Britain’s acquisition of Basutoland in 1868 and incorporation of the Diamond Fields in 1871 signalled a new imperial thrust from Britain into the South African interior. What lay behind this was the realisation of the economic potential of the region. Britain wanted to benefit from its growth in trade and mining and improved transport and infrastructure. That required the securing of larger supplies of migrant labour for the mines, plantations, farms, and public works of the near interior. Yet, beyond checking any external encroachments by the Boer states, Britain continued to avoid any major political confrontation with republican leadership.
Britain was, however, becoming increasingly frustrated by being saddled with a country divided between settler colonies, Boer republics and subjugated black societies under British authority. Still, London was banking on favourable circumstances in which to draw white territories into a voluntary federation under imperial direction. A more integrated central state would be able to pursue common policies in such matters as trade, defence, and the administration of black people and control of their labour. All that would be required to bring the republican Boers under Britain’s colonial wing was firm diplomacy and ‘peaceful pressure’.
In the mid-1870s British Colonial Secretary Lord Carnarvon began to push vigorously for a federation of colonies and republics under British sovereignty. It turned out to be hard going. The Boer states had no inclination to negotiate away their free identities, and even the Cape and Natal’s response to the idea of a settler confederation was lukewarm. But, like a dog with a bone, Carnarvon would not let go of his bold plan. Following its annexation of the Griqualand West diamond fields in 1871, Britain initiated a confederation policy for its South African territories. With the ZAR wallowing in financial crisis and its southeastern border menaced by powerful Zulu opponents, the time looked ripe for a decisive move.