Harry Smith's Last Throw: The Eighth Frontier War, 1850-53, Keith Smith

Harry Smith's Last Throw: The Eighth Frontier War, 1850-53, Keith Smith

The nine Frontier Wars (or Cape Frontier Wars, Wars of Dispossession or Xhosa Wars, earlier known as the Kaffir Wars) were a prolonged series of conflicts between the Xhosa people and the European authorities in the Cape Colony of South Africa. The Eighth War was probably the most brutal of these wars, lasting for three years (including a two-year long campaign in the hills of the Waterkloof).

The book has two authors - most of it was written by Keith Smith, but some chapters were taken almost intact from an earlier unpublished work by Neville Mapham, an enthusiastic amateur history who wrote on the same subject in the 1970s. With the agreement of Mapham's family Smith has included several chapters from the earlier text (edited mainly to replace some terms and names that are no longer acceptable and to tone down some outdated attitudes). These chapters are indicated in the chapter list, and are generally detailed narratives of particular expeditions. They are well written entertaining narratives. Smith's own chapters are equally well written, but with a focus on the wider context of the war as well as the detailed narratives. Sadly there are very few reliable sources from the Xhosa side, so both authors chapters are dominated by European evidence, especially with the use of eyewitness accounts (many of which deal with the rather Victorian theme of the mortally wounded hero suffering without complaint).

Perhaps the most obvious difference between the two authors is that Smith the author is not impressed by Smith the soldier and governor. Harry Smith's behaviour as governor certainly played a part in the outbreak of the war, and his conduct of the fighting was felt to have been poor by some at the time (he was removed before the end of the war). He does seem to have gone out of his way to offend several key Xhosa leaders, and yet still be surprised by the ferocity of the fighting when war broke out.

The first chapter serves as an introduction to the entire series of wars, looking at the waves of settlers who arrived in South Africa, and the series of clashes between them and the indigenous population. This is an essential background to the main narrative, and is complemented by the epilogue, which looks at the tragic cattle killing period and a section on the post-war fates of the main figures.

This is a detailed account of the fighting during the Eighth Frontier War, supported by a useful background history. The only flaw is the unavoidable absence of Xhosa voices, but despite that limit this is an interesting and well balanced account of an important conflict.  

1 - Setting the Scene
2 - I Will Be Governor
3 - War's Grim Visage
4 - Desertions and Incursions
5 - The Colony Fights Back
6 - The End of the Beginning
7 - The New Battleground
8 - October of the Kroome Heights
9 - The Writing on the Wall
10 - Harry Smith Learns his Fate
11 - Changes
12 - The Peace

Author: Keith Smith
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 310
Publisher: Frontline
Year: 2012

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