Head and shoulders portrait of Andries Botha, in seven-eighths profile facing to his left.

One More Voice

Lost Voices from the British Empire's Archives

Introduction to Andries Botha (dates unknown)

with a Discussion of His Letter to Sir Harry Smith, 23 June 1850

Jared McDonald (University of the Free State)

Overview  top

Andries Botha (dates unknown, but born in the late 1700s) was a member of the Gonaqua ethnic group who rose to prominence during the Cape frontier wars in South Africa. Botha became one of the most well-known Gonaqua leaders in the Kat River Settlement following its establishment in 1829. Before relocating to the Kat River Settlement, Botha had resided at Theopolis mission station, one of the better provisioned mission stations of the London Missionary Society in the eastern Cape, where the resident missionaries held him in high regard.

Botha served with the British colonial forces against the Xhosa, a prominent southern African ethnic group, in Hintsa’s War of 1834-5 (the Sixth Frontier War) and in the War of the Axe of 1846-7 (the Seventh Frontier War). In reflecting on Botha’s service during these frontier wars, Andries Stockenstrӧm, erstwhile magistrate of the frontier district of Graaff-Reinet in South Africa and Commissioner-General for the Eastern Cape asserted: “Her Majesty has not in her dominions a more loyal subject, nor braver soldier” (Ross 2014).

Though Botha played an important role in the politics and contestations of the mid-nineteenth century eastern Cape frontier, he left behind a limited archival footprint. He emerges from the historical record in intervals that tended to coincide with frontier conflicts. Large swathes of his life remain unknown and, potentially, lost to history. The essay below presents much of what is known of Botha and provides insight into the context in which he wrote a letter of protest to the Governor of the Cape Colony in June 1850.

As noted, Andries Botha was a member of the Gonaqua. The Khoe (also Khoekhoe or Khoena), a pastoralist people, were the indigenous inhabitants of South Africa’s south-western Cape, while the Gonaqua (also Gona or Gonah) were a subset of the Khoe who had settled farther east and inhabited the region of the Fish, Bushman, and Sundays Rivers prior to European settlement at the Cape. Owing to this settlement pattern, generations of Gonaqua had intermingled with the Xhosa, who were themselves established even farther to the east (Andries Botha, for instance, was said to have had a Xhosa mother). By the mid-nineteenth century and by virtue of their Xhosa commixture, many Gonaqua had relatives living across the colonial frontier in the Xhosa chieftaincies. This was much to the disapproval of the local British colonial authorities who intended for the frontier between the Gonaqua and Xhosa to serve as a border separating distinct territories with discrete ethnic groups. In reality, the frontier was regularly traversed, especially by Gonaqua, and was more characteristic of a zone of interaction than a border. The interstitial identity of the Gonaqua, therefore, and their close cultural and ethnic affinity with the Xhosa cast doubts on the Gonaqua’s collective assimilation as loyal subjects of the British Crown (Keegan 1996).

During the course of the early nineteenth century, many Gonaqua took up residence at mission stations in the Cape Colony. Gonaqua were also in demand as farm labourers by the Boers and English-speaking settlers in the region. Working conditions on the local farms were typically harsh, and Gonaqua and Khoe labourers were often regarded as slaves and treated as such. Mission stations provided an escape from these oppressive socio-economic circumstances, a factor that significantly contributed to the growing populations of Gonaqua and Khoe at missions – especially those of the London Missionary Society (LMS) – throughout the Cape during this period.

In 1829, a tract of land surrounding the headwaters of the Kat River on the edge of the eastern frontier of the Colony was demarcated by the British colonial government for Gonaqua and Khoe settlement. The government intended for the Kat River Settlement to serve as a buffer zone between the Cape Colony and the Xhosa chieftaincies, a zone that would be inhabited by loyal and industrious Gonaqua and Khoe subjects. Botha was one of the earliest Gonaqua settlers to this zone, along with his extended family and other acquaintances. Soon thereafter, the British colonial government appointed Botha as veldcornet of Buxton, one of the many villages that sprang up in the Kat River Settlement (Elbourne 2002). Botha’s title indicated that he was the presiding local official for this village.

Life in the Kat River Settlement proved to be more challenging than its supporters and inhabitants had anticipated. The Settlement was negatively impacted by the successive effects and aftermaths of Hintsa’s War of 1834-5 (the Sixth Frontier War) and the War of the Axe of 1846-7 (the Seventh Frontier War). Properties were damaged, crops destroyed, and livestock lost (Ross 2014). During these conflicts, scores of Kat River men served in the Cape Corps (also known as the Cape Mounted Rifles), a Gonaqua and Khoe regiment of the colonial forces, including Botha. The disruptions to livelihoods caused by the ongoing conflict and instability on the frontier resulted in some Gonaqua who lived in the Xhosa chieftaincies being displaced and relocating to the Kat River Settlement, where the displaced Gonaqua sought whatever semblance of refuge could be found. The colonial authorities looked upon these Gonaqua refugees as a destabilizing presence. They were regarded not as the fellow Gonaqua of those residing in the Kat River Settlement, but rather as Xhosa squatters without any right to live in the area (Ross 2014).

