Much of the history of the Frontier Partisans is writ in the blood (and liquor) of freebooters and filibusters. From rum-soaked pirate republics of the Spanish Main to fevered mid-19th century dreams of slaveholding empires in Mexico and Central America, bands of men drunk on glory, ambition, racialist ideology — and fiery booze — built pocket republics that rose and (usually) fell, often in farcical and sometimes bloody wreckage.
In a few cases a filibuster republic survived and thrived, to eventually be absorbed into a bigger political entity, such as the United States. Texas and California were both really filibuster republics — and they served as launching points for yet other freebooting expeditions.
Freebooter Republics were not just a phenomenon of the Americas. Take, for example, the case of Stellaland and Goshen, two short-lived republics of frontier South Africa in the early 1880s.
South Africa in the 1880s was in tumult. The Transvaal — annexed by Britain in 1877 — had just re-asserted its independence in 1881, defeating a British force at the Battle of Majuba Hill. The discovery of a massive geological horde of diamonds at Kimberly had brought fortune seekers and magnates into the northern regions of the Cape Colony. And native Griqua and Tswana chiefdoms on the southwestern borders of the Transvaal jockeyed for position vis-à-vis the European powers and traders — which led to a series of petty wars.
European — mostly Boer — mercenaries offered up their services, usually as mounted riflemen, to these Tswana chiefs engaged in what more closely resembled armed feuds than full-scale wars. In turn, they were rewarded with land and cattle, partly as payment and partly in the form of loot taken from the defeated party.
The Tswana, under pressure from Boer expansionism, had been relieved at the 1877 annexation of the Transvaal. But as Martin Meredith explains in Diamonds, Gold & War:
“…Once the British had withdrawn four years later, humiliated by Boer victories, Transvaal settlers — ‘freebooters’ — flocked across the western border agreed with Britain in 1881, in violation of the Pretoria convention, knowing that the British would not intervene.”
A Tswana chief named Moshoette was feuding with two chiefs considered “friendly” by the British: Mankurwane and Montshiwa. A Boer frontiersman with the imposing monicker of Nicolaas Claudius Gey van Pittius led some 400 Boer mercenaries in aid of Moshoette, helping him gain the upper hand over his rivals. In gratitude, Moshoette served up thousands of acres of his rivals’ lands to the Boers, who lusted after land and cattle the way some men lust after women, gold or power. In October 1882, Gey van Pittius declared an independent State of Goshen. Its capital was a fortified farm called Rooigrond (Red Ground) — “a lair not a capital,” as historian Arthur Keppel-Jones put it.
At much the same time, the Republic of Stellaland sprang into being next door, under the leadership of Boer farmer Gerrit Jacobus van Niekerk.
Keppel-Jones notes that:
The two bands of freebooters, as the British officials called them, were supplied with ammunition, secret official support, and secure bases by the Transvaal. The republic’s intention to annex the two states at the first convenient opportunity was hardly disguised.
The two republics merged into the United States of Stellaland in 1883. The national motto was “Armed and Justified,” which, as mottos go, kinda rocks.
While they were run by Boers, the borderland (and borderline) states also drew adventurers of a variety of ethnic and cultural extractions. And they were a rough bunch. Think Deadwood-On-The-Veld (“Cocksucker!” is “Haansucker!” in Afrikaans. Thus spake Google translate anyway. You’re welcome.) The place was crawling with wandering hunters, traders, cattle rustlers and Illegal Diamond Buyers (IDBs as they were known) who had been run out of the diggings at Kimberley.
South African historian T.V. Bulpin recalls that:
“The little frontier town of Zeerust was a particular resort of these adventurers. It was always jammed with traders, hunters and tough characters. The so-called Zeerust Club, run by Henry Martin, was the focal point of much of the noise. Its bar and billiard saloon were great places for fights and were hangouts for such characters as J.W. Honey — always either shooting somebody or being shot himself; and James McGilvray, one of the leading lights of Goshen and a renowned cattle rustler.”
Transvaal President Paul Kruger provisionally annexed the new states in September 1884, which had been the idea all along for the Boer expansionists. It wasn’t a particularly popular move. Members of Kruger’s national assembly, the Volksraad, rebelled against the action, which they considered a needless provocation of Great Britain. They didn’t want to risk their recently-won independence over a couple of republics full of rogues.
And the British did, in fact, find the annexation unacceptable. In December 1884, they organized the 4,000-strong Bechuanaland Expeditionary Force to make that point abundantly clear. The republics bestrode the “Road to the North” — toward the lands across the Limpopo, where Cecil Rhodes was already casting his avaricious eye. Neither the South African Republic of Transvaal nor a pair of rogue republics were going to block British expansion to the north. And, of course, Rhodes would lead that expansion in perhaps the most brazen filibuster of all time, which would lead to the creation of Rhodesia.
That was still a few years in the future.
For now, the British kept the road clear. Under the threat of overwhelming force, the short-lived republics capitulated and were absorbed into the British Bechuanaland Protectorate.
The freebooter republics were not entirely forgotten though, especially by the most hardcore Boer nationalists. As recently as 2008, the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (Afrikaner Resistance Movement) was agitating for the area to once again become an independent Boer Republic — presumably Armed and Justified. The outfit’s charismatic leader Eugène Terre’Blanche claimed possession of contracts of 1882 vintage that conferred ownership of the area and he was willing to take the case to The Hague.
It was just a scheme and a dream. The Afrikaner Resistance Movement favors the iconography of National Socialism, and nobody is willing to offer them a homeland. And, anyway, the driving force of Eugène Terre’Blanche was snuffed out in 2010 when he was bludgeoned and hacked to death on his farm by a couple of his black employees. It was a nasty ending, and it probably wasn’t even politically motivated; it was a misunderstanding and dispute over wages that led the farmhands to take clubs and pangas to the old Boer as he lay napping on a cot.
Somehow, that seems like a fitting coda for wild, weird tale of the South African freebooter republics.