In the late 17th and early 18th century the Dutch at the Cape Colony only had contact with the Khoikhoi and San peoples. The Dutch farmers moved further north to colonise more land to cultivate in order to meet the requirements of the service post set up by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) at the Cape of Good Hope.
Expansion of the Cape Colony was greatly influenced by the dry and infertile nature of its immediate interior. Farms could only be settled where there were springs to provide permanent water. The Karoo stretches towards the east of the Cape and could only be used as seasonal grazing for animals and expansion was forced towards the north and northwest. In the northeast the Dutch farmers met with serious resistance from the Khoikhoi and San, discontinued their bid for more land and moved back to locations closer to the coast. However, the sparse population of these two groups made it easier for the colonisers to expand.
In September 1795 the Cape was won by British forces and soon after the VOC had ceased to exist. Life at the Cape changed, but productivity remained low as a result of irregular rain, a small population, a lack of cheap labour and advanced agricultural technology. British annexation of the Cape continued intermittently from 1795 to 1854, whilst from 1818 to 1819 the British were involved in a second conflict, one of many with local peoples, with Xhosa forces for the territory east of the Great Fish River. This stopped the expansion of colonisers up the east coast, but by 1820 more settlers resulted in increasing desire for land and expansion. These British settlers had been sent to South Africa to alleviate unemployment and poverty in England and many of them had no prior experience of farming. Their arrival and settlement on contested land may have led to the development of later conflicts.
The concept of expanding the Colony’s borders to the Orange River first came into being in 1809, but no action was taken until 1820. Farmers had, however, been settling outside the official borders of the colony from 1800 to 1820 and from 1822 the borders were redefined to accommodate this development. The northern border of the Cape Colony now extended to the Orange River and towards the east it stretched to the Stormberg Spruit.
Before 1820 John Campbell, from the London Missionary Society (LMS), travelled north of the Orange River and reported, very subjectively, that the whole area was a place of “strife and blood” and that Satan had spread wickedness into the hearts of the people, which resulted in the state of war and dissent in the area. Campbell was exposed to many different tribes in his travels and was told many varied accounts of the roles of each tribe and chief. During that period fierce competition reigned between various tribes for trade routes to Mozambique and he was often deliberately misinformed. British officials didn’t put much stock in Campbell’s reports and only took interest in the areas he visited after 1820.
In 1825 plagues of locusts and drought resulted in farmers in the Orange River area being allowed to extend their grazing over the river as an emergency measure. Rainfall in 1826 allowed most of them to return their cattle, but another drought in 1828 and 1829 brought about the process of permanent settlement north of the Orange River. There was no intention of breaking with the Cape Colony and the farmers still paid their taxes.