Essay submitted as assessment for HIS1003: World History Since 1500CE

Documents: Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa by David Livingstone & Letter to Sir George Grey by King Moshweshewe of the Basutos

Nineteenth century abolishment of trans-Atlantic slavery bestowed Africa little reprieve from zealous Western-European imperialists – colonising under banners of religion, ethnocentrism, potent nationalism, mercantilism and eventually – free trade. Fuelled by the Industrial Revolution’s technologies, and characterized by centuries of inter-European competition and ideals of Westphalian sovereignty, Africa became an imperialists’ battleground during the Scramble for Africa. Southern Africa was a tug-of-war between the Dutch descendants, Boers (or Afrikaans) and the British: a unique case study as “merchant associations invested with sovereign attributes” became the “organizational weapon” (Young 1994, p. 61). Economic pursuits intertwined with traditional colonial elements of slavery, politics, ethnocentrism, and subjugation of indigenous peoples. This essay will first establish the global context surrounding nineteenth century imperialism before analysing two primary source documents regarding Southern Africa: David Livingtsone’s Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa and King Moshweshewe of the Basuto’s letter to Sir George Grey in 1858. These documents reveal imperialism’s consequences on the nation and to indigenous Africans including to religion, culture, family/civil structure, and even to life itself – notably, with the Boer Wars.

Aided by ships and fortified by slave labour – archaic fifteenth-century Western Europe outwardly aggrandized – conquering territories and establishing empires. Centuries of trading throughout Eurasia were expedited by extracting resources like labour and precious metals, which in turn sustained the plantations including sugar and tobacco (Hopkins 2002, p. 109). Accordingly, the economic returns subsidized colonization, and enabled parts of Europe to proto-globalise. In considering Africa, the Spanish, Portugese, Italians (for e.g. the Genoese) and the Ottomans – by the sixteenth century – had footholds in the North (Faroqhi 2006, p. 33; Tabak 2008, p. 66). However, it wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that mercantilism would finally be granted access into Africa’s interior; access unlocked by industralisation’s technological gifts of malaria control (achieved by smuggled plantations out of Asia (Headrick 1979, p. 248)), iron steam-powered boats, and advanced weaponry. (The Niger Delta was actually successfully penetrated by steam-boats earlier in 1834 – however malaria claimed 80% of the victors (Headrick 1979, p. 239).) State-implemented uniformed forces would provide shelter, later lending protection to free trade and multinational corporations in the second-half of the century (Young 1994, p. 73; Hopkins 2002, pp. 28-31).

Borne in 1602, the Dutch East India Company established its international spice trade in Africa. Its forming charter permitted remissive action upon trading partners – eliciting an eventual “metamorphosis from trading association into agency of territorial rule” (Young 1994, pp. 61-62). It was however, the British Empire that reined supreme imperialist – working towards its vision of a universal monarchy – collecting territories across the globe. Despite rising anti-imperialist sentiments at home prospering with The Enlightenment – the empire gleamed in its blossoming nationality – or ‘Britishness’ – effectively legitimizing its ethnocentrism (Hopkins 2002, p. 30; Bowman, Chiteji & Greene 2007, p. 141). Its conquest went mostly unchallenged (Leśniewski 2014, pp. 18-19; Hopkins 2002, p. 26) until the 1870s-1880s when Africa’s formerly impenetrable innards were ripped open in the ‘Scramble for Africa’. Seven great powers – Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain – competed in their “extension abroad of modern nation state building” (Hopkins 2002, p. 142). This culminated in Bismark’s convening of the Berlin Conference in November 1884; with nil Africans present – colonial territories were formally partitioned; this era setting in motion aggressive colonial policies building free-trade zones (Leśniewski 2014, p. 19, and the “unending process of state formation and dissolution” (Young 1994, p. 87). These events embodied the rise of the nation state, assertion of sovereign and territorial boundaries, and the crystallization of national identities – aka modern globalisation.

Territorial tensions, however, would only rise in South Africa, with the British having absorbed the Dutch traders’ territory into its empire in 1875; its largest African stake, named Cape Colony (Young 1994, p. 81; Aldred 2004, p. 45). The Boers in vetoing imperial control, and desiring to continue practicing slavery (unlike the enlightened British (at least on paper)) left the Cape to colonise the Orange Free State and Transvaal – collectively the Boer Republics. In stocktaking their similarities, both colonies gave state protection to merchants and capitalists, expanded upon their territories, and exercised “Darwinian notions of racial superiority that permeated the institutions and agents of rule” (Young 1994, p. 45). This was evident in their assertion of missionary activities, trade and subjugation. Thus, the barbaric, savage and uncivilized indigenous Africans of the Dark Continent (as described by Europeans) responded with warfare (facilitated by acquisition of surplus European guns (Headrick, p. 256). Else, they sided with Europeans with whom they had prior diplomatic relationships: “few had any inkling as to the character of the new colonial state whose birth they may have chosen to assist” (Young 1994, p. 87). Finally, the discovery of diamonds in 1867 further crumbled the fragile relationship between the colonisers – setting in motion the precedents for war.

