of numerical inferiority - a party of dragoons against a body of Xhosa numbering 1500 - and the image of disproportionate casualties - many slain compared to one - created the impression that the British soldiers had successfully engaged a Xhosa force.

Since reasonable men would have asked as to how a smalll group of soldiers was able to stand up against large masses of Xhosa and inflict on them disproportionate numbers of casualties, British officers alluded to the possession of artillery as a decisive factor in their victorious encounters with the Xhosa (see, for example, The Times, 30 June, 2 July, 20 August 1846, 7, 14 March, 8 April 1851). A good example of this 'image of the gun' appears in Colonel George Mackinnon's official report of his mission to resupply Forts White and Cox during which his force was attacked by Xhosa warriors near the Debe Neck on 30 and 31 January 1851. In this report, reprinted in The Times on 1 April 1851, Mackinnon states: I proceeded from this station with a force ... in all 2 200 men ... A considerable number of [Xhosa] attacked our rear guard ... This attack was repulsed in a very spirited manner. Shortly afterwards large bodies of the enemy appeared on our left ... Two shells directed with great precision by Major Wilmot. .. were thrown into the midst of a large group, and did great execution ... On the 31st of January I proceeded with the same force ... a large body of [Xhosa] appeared ... Two shells were again accurately directed by Major Wilmot, and caused considerable loss' (The Times, 8 April 1851 , my emphases).

In this report, Mackinnon perfectly meshed the image of the gun with those of superior enemy numbers and disproportionate enemy casualties in order to create the impression of a British tactical victory. We are told that the British force, repeatedly attacked by 'large bodies' of Xhosa, repulsed the enemy by firing 'shells' that 'did great execution' and produced 'considerable loss'. However, as is obvious from the description of the events, Mackinnon's force, despite the fact that it was unusually large and accompanied by artillery, never once held the initiative in this military encounter with the Xhosa. In contrast, the Xhosa exploited their superior mobility and better knowledge of the terrain in order to attack and retreat at will. In order to detract from his inability to do anything against these guerrilla tactics, Mackinnon's report focused on the artillery and claimed that it 'caused considerable loss' among the Xhosa. However, in this and other engagements actual proof of the effectiveness of British artillery and musket fire often failed to materialize. In this context, Major Edward Ellen Holdich's report from a similar patrol on 18/19 February 1851, is a telling testimony. Holdich notes: 'Ammunition nearly expended; upwards of 77 000 rounds ... Our losses in killed and wounded 25, [Xhosa] losses not known ... Results of the patrol: nix. After a long and worrying march, all to be said was we had made a successful retreat.' (Holdich, 19 February 1851, p43).

At the very heart of this web of images was the notion of victory itself. British officers were loath to admit defeat or military reverses because it harmed their careers as well as their public reputation. Consequently, when reporting on combat operations, they employed a celebratory jargon that turned even the most obvious defeat into at least a partial military victory. Although the image of victory can be identified in many official reports, due to a lack of space I will focus on one prominent example, that of the operations at Burn's Hill on 18 April 1846. (For other examples, see the reports on Colonel Somerset's reverse against the Xhosa near Fort Hare on 29 December 1850, reprinted in The Times on 7 March 1851, the reports about the 2nd Regiment's failed operation against the Xhosa in September 1851, reprinted in The Times on 6 November 1851, and the reports of Colonel Fordyce's retreat through the Kroomie Forest on 8 September 1851, reprinted in The Times on 6 and 7 November 1851). The Burn's Hill example is based on Colonel Somerset's official report of 18 April 1846, reprinted in The Times on 30 June. In order to give readers the full flavour of the use of celebratory jargon to create the illusion of victory, it makes sense to quote his report in some detail (my emphases): 'These arrangements were admirably carried into effect by the troops in the face of an overwhelming force of the enemy upwards of 3 000 men, who from the time that we left the ground, made their disposition for attacking the troops ... The gun made excellent practice into the dense bush along the river, the enemy pressing on an[d] opening a severe fire on our advance ... The Cape Mounted Rifles ... checked their advance. The flanking parties of the 91st Regiment kept up a strong fire upon the enemy as they pressed upon the wagons ... Lieutenant-Colonel Richardson dispersed the 91st, under Major Campbell, to meet these dispositions of the enemy, supporting the rear in the most gallant manner, with the 7th Dragoon Guards, whose steadiness under fire Lieutenant-Colonel Richardson speaks of in the highest terms. I was able to observe these dispositions from every point, and nothing afforded me greater satisfaction than the way in which I saw them carried out. Major Campbell held the drift with the 91st, while the wagons passed; Captain Brown's guns taking up an admirable position, and doing great execution with the guns, although constantly subjected to a severe fire. These dispositions enabled me to bring off the wagons, and secure the ammunition, having to pass a difficult drift, under heavy fire from a very superior force, encumbered with 1 800 head of cattle, for a distance of ten miles, and I am happy to say I have established the camp at this port, having given the enemy a severe beating, with a severe loss to themselves.'

