Episode 151 - The polymath Sir John Herschel, his free school system and other 1840 interconnections

History of South Africa podcast

31-12-2023 • 22 mins

Episode 151 and we’re into the 1840s - and its time to analyse some issues. One is education, the other, roads.

Given our crisis in education these days, its perhaps another of our historical ironies that state funded schooling was offered by 1839 and 1840 in the Cape, something that was unparalleled at the time except for Prussia and a handful of New England states in America.

No-where else in the world at the time could state funded free education be found.

Yes, you heard that right, South Africa was an early adopter of free education.

Another growing phenomenon at this moment was the building of roads, something that was sorely required in a region as vas as southern Africa. After the Sixth Frontier war of 1834-5, municipal government began to develop, and a new Legislative Council was struggling to make sense of the existing political system.

All members of the council were appointed by the Governor, and only gained the right to alter the Charters of Justice, or the law, in 1844. Christoffel Brand, editor of die Zuid Afrikaan, and Robert Godlonton editor of the Grahamstown journal, both talked of an elective assembly. Godlonton added that he preferred to see the Eastern Cape achieve independence from the Cape.

These erstwhile journalists were merely repeating conversations that were taking place across the British Empire in the fourth decade of the 19th Century. In Australia for example, the 1840s were years of conflict, as British settlers increasingly moved out away from towns seeking new farmland, First Nations fought back and resisted this expansion. Violence ensued.

Squatters, who leased large pastoral lands from the colonial governments in New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria and into Queensland and South Australia, increasingly gained political and economic influence. They became wealthy off the land leased at low rates, stocking them with thousands of sheep, with their fleeces sold into the British market. Many squatters, with time and money, stood for election to parliament to set the laws and rules in their favour. Wool was also going to become the Cape’s main resource shortly.

The gloom of the trekkers leaving the province had been replaced by an economic upturn — the Cape Colony finances were in a much healthier condition than they had been ten years earlier.

Governor D’Urban, who’d left for home, had earlier launched a campaign to simplify the fiscal system and by 1840 the campaign had begun to bear fruit. The collection of taxes by Colonial Secretary John Montagu resulted in the Cape finally wiping off its public debt and re-paying the British government in full.

Customs revenues were rising, the slave compensation fund had helped, and the delivery of stores during the Sixth Frontier war bolstered imports, while exports grew. Wine farms had experienced a drop in sales starting in 1825, but wool had largely replaced this commodity.

Merino sheep had been acclimatised in Albany district around Grahamstown just before the war of 1834, and suddenly there was a lot of money to be made farming these animals for their wool. Within ten years, by the 1850s, wool would outstrip all other Cape exports put together. Just like in Australia.
To his credit, Sir George Napier wanted to improve this situation and following a report prepared by Colonial Secretary John Bell for his predecessor D’Urban, Napier turned to a fascinating man called Sir John Herschel.

He was a famous astronomer, who was collaborating with Thomas Maclear, the Cape Astronomer Royal at the private observatory at Claremont near Cape Town. And this of course, is why we call Observatory Observatory.

Loved by the students, loathed by their parents, a place of excellent entertainment to this day, Obs is a seminal party centre, characterised by the smell of cannabis on Lower Main Street.
Sir John Herschel had a cunning plan. He began to develop a system that bore his name, whereby two classes of schools were recognised.