Sir Bartle Frere
A successful civil servant in India
Sir Bartle Frere was a colonial administrator who had distinguished service throughout his career, mostly in India. He helped keep western India free of trouble during the Indian Rebellion and as Governor of Bombay modernized the city building many fine institutions and public buildings. It was Bartle Frere who organized the Prince of Wales’ tour of India in 1875 but when he was persuaded to come out of retirement to go to Southern Africa to bring about a federation his over confidence led him to ignore Cabinet instructions. The resulting war with the Zulu people saw the most humiliating military disaster to befall a British military expedition and for which Frere was largely blamed.
Bartle Frere was born in Monmouthshire, the son of an ironworks manager. He attended Haileybury, the college for prospective civil servants of the East India Company, and on completion of his course sailed to Bombay where he took up an appointment as a writer in the Bombay civil service. He later became an assistant collector at Poona and in 1842 became the private secretary to Sir George Arthur, the Governor of Bombay. In 1844, the year he married Catherine Arthur, the daughter of the Governor, Frere was sent to Satara as British Resident to the Rajah. On the death of the Rajah Frere administered the province until the East India company took over the running of the province in 1849.
In 1850 Frere was appointed chief commissioner of Sind, which had recently been annexed by the British following General Napier’s invasion in 1843. During the Indian Rebellion of 1857 his prompt actions in sending troops to the Punjab helped prevent any mutiny there and in recognition of his work he was made a KCB.
Bartle Frere organised the visit of the Prince of Wales to India in 1875/6
Governor of Bombay
In 1859 Frere became a member of the Viceroy’s council and in 1862 was appointed Governor of Bombay where he instituted a program of public works. He retired in 1867 and came back to England to become a prominent member of the Indian Council in London. He was the expert on all things Indian for the government and he and his wife were on the guest list for any banquet involving foreign dignitaries. Frere was a member of the Royal Society and also the Royal Asiatic and Geographical Societies.
In 1872 he was asked by the government to travel to Zanzibar to negotiate a treaty with the Sultan to end the slave trade in the region and then in 1874 he was the person behind the organization of the Prince of Wales’ trip to India in 1875. Frere planned a trip which would visit every part of India and help to cement the Indian view of Victoria as a feudal prince to who they should pay homage and bestow their allegiance. To this end Frere organized a packed engagement calendar with the princes of the Indian states. Frere looked for plenty of opportunities for the Prince to open new buildings, bridges and docks to help create the image of the British monarchy as a modernizing influence. The eight month tour was a great success and he was rewarded by becoming a Baronet.
In 1877 Frere was sent to South Africa by the Secretary for the Colonies Lord Carnarvon who had the vision of creating a federation in South Africa consisting of the British colonies of Cape Colony, Natal and Griqualand together with the Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Free State. Frere had an established reputation as a capable administrator but had never been in a situation when the peace and security of his administration was threatened by war. He had the Indian experience of the Rebellion but this only served to make him wary of any native uprising. Two days before setting off for Cape Town Frere met the Queen who told him that he was the person to put things right in South Africa.
Frere arrived in Cape Town on 31 March 1877 to take up his position as High Commissioner for Southern Africa. Cape Colony and Natal already had their own Prime Minister and Parliament and their own way of doing things, and the arrival of Frere was to cause some friction. He arrived during the latest frontier war with the Xhosa people who in succeeded wars had been pushed further and further east by the settlers demanding the Xhosa land. Cape Town was not Bombay and he would have found the place small, dirty and unhealthy compared to the city he had left behind in India.
In his initial discussions with Prime Minister there seemed to be some support for the idea of federation but he was to realise the enormity of his task when two weeks later, without his knowledge, the Natal Minister for Native Affairs, Theophilus Shepstone, announced a proclamation annexing the Transvaal.
In August 1877 Frere went on a trip to visit Shepstone in Pretoria. On the way he visited all the eastern parts of the Cape Colony and began to realise the level of lawlessness on the eastern border. He decided to establish a daily council in King William’s Town, a frontier town on the eastern border with the land of he Xhosa, with the Civil Commissioner and Commander of the Police meeting Frere daily. By the end of October the level of cattle raiding by the Gealeka (a sub tribe of the Xhosa) had increased but with the action taken by Frere 700 Gealekas were killed, including twenty chiefs, and thirteen thousand cattle were captured. The Gealekas were driven across the border although within a few weeks were drifting back to raid the cattle of settlers. During this border war Frere and Prime Minister fell out and eventually Frere sacked Moreno.
A new military commander arrived in the Cape, General Thesiger and over the next few months Thesiger or Lord Chelmsford as he was by 1878, began to get the situation under control. The main Xhosa chief, Kreli, was killed and an amnesty proclaimed bringing the 9th Frontier War to and end. Frere returned to Cape Town, hearing of the news that Carnarvon had left the cabinet, en-route for Cape Town.