A superficial reading of this report would suggest that Colonel Somerset, Major Campbell, Captain Brown and the 91st Regiment of Foot and the 7th Dragoon Guards did rather well in this engagement. Indeed, if we read this report superficially, Somerset's employment of the image of victory, in combination with the images of numerical superiority, disproportionate casualties and the gun, would lull us into the idea that the British forces had achieved a noteworthy victory against the Xhosa. However, an alternative reading suggests that it was the Xhosa who had achieved a victory. It is useful to emphasize the context of Somerset's movement on 18 April, which was part of what had been intended as an offensive against Xhosa positions in the Amatola Mountains. On 16 April, Somerset had captured 1 800 heads of cattle. The next day, 17 April, he had ordered Major John Hope Gibson to move the baggage and ammunition train, numbering a total of 125 wagons, as well as the captured cattle off Burn's Hill. However, the Xhosa counter-attacked, capturing some of the baggage train and forcing Gibson's men to retreat to Burn's Hill. Somerset then joined Gibson's men at Burn's Hill and together they were able to retreat to Block Drift on 18 April, notwithstanding constant Xhosa attacks. What this means is that Somerset's report is actually an account of a hasty retreat from what had been intended as an offensive.

Yet, neither British officers nor the British reading public could stomach the reality of colonial warfare in which the allegedly barbarous and savage foe sometimes defeated the allegedly civilized and sophisticated British soldier. Indeed, the discourse about the Xhosa as imperial villains required the equally powerful image of the British soldiers as uncontested imperial heroes. As a result, even Somerset's superior felt obliged to keep up the illusion of victory when he issued an official statement about this disastrous operation. Not surprisingly, this report, published in The Times on 2 July 1846, stated (my emphasis): 'The Commander-in-Chief congratulates Colonel Somerset and the officers and troops under his orders on the chastisement of the enemy ... The movement on Block Drift was successfully effected by the combined force with little loss, in the presence of an enemy many times its numerical amount.'

Imperial heroes doubted

However, not everybody believed these reports and the imagery imbedded in them. Many soldiers and colonists voiced their frustrations about the British Army's conduct of the war. These frustrations came in the shape of articles and letters written by colonists and soldiers. By reprinting these articles and letters, The Times provided the metropolitan readers with alternative images of its imperial soldiers. One such alternative image arose in the context of a successful Xhosa ambuscade on a relief expedition to Fort Peddie in late May 1846 during which the British troops had lost another 41 wagons of their baggage train. On Saturday, 1 August 1846, The Times reprinted an excerpt from the Cape Town Mail, which stated that '[w]ith deep regret we have to announce ... another of those unaccountable reverses which have already turned the attention of military men, with earnest scrutiny, upon the movements of several commanding officers engaged in this hitherto most disastrous campaign'. The Times (1 August 1846) added another excerpt from the Graham's Town Journal which claimed that the British officers had demonstrated 'utter absence of those prudent precautions which, under the circumstances, it will be thought would have suggested themselves to every military man'. Furthermore, it asked, '[w]hy ... did not Lieutenant-Colonel Lindsay, with so large a force of Infantry as he has at his command ... send out a strong party of sharpshooters to scour this cover ... ? ... Where was Captain Campbell, who had command on this occasion during the whole action?' Having asked these leading questions, the excerpt concluded that '[w]e must judge of proceedings by their results ... the present woeful condition of the colony is attributable to the mismanagement-to use the mildest term that suggests itself-of those instructed with military commands on this frontier.'

