Episode 167 - Maitland dithers, Stockenstrom sallies forth into the Transkei and biblical storms change everything

History of South Africa podcast

21-04-2024 • 22 mins

This is episode 167 and the British army is clumping along towards the Amathola fastnesses, the deep ravines and steep riverine environment not the most ideal for an army that dragged everything around on wagons.

Leading this army were officers steeped in the traditions of empire, and marching under their command were men from across Great Britain and beyond. They were poor, some with debts to pay back home, many were recruited from the haunts of dissipation and inebriation as historian Noel Mostert notes one officer saying in a somewhat sneering tone.

But that’s a bit harsh, because when we read the journals of these soldiers, they’re full of character and intelligence, adventurers of their time whatever your political view. Half of these British soldiers were actually from Scotland and Ireland, they weren’t even English.

It was the officers who’d neered at the colonials, openly, and it was the officers who symbolised the rotten core of this empire with it’s rampant class lunacy. It was only on rare occasions that rank and file soldiers made it to the heady ranks of the officer corps, and promotion was painfully slow. The officer class was notorious - it took the Crimean War before the British Army was dragged into the 19th Century. Up to the Seventh Frontier War it functioned as it had for hundreds of years — a place where the chinless wonders of the Empire could seek fame and fortune while retaining their artificial edifice of class.
Then there was the South African bush which was a frightening experience for the British soldiers, it’s alien succulents a bizarre sight for the British. At night, as they soldiers lay in this bush, they could not light their pipes or a fire. At the first sign of a glimmer, the amaXhosa would open fire from several directions and while their aim was not good, the British didn’t take a chance and spent most of their time in their camp lying down out of sight.

Sir Peregrine Maitland’s large army mobilised in June 1846, and lumbered into the Amathola’s looking for Rharhabe chief Sandile. They were also trying to corner Phato of the Gqunukhwebe closer to the ocean, along with Mhala of the Ndlambe — both were lurking somewhere between the Keiskamma and Kei Rivers. Colonel Henry Somerset swept the coastal regions, as Colonel Hare and Andries Stockenstrom scouted the Amatholas.
On the 11th August 1846 Maitland made his decision.

This was an exact copy of the decision made by Harry Smith in the previous Frontier War, who told then Governor Sir Benjamin D’Urban that a strike across the Kei River was required — a decisive strike.

That’s because Harry Smith was a man of action, fully believing in the power of power.

In the previous war, the Sixth Frontier War of 1834 to 1836, Smith wanted to strike Hintsa. That highly regarded amaXhosa chief had been killed by the very same Smith. Now here was Hintsa’s heir and his son, Sarhili, facing another British veteran of the war against Napoleon.