Dealing with the ZuluThe situation with the Xhosa may have been dealt with but another threat to the British colonies was emerging from Zululand where a new King, Cetewayo, began to be seen by Frere as posing a dangerous threat to the British. By 1878 Frere was having more and more cases of settlers living close to the Zululand border being threatened or worse by bands of Zulus crossing the border into Natal. In July 1878 a hundred Zulus crossed into Natal in search of two Zulu women who were fleeing Zululand because they had been involved in affairs whilst married to two chiefs. The women were found taking refuge at a police station, were taken prisoner and brought back to Zululand where they were killed. The Governor of Natal, Sir henry Bulwer, demanded that the murderers be given up and be tried in Natal. Six weeks later another band of Zulus crossed the disputed border to intimidate the Reverend Friter’s settlement at Luneberg. This settlement was in an area called Utrecht which was disputed by the Boers and the Zulus. Eventually the British arbitrated on the region and handed it back to the Zulus but at the time the raid was just another incident in a long line of such incidents that resulted in the Colonial Office ordering Frere to Pietermaritzberg where he had Sir Henry Bulwer as his host. At first Frere regarded Bulwer and the Natal settlers as narrow minded and not able to see the situation as it was – which to Frere was a potential racial war. As the situation worsened, Cetewayo closed all roads into Zululand and bands of Zulus were rumoured to be gathering around the capital Ulundi. Frere had lived through the Indian Rebellion and knew what a native rebellion could do. He was determined that he as the ‘man on the spot’ would be the person to deal with the Zulu. He knew how dilatory the British government was and how the Cabinet did not fully understand the concerns and interests of British settlers. Frere knew he needed to take quick action if disaster was to be averted. He would do what needed to be done irrespective of what the British government thought.
Most commentaries on the Zulu War see Frere as someone who was determined to destroy the Zulu nation seeing them as always likely to pose a threat to the British colony of Natal. There is a view though that he had other concerns which were more geo-political. In an article for History Review issue 48, March 2004, DP O’Connor argues that Frere was particularly concerned about the threat from Russia and believed that South Africa lay undefended and exposed to a possible attack from Russian naval vessels operating in the Atlantic.
O’Connor makes three important point about Frere. ‘Firstly, he believed that in any given situation, the man on the spot was the best person to decide on a course of action, and that it was the duty of superiors to judge only by the results. Secondly, he held most politicians in contempt, deploring ‘politicking’, and suspected that they were more loyal to party rather than the Crown. Thirdly, he was convinced that the British Empire, during the Balkan crisis of 1876-78, was very vulnerable to Russian attack in a way that it had not been previously due to advances in railway construction, the development of mass conscript armies on the Prussian model, the opening of the Suez canal and the revolution in naval architecture, as steam and iron took over from sail and wood. Frere reached this view when drawing up plans for defending India in 1874.’
On 11 December 1878, English envoys met with thirteen delegates from Cetewayo on the banks of the Tugela river, the border between Natal and Zululand. An ultimatum, composed by Frere, was read out to the Zulus. The reading took four hours and included a number of clauses that any people would find hard to accept for the proposals meant the Zulus giving up their sovereignty. Amongst the many clauses they were required to give up those responsible for the killing of the two women, disband their army, abrogate their rules on marriage, allow a British Resident to live in Ulundi, accept a fine for the intimidation of settlers and allow missionaries to return to Zululand. In return the Zulus were to be given back their disputed land in Utrecht.
Cetewayo did not bother to reply and this was the excuse that Frere needed. On 6 January, soon after the ultimatum had expired, Frere told Hicks Beach that he was preparing to cross into Zululand to enforce the ultimatum and on 11 January, three columns of armed soldiers totally 18,000 men crossed into Zululand in three different places, with the central column under the command of Lord Chelmsford crossing the Tugela at Rorke’s Drift.
The Battle of Isandhlwana
On 24 January Frere was to hear the first bit of news about the destruction of much of Chelmsford’s column at Isandhlwana. Over the next few days he was to learn the enormity of the events at Isandhlwana and how a column of 1700 men had been destroyed - -the worst military catastrophe of the Victorian era. Frere left almost immediately to go to Pretoria to ask the Boers whether they would now join a federation. He received short shrift from the Boers and soon the House of Commons was to pass a motion of censure against Frere for his actions against Cetewayo. There was a storm of protest throughout Britain as Frere’s actions were seen as those of someone seeking conquest and the spoils of war. Frere returned to Cape Town where he received a rapturous reception from like minded colonists but he was soon to learn that he was to be replaced as High Commissioner by General Wolseley.
Frere returned to Britain in August 1880 where he was welcomed by the Prince of Wales and Queen Victoria but public servants were embarrassed to be in his presence. He spent the rest of his life writing letters to explain his actions in South Africa, and writing articles on India and Afghanistan. He died on 29 May 1884 leaving his wife and children to carry on the task of trying to salvage his reputation. They succeeded in organizing his papers and raising subscriptions for a public statue which was eventually built on London’s embankment.
The statue of Bartle Frere on the Embankment
Peter Crowhurst, April 2019
· Victoria’s Wars by Saul David, 2007
· Running the Show by Stephanie Williams, 2012
· The Decline and Fall of the British Empire by Piers Brendon, 2008
· Diamonds, Gold and War by Martin Meredith, 2008
· Sir Bartle Frere and the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 by DP O’Connor, 2004