In addition, observers increasingly saw through the verbal smoke-screen that British officers employed in their official reports. The image of the gun and disproportionate casualties came under scrutiny in a letter reprinted in The Times on 19 August 1846. In this letter, a settler from the eastern frontier argued that '[v]ery few of the [Xhosa] are killed in the skirmishes; the numbers in the despatches [sic] are generally double the real amount. . .' The same observer also questioned the image of victory which had been the cornerstone of Colonel Somerset's report mentioned above. He accused the military officials of covering up their defeat by issuing 'a grandiloquent general order' in which 'the troops engaged in the affair' were congratulated for the 'chastisement of the enemy'.

Given that the colonists were often at odds with colonial and metropolitan administrators, we need to treat their viewpoints and interpretations with some caution. However, the fact that the colonists were not alone in voicing criticisms against the British conduct of the war makes their comments more credible. Even British soldiers issued statements that undermined the official version of events. For example, The Times reprinted a letter written by a soldier serving at the Cape in which the author expresses a rather pessimistic interpretation of the state of affairs: 'I do not know what to say, or where to begin with respect to our position', this soldier explained, 'but it will be a wonder if Macomo [Maqoma, a leading Xhosa chief] does not eat us up. He is quite victorious, and compelled his old acquaintance, Somerset, to break up a camp of 4 000 men at Blinkwater'. The soldier then alluded to British military incompetence as the source of the problem, especially with regard to Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Fordyce's death during an operation on the Waterkloof in November 1851. He explained that 'the colonel of the 74th [Fordyce] was a brave man, but quite ignorant of the mode of warfare required in South Africa. He was too fond of drilling his men before the bush, and in doing so ... he gave time and opportunity to Macomo's sharpshooters ... He fell pierced in his left side.' (See The Times, 5 February 1852; also The Times, 12 March 1851, p8, and 3, 10, and 12 January 1852). Fordyce had earlier come under critique for his bungled retreat through Kroomie Forest. Major Edward Allen Holdich, ADC to Sir Harry Smith noted (Holdich, 12 September 1851, p100): 'The blame rests on Col Fordyce who failed to mount a proper rear-guard action'.

Given this widespread criticism of the British officer corps' handling of the war, even Sir Harry Smith, governor and commander in chief at the Cape during much of the Eighth Frontier War, had to defend his enthusiastic, celebratory, and self-congratulatory reporting style. Upon his recall, Smith issued a public statement that was published in The Times and other metropolitan newspapers. In it he defended his usage of 'the language of hyperbole in describing the numerous rencontres which have occurred, and in giving praise to the gallant officers and troops as well as burghers'. He explained that this was necessary to keep up the morale of the soldiers in the face of the difficult fighting conditions on the eastern frontier. Indeed, Smith reasoned, although British 'troops acting in the open field expect not the stimulus of praise', this praise was nevertheless welcome and appreciated given that the soldiers had to conduct 'night march[es] of great length', had to 'ascend mountains or penetrate dense bush and ravines', and had to fight an enemy who is 'as resolute as athletic, ready to murder anyone who may fall into his hands', and whose style of 'warfare is the most stealthy and enterprising kind .. .' (The Times, 12 May 1852).

Imperial heroes restored

By 1851, British officers realized that rhetoric alone was no longer enough to maintain their reputation as imperial heroes. As a result, British military commanders changed their tactics and turned a 'gallant' war of pacification into a total war. The call for a more radical conduct of the war coincided with the criticism voiced against the British Army for its ineffective measures against the Xhosa. Most probably it was a direct result of it. In any case, these calls became visible in the reports reprinted in The Times by early 1851. For instance, in a public proclamation reprinted in The Times on 7 March 1851, the colonial authorities demanded that the 'colonists will rise en masse to aid Her Majesty's troops ... to destroy and exterminate these most barbarous and treacherous savages .. .' (see also The Times, 28 March 1851). As can be inferred from a letter written by Captain Edward Wellesley (1995, pp99-100, Wellesley to his brother, Richard, 3 December 1852), British officers also desired to solve the 'Xhosa problem' once and for all: 'The Boor [sic] a Dutchman of total indifference and hatred to all Blacks would practice on these occasions a totally different measure, he would invade the country from which the robbers had come and butcher every man, woman and child he could meet and create such terror that no second attempt would be made for some time, none being left to make it...'

