The British arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in 1795 and immediately came into conflict with the Dutch over the issue of slavery. The initial aim of the British was to secure a stop-off on the way to Asia, but they soon became involved in the business of the colony. In 1807, the British banned slave ownership.
The British finally subdued the Dutch in 1806, and in 1834 they banned the trade in slaves. The Afrikaners hugely resented this and set off north over the Orange River, taking their cattle, wagons and servants with them to pursue their own way of life. Ironically, the land they occupied, the Transvaal, became a magnet for every European speculator in the region, since it contained some of the largest gold deposits in the world. By moving north, the Afrikaners clashed with the Ndebele, and most famously with the Zulus in 1838 at the battle of Blood River.
The Afrikaner Republic of the Orange Free State was established in 1852; that of the Transvaal in 1854. The British meanwhile set up a colony in the west of South Africa in Natal. Here, they appropriated land and created reserves for Africans, bringing in large numbers of Indians to work on five year contracts.
In 1890, Cecil Rhodes became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. Five years later the British acquired a new Secretary of State, Joseph Chamberlain. Aggressively imperialist by nature, Chamberlain and Rhodes proved a lethal combination. First they took on the Afrikaners in the war of 1899 (known as the Boer war) and then many Africans. It is estimated that between 10,000 and 30,000 Africans fought alongside the British in the Boer War.
The most famous African to support the British effort was Solomon Plaatje who kept a diary throughout the famous siege of Mafeking. Sol Plaatje was a hugely talented writer and journalist. On the political front he is remembered for being the founding Secretary General of the South African National Congress (later renamed the ANC). He was born of Tswana-speaking Barolong parents and was a prolific writer, journalist and lecturer.
The Afrikaners were far harder to beat than the British had imagined; towards the end the British grew increasingly ruthless, resorting to a scorched earth policy and the confinement of Afrikaners - women and children - into huge concentration camps. Nearly 28,000 died of disease and dysentery.
Far away in Imperial Russia great interest was taken in the plight of the Boers (Afrikaners). The song, "Transvaal, Transvaal, My Beloved Country", was composed in support of the Afrikaners.
The war generated a powerful image of martyrdom, bravery and defiance, which became mythologised by the National Party in 1948. The memory of the British aggression was ingrained in the minds of many Afrikaners.
Eye witness account of Boer war
"It [the house] was full of people - women and children - including Mrs. P. Sidzumo. It pulled and shook the whole house upon them: pieces of shell or the house cut off her toes, shattered legs and injured her face and head. The left leg was broken below the knee (and the thigh completely shattered). The other people remained alive in the debris. The poor husband, coming to see the remains of his house, was met with the ruins of his wife just pulled out of the debris.
He became so senseless that he returned to the fort hardly knowing what he was doing until they told him his wife wanted to see him. He jumped up in joyous bewilderment - for he had imagined that she was dead already - and had a look at her before she was moved to the hospital. This was 3:45 and she died at 6:00 in the evening, leaving the husband and a little girl to mourn her loss."
- Extract from Sol Plaatje's Diary of the Siege of Mafeking, 14 December 1899.
It took another 11 years for a solution to be hammered bringing the Transvaal, Orange Free State, Natal and Cape Colony together into the Union of South Africa. The cultural differences between the two remained sharply defined. The Afrikaners held on to their language (a dialect of Dutch) and the majority clung to the idea of racial superiority.
On paper, South Africa was a self-governing Dominion of the British Commonwealth. British interests were entrenched commercially. Politically and culturally the British continued to be in conflict with the Afrikaners for years to come, but happy in the main to take advantage of a system which provided cheap African labour and a high standard of living for whites.