Indiscriminate slaughter?

Indiscriminate slaughter? 1851

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘Indiscriminate slaughter? 1851′ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. Introduction

1.1       This trace is concerned with two connected matters.

1.2       The first matter is whether there was the intention or not to carry out what in the letters to be discussed is referred to as ‘indiscriminate slaughter’. If there was, who intended to do this? and if there was not, then where did this claim come from and how was it substantiated?

1.3       The second matter involves the ontological as well as ethical status of the women and children who were seen to be the potential victims of such indiscriminate slaughter. This concerns how these women and children were marked, or rather unmarked, in references to them, so that any other factors about them are notable for their absence. In context, the particular interest here is the absence of any race or ethnic markers or descriptors.

1.4       These two matters are discussed by reference to a small set of linked letters that are part of the Pringle collection. They consist of: (a) two draft letters by Dods Pringle, one to Major General Henry Somerset, the commander-in-chief of British forces in the Eastern Cape, and the other to Rev Henry Renton, an LMS missionary; (b) a reply to Pringle’s letter by Henry Somerset; an almost indecipherable letter written by Major Edward Somerset, Henry’s son and also a commander in the field; and (c) a reply to Pringle’s letter by Henry Renton. They are variously dated 22 March 1851, 2 April 1851 and 5 April 1851.

1.5       The context is that of the Frontier War of 1850-53 (one of nine such wars), when ongoing skirmishes in the Eastern Cape erupted into larger scale and more determined warfare, not least because of the settler response when some previously disagreeing groups combined to fight them, with the events involved including a major uprising involving people in what had been considered the successful missionary-led Kat River settlement. The immediate events were that these African forces achieved considerable successes, including storming and gaining control of a key frontier fortification, Fort Armstrong. They occupied it en masse, including women and children. However, this was a short lived success and eventually the male combatants left to fight elsewhere, with a large group of women and children remaining in what had been the security of the fort, but which was then attacked and retaken by a combination of settler and British military forces. The British forces were under the command of Major General Henry Somerset, with the settler forces consisting of a number of commando groups, including one under the co-direction of Pringle and a farming neighbour, Bowker.

2. What did or did not happen?

2.1       In date terms, the dossier commences with the two draft letters of 22 March 1851 by Dods Pringle. In the draft to Henry Somerset, transcribed as letter 1 below, Pringle emphasises the slanderous nature of comments he has heard about, passed on in a letter from someone he knows. These are that the Commando which he was a Commandant of had intended to carry out indiscriminate slaughter of the women and children remaining in Fort Armstrong, and was prevented only by the arrival of Somerset and his troops. The letter intimates that he trusts that Somerset will not have made such remarks, although whether this is a purely rhetorical intervention to warn Somerset off or whether he ‘really’ thought this it is of course not possible to say. However, it is clear that his letter emphasises to Somerset that the Burgher Force referred to had been an important defensive element in frontline activities.

2.2       Pringle’s letter to Rev Renton, transcribed as letter 2 below and also dated 22 March 1851, contains many of the same comments, but with a sharper edge including that he will rebut any such claims. He asks, indeed in effect insists, on being told the source of the comments made by Renton. In particular, he wants to know what has ‘passed’ between Renton and Major General Somerset. He also provides a number of circumstantial reasons why the allegation should be seen as untrue; and implicitly this is added to by the outraged vehemence of how his letter is expressed, given that he is the senior member of the force about whom the allegation is made.

2.3       Somerset’s response to Pringle’s letter is dated 2 April 1851 and is transcribed as letter 3 below. It states that what he said was rather different from what is being claimed; and his response exists both in the original and also in a transcribed version made by Pringle, presumably to pass on to others as part of him rebutting the claims. The comments that Somerset says he really made are that, firstly, ‘Women and Children’ were ‘saved from the utter destruction which awaited them’ had they remained in Fort Armstrong, but, secondly, that this would have been a consequence of ‘our Shot and Shells!’, and thirdly, that he had made ‘no allusion whatsoever to the Burgher Forces’, with the certainty of his response overall being underlined by his use of the phrase ‘perfectly recollect’. A comment in his letter to Major Somerset refers to his son Edward Somerset, who was a senior commander in the field, and it is made to point out that the recommendation about Fort Armstrong came from him.

