A difficulty between the Cape Colony government and the Xhosa arose in 1817, the immediate cause of which was an attempt by the colonial authorities to enforce the restitution of some stolen cattle. On 22 April 1817, led by a prophet-chief named Makana, they attacked Graham’s Town, then held by a handful of white troops. Help arrived in time and the enemy were beaten back. It was then agreed that the land between the Fish and the Keiskamma rivers should be neutral territory.
The arrival of these immigrants also introduced the English language to the Cape. English language ordinances were issued for the first time in 1825, and in 1827, its use was extended to the conduct of judicial proceedings. Dutch was not, however, ousted, and the colonists became largely bilingual.
An incident, which occurred from 1815 to 1816, did much to make the Dutch frontiersmen permanently hostile to the British. A farmer named Bezuidenhout refused to obey a summons issued to him after a complaint from Khoikhoi was registered. He fired on the party sent to arrest him, and was killed by the return fire. This caused a miniature rebellion, and in its suppression five ringleaders were publicly hanged by the British at Slagter's Nek where they had originally sworn to expel "the English tyrants." The resentment caused by the hanging of these men was deepened by the circumstances of the execution, for the scaffold on which the rebels simultaneously were hanged broke from their united weight and the men were hanged one by one afterwards. The deeply religious Dutch frontiersmen believed the collapsing scaffold to be an act of God. An ordinance passed in 1827 abolished the old Dutch "landdrost" and "heemraden" courts, instead substituting resident magistrates. The ordinance further stipulated that all legal proceedings be henceforth conducted in English.
As a result of the championing of the missionaries, a subsequent ordinance in 1828 granted equal rights with white people to the Khoikhoi and other free coloured people. Another ordinance in 1830 imposed heavy penalties for harsh treatment of slaves, and finally the emancipation of slaves was proclaimed in 1834. Each of these ordinances drew further ire from the Dutch farmers towards the government. Moreover, the inadequate compensation awarded to slave-owners, and the suspicions engendered by the method of payment, caused much resentment, and in 1835 the trend where farmers trekked into unknown country in order to escape from a disliked government recommenced. Emigration beyond the colonial border had in fact been continuous for 150 years, but it now took on larger proportions.
On the eastern border, further trouble arose between the government and the Xhosa, towards whom the policy of the Cape government was marked by much vacillation. On 11 December 1834, a government commando party killed a chief of high rank, incensing the Xhosa: an army of 10,000 men, led by Macomo, a brother of the chief who had been killed, swept across the frontier, pillaged and burned the homesteads and killed all who resisted. Among the worst sufferers was a colony of freed Khoikhoi who, in 1829, had been settled in the Kat River valley by the British authorities. There were few available soldiers in the colony, but the governor, Sir Benjamin d'Urban acted quickly and all available forces were mustered under Colonel Sir Harry Smith, who reached Graham’s Town on 6 January 1835, six days after news of the uprising had reached Cape Town. The British fought the Xhosa for nine months until hostilities were ended on 17 September 1836 with the signing of a new peace treaty, by which all the country as far as the River Kei was acknowledged to be British, and its inhabitants declared British subjects. A site for the seat of government was selected and named King William’s Town.
The British government did not approve of the actions of Sir Benjamin d'Urban, and the British Secretary for the Colonies, Lord Glenelg, declared in a letter to the King that "the great evil of the Cape Colony consists in its magnitude" and demanded that the boundary be moved back to the Fish River. He also eventually had d'Urban dismissed from office in 1837. "The Kaffirs," in Lord Glenelg's dispatch of 26 December, "had an ample justification for war; they had to resent, and endeavoured justly, though impotently, to avenge a series of encroachments.” This attitude towards the Xhosa was one of the many reasons given by the Trek Boers for leaving the Cape Colony. The Great Trek, as it is called, lasted from 1836 to 1840. The trekkers (Boers), numbering around 7,000, founded communities with a republican form of government beyond the Orange and Vaal rivers, and in Natal, where they had been preceded, however, by British emigrants. From this time on, Cape Colony ceased to be the only European community in South Africa, though it was the most predominant for many years.
Considerable trouble was caused by the emigrant Boers on either side of the Orange River, where the Boers, the Basutos, other native tribes, Bushmen, and Griquas fought for superiority, while the Cape government endeavoured to protect the rights of the natives. On the advice of the missionaries, who exercised great influence on all non-Dutch people, a number of the native states were recognised and subsidised by the Cape government with the objective of creating peace on the northern frontier. The first "Treaty States" to be recognised was Griqualand West of the Griqua people. Subsequent states were recognised between 1843 and 1844. While the northern frontier became more secure, the state of the eastern frontier was deplorable, with the government either unable or unwilling to protect farmers from the Xhosa.
