An edited excerpt from Chapter 2 of Spoilt Ballots: The Elections that Shaped South Africa, from Shaka to Cyril (Penguin Random House, 2022) by Matthew Blackman and Nick Dall
Democracy in the Cape Colony became an issue of grave importance to all races when Britain threatened to turn it into a penal colony. In 1849 a ship called the Neptune was laden with criminals and sent to Simon’s Town. The people of the Cape, under the leadership of anti-slavery activist John Fairbairn, reacted to this by setting up the Anti-Convict Association. In one of the first examples in South Africa of collective political action against the state, the association would force Governor Harry Smith to apply his mind to whether to allow Britain to run roughshod over the desires of the people of the Cape. The people of Cape Town would take out their displeasure on those seen to be in bed with Britain, including the original owner of the famous brewery in Newlands.
Possible penal penetration of the Colony
The idea of the Cape becoming a penal colony was an issue that had all races speaking with one voice. From Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, Grahamstown and the Khoekhoe Kat River Settlement, the idea that the Colony would become a dumping ground for Britain’s criminals was met with hostility. In a meeting held at Blinkwater in Kat River, a Khoekhoe man, Mr V. Jacobs, was recorded to have said that if the British rooibaadjies (redcoats) – whom Jacobs considered worse than savages – were anything to go by, these white convicts would ‘destroy all moral and religious sentiment within the Colony’. It would mean, Jacobs went on, that his community would be forced to distrust all travellers and the inhabitants of Kat River would be obliged to shut their doors to all Englishmen. As historian Susan Blackbeard reveals in her PhD thesis, a group of Kat River women also compiled a memorial expressing their displeasure with the convict idea and sent it to Smith.
Along with Mr Jacobs and the women of Kat River, another person deeply disturbed by the potential dumping of criminals on the Cape’s shores was John Fairbairn, who became one of the main organisers of the Anti-Convict Association. In a series of meetings in early July 1849, the association set out their stall. In what Fairbairn called ‘a meeting of the people’, a 7 000-strong crowd gathered in Cape Town on 4 July outside the Commercial Exchange on Heerengracht Street (now Adderley Street). Braving strong gales and rain, the crowd listened as Fairbairn demanded ‘free institutions, self-government, perfect liberty and the open field for virtue, industry and talent’. At this and other meetings a pledge was taken by huge swathes of the population:
We hereby solemnly declare and pledge our faith to each other that we will not employ or knowingly admit into our establishments or houses, work with or for, or associate with any convict felon sent into this Colony under sentence of transportation and that we will discountenance and drop connection with any person who may assist in landing, supporting or employing such convicted felons.
This effectively placed a sanction on the Cape government and the British administration. Very few – in fact hardly any – merchants, tradesmen or farmers broke the pledge, as it meant they would be ‘held in public odium’. Smith was himself threatened by the Anti-Convict Association with ‘starvation’ – it claimed it would attempt to stop people selling him food.
In the days that followed these meetings, crowds began to gather on the streets in Cape Town, hooting and hissing at government officials as they went about their business. And as fate would have it, during this period the death of one member of the Legislative Council and the resignations ‘due to ill health’ of two more left the body without its decision-making quorum. Three new members were needed for it to function legally. Fairbairn, who had now become the moving spirit of the anti-convict movement, would proclaim: ‘Will any colonist venture to accept the vacant seat? To offer it at this moment to any gentleman would be an insult. To accept it would be eternal degradation.’
With the Neptune on its way to Simon’s Town, the council scheduled its next meeting for 10 July 1849. On hearing the news of the meeting, the people of Cape Town downed tools and gathered around the council’s building, some forcing their way in. To their shock, they discovered that three new members had been sworn in. When the large angry crowd outside caught wind of this, they began calling for the three new members’ heads. Let us ‘testify our “respect” for the new members’ somebody was heard to cry and the crowd began to press towards the doors.
When Smith left the building supported by his aide-de-camp, he was met with stony silence. The same could not be said for two of the new members who followed Smith out of the door, a Mr Cloete (a wealthy Stellenbosch farmer) and Mr de Smidt (owner of Groote Schuur). ‘Down with them – shame on them – traitors – let them have it,’ the crowd began to yell, and with this verbal downpour came a shower of rotten eggs and rubbish from the street.
Cloete managed to escape to his brother’s offices nearby, but De Smidt was left to his own devices, which were few and insufficient for defending himself against the angry crowd. In short, he received a swift beating before taking shelter in the offices of the Road Board, where he managed to lock the door behind him.
Mr Jacob Letterstedt, the third new member and owner of the Newlands Brewery, had seemingly been more sensible than Cloete and De Smidt. On seeing the unruly crowd gathered at the doors of the legislature, he waited before leaving. Mistakenly believing the crowd had settled down, he finally strode out. As historian Sir George Cory puts it, he left ‘under the protection of the great man’s wig’, but ‘in this however Mr Letterstedt miscalculated’. Like the others, he was assailed with sticks and stones and harmful words. He managed to find refuge in the South African Club House on Plein Street, however, and there he waited until mounted police came to scatter those still intent on furthering their ‘discussions’ with him.
During the night a large crowd of protestors gathered on the Grand Parade, where they burnt effigies of the three new councillors. They were said to have danced around the fires ‘with savage glee’ while others ‘amused themselves by destroying property belonging to the members of Cape Town’. The crowd was finally broken up by another charge by mounted police.
But they had not finished with Letterstedt. Crowds gathered at his various properties across the city and destroyed one of his general stores as well as his large brewery in Newlands. In the coming weeks when he tried to have these repaired, he learnt that his ‘great man’s wig’ was no influence against the Anti-Convict Association’s pledge: no tradesman, carpenter or glazer would fix any of the damage done to his property.
Seven days later, with all of this going on and the Colony baying for their blood, ‘Messrs Cloete, Letterstedt and de Smidt found it expedient to resign their seats in the Legislative Council.’ And when the Neptune came to anchor in Simon’s Bay on 19 September, a vigilance committee was set up to closely monitor the ship. This was how it was discovered that Captain Robert Stanford and Mr Letterstedt (rather predictably) broke the boycott and profited off the Neptune’s presence in the bay by selling produce to the ship’s captain. The vigilance committee did, however, make sure that no convict reached Cape soil.
While the Neptune was docked in a form of purgatory in Simon’s Town, violence began to spread through Cape Town, and Governor Smith declared martial law. As more protests were called, Fairbairn was attacked and beaten in his home in Green Point by a group of ‘coloured inhabitants, but also a few Whites in disguise’. These men were seemingly in somebody’s pay, and rumours abounded of a plot to murder Fairbairn.
Harry Smith was, like the Neptune, now tethered to unwelcoming shores and unable to perform his duties. Eventually, going against the British demands, he refused the Neptune permission to release its cargo into the Colony. Due to pressure from the likes of Fairbairn, Smith had stated that he was ‘profoundly opposed to the Cape of Good Hope being made into a Penal Colony for ordinary felons’. Finally, with the Anti-Convict Association refusing to give up their protest, Earl Grey gave instructions for the Neptune to weigh anchor and head for Van Diemen’s Land (modern-day Tasmania).