HISTORIC LADYSMITH – AN INTRODUCTION

PREHISTORY

For thousands of years the rolling grasslands and dependable rivers made the open plains of the area we now know as Ladysmith the ideal environment for its first inhabitants, the San people (Bushmen).  They were hunter-gatherers, living off the land and hunting freely on the quiet floodplains. From the coast of KwaZulu-Natal, the rising Zulu nation spread its wings slowly toward the Drakensberg Mountains, claiming land and driving away other tribes in their path.

After a visit by the great King Shaka, he promptly named the area “Emnambithi”.  In Zulu the word for something tasty is “nambitheka” and this is how he described the sweet water of the Klip River. In 1836 the first Voortrekkers crossed the Drakensberg Mountains and feasted their eyes on the green grasslands of KwaZulu-Natal.

After negotiations, Dingaan’s successor, Mpande, permitted members of the famous “Wen” (Winning) Commando to settle in the area.  For a brief while the area was referred to as the Klip River Republic. On 31 May 1844 the British annexed Natal as a district of the Cape Colony, resulting in the early death of the new republic. Many of the Trekkers, refusing to accept British rule, left Natal and headed for the Boer Republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State.

Lady Juana Maria de los Delores de Leon Smith

The Governor of the Cape Colony, Sir Harry Smith, visited Natal in 1846 and was particularly interested in the area around the Klip River.  A surveyor, Mr. John Bird, was appointed to find a suitable location to establish a town.  Bird began early in 1848 and on Mr Van Tonder’s farm found a tenable spot in a loop of the river between high banks. In 1849 the town was described as “ a well adapted village” consisting of only four houses and known locally as Windsor.  On 20 June 1850, Lt. Governor Benjamin Pine proclaimed it a township and three months later, in October, the town was officially named Ladysmith, after Juana Maria de los Delores de Leon, the beautiful Spanish wife of Sir Harry Smith.

By 1851 Mr George Winder had opened a shop and several new buildings were erected. British Settlers moved into the district and soon Ladysmith was thriving. Within a few years the town had developed into an important stopover for transport wagons and travellers going to and from the Republics of the Orange Free State and Transvaal. With the outbreak of the Anglo Zulu war in 1879, residents hastily strengthened the fort in fear of being attacked, this however, never materialised. The Local Board was proclaimed on 5 May 1882.  The first Chairman was Mr G King.  On 9 June 1882 the town was officially declared a Borough and the first Town Clerk was Mr G W Lines.

In 1886 diamonds were discovered in Kimberley and gold in Barberton and the Witwatersrand.  Traffic through Ladysmith increased tremendously with between two and three thousand wagons passing through Ladysmith some months. Trade from this passing traffic greatly boosted local businesses.  With the establishment of railway lines first to the Transvaal and later to the Orange Free State, Ladysmith was firmly established as the main stopover and trading centre for the surrounding district.

The impressive Town Hall was built in 1893.  Ladysmith prospered and grew. The first Mayor was elected in 1899 – Mr Joseph Farquhar. On 11 October 1899 the Anglo Boer/South African War broke out between the Boer Republics and Britain.  Ladysmith was catapulted to world fame when the Boer forces laid siege to Ladysmith on 2 November 1899.  For the next 118 days Ladysmith made headlines worldwide until its relief on 28 February 1900.  Despite the devastation caused by constant bombardment, the town endured.  Many farmers had to start all over again and perennial floods and drought made matters difficult.

With the outbreak of the World Wars in 1914 and 1938 many able men were sent away to fight.  After the World Wars, the town enjoyed a period of peace and tranquility. The worst-ever snowstorm was recorded in 1924 with the main street covered in half a metre of snow. By the late 1920’s the town was providing mostly for the needs of its farming community. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s many people flocked to the town to make a living.

Once again the Railways proved to be a sturdy crutch to help the town get back on its feet. The large railway staff added to the prosperity of the town by providing a constant spending power. The 1940’s and 1950’s saw unprecedented growth and expansion.  The effects of the Apartheid government through its Group Areas Act in the 1960’s hit the town hard as Indian businessmen were forced out of the central business area.  Shops remained empty for years to come.