One British chronicling these colonial dissensions was pro-trade and missionary David Livingstone. He denounces the Boers as being the Christian “chosen people of God” (Livingstone 1857, p. 117), writing they bore no wish to conceal their unpaid black labour; illustrating the Zulu Chief Mosilikatze, “was cruel to his enemies, and kind to those he conquered; but that the Boers destroyed their enemies, and made slaves of their friends” (p. 114). In journaling a Boer attack on the Bakwains, he includes a transcribed letter by the converted Chief Sechele (who Livingstone had effectively indoctrinated to divorce his surplus spouses to accord with the Bible (pp. 184-185):

I am undone by the Boers, who attacked me, though I had no guilt with them. They demanded that I should be in their kingdom, and I refused; they demanded that I should prevent the English and Griquas from passing…they began on Monday morning at twilight, and fired with all their might, and burned the town with fire, and scattered us. They killed sixty of my people, and captured women, and children, and men. (Livingstone 1857, pp. 118-119)

Contrastingly, Livingstone claims that the Boers never attempted to colonise the Caffreland, as the Caffres possessed firepower (p. 32), also crediting firepower with perishing large game animals from South Africa (pp. 99-101) and lions resorting to eating their own young (p. 137), and persuading the Makololos to sell children into slavery in exchange for weapons (p. 92). Furthermore, he asserts “if the slave-market were supplied with articles of European manufacture by legitimate commerce, the trade in slaves would become impossible” (p. 92).

Livingstone accepted Imperialism and the Church as being antagonistic bedfellows – imperialism and trade facilitating the missionaries’ dissemination of Christian faith, ending slavery, and gifting to Africans the “blessings of civilization” (p. 28). Regarding the latter, he writes: “no one can realise the degradation to which their minds have been sunk by centuries of barbarism and hard struggling for the necessaries of life” (p. 157). In accentuating this English ethnocentricity, Livingstone accounts their bestowal to Africa of English medicine or “art” (pp. 130-131) “surmount[ing] the skill of their own doctors” (p. 189), introducing sentencing “proportioned to their offences” (p. 235), English manufactured goods (p. 271), the first written form of the Bechuana’s spoken language (p. 113), advancing their agriculture and cultivation methods (pp. 202-207), and teaching the Makololo to read and thus apprenticing them in understanding ideas of trade and currency (pp. 189-191).

In terms of trade, however, the African people would prove evermore disadvantaged, particularly following the momentous discovery of diamonds by Cecil Rhode’s mining company in 1867, followed by gold in the 1870s (and in 1886 in the Transvaal) and silver in the 1880s (Harlow & Carter 1999, p. 278; Aldred 2004, p. 52). Rhodes, “an odd, sickly, and querulous young man” (Denis & Surridge 2013, p. 26), epitomised potent nationalism and imperial aggrandizement. Backed by the British Empire as a “vital component in protecting Britain’s influence in Southern Africa” (Aldred 2004, p. 53), he founded the trading British South African Company, securing a charter in 1889. Later becoming Prime Minister of the Cape in 1890, he exercised sovereign power over his self-titled Rhodesia (territory extended northward from Bechuanaland by 1900) (Young 1994, p. 104; Aldred 2004, pp. 48-53). The British, who had previously granted political autonomy to the Boers in the Boer Republics, reneged in 1877 (Anderson 2017, p. 1); thereafter, the battle for South Africa control heightened. Rhodes backed the Jameson Raid in 1895, hoping to garnish resistance against the Boers in the Transvaal that proved disastrous (Aldred 2004, p. 54). Terminally, in growing impatience for the Boer Republics to fall – the British, being no strangers to military action to secure trade, having instigated the Opium War in China (Headrick 1979, p. 243) – likewise confronted the Boer resistance with war. The Boer War, lasting from 1899-1902, was “Africa’s greatest colonial war (nearly half a million British troops, a cost of 222 million pounds, 224,000 Afrikaners and Africans herded into concentration camps, with at least forty-one thousand fatalities” (Young 1994, p. 119). This included 20,000 black African deaths from conditions in British concentration camps (Anderson 2017, p. 3).

