The British Colony of Natal, 1843-1870

After the British conquest, Natal became a second focus of British political authority in Southern Africa. While most of the Afrikaners were trekking back across the Drakensberg Mountains to the highveld, settlers were arriving from Britain. Five thousand men, women, and children arrived in the years 1849—51 under a scheme initiated by an adventurer named Joseph Byrne. They were mostly middle-class people who had been able to deposit a small capital sum in return for transport to Natal and possession of twenty acres of land per head. Their early experiences in Natal were similar to those of the 1820 Settlers in the Cape Colony. Most failed to make good as farmers and returned to England, tried their luck on the highveld, or settled in the port town of Durban, which was named for the former Cape governor, or the inland capital, Pietermaritzburg, which had been named for the trek leaders Piet Retief and Gerrit Maritz. By 1870, the white population had reached eighteen thousand—fifteen thousand British settlers and three thousand Afrikaners.

The white population of Natal was engulfed and surrounded by vast and increasing numbers of Africans. The influx reached flood proportions during a series of disturbances in the Zulu kingdom, where Mpande continued to enroll young Zulu men in age regiments. Initially he was successful in reestablishing the unity of the state, but in the 1850s factions formed around two of his sons, Cetshwayo and Mbuyazi, who were rivals for the succession to the monarchy. In 1856, Cetshwayo defeated his rival in a massive battle at Ndondakusuka on the Tugela River, and thousands of people who had belonged to the Mbuyazi faction fled across the river to Natal. By 1870, the African population of the colony was estimated to be fifteen times as numerous as the white population.

Facing the problem that had been the nemesis of the Afrikaner republic, the Natal colonial government tried to place the Africans in reserves (which it called locations), leaving the rest of the colony available for white settlement. By 1864, there were forty-two locations, with an area of 2 million acres, and twenty-one mission reserves, with 175,000 acres, out of the total colonial area of 12.5 million acres. In terms of colonial law, the rest of the colony was either owned by Whites or held by the government as unas-signed Crown lands. At least half of the African population, however, lived not in the reserves at all but on Crown lands or on land owned by Whites, to whom they paid rent. Until the 1870s the white landowners were making more money from “Kaffir farming” than from their efforts to produce agricultural or pastoral products for the market. The colonial state, too, exacted a substantial revenue from the Africans in the form of direct taxation and customs duties on imported commodities that they consumed.

The official responsible for controlling the African population was The-ophilus Shepstone. Brought up in the eastern frontier region of the Cape Colony as the son of a Wesleyan missionary, he spoke the Nguni languages well. A convinced and skillful paternalist, he improvised a method of African control similar to what the British would later apply in colonial tropical Africa and call indirect rule. The key was the use of African chiefs as subordinate officials, made responsible, in the last resort, not to their own people but to the colonial government. Shepstone recognized the existing chiefs in communities that had survived the turmoil of the Mfecane; in other cases, he appointed men as chiefs. He also imposed a dual legal system: customary African law, as codified by him, prevailed among Africans; but the colonial Roman Dutch law, taken over from the Cape Colony, applied among Whites and in relations between Africans and Whites.

Shepstone had ideas of “civilizing” the Africans with a program of Western education and economic development, but financial constraints prevented him from carrying that out. From the beginning, the senior officials appointed by the British government to administer the colony relied on the support of the white population, and the white population, searching for security and prosperity in an isolated and alien milieu, became unequivocally racist. The bars to empathy were potent, for the settlers were ignorant of the history, the language, the social institutions, and the moral norms of the Africans around them; yet they took Africans into their service, only to become disappointed with their performance as laborers. The dominant impressions settlers had of Africans were consciousness of difference, fear of numbers, and chagrin at instrumental deficiencies. They regarded the nonracial clause in the 1843 annexation agreement as “utterly inapplicable,” because Natal was “a white settlement,” and its Africans were “foreigners.”

