Sir Harry Smith, bungling hero

Sir Harry Smith, Bungling HeroSir Harry Smith, Bungling Hero by A.L. Harington
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sir Harry Smith arrived in the Cape Colony as Governor at the end of 1847, with a mandate to settle its affairs, and those of its neighbours as well. He was recalled in 1852, after a little more than four years, and his bungling cost the British taxpayers a lot of money, and impoverished and alienated most of the neighbours.

My main interest in reading his life was that a year before he arrived my wife Val’s Green ancestors arrived, and since they had come with the British military, Sir Harry Smith was their boss for those four years, and his policies (and bungling) shaped their lives as well as those of many others.

Val’s great great great grandfather, William Green, recently widowed, was transferred from Canada to the Cape Colony in about 1846, along with several of his children, including Val’s great great grandfather Fred Green, who was about 17 years old. Fred’s older brother Henry, like his father, joined the commissariat department, and another brother, Edward, joined the Cape Mounted Rifles as an ensign.

Edward enlisted in the middle of the 7th Frontier War, or 7th Kaffir War, as the British called it, otherwise known as the War of the Axe. It had begun when a man of the Ngqika tribe, Tlili, had been arrested for stealing an axe from a Fort Beaufort shopkeeper. His friends organised a jailbreak, and freed him by cutting off the hand of a fellow prisoner to whom he was handcuffed. The other prisoner subsequently died, so murder was added to the charges, and war was the result.

The British Secretary of State for War and Colonies, Henry Grey (the 3rd Earl Grey) in the Liberal government of Lord John Russell, decided to appoint Sir Harry Smith as Governor of the Cape Colony and Commander in Chief of British forces there to bring an end to the war (Harington 1980:88ff).

Harry Smith was a career soldier, and had served in the Cape Colony in the 1830s under Governor Sir Benjamin D’Urban, where he had taken part in the 6th Frontier War, and defeated the Xhosa tribes. He believed that the Xhosa people were tyrannised by their dictatorial chiefs, and thought that by deposing the chiefs he would liberate the Xhosas, so that they could be Christianised and civilised and become good citizens of the British Empire. On that occasion, when the Xhosa paramount chief Hintsa (who had taken little part in the fighting) came to the British camp under a flag of truce to negotiate peace terms, the British had treacherously kept him as a hostage, and finally treated him as a prisoner and murdered him while he was trying to “escape”. Smith then attempted to browbeat the other chiefs by intimidation and bluster, which he himself had referred to as “play-acting” so that, in effect, he pretended to rule them, and they pretended to surrender (Harington 1980:41ff).

Smith had then been transferred to India, where he had distinguished himself militarily against the Sikhs at the Battle of Aliwal, which had enhanced his reputation as a great military leader, and on the strength of this he was sent to the Cape Colony in three capacities – political (as Governor of the Cape Colony), diplomatic (as High Commissioner) and military (as Commander in Chief).

Sir Harry Smith

Sir Harry Smith

Smith arrived at Cape Town on 1 December 1847, when the Green family had been in the Cape Colony for about a year. He immediately set out on a tour of his domain.

With increasing numbers of British subjects (notably the Voortrekkers) from the Cape Colony settling north of the Orange River, the British government appointed Major Henry Douglas Warden as Resident in the area to keep the peace, and he settled on the farm Bloemfontein, near the Modder River in what was then known as Trans-Orangia. That, too, was to be on the itinerary of Smith’s grand tour.

The 7th Frontier War was almost over by the time Smith reached Port Elizabeth on 14 December 1847. Among those there to greet him was the Ngqika chief Maqoma, one of Smith’s old enemies from the 6th Frontier War. Maqoma had been neutral in the 7th Frontier War, and so had sat on his horse, unmolested, among the crowd who were waiting for Smith. Harington (1980:98f) describes what happened next:

From a window in the Phoenix Hotel [Smith] looked down upon an excited crowd that included many old friends and an old enemy, Maqoma himself, who astride his horse was especially prominent and noticed by Smith. To the amusement of the crowd the governor stared meaningfully at the chief, then half drew his sword. That should have been explicit enough, and sufficiently undignified, but Smith’s next actions show how success had gone to his head and affected his judgement. Though his intentions had always been good his earlier behaviour vis-à-vis the Xhosa had all too often been overbearing and eccentric, and he treated Maqoma in a manner that was outrageous, dangerous and foolish. He summoned the chief to his presence and when Maqoma offered his hand he was forced to prostrate himself in front of the governor who, having placed his foot upon his neck, poured forth a torrent of menacing vituperation over him, and threatened that all the other chiefs were going to get similar treatment. They were to be crushed and compelled to submit and obey.