2.4       The next letter in the set appears to be from Major Edward Somerset, certainly it seems to be in his characteristically impenetrable handwriting, with letter 4 providing some transcribed passages. But it is largely unreadable, unfortunately. However, its more readable (barely) sections are provided below. Its style seems to be that of a report about events as they unfolded, with him observing that there were ’50 burgers’ who were involved in ‘driving the Kaffirs out of their passes’. This refers to what happened after combatants had left Fort Armstrong, involving the settler and military forces driving them into the Amatola mountains, and thus the reference to easily defended mountain passes where the military and settler forces could be better resisted. What is particularly interesting about this is that the burghers are written about without a capital in front of the word, as part of a wider group of forces; while the ‘K word’ is used with a capital letter indicating an ethnic grouping. This is the only place in these five letters where the ‘K word’ is used and this point is returned to later. The end of his letter suggests that Edward Somerset was writing that a mistake had been made in the report of these matters and that he had conveyed this in a letter to Henry Renton. However and most unfortunately, the earlier section of Somerset’s letter commenting on the details is unreadable apart from a disjointed word here and there.

2.5       Rev Henry Renton’s letter of 5 April 1851, transcribed as letter 5 below, responds in some detail to Pringle’s 22 March letter, which he comments had reached him just that afternoon. He states firmly that Seymour had said to him that ‘by his arrival he had… saved 400 women and children’, that this had occurred ‘in a private conversation’, and that Seymour had also said that if the Commando had entered Fort Armstrong then there would have been ‘utter destruction’ and ‘indiscriminate slaughter’ of the women and children, later expanded to ‘men women and children’. In part, Renton makes clear that some of the things he has reported on he found out about through rumour and public discussion. In part, however, he emphasises having received direct confirmation in a second face-to-face meeting with Major General Somerset, in which the latter commented that ‘they would have been all murdered’ had he and the British forces not arrived. At the same time, he is ‘not left to doubt’ Pringle’s personal repudiation or that he gave ‘any countenance ‘of such things, and he accepts that it could not have been the whole Commando intending to do this and he had thought this at the time.

2.6       Having in a sense reached the high point of his confirmation of the factual character of his claims in the reference to his second direct conversation with Henry Somerset, Renton concludes his letter with two more claims that he knew about through allegation, that is, through rumour. These are that some women and children were in fact shot at Fort Armstrong, and that the commando in question had had the word ‘extermination’ on their flag from the outset of the hostilities. The salience of the reference to the village of Balfour is implicit, although it would have been realised by Pringle and Somerset as well as Renton, and is that a key element of the hostilities was that many of those living in the Kat River settlement in the Balfour area were involved, with particularly strong negative settler feelings about what was seen as a betrayal by the Kat River settlers.

2.7       There are some general points to be drawn from the above discussion, before moving on to consider the second topic concerning the 400 women and children, comments about whom recur across the letters.

2.8       Firstly, Pringle rejects out of hand any suggestion that the commando or any part of it might have been intending to carry out ‘barbarous’ actions, with the implication that as one of its Commandants he would have known had any such thing been intended. His position can be summarised as, the claims are absolutely wrong, and there are some circumstantial reasons why this would be so.

2.9       Secondly, the claims about an intended ‘indiscriminate slaughter’ that are made, rebutted, revised and reiterated stem from comments made by the missionary Henry Renton. In part these derive from rumour and public discussion, but in larger part they rest on two pieces of direct evidence claimed as factual and certain. One is a private conversation on 25 February between him and Major General Henry Somerset, which when it occurred he had not appreciated the full import of. The other is ‘an accidental interview’ between them on 27 February, in which Somerset explicitly stated that the women and children would have been murdered apart from the arrival of his troops. These are very much factual claims made by Renton. It was his word against Somerset’s.