Contrary to the hopes of the inhabitants of the Kat River Settlement, the end of the War of the Axe in 1847 did not secure a lasting peace. The conclusion of hostilities was tenuous and within a short period of time there were growing expectations on both sides of the colonial frontier that another war was imminent (Price 2008). The displaced Gonaqua who had taken up residence in the Kat River Settlement following Hintsa’s War and the War of the Axe now came to be looked upon with even more disdain by some of the colonial authorities. By mid-1850, the local colonial authorities decided to forcefully remove them from the Settlement.

In June of that year, in the middle of winter, the colonial authorities led a division of the Xhosa police in colonial service through the Settlement. They were charged with clearing out the Gonaqua deemed to be illegal squatters. However, distinctions between the Gonaqua squatters and others in the Settlement were not easily determined and the implementation of the plan was far more indiscriminate, arguably, than intended by the colonial authorities.

While the Xhosa police were meant to target squatters only, Gonaqua who had resided in the Kat River Settlement for many years were also caught up in the operation, including some Gonaqua residents who were among the earliest inhabitants of the Settlement and had been resident since soon after its founding twenty-one years earlier. Homesteads and crops were destroyed, while long-resident Gonaqua men, women, and children were driven off. Several families at Buxton, where Botha was veldcornet, were treated in this way, including members of Botha’s family (Ross 2014).

Sir Harry Smith was the Governor of the Cape Colony at the time of this operation. Smith had been a military commander during Hintsa’s War, but he had subsequently left the Cape Colony for India before returning as Governor in 1847. In June 1850, in response to what had transpired at his fieldcornetcy of Buxton at the hands of the Xhosa colonial police, and with the sanction of the local colonial authorities, Andries Botha wrote a letter of protest to Governor Smith. This letter is published by the One More Voice project.

In the letter, Botha sets out his history of service to the Crown and Cape Colony and describes himself as a faithful, old servant. In doing so, Botha links himself to many of the residents of Buxton (including some of those who had been burned out of their homes) who had served the Crown and Colony in the frontier wars with similar distinction. As such, these residents of Buxton were particularly affronted by their treatment. Botha also raises other grievances shared by inhabitants of the Kat River Settlement, such as the long delays in measuring out erfs (pieces of land registered in a deeds registry in order to confirm ownership). These contributed to the tenuous claims of some as rightful residents, even though they paid taxes and served in the colonial forces against the Xhosa.

Botha’s letter to the Governor reveals his personal grief in light of what had unfolded and the negative impact on his family, friends, and compatriots. The letter also provides insight into Botha’s deep sense of personal disillusionment. Though he and other Khoe and Gonaqua close to him had served the Crown and Colony faithfully for many years, they nonetheless had to suffer the injustice of being driven out of their homes at the order of colonial authorities. This sentiment was indicative of a growing general sense of disappointment among Gonaqua and Khoe who had aligned themselves with the evangelical-humanitarian movement and who had done much of what was expected of them by the colonial state, but had little to show for it.

Although the letter to Sir Harry Smith indicates that Botha was quite distressed by the events he experienced in the Kat River Settlement, Botha continued to declare his loyalty to the Crown. The actions of the colonial authorities described above, however, contributed to growing disillusionment among the Kat River settlers, who saw little hope of their prospects for peace, stability, and economic progress improving. Seven months after the Xhosa colonial police had driven out those labelled squatters from the Kat River Settlement, the mounting discontent erupted in the Kat River Rebellion, an event that coincided with Mlanjeni’s War of 1850-53 (the Eighth Frontier War), in which numbers of Kat River Khoe and Gonaqua joined forces with the Xhosa against the Colony.

In 1851, Botha himself was accused of joining the Kat River Gonaqua and Khoe who rebelled against the Colony in concert with the Xhosa. Botha was put on trial for treason, the first time that the Cape High Court considered the charge of treason against a subject of the Colony. However, the evidence against Botha was circumstantial, and his trial has since been regarded as a political show trial targeting the Kat River Settlement and its evangelical-humanitarian supporters who were rapidly losing influence on colonial affairs. Botha was convicted and sentenced to death, but the sentence was later commuted to hard labour and he was eventually granted amnesty in 1855 (Elbourne 2002).