Texas and the Transvaal

Though separated by many thousands of miles, there are some remarkable parallels between the history of Texas, and that of the Transvaal. The vast territory of Texas had been tentatively settled during the long period of the Spanish Imperial rule in the Americas[1], but ended up being part of the independent nation of Mexico when it broke away from the Spanish Empire in 1821[2]. Under Mexican rule, the hold over the enormous and forbidding frontier territory remained precarious at best, however, and the settlers lived in constant fear of the ‘native American’ inhabitants – primarily the warlike Comanche Indians.

The story of the Transvaal is fairly similar. It too was settled during a period of Imperial Rule in the region by one of the Great Powers (Great Britain, in this case), and the new-arrivals to the territory – the Voortrekkers – had also broken away from the Empire. Like the Mexican settlers in Texas, those in the Transvaal also had little more than a nominal control over the enormous territory they claimed, with the Boer trekkers / invaders / settlers[3] vastly outnumbered by the black tribes who they encountered in the area (and who the Apartheid propaganda machine later pretended not to have existed).

The parallels continue: keen to secure their hold over Texas, the Mexicans initially – from 1821 to 1830 – encouraged thousands of Anglo-Saxon settlers from the nascent United States to move to the territory, hoping they would provide some sort of a bulwark against the Comanches[4]. However, the Mexicans did not consider all settlers equal, and the incoming Americans were obliged to become Mexican citizens (which was perhaps not unreasonable) and to convert to Catholicism[5] (which certainly was).

In the Transvaal, a little later in the century, events followed a fairly similar path. In the couple of decades since they had invaded the area, the scattered and ever-fractious Boer settlers had achieved little else beyond surviving and scratching out a lawless existence of subsistence farming / hunting, punctuated by fighting both the neighbouring tribes, and one another[6]. As far as states go, the Transvaal of the 1860s would have been unrecognizable as such to modern eyes or, indeed, even by the standards of the day. The central government’s authority over the former Zoutpansberg Republic, for example, remained no more than nominal,[7] the state coffers were generally empty, and bankruptcy was never far off: ‘There were no schools, education being in the hands of itinerant teachers, no newspapers or libraries, nor indeed any recognizable towns.’[8]

There was also no real law and order. With no standing army, the Transvaal relied on the auxiliary commando system to suppress the ever-restless natives among whom they lived—and who vastly outnumbered them—and when a native uprising in the Zoutpansberg sent settlers fleeing into laagers, the central Transvaal Government could do nothing to assist. Indeed, the more pious of the Boers refused to ride to the assistance of the Zoutspanberg’s wild and hedonistic frontier village of Schoemansdal[9] and it was subsequently burned to the ground. The area remained in the hands of native rebels for several years.

Few historical comparisons are perfect, of course, and one major difference between Texas and the Transvaal concerned slavery. In the former, the Mexicans had outlawed this vile practice, and it was the incoming American settlers who were determined to retain their slaves, getting round the ban by instead declaring them to be ‘indentured servants for life’.[10] In the Transvaal, it was completely the reverse, with the Boers resolute in retaining their ‘right’ to have slaves, and, in so doing, heightening tensions with the relatively much more liberal and forward-looking British Empire. What is more, pretty much the only thing the quarrelsome Transvaal Boers were able to agree upon was a line in their 1860 constitution which confirmed, ‘The people are not prepared to allow any equality of the non-white with the white inhabitants, either in church or state’.[11] What a truly delightful bunch.

Indeed, it was only when the – much despised – Anglo-Saxon / English-speaking settlers arrived in large numbers in the 1880s, bringing with them their money, expertise, education and energy, that the Transvaal started to grow into something vaguely recognisable as a nation. The Boer leadership was happy for these ‘Uitlanders’ to settle in the Transvaal and generate vast amounts of tax revenue for them, but, and just as was the case in Texas, they were utterly loathe to treat them as equals, or to share the nation with them. While the English settlers were obliged to fight in Kruger’s never-ending wars of expansion[12], and to pay by far the lion’s share of tax, the vote was jealously (and deviously) denied them, and they were regarded very much as second-class citizens.

History shows us that few groups – and especially not those of Anglo-Saxon stock – will meekly acquiesce to being treated in such an unfair and shoddy fashion, and thus all that Kruger’s Boers (and, to a lesser extent, the Mexicans in Texas), achieved by their discrimination was to set themselves up for trouble.

And so the parallels continue: just as the English-speaking Texans hoped for support from their kith and kin in the USA, so the Uitlanders of the Transvaal understandably looked to the Empire to help make right what was a patently wrong, unfair and unreasonable situation. It is worth noting, however, that all the Uitlanders were agitating for was a fair franchise – they did not, despite the rubbish spewed out by some Defenders of the Myth, want to ‘steal the country’.

When the Texans rebelled against Mexican rule in 1836, they were not officially backed by the Government of the United States, but there were so many recently-arrived American ‘volunteers’ fighting in their ranks, that this understandably ‘contributed to the Mexican view that Texan opposition stemmed from outside influences’.[13] Indeed, the Mexicans took the decidedly heavy-handed step of authorizing the execution of any foreigner found fighting in Texas; they did not want prisoners of war[14].