2.10     Thirdly, Somerset concedes, via Major Somerset’s recommendation, that he was worried, but he states that this had nothing to do with the Commando and instead concerned the consequences of shelling the occupied fort. Being able to decipher the impenetrable handwriting of Major Edward Somerset and read in particular the earlier parts of his letter would have been helpful here, although of course even if legible it could not ‘prove’ the facticity or otherwise of either Somerset’s or Renton’s cLiam’s.

2.11     A puzzle at the basis here is how to prove that, while nothing happened, still something could have done. Renton’s position is that something did happen, in the form of some shootings and a banner with an objectionable and confirmatory motto on it, and that the key military commander on the ground had clearly stated that something would have happened had his forces not arrived as they did. No reports of any actual large-scale slaughtering exist, but then it is possible, even likely, that if this had happened the settler press would not have reported it as such. However, none of the letter-writers including Renton indicate that it did, and it can be assumed that Renton at least would have commented about this had he had any suspicion of something more occurring than he mentions at the end of his letter.

2.12     There is another perplexing puzzle, too. This concerns the 400 women and children around whom these claims and counter-claims are made.

3. Who were the women and children?

3.1       The 400 women and children who might have been ‘indiscriminately slaughtered’ appear in four out of the five letters discussed (indeed they might also appear in the fifth, Major Edward Somerset’s letter, if this could be properly deciphered), while they appear twice in Renton’s, once as women and children and once as men women and children. Beyond their appearances as ‘women and children’, who they are more precisely is never specified in any of the letters. They are simply women, children, and these nouns are never marked by ethnicity or race descriptors.

3.2       There is another curious absence/presence alongside this. In Pringle’s draft letter to Somerset, no enemy is named against whom the commando force and the British military are fighting. In effect the letter is all about the Burgher and British forces, with those against whom the fighting was occurring in ‘the present fearful contest’ treated as both self-evident and in a sense irrelevant to the matter in hand. Pringle’s draft letter to Renton does name ‘the Rebels’ and by implication in his use of the term ‘barbarous tragedy’ he is actually referring not to the Burghers but to the Rebels. In this context these are local African peoples who at the time of writing and in the circumstances of warfare were typically described by the white population as barbarous. Renton’s letter too mentions the Rebels. However, in both instances the link between the Rebels and the women and children invoked is not specified but remains implicit.

3.3       The sole explicit naming of the rebels in ethnic or race terms appears in Major Edward Somerset’s scrawled letter, when he refers to ‘50 burghers’ who have driven ‘the Kaffirs’ into retreat into the mountain passes of the Amatolas. Interestingly here, ‘burghers ‘appears as term used generally, while ‘Kaffir’ is capitalised and by implication refers to an ethnic grouping. Overall in these letters, the emphasis is on an ‘us’, the Burgers, Burger Forces, British military, and the intentionality of actions carried out (or not) by these. The concern is with culpability in a moral sense, given that the key event, an indiscriminate slaughter, was one that had actually not happened. However, the fact that ‘women and children’ is used in an unmarked way remains curious. There seem to be two overlapping things going on here.

3.4       One is that, in the concern of the letter-writers with establishing moral culpability or probity, the fact that these were women and children perhaps out-trumped any mitigation of such moral evaluations that might stem from them too being ‘Kaffirs’ and so rebels and barbarous. The other is that, even in this generally recognised to be the most ferocious of the Frontier Wars, the combatants were still seen almost exclusively in terms of fighting men, and thus as excluding women and children on both sides except when ‘barbarous’ occurrences took place. If the ‘indiscriminate slaughter’, or even the shooting of women and children and the flying of an ‘extermination’ banner as claimed by Renton, had taken place, then it would have clearly been the combined forces of the settlers and the military that were barbarous and not ‘the Rebels’.

