The Hlubi people, under the leadership of a chief named Langalibalele, refused to become instruments of cheap labour, writes Dougie Oakes.
Cape Town - In the early 1870s, white farmers on the western border of the Crown colony of Natal were becoming increasingly angry.
With the discovery of diamonds having drawn thousands of fortune-hunters to the central parts of southern Africa, these agriculturalists were unable to cash in on an insatiable demand from the diamond fields for fresh produce.
The reason for their production blues centred on a commonly held belief - that white men, especially, were not meant to do hard, manual labour. This, in their minds, was the preserve of the indigenous people of the colony.
But the problem for the white farmers of the Weenen district of Natal was that their near-neighbours, the Hlubi people, under the leadership of a chief named Langalibalele, refused to become instruments of cheap labour.
They had no reason to.
They were proving - year after year - to be far more successful farmers than their white counterparts. Many Hlubi people had gone to Kimberley to work on the diamond fields, and had invested the cash they had been paid wisely: they bought ploughs for their fields, as well as a commodity that had ensured the domination of white colonialists throughout the world: guns.
The step-up from hoes to ploughs was a crucial development.
In 1873, the Hlubi people produced record crops - at the same time in which the exodus of failed white farmers from their lands was beginning to reach its zenith.
And so anger, built on a foundation of jealousy, grew. This was typified by a farmer in the district, who accused his black neighbours of “arrogance” after his demand “to see the pass” of a Hlubi cattle herder was brusquely dismissed with a retort that he didn't need one because he was tending to Langalibalele’s cattle (part of a combined herd of 15 000 in the chiefdom).
“They would not have answered so many years ago,” said the livid farmer.
But trouble was brewing for the Hlubis...
In the same year that they had produced their record crop, John MacFarlane, the resident magistrate of the town of Estcourt, decided to enforce the colony's recently enacted Gun Law. He sent a message to Langalibalele, instructing him to produce all unregistered guns for registration.
Langalibalele ignored him.
He had good reason to: firstly, he had no way of knowing which of his subjects owned guns. Secondly, and this was probably the main reason, he believed (probably correctly, too) that MacFarlane’s directive was a ploy to confiscate amaHlubi guns.
A new directive followed. Langalibalele was ordered to present himself in Pietermartizburg, more than 130km away, to explain why he had failed to follow the chief magistrate's instructions. Instead, he travelled to the much nearer town of Estcourt (40km away), where he explained that an old leg wound made it difficult for him to travel long distances.
The authorities, though, were far from sympathetic. Again, he was ordered to come to Pietermaritzburg.
But, again, he ignored the instruction.
As tension grew, MacFarlane wrote a letter to the Secretary for Native Affairs, Theophilus Shepstone, urging, ominously, that “significant action” needed to be taken against Langalilabele.
The action that was decided on involved sending in a punitive force that outnumbered the entire Hlubi chiefdom.
It consisted of two companies of the Gordon Highlanders, 8 000 Natal Native Levies, the Richmond Mounted Rifles and the Karkloof Troop of the Natal Carbineers.
The Hlubis had 111 rifles - 48 of which had been correctly registered - with which to defend themselves and their territory, after they had sent women, children and cattle over the Drakensberg passes and to the safety of Basutoland (present-day Lesotho).
Colonial forces tried to block them at the Bushman’s River pass. But with the first sight of the “enemy”, the native levies and volunteers fled - before a shot had been fired in anger.
When the first shots were eventually exchanged, three whites and two levies were killed, and the commander of the force, Anthony Durnford, escaped with two assegai wounds.
This was the first violent upheaval in colonial Natal in which white settlers were killed - and calls for revenge were deafening.
Colonial forces swept into the Hlubis' territory, razing whatever they found. Indeed, they got so carried away that they attacked neighbouring Ngwe territory as well. Those who sought refuge in nearby caves were smoked out. Adult males who put up resistance were killed and the survivors, as well as women and children, were shared among farmers, to swell the cheap labour contingent on white farms.
After surrendering to colonial forces in Basutoland, Langalibalele was brought back to Natal, where he was put on trial on a charge of high treason in Pietermaritzburg on January 16, 1874. His case was heard by a special court that had been set up under customary law. Proceedings were overseen by Shepstone, with the presiding judge being the governor of the colony, Sir Benjamin Pine (in his role as “Supreme Chief” of the African tribes). Shepstone's brother, John, acted as the prosecutor.
It was a show trial - and it made a mockery of the justice system.
But, despite strong protests from people like the Bishop of Natal, John William Colenso, and his daughter Harriette, that the court had been illegally constituted, Langalibalele was convicted and “banished for life”.
In an attempt to make the proceedings seem legal, Natal connived with the Cape Parliament to pass the “Natal Criminals Act” to make it possible for Langalibalele and one of his sons to be transported to Robben Island, where, it was claimed, “they would be more comfortable and might be allowed greater liberty than on the mainland”.
The mock trial of Langalibalele caused an outcry in England, leading to the imperial parliament instructing the Cape parliament to strike the Natal Criminals Act off its statutes. The Natal governor, Pine, was recalled and Langalibalele’s sentence was repealed.
He was, however, held for several years on the government farm of Uitvlugt (which today is the Garden City of Pinelands). He returned to Natal in 1887, where he died two years later.