Such was the man under whom three members of the Green family were to serve – William and his son Henry in the commissariat, and Edward as a Lieutenant in the Cape Mounted Rifles.

After browbeating the other Xhosa chiefs, Smith annexed their land between the Kei and Keiaskamma rivers under the name of British Kaffraria (later called the Ciskei), and told them that henceforth they would be under British rule.

In February 1848 Sir Harry Smith, after discussions with the Voortrekker leader Andries Pretorius, proclaimed British sovereignty over Trans-Orangia, and a village was laid out at Bloemfontein , with a fort and a garrison. The garrison consisted of the Cape Mounted Rifles, the 45th (Nottinghamshire) Regiment and the Royal Artillery88b:7). This was a mere ten years after the Great Trek.

The Sovereignty was challenged by the Boers, who proclaimed a republic at Winburg and marched on Bloemfontein, but were defeated by the British, lef by Sir Harry Smith, at the Battle of Boomplaats on 29 August 1848, where Henry Green was in charge of the commissariat. Henry Green remained in Bloemfontein, and eventually replaced the incompetent Major Harry Warden as British Resident in July 1852. In the mean time his younger brothers visited him there, and Henry seems to have found work for some of them to do, while Charles and Fred Green used it as a base for hunting expeditions to what is now Botswana. .

After a couple of years another frontier wart broke out (the 8th), and it is probably fair to say that Sir Harry Smith’s arrogance and overbearing manner in dealing with the Xhosa chiefs made it much more bitter than the preceding seven wars. He sent optimistic reports back to Earl Grey in Britain about his victories, but in spite of all the battles he claimed to have won, the Xhosas still occupied their strongholds and kept the British tied up in their forts. Eventually Harry Smith was recalled.

There is more in the book about his life before this period, though his recall marked the end of his career. It was also William Green’s last posting. In 1855 he retired on half pay, and went to live in London.

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A bit of Eastern Cape history

My great grandfather William Matthew Growdon came to the Cape Colony in 1876 to work on the railway being built inland from East London. My blogging friend Deon Strydom posted a photo of an interesting cottage built for those working on the line with a link to a site saying where it is and how to get there Tracks4Africa Padkos – Gangers Cottage (Historical Building):

When the railway line between East London and Queenstown was first built it bypassed Stutterheim by several kilometres. It was built during the Frontier War of 1877-1878 when the gangers (railway workers) were in danger of attack by Xhosa tribes. To protect the gangers, fortified ‘gangers cottages’ were built. Cottage No. 17 is situated on the Komga road which branches off the main road at Dohne Station. The cottage was declared a National monument on 3 December 1976. There are four tambours one on each corner, with slits so that the gangers could defend themselves against attack.

There was something of a frenzy of railway building after the discovery of diamonds at Kimberley — not that railways were needed to carry the diamonds, but rather to take mining equipment, and food and goods for the miners. Though the railways were owned and built by the Cape government, there was a certain amount of competition between the lines from the various ports.

Great grandfather William Matthew Growdon came from Cornwall with his family (my grandfather George Growdon was 3 years old at the time). He had been a stonemason in Cornwall, so perhaps he had a hand in building this fortified cottage too.

Railway workers' cottage near Stutterheim in the Eastern Cape

Railway workers’ cottage near Stutterheim in the Eastern Cape

Interestingly enough some of William Matthew Growdon’s descendants are still living in the vicinity of Stutterheim, and if you are passing you can go there to stay in a somewhat different kind of cottage. The place is The Shire, just outside Stutterheim, where my cousins Hamish, Monica and Rob Scott live.

Click on the links for more pictures and stories.