4. Conclusions?

4.1       What makes whiteness vanish? One circumstance is when attention is specifically on within-group activities and circumstances, and when the white people concerned conduct themselves as though only this in-group exists in the world. Another circumstance is where as the established and superordinate group, the in-group, positions themselves as centre-universe by excluding or peripheralising all those who are construed as Other. Both reinforce the sense of an ontologically unseamed universe, which in turn supports this supposition. What makes blackness vanish? When white superordinate established groups have gained sufficient power and authority not to recognise that Other supposed outsider groups have social or moral existence worthy of being taken notice of.

4.2       In the letters discussed, whiteness is implicit; it forms in effect the moral universe in which these letters were written and the events they allude to took place or did not take place. What is notable is not so much that blackness has, for different reasons and with different effects compared with whiteness, also been vanished. It is rather that the moral conundrum the letters are concerned with require other Others – and specifically women and children – to come into frame and serve ethical or moral purposes by taking on ontological solidity; and to describe or mark these Others in ethnic or racial terms would undercut the moral stance being promoted.

4.3   What also makes blackness vanish? When attention is on white within-group matters, and when outsider people don’t count sufficiently to be represented even as such. The fighting men counted; the women and children it seems counted more when re-racialised, rendered in a way that ‘universalised’ (or whited) them.

5. Letter 1: WDP to Henry Somerset, 22 March 1851

Lyndock 22d March


Respected Sir

With feelings not easily described I am motivated to address you at this time. By a private letter which reached me by yesterday’s post, I am informed by the Writer (a person unaccustomed either to unreadable or misrepresent matters, much less either to propagate or circulate slanderous or false statements) that you have told the Revd Mr Renton at Philippolis that you had arrived with the troops there just in time to save 400 Women & children from being killed or destroyed by the Burgher Forces ^under the unreadable of Commandants^ …. [unreadable excisions]

Will you please acquaint me at an early date with what passed between Mr Renton & yourself in reference to the above malicious libel as I cannot place implicit confidence in the report of your having this ?action until hearing from you. It will afford me great pleasure in being able to contradict the above statement before the Public give credence to it, which if uncontradicted will cause great dissatisfaction among the Burgher Colonialists who so nobly did their duty ?when ?cooperating with the forces under your command at Fort Armstrong. If uncontradicted it will leave a foul stigma upon their characters & if left uncontradicted it will cause angry feelings and contention among those who have already ?stood ?prominently forward in the present fearful contest.

I have the honor to remain…

To Major General Somerset


[WDP to Henry Somerset, 22 March 1851, Pringle 9/21, 6344-6345]

6. Letter 2: WDP to H. Renton, 22 March 1851

Lyndock 22d March 1851

Reverend Sir

A private letter to me by last Post from a most respected friend conveys to me the startling intelligence of Major General Somerset having acquainted you that had he not arrived in time at the late contest at Fort Armstrong, 400 Women & Children would have been killed or destroyed by the Burgher Forces. I ?would ^?endeavour^ to disabuse your mind of the truth of this statement as I am perfectly prepared to contradict such a gratuitous malicious libel when called upon.

I ?hope however you will have the goodness to acquaint me at your earliest convenience with what passed between Major General Somerset & yourself in reference to the above stated intended malfeasance. Had the Burghers under the several Commandants present felt inclined to carry out such a diabolical tragedy, opportunities were not wanting to have effected that purpose, when the Major or his forces could not have restrained them. First on the unreadable between Balfour & Fort Armstrong where several women & children were amongst the combatants. Second, on the Burgers driving the Rebels inside the walls of said Fort & Major General Somerset’s ?guns playing upon them from an opposite direction, several women ran down to the river unmolested within range of the Rifles of the Burghers. Another instance must suffice. On the door of the unreadable being broken open, a number of women rushed out who might easily have been destroyed by the Burghers whereas I am not aware that even one of the number was injured by the Burghers. I regret that Major General Somerset suspecting the barbarous tragedy likely to be enacted by the Burghers & if believing them capable of such ?fiendish conduct, he had thought ^not^ fit to ?dispense with their services on that occasion.