Since the early 1980’s the town has boomed with industrial investment.  The first democratic Local Government came into place during 1995, combining Ladysmith with its two townships of Steadville and Ezakheni. In 1996 the Qedusizi Dam was completed, effectively ending the Klip River’s reign of terror.  During 1999 new municipal demarcations saw the village of Colenso being added into the Ladysmith fold. The Anglo Boer War Centenary was commemorated with a large scale “Freedom Festival” which commemorated all the freedom struggles of the previous century.

Ladysmith entered the new millennium in peace and with optimism.

IN THE EYE OF THE STORM: THE ANGLO-BOER/SOUTH AFRICAN WAR

Friction between the British Government and the Zuid Afrikaanse Government over the rights of the colonist reached fever point in 1899.  On 9 October 1899 President Paul Kruger issued an ultimatum to the British Government, giving them 48 hours to comply.  War was declared on 11 October 1899.

Ladysmith was catapulted to world fame when, almost immediately, Boer forces invested all but one of the hills around Ladysmith.  On 2 November 1899 the siege of Ladysmith began and was to last another 118 days.

Ladysmith became the focal point of the struggle in the first and most critical stage of the war.  Approximately 12 000 British troops under the command of General Sir George White, experienced four months of detention in what became a foul prison with no comforts, precious little food, polluted drinking water, thousands of miserable, half starved horses and widespread disease completing the torture of being able to do absolutely nothing but wait.

30 000 British troops, under General Sir Redvers Buller finally relieved the town on 28 February 1900.

THE CAST OF CHARACTERS

GENERAL SIR GEORGE WHITE VC:  INSIDE LADYSMITH

George Stuart White was born in Rock Castle, Portstewart on 6 July 1835.  At age eighteen he entered the Royal Military College at Sandhurst and began his long military career.

Some of the highlights of his career included receiving the Victoria Cross in 1879; succeeding Lord Roberts as Commander-in-Chief of the forces in India from 1893-1898; commanding the troops in Natal in 1899 and defending Ladysmith during the siege.  He was 65 years old at the time of the siege.

He died thirteen years later on 24 June 1912 after receiving many decorations for outstanding service: GCB, OM, GCSI, GCMG, GCIE, GCVO.

GENERAL SIR REDVERS BULLER VC: OUTSIDE LADYSMITH

Born in December 1839.  He began his military career with the 60th Rifle Regiment (King’s Royal Rifles).  From then on he was a leading figure in several wars including the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 during which he was awarded the Victoria Cross at the Battle of Hlobane.

Buller reluctantly accepted the unenviable responsibility of relieving Ladysmith.  He arrived in Cape Town in October 1899 and proceeded to Durban after which he established his head quarters at Frere.  With a force of around 30 000 men, General Buller made several attempts to relieve the beleaguered Ladysmith.  Success followed after a series of skirmishes referred to as the Battle of the Tukhela Heights and not before the battles of Colenso (15 Dec. 1899), Spioenkop (24 Jan.1899) and Vaalkranz (5-7 Feb.1900) took place.  The final breakthrough was on 28 February 1900 ending a 118-day siege.

As a great Victorian hero and highly respected general, Buller was expected to relieve Ladysmith within a short time.  His inability to do this cost him his reputation and brought about the decline of his military career. He returned to Britain at the end of 1900 and passed away in 1908.

COMMANDANT-GENERAL PIET JOUBERT: BOER COMMANDER INVESTING LADYSMITH

Joubert was a mystery to most people. Deep generosity and genuine kindness were often marred by an acutely hostile tongue.  “Slim (wily) Piet” to some and “Oom (uncle) Piet” to others, the two were never far apart.  But, whatever personal opinions existed – and there were many- there is no doubt of his place in the hearts and history of the Boer people.  As Commandant-General in the first Boer War of 1880-1881, he had won the war for the Boers.  Majuba became his personal battle honour, and a Trafalgar-type victory symbol for the people of whom he was so much apart…  By 1899, Joubert was simply tired, his energies eroded by half a century of conflict with men – both black and white – the challenges of a nation in the making, and by the harsh geography of a pioneer country.

In a grueling campaign of four months, 22 000 of them (Boers) contained General White’s force of 14 000 inside Ladysmith and held at bay 28 000 of General Buller’s army trying to get in.

Ruari Chisholm,1979:  Ladysmith