Harry Smith’s Last Throw: The Eight Cape Frontier War 1850-1853

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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 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.

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 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 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.

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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 , 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.

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 during which the British troops had lost another 41 wagons of their baggage train. On Saturday, 1 August , The Times reprinted an excerpt from the Cape Town Mail, which stated that '[w]ith deep regret we have to announce The Times 1 August 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 Where was Captain Campbell, who had command on this occasion during the whole action? The image of the gun and disproportionate casualties came under scrutiny in a letter reprinted in The Times on 19 August 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. 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 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 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.

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He was too fond of drilling his men before the bush, and in doing so He fell pierced in his left side. Fordyce had earlier come under critique for his bungled retreat through Kroomie Forest. 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. 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..

Imperial heroes restored By , 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 For instance, in a public proclamation reprinted in The Times on 7 March , the colonial authorities demanded that the 'colonists will rise en masse to aid Her Majesty's troops As can be inferred from a letter written by Captain Edward Wellesley , pp, Wellesley to his brother, Richard, 3 December , 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 For instance, an article from the Cape Town Mail, reprinted in The Times on 14 April , 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 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, , Pottinger to Berkeley, 20 June , p In , 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 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, , p 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 issued a declaration that was immediately reprinted by The Times 17 September : To be compelled thus barbarously to prosecute war.

But no other course is open I am consoled by Not one instance has been brought to my notice of any outrage having been perpetrated by the ever-humane British soldier. See Peires, , p3. Conclusion Between and , The Times published almost 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.

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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 , 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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Add to Wants List. Add this lot to your Wants List and we will notify you when another copy is being offered. Xhosa accounts have been translated many for the first time to avoid an Anglo-centric bias. For both sides by the 8th War there was a great deal of blood to avenge and brutal killings were perpetrated by many combatants. The author provides a colorful backdrop, explaining how the Dutch East India Company came to the Cape to establish a provision station for ships on the way to its East Indies empire.

Dutch Burghers settled there but the Company had no interest in Africa itself.

Category: 19th Century

In order to be viable farms had to be large and this created a class of independent-minded who looked increasingly to the interior of Africa, pushing the Colonys borders. The wars with the Xhosa were the result of the eventual expansion of these boundaries into Xhosa territory. Get A Copy. Published May 14th by Not Avail first published May 1st More Details Other Editions 2. Friend Reviews. To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up. To ask other readers questions about Harry Smith's Last Throw , please sign up.

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