In 1856, following the 1853 precedent in the Cape Colony, the British government provided Natal with a constitution under which appointed officials controlled the executive but were a minority in the legislature, where the majority was elected by the tiny white population. Not surprisingly, the elected members used their powers to foster the sectional interests of their constituents. They passed laws to ensure that Africans should not acquire the franchise, and egged on by a vigorous press, they put continuous pressure on the senior officials both to ensure that the requisite number of Africans turned out to work for Whites and to block the allocation of public funds for African interests. In effect, no more public money was made available for that purpose than the five thousand pounds a year expressly set aside in the constitution—and sometimes not even that much was actually spent on Africans, even though Africans were paying ten thousand pounds a year and more to the colonial treasury, in the form of a tax of seven shillings on every one of their domestic buildings or huts.

In the absence of state support, missionaries were the only white people who tried to help Natal Africans to adapt to the colonial situation. As has been mentioned, missionaries got control of 175,000 acres of land in Natal. The most effective were members of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, who began to arrive in 1835. By 1851, the ABCFM had eleven stations and six outstations in Natal. Africans received them enthusiastically at first, because the Shakan wars had disrupted their society and discredited their methods of coping with disasters. The missionaries opened elementary schools and medical dispensaries; in some cases, they mediated on behalf of their protégés with the civil authorities. They even made a number of converts, especially among fringe members of African communities. That was the beginning of a process that was producing a new class of Africans who eagerly adopted Western practices, taking English names, learning the English language, wearing imported clothes, buying land from white settlers, and absorbing Christian ideas of social and political justice. By the 1860s, many Africans had become quite prosperous peasants, producing maize for export to Cape Town or wool for the local market.

White colonists, meanwhile, had not been prospering as farmers, and they complained that Shepstone’s system of African management made it difficult for them to obtain an adequate supply of cheap labor. One group of white settlers’ labor needs were especially ill-served: landowners who were finding that the subtropical coastal zone was suited to the production of sugar but that they could not attract sufficient African laborers to do the arduous labor demanded—labor for which, unlike stock farming or grain production, the Africans had no previous experience. First, the planters tried to persuade the colonial government to break up the locations and “release” the required African labor. When that failed, they turned to British India, which was already exporting labor to Mauritius and the British West Indies to remedy the labor shortage that followed Britain’s emancipation of the slaves in 1833. Under laws and regulations of the Indian and Natal governments, Indians began to arrive in Natal in 1860. They were contracted to serve employers on stipulated conditions for five years. At the end of that time they were free to branch out on their own, and after another five years they were entitled either to a free return passage to India or to a small grant of land in Natal. Since the laws provided that at least twenty-five women should accompany every hundred men transported to Natal, it was inevitable that a permanent Indian population in the colony would emerge.

Between 1860 and 1866, six thousand Indians arrived in Natal from Madras and Calcutta. In terms of caste, language, and religion they were heterogeneous; although most were low-caste Hindus, some were Hindus of higher castes, 12 percent were Muslims, and 5 percent were Christians. As they completed their five years’ indentured service, some remained on the coastal estates as laborers; others became semiskilled workers—artisans, cooks, house servants, tailors, or washermen; still others acquired small landholdings and grew fruit and vegetables for sale in Durban or Pietermaritzburg; some became shopkeepers; and a few moved to other parts of Southern Africa. In 1870, when the first Indians became entitled to a return passage to India, nearly all elected to stay—an example most of their successors would follow. A third major community had been established in the colony. The system continued until 1911 and resulted in the creation of a sizeable Indian population, one that would eventually outnumber the Whites in Natal.

By 1870, there were three distinct communities in Natal, distinguished by history, culture, and wealth and power in the colonial situation. The Africans, numbering more than a quarter million, had experienced two drastic changes in fifty years: the rise of the Zulu kingdom, which had removed most of them from Natal, and the creation of the white colony, which had given them some security on limited acreage. Many Africans still had a partial autonomy in the locations, many others were labor tenants or rent payers on white property, a few were landowners, and others were occasional wage laborers. All were experiencing the effects of white power and influence, which limited the authority of chiefs, imposed taxes, created new material needs, eroded customary values, and insinuated new ones. The Whites, newcomers to Natal, numbered about eighteen thousand, owned most of the land, controlled the legislative branch of government, exerted great influence over the executive branch, and steadfastly ignored the nonracial principle set out in the annexation proclamation. The six thousand Indians, more recent arrivals still, were beginning to exploit opportunities that, though limited, were greater than those available to most people in India.

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