Elsewhere, however, the colony was making progress. The change from slave to free labour proved to be advantageous to the farmers in the western provinces. An efficient education system, owing its inception to Sir John Herschel, an astronomer who lived in Cape Colony from 1834 to 1838, was adopted. Road Boards were established and proved to be very effective in constructing new roads. A new stable industry, sheepraising, was added to the original set of wheatgrowing, cattle rearing, and wine making. By 1846, wool became the country's most valuable export. A legislative council was established in 1835, giving the colonists a share in the government.
In December 1847, or what was to be the last month of the War of the Axe, Sir Harry Smith reached Cape Town by boat to become the new governor of the colony. He reversed Glenelg's policy soon after arrival. A proclamation he issued on 17 December, 1847, extended the borders of the colony northwards to the Orange river and eastward to the Keiskamma river, and at a meeting of the Xhosa chiefs on 23 December, 1847, Sir Harry announced the annexation of the land between the Keiskamma and the Kei rivers to the British crown, thus re-absorbing the territory abandoned by Lord Glenelg. The land was not, however, incorporated into the Cape Colony, but instead made a crown dependency under the name of British Kaffraria. For a time, the Xhosa accepted the new government in British Kaifaria since they were mainly left alone as the governor had other serious matters to contend with, including the assertion of British authority over the Boers beyond the Orange river, and the establishment of amicable relations with the Transvaal Boers.
Other setbacks followed in quick succession. The greater part of the Xhosa police deserted, many of them leaving with their arms. Emboldened by their initial success, the Xhosa surrounded and attacked Fort Cox with immense force, where the governor was stationed with a small number of soldiers. More than one unsuccessful attempt was made to kill Sir Harry, and he needed to find a way to escape. At the head of 150 mounted riflemen, accompanied by Colonel Mackinnon, he galloped out of the fort, and rode to King William’s Town through heavy enemy fire — a distance of 12 miles (19 km).
Meanwhile, a new enemy appeared. Some 900 of the Kat river Khoikhoi, who had in former wars been firm allies of the British, joined their former enemies: the Xhosa. They were not without justification. They complained that while serving as soldiers in former wars — the Cape Mounted Rifles consisted largely of Khoikhois — they had not received the same treatment as others serving in defence of the colony, that they got no compensation for the losses they had sustained, and that they were in various ways made to feel they were a wronged and injured race. A secret alliance was formed with the Xhosa to take up arms in order to remove the Europeans and establish a Khoikhoi republic. Within a fortnight of the attack on Colonel Mackinnon, the Kat river Khoikhoi were also in arms. Their revolt was followed by that of the Khoikhoi at other missionary stations, and some of the Khoikhoi of the Cape Mounted Rifles followed their example, including some of the very men who had escorted the governor from Fort Cox. But many of the Khoikhoi remained loyal, and the Fingo likewise sided with the British.
After the confusion caused by the surprise attack had subsided, Sir Harry Smith and his force turned the tide of war against the Xhosa. The Amatola Mountains were stormed, and Sarhili, the highest ranking chief, who had been secretly assisting the Ngqika all along, was severely punished. In April 1852, Sir Harry Smith was recalled by Earl Grey, who accused him — unjustly, in the opinion of the Duke of Wellington — of a want of energy and judgement in conducting the war; he was succeeded by Lieutenant-General Cathcart. Sarhili was again attacked and reduced to submission. The Amatolas were finally cleared of Xhosa, and small forts were erected to prevent their reoccupation.
The British commanders were hampered throughout by their insufficient equipment, and it was not until March 1853 that the largest of the Frontier wars was brought to an end after the loss several hundred British soldiers. Shortly afterwards, British Kaffraria was made a crown colony. The Khoikhoi settlement at Kat River remained, but the Khoikhoi power within the colony was crushed.
In 1854, a disease spread through the cattle of the Xhosa. It was believed to have spread from cattle owned by the Settlers. Widespread cattle deaths resulted, and the Xhosa believed that the deaths were caused by ubuthi, or witchcraft. In May 1856, a girl named Nongqawuse went to fetch water from a pool near the mouth of the Gxarha River. When she returned, she told her uncle Mhlakaza that she had met three spirits at the pool, and that they had told her that all cattle should be slaughtered, and their crops destroyed. On the day following the destruction, the dead Xhosa would return and help expel the whites. The ancestors would bring cattle with them to replace those that had been killed. Mhlakaza believed the prophecy, and repeated it to the chief Sarhili.