Although Wellesley denied butchering men, women and children, by the time he wrote his letter, British commanders had already begun to implement some of these radical measures (I have argued this point in detail in 'Treacherous Savages and Merciless Barbarians' and, thus, will only provide a short account here.) For instance, an article from the Cape Town Mail, reprinted in The Times on 14 April 1851, informed metropolitan readers that '[a] movement was made up the Chumie Valley, as far as the missionary station, the crops being destroyed and the fields laid waste in every direction, ... General Somerset, and the remainder of the force returned by the Middle Drift ... in order to lay waste the country of [the Xhosa chiefs] Botman, Kona, and Tola (The Times, Friday, 18 April 1851). Although the British Army had employed scorched earth policies in earlier wars, these measures were now implemented on a larger scale. (For the application of these measures in the War of the Axe, see le Cordeur and Saunders, 1981, Pottinger to Berkeley, 20 June 1847, p128). In 1852, five divisions burned and destroyed cornfields, huts, fences, and kraals of the Xhosa in order to force them into submission or death through starvation. Lieutenant-Colonel William Eyre with the 73d Regiment functioned as the spearhead of these scorched-earth operations. One soldier serving under Eyre later remembered '[t]here are no arsenals, dockyards, or other public property to destroy ... and therefore we must make war upon the whole people .. .' (The Times, Saturday, 22 December 1860). What this meant besides destroying the Xhosa's subsistence infrastructure became clear in other reports. Upon taking command of a military expedition against the Xhosa, Eyre issued the order that '[t]here was to be no quarter [for the Xhosa]' (as quoted in Peires, 1989, p25).

Making war on a whole people was a double-edged sword: On the one hand, it promised to restore the image of the gallant and victorious British soldier by bringing about military victory, but on the other, it carried with it the risk of tarnishing this reputation further by associating British soldiers with 'barbarous' warfare, including the destruction of subsistence infrastructure and the killing of non-combatants. In order to forestall the latter, Governor Smith had already in 1851 issued a declaration that was immediately reprinted by The Times (17 September 1851 ): To be compelled thus barbarously to prosecute war. .. is revolting to the Christian mind. But no other course is open ... I am consoled by ... the gratifying reflection that our troops can be charged with no wanton cruelty. Not one instance has been brought to my notice of any outrage having been perpetrated by the ever-humane British soldier. . .'

In the event, the 'ever-humane' British soldier and his War alone and, in so doing, not only forced the Xhosa into submission by 1853 but also restored the image of the British troops as imperial heroes who had successfully put the Xhosa in their place (For 16 000 dead, see Peires, 1989, p28. If one accepts his estimate of 100 000 for the total Xhosa population in 1850, this would produce a death rate of 16%. See Peires, 1982, p3).


Between 1818 and 1853, The Times published almost 100 articles and more than 30 letters about the Cape frontier wars. Most of these articles and letters did not originate with The Times' own correspondents. Rather, The Times reproduced excerpts from colonial newspapers, local eyewitness accounts, and official military reports. Given that The Times based its coverage of the frontier wars almost exclusively on the impressions of colonists and soldiers, it seems appropriate to argue that knowledge and discourse about the Xhosa originated on the colonial frontier and only marginally reflected the implicit ethnographies imbedded in the cultural world of the metropole. Furthermore, these findings suggest that, in addition to physical proximity, it was the violence of frontier warfare that shaped knowledge and discourse about the Xhosa in significant ways. Indeed, it was in response to the increasing duration and brutality of these wars that British colonists and soldiers began to radicalise the rhetoric about the Xhosa, accusing them of treachery, barbarism, and savagery. By reproducing these claims for its metropolitan readership, The Times helped turn the Xhosa into the imperial villain who needed to be chastised and conquered. While the reports published in The Times constructed the Xhosa as the imperial villain, they described British soldiers as men of action who demonstrated gallantry, zeal, and courage in their military operations against the indigenes. It was of course convenient that many of the reports reprinted in The Times had been composed by military men and included a complex web of images designed to detract readers' attention from the fact that the British Army failed to achieve decisive military victories against the Xhosa. However, over time, some colonists and soldiers saw through the charade and used The Times as a forum to openly criticize the army's conduct of the war. In response to this criticism, British officers turned a war of pacification into a total war that ultimately forced the Xhosa into submission and restored the soldiers' image as imperial heroes. Thus by 1853, the hero-villain dichotomy that had previously emerged from The Times' reporting on the frontier wars had been fully restored and came to provide an important leitmotif for the British imperial imagination until the second half of the twentieth century.


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