Sir Henry Bartle Edward Frere

Sir Henry Bartle Edward Frere (1815-1884) was a British civil servant. The government sent him to South Africa to effect the unification of the Boer republics and the territories under British rule.

Bartle Frere was born into an old and religious family on March 29, 1815. In 1834 he sailed for Bombay, where the East India Company employed him as an assistant revenue clerk in Poona. He became the resident in the Deccan in 1847. While commissioner in Sind (1850-1859), his policy for dealing with the colonial peoples matured. He wanted Britain to be a good and effective neighbor with the Indian princes if they cooperated, but he advocated the use of the empire's resources to punish recalcitrance.

A self-willed aristocrat who read the Bible every morning, Frere was an aggressive champion of the imperial cause. He was appointed to the Viceroy's Council in 1859 and became governor of Bombay in 1862. A commercial crisis in 1866 in which the Bank of Bombay collapsed was partly blamed on Frere, and shortly after this he was transferred to London, where he sat on the Indian Council (1867-1877). Frere sought to make Afghanistan a buffer state between India and Russia and wanted a British resident in Kabul. The Afghans resisted and war broke out in 1878.

Frere in Africa

South Africa was becoming a major trouble center in the empire. Britain was not keen to involve itself too deeply in the affairs of a country it then believed poor in natural resources. The discovery of diamonds and the way in which this enabled the Africans to acquire guns forced Britain to change its mind. Policy then required the pacification of South Africa, the unification of the Boer republics— Shepstone annexed the Transvaal in 1877—and the British colonies, and the establishment of effective white control as preconditions for the exploitation of the country's mineral wealth. Frere was appointed high commissioner in South Africa to implement the new policy.

Shortly after Frere arrived at the Cape in 1877, war with the Gcaleka broke out. He deposed Kreli, the Gcaleka king, proposed that German and Scottish farmers be settled on Gcaleka land, and sent his police to disarm the neighboring African kingdoms. Widespread bloodshed followed.

War with the Zulu

Crisis point had been reached in the relations between the Zulu and the British on one hand and the Zulu and the Boers on the other. The Zulu, under Cetshwayo, were reported to be organizing an African united front to drive the whites out of African lands. Frere's visit to Natal in 1878 reinforced his conviction that the destruction of Zulu military power was a prerequisite for establishing white supremacy in South Africa.

Britain lacked enthusiasm for war in South Africa at the time. Its cost, the conflict in Afghanistan, and a possible collision with the Russians necessitated a negotiated settlement with the Zulu. By 1878 the secretary of state, Sir Michael Hicks Beach, was urging Frere to negotiate. In Frere's view, however, the crisis in Natal called for a military solution and took precedence over the simmering Boer rebellion. He declared war on the Zulu in January 1879. Although British arms suffered a humiliating defeat at Isandlwana, Zulu power was finally broken.

Frere was censured for his disregard of Beach's instructions and was stripped of authority in Natal, Zululand, and the Transvaal. His recommendations for increased Boer participation in the Transvaal government were largely ignored. The Foreign Office at times suspected that he influenced the Cape administration against unification, and he was recalled in 1880. He died on May 29, 1884.

Further Reading on Sir Henry Bartle Edward Frere

The two major biographies of Frere complement one another: John Martineau in The Life and Correspondence of the Right Hon. Sir Bartle Frere (2 vols., 2d ed. 1895) describes Frere's life in the light of contemporary assessments of his role in South Africa; while William Basil Worsfold, Sir Bartle Frere (1923), had access to documents which were unavailable to Martineau. For broader historical background see Frances E. Colenso and Edward Durnford, The History of the Zulu War: Its Origin (2d ed. 1881), and Lady Victoria Hicks-Beach, The Life of Sir Michael Hicks Beach (2 vols., 1932).

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