Sarhili ordered the commands of the spirits to be obeyed. At first, the Xhosa were ordered to destroy their fat cattle. Nongqawuse, standing in the river where the spirits had first appeared, heard unearthly noises, interpreted by her uncle as orders to kill more and more cattle. At length, the spirits commanded that not an animal of all their herds was to remain alive, and every grain of corn was to be destroyed. If that were done, on a given date, myriads of cattle more beautiful than those destroyed would issue from the earth, while great fields of corn, ripe and ready for harvest, would instantly appear. The dead would rise, trouble and sickness vanish, and youth and beauty come to all alike. Unbelievers and the hated white man would on that day perish.
The people heard and obeyed. Sarhili is believed by many people to have been the instigator of the prophecies. Certainly some of the principal chiefs believed that they were acting simply in preparation for a last struggle with the Europeans, their plan being to throw the whole Xhosa nation fully armed and famished upon the colony. Belief in the prophecy was bolstered by the death of Lieutenant-General Cathcart in the Crimean War in 1854. His death was interpreted as being due to intervention by the ancestors.
There were those who neither believed the predictions nor looked for success in war, but destroyed their last particle of food in unquestioning obedience to their chief’s command. Either in faith that reached the sublime, or in obedience equally great, vast numbers of the people acted. Great kraals were also prepared for the promised cattle, and huge skin sacks to hold the milk that was soon to be more plentiful than water. At length the day dawned which, according to the prophecies, was to usher in the terrestrial paradise. The sun rose and sank, but the expected miracle did not come to pass. The chiefs who had planned to hurl the famished warriors upon the colony had committed an incredible blunder in neglecting to call the nation together under pretext of witnessing the resurrection. They realised their error too late, and attempted to fix the situation by changing the resurrection to another day, but blank despair had taken the place of hope and faith, and it was only as starving supplicants that the Xhosa sought the British.
Sir George Grey, governor of the Cape at the time ordered the European settlers not to help the Xhosa unless they entered labour contracts with the settlers who owned land in the area. In their extreme famine, many of the Xhosa turned to cannibalism, and one instance of parents eating their own child is authenticated. Among the survivors was the girl Nongqawuse; however, her uncle perished. A vivid narrative of the whole incident is found in G. M. Theal’s History and Geography of South Africa (3rd edition, London, 1878). The depopulated country was afterwards peopled by European settlers, among whom were members of the German legion which had served with the British army in the Crimea, and some, 2000 industrious North German emigrants, who proved a valuable acquisition to the colony.
Historians now view this movement as a millennialist response both directly to a lung disease spreading among Xhosa cattle at the time, and less directly to the stress to Xhosa society caused by the continuing loss of their territory and autonomy. At least one historian has also suggested that it can be seen as a rebellion against the upper classes of Xhosa society, which used cattle as a means of consolidating wealth and political power, and which had lost respect as they failed to hold back white expansion.
Sir George Grey left the Cape in 1861. During his governorship the resources of the colony had increased with the opening of the copper mines in Little Namaqualand, the mohair wool industry had been established and Natal made a separate colony. The opening, in November 1863, of the railway from Cape Town to Wellington, and the construction in 1860 of the great breakwater in Table Bay, long needed on that perilous coast, marked the beginning in the colony of public works on a large scale. They were the more-or-less direct result of the granting to the colony of a large share in its own government.
The province of British Kaffraria was incorporated into the colony in 1865, under the title of the Electoral Divisions of King William’s Town and East London. The transfer was marked by the removal of the prohibition of the sale of alcoholic beverages to the natives, and the free trade in intoxicants which followed had most deplorable results among the Xhosa tribes. A severe drought, affecting almost the entire colony for several years, caused great economic depression, and many farmers suffered severely. It was at this period in 1869 that ostrich-farming was successfully established as a separate industry.
Whether by or against the wish of the home government, the limits of British authority continued to extend. The Basotho, who dwelt in the upper valleys of the Orange River, had subsisted under a semi-protectorate of the British government from 1843 to 1854; but having been left to their own resources on the abandonment of the Orange sovereignty, they fell into a long exhaustive warfare with the Boers of the Orange Free State. On the urgent petition of their chief Moshesh, they were proclaimed British subjects in 1868, and their territory became part of the Cape Colony in 1871 (see Basutoland). In the same year, the southeastern part of Bechuanaland was annexed to Britain under the title of Griqualand West. This annexation was a consequence of the discovery there of rich diamond mines, an event which was destined to have far-reaching results.