Tensions preceding this devastating war were illustrated in King Moshweshewe’s of the Basutos letter of appeal to the then British Governor, Sir George Grey for immediate mediation. Firstly, he admits naivety:

I thought all white men were honest. Some of these Boers asked permission to live upon our borders… about sixteen years since, one of the Governors of the Colony, Sir George Napier, marked down my limits on a treaty he made with me. I was to be a ruler within those limits. (King Moshweshewe 1858, cited in Fordham University 1998, p. 1)

The Basutos – having depended on British intervention to hold back the Boers – Moshweshewe expressed the failing of the sovereign govern:

He listened to the Boers, and he proposed that all the land in which those Boers’ farms were should be taken from me. I was at that time in trouble, for Sikonyela and the Korannas were tormenting me and my people by stealing and killing. (King Moshweshewe 1858, cited in Fordham University 1998, pp. 1-2)

In writing of his attempts to “avert war” he concedes the:

Boers went further and further day by day in troubling the Basutos and threating war…it was not possible, it was commenced by the Boers in massacring my people of Beersheba… poor people, they thought their honesty and love for Christianity would be a shield for them. (King Moshweshewe 1858, cited in Fordham University 1998, p. 2)

Finally, he describes that despite not having the consensus of his people, he had ordered them to cease hostilities as he knew “what misery I should bring upon the country by leaving the Basutos to ravage the Boer places”, signing off as “having consented to act as arbitrator between the Boers and Basutos. With the expectation of soon meeting you” (p. 2). It is clear from his appeal, that the Basutos were vulnerable to the British Empire for protection, but seemingly, imperial economic interest overshadowed any such chance.

Thus, from analysing our primary sources, we could ascertain that British ethnocentricity – subjugated, and Boers – enslaved, African peoples – effectively pawns in the imperial battleground for Southern Africa control. They were often uprooted from their lands, forced into work, or killed – despite having made sacrifices and attempts to assimilate to British ethnocentrism. Evidently, even missionary activity that went hand-in-hand with imperialism, such as converting to Christianity, did not spare suffering. Capitalist moguls like Rhodes then ravaged the earth in pursuit of wealth all whilst under sovereign-state protection.

Overall, it seems imperialism mostly negatively impacted upon Southern Africa – especially in respect to loss of life from warring. Comprehensively, there were positive consequences, such as improvements to agriculture, medicine, and the introduction to written language. However, realistically, African people would not greatly benefit from this – at least not in the nineteenth century. (This would eventually come from emancipation from colonization). In summary, Africa became a playground for European powers to follow their imperialist and ethnocentric pursuits; South Africa was no exception, being subjected to “evangical fervor” (Young 1994, p. 85), cultural and civil disruption, exploitation of its environment, and economic endeavours of mercantilism and trade.


Aldred, J 2004, British imperialism and foreign policy, 1846-1980, Heinemann, Great Britain.

Anderson, T 2017, ‘Boer War (1899): Colonizing Southern Africa’, Boer War (1899), p. 1, MAS Ultra – School Edition, EBSCOhost.

Bowman, WD, Chiteji, FM & Greene JM (eds) 2007, Imperialism in the modern world: Sources and interpretations, Pearson Prentice Hall, New Jersey.

Faroqhi, S 2006, The Ottoman Empire and the world around it, I.B. Tauris, London.

Harlow, B & Carter M (eds) 1999, Imperialism & orientalism: a documentary sourcebook, Blackwell, Malden.

Headrick, DR 1979, ‘The tools of imperialism: Technology and the expansion of European colonial empires in the nineteenth century’, The Journal of Modern History, vol. 51, no. 2, pp. 231-263.

Hopkins, AG 2002, Globalisation in world history, Pimlico, London.

Judd, D & Surridge, K 2013, The Boer War: A history, I.B. Tauris, London.

King Moshweshewe [1858] 1998, Moshweshewe: Letter to Sir George Grey, 1858 [The establishment of Basutoland], Prof. Arkenberg (trans.), Fordham University: Modern History Sourcebook, viewed 20 September 2017,

Leśniewski, M 2014, ‘The British empire in South Africa’, in A Biagini & G Motta (eds), Empires and nations from the eighteenth to the twentieth century: Volume 2, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, pp. 18-29.

Livingstone, D [c.1857] 2013, Missionary travels and researches in South Africa, Alan R Light (ed.), Project Gutenberg, viewed 20 August 2017,

Reilly, K 2010, Worlds of history: A comparative reader: Volume two: Since 1400, 4th edn., Bedford/St. Martin’s, Boston.

Tabak, F 2008, The waning of the Mediterranean, 1550-1870: A geohistorical approach, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Young, C 1994, The African colonial state in comparative perspective, Yale University Press, New Haven.