Waiting your reply…

[WDP to Henry Renton, 22 March 1851, Pringle 9/21, 6344-6345]

7. Letter 3: H Somerset to WDP, 2 April 1851

Elands River

April 2nd 1851


I have the honor to receive your letter of the 22 inst. I perfectly recollect having expressed to Mr Renton my satisfaction at having made arrangements for bringing out the Women and Children before my attack on Fort Armstrong, which I considered saved them from ^the^ destruction which awaited them, had they remained in the Fort until after the Attack, exposed to our Shot and Shells! But my remark had no allusion whatsoever to the Burgher Forces, or to the conduct of any of the Force, but to the consequences that must inevitably have resulted from such exposure, had not opportunity been afforded for bringing them away. The suggestion for my doing so having been made to me by Major Somerset when I ordered the Troops to move on and before I had any communications with the Burgher Force

I have the honor to remain

Sir your obedt servant

H. Somerset

Major Gen ?Cmr General

[Henry Somerset to WDP, 2 April 1851, Pringle 9/22, 6347- 6350] [nb. this is the transcript of Somerset’s original letter, not the WDP copy]

8. Letter 4: ?Edward Somerset to WDP, 2 April 1851

Elands River

April 2nd 1851

I have forwarded you a reply to his letter acquainting me with his statement of the unreadable. You can see it was unreadable…. [long section unreadable]

There were 50 burgers from unreadable unreadable unreadable in driving the Kaffirs out of their passes… [long section unreadable]

Here unreadable a copy of my letter to Mr Renton requesting him to explain this mistake to Mr ?Taverner. I will trust you unreadable to unreadable unreadable letter in the papers. I have sent a copy of my letter to Mr Renton.


[?Edward Somerset to WDP, 2 April 1851, Pringle 9/23, 6352-6355]

9. Letter 5: Henry Renton to WDP, 5 April 1851

Grahamstown, April 5, 1851

Sir, I have to acknowledge your letter of the 22nd ult, which reach me here this afternoon.

To your request that I should acquaint you with what passed between Major General Somerset and myself in reference to the subject of your letter I beg to state,

That at Philippolis on Tuesday evening Feb 25th the Major General, in a private conversation about the operations at Fort Armstrong on the Saturday preceding, dwelt on the fact, as one which afforded him peculiar satisfaction, that by his arrival there at the time he did, he had saved 400 women and children who were exposed to utter destruction.

That subsequently to this interview I heard it stated again and again at Philippolis that if the Commando which came to Balfour vanquished the Rebels it was their purpose to have made an indiscriminate slaughter of men women and children.

That at the camp opposite Eiland’s ?port on Thursday evening Feb 27, having an accidental interview with the Major General, I observed to him that I was not aware, when he talked two nights before of having saved 400 women and children at Fort Armstrong from destruction, of what he meant, but I had been told since that it had been the purpose of the Commando at Balfour to have destroyed them, and that a number of the Commando was bent on extermination. He replied “Oh, if it had not been for my coming forward they would have been all murdered”

Notwithstanding that the quarters from which the report came and the remarks of the Major General, warranted the conclusion that the dreadful design had existed of slaughtering women and children, I did not credit that the whole commando could entertain it, and I heard a kinsman of your own at Phillipolis strongly disclaim it. As far as your letter goes, I am not left to doubt your personal repudiation of any countenance to such a design. And it would be satisfactory if the allegations could be disproved, that there were women and children shot at Fort Armstrong and that one commando which formed part of the Burgher force at Balfour so little dissembled their purpose that they had started from their district with a banner, having the word extermination emblazoned as their motto.

I am Sir

Your most obedient servant

Henry Renton

[Henry Renton to WDP, 5 April 1851, Pringle 9/24, 6357-6360]

Last updated: 29 December 2017