After a heroic Last Stand, one small, but star-studded, contingent of Texan rebels was famously – though gloriously – defeated at the Alamo[15], an event which nevertheless galvanized the Texan rebellion against Mexican rule, and swiftly led to their winning their independence. This independence was short-lived, however, and (surprise, surprise) Texas became the 28th State of the US at the end of 1845, an event which triggered the massive land-grab that was the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848.[16]

The Transvaal Uitlanders, like the Texans, had also received assistance from their kith and kin across the borders, though, again, not directly from the British Government. But this is where events start to greatly diverge; after their peaceful methods were mockingly rejected by Kruger, an attempted rebellion by the Johannesburg Uitlanders fizzled out in ignominious squabbling and a refusal to rise in support of the force of light horse riding in to their (ahem) ‘rescue’ by Dr Jameson[17].

Though gallant, and in many ways justifiable, the Jameson Raid was an ill-conceived and doomed enterprise from the start, and ended in a less-than-impressive surrender just outside Johannesburg, at Doornkop on 2 January 1896. With no glorious, Alamo-like, epic Last Stand to fire the imagination, the attempted Uitlander rebellion became little more than an embarrassing damp squib, and only succeeded in further poisoning the already fraught relations between the Transvaal and the British Empire. With Kruger convinced that all of southern Africa belonged to the Boers by some sort of God-given right, war was always inevitable[18] – but the Uitlander rebellion / Jameson Raid gave the antediluvian flat-Earth fossil the chance to play the part of the innocent victim of the piece, and to justify the republican invasions of British territory a few years later. Incredibly, there are some today who still (willfully?) fall for Kruger’s play-acting.

It is interesting to ponder just how differently the two causes are remembered today. Living under Mexican rule might not have been ideal for the American settlers, but it was much less onerous on incomers than was that of Kruger’s Transvaal. Nevertheless, millions of tourists still flock to the Alamo each year[19], and the likes of Davy Crockett and Sam Houston remain proudly celebrated heroes of Texan folklore… this despite the American settlers in Texas being (very recent) immigrants who were determined to keep their slaves, and who essentially then seized someone else’s territory by violent insurrection.

In stark contrast, South Africans certainly don’t revere ‘Karri’ Davies or Wools-Sampson[20] in the way that Texan mythology idolises and romanticises Jim Bowie, for example. Indeed, thanks to decades of propaganda and indoctrination by the National Party, one would struggle to find any South African (even an English-speaking one) who looks back with respect for the Johannesburg Uitlanders, or considers them as men who stood for a just cause, or as freedom fighters who took on a repressive regime… this despite their only wish being to have a fair franchise in the country which they were largely responsible for building, yet in which they were blatantly discriminated against.


[1] Punctuated by a very short, and largely forgotten, attempt at French rule from 1684-1689

[2] Mexican War of Independence, 1821

[3] Delete as applicable

[4] Manchaca, Recovering History, Constructing Race: The Indian, Black, and White Roots of Mexican Americans, p.164

[5] In an interesting reversal of events in the Transvaal, the Mexicans also – rather more reasonably – required the American settlers to give up their slaves.

[6] Garret, The Story of an African Crisis, p.8

[7] Walker, A History of Southern Africa, p.316

[8] Welsh, A History of South Africa, p.226

[9] The village of Schoemansdal was near the near the town of Louis Trichardt

[10] Barr, Texans in Revolt: the Battle for San Antonio, 1835, p.15

[11] Thompson, A History of South Africa, p.102

[12] Such inconvenient realities are air-brushed from history by some South African so-called academics, with their preferred fiction being that ‘Kruger never gazed beyond his borders’. Perhaps they hoped that, if they repeated their lies often enough, they’d become facts.

[13] Barr, Texans in Revolt: the Battle for San Antonio, 1835, p.63

[14] Scott, After the Alamo, p.74

[15] Less famously, well over 300 Texan POWs were murdered by Mexicans at the Goliad Massacre – a disgraceful event which understandably turned opinion against the Mexicans

[16] The war was ended by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on 2 February 1848. Victory gave the U.S. enormous territorial gains at the expense of Mexico; as well as gaining undisputed control of Texas and establishing the U.S. / Mexican border along the Rio Grande, the Treaty ceded to the United States the present-day states of California, Nevada, and Utah, most of New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming.

[17] Arranged by Cecil Rhodes in response to the growing possibility of a rising in Johannesburg, but it will perhaps never be known why Jameson set off as he did when the uprising in Johannesburg was fizzling out. The Raid was certainly not approved by the British Government, however, and Jameson served time in jail for his antics.

[18] Kruger had held secret talks with the Government of the Orange Free State to join him in an attack against the British as early as 1887

[19] In 2002, 4,000,000 visited the site – making it one of the most popular tourist attractions in the USA

[20] Aubrey Wools-Sampson (sometimes written ‘Woolls-Sampson’) and Walter ‘Karri’ Davies were leading Uitlanders, and both were imprisoned for their part in the damp squib of an insurrection. Both then fought with distinction in the Imperial Light Horse during the Boer War.

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