The British Take Root

Lord Charles Henry Somerset

Lord Charles Henry Somerset, governor of the Cape Colony from 1814–1826, favoured autocratic rule, press censorship and the anglicisation of the Cape.

Britain temporarily occupied the Cape between 1795 and 1803 and although it was determined not to cede it again after reoccupation in 1806 the Cape’s status as a proper British colony was only formalised in 1814. In this year, the main European powers accepted a peace treaty to conclude the wars that started soon after a  evolution broke out in France in 1789. In the peace treaty Britain restored to the Netherlands the rich East Indies and all other colonies taken by her during the Napoleonic wars – except the Cape and what had become British Guiana. The Cape would remain a proper British colony until 1910 when it entered into the Union of South Africa.

For much of the period between 1795 and 1814 governing the Cape was a frustrating affair. In London the European war overshadowed all other matters. Governors had to wait six months for a reply to issues they raised. There was no clarity about the respect ive powers of the civilian governor and the chief military officer. Financially the Cape was in a mess. The former Company officials who advised the governors urged caution. It took almost fifteen years before English was imposed as the sole official language and even then English managed to establish a firm foothold only in Cape Town (see Different faiths, different tongues).

When Lord Charles Somerset assumed the governorship of the Cape in 1814, there was no reason to expect that any major transformation of Cape Society was in prospect. The royal commission issued for his guidance stated that the ‘administration of Justice and the Peace of the Settlement should, as nearly as circumstances will permit, be exercised by you in conformity to the laws and institutions which subsisted under the Ancient [i.e. Dutch] Government’. The British ruled the Cape but there was not initially very much that was British about it.

Such instructions were very congenial to Lord Charles Somerset, one of the most aristocratic of aristocrats, but it was his misfortune to govern at a time when the new social forces generated in a rapidly industrialising Great Britain engulfed the colony, sweeping aside not only Somerset himself but the social and economic order that had emerged out of more than a century of Dutch rule. The double explosion of the 1820 settlers at the periphery of the Colony and the ‘revolution in government’ at its centre reverberated far beyond the borders of the Colony and set the parameters within which the history of the next 50 years was played out.

Lord Charles and the settlers

The revolution in government

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