THERE being some dread, on the part of the colonists, at the idea of employing too many armed and disciplined natives the Hottentots in the old Cape Mounted Rifles had mutinied in Cape Colony some years before it was decided to reduce the number of blacks in the Natal Police from 150 to 50. At the same time the full strength of the Europeans in the force was raised to 115. The Defence Committee had recommended that the Europeans should number 1 50, but on financial grounds this suggestion was not adopted. Although powers were granted to bring the strength up to 115, the actual number of men enrolled did not come to anything like that figure for a very long time. Suitable members of the corps could not be got at the price. At the close of 1874 the strength all told was 45, and it only reached 72 by the end of 1875. Even the men who offered their services and were chosen could not be relied upon to remain with the force. A few enlisted each month, but there were constant desertions, and nearly every month one or two were dismissed for misconduct, or as being physically unfit. Several members died or were killed during the first eighteen months of the force's history.
Gun-running had at this time become a profitable pastime, and early in 1875 Sub-Inspector Campbell with three troopers, had a long chase after a man who left Greytown with a wagon supposed to contain firearms. The wagon had gone three days before the police heard of the affair, but they caught it up near the Buffalo River. There was some delay, owing to the difficulty of getting a search-warrant, and when the police pounced on the wagon it was empty. Afterwards it was discovered that the man had had fifty guns in his cart, but while the police were being detained for the warrant he heard that they were after him and buried the weapons about half an hour before the search was made.
In several other instances the police made important captures of guns and ammunition which would otherwise have been sold to the natives.
Chasing cattle-raiders and going out on patrol constituted the chief work of the force at this time, many exciting days being spent in trekking after the thieves in wild, semi-civilized districts.
It was admitted in 1876 that the slowly growing body of Natal Police formed, to all intents and purposes, the finest and most valuable military force there was in the colony. Hard as nails with constant drill and no luxury in the way of food, they were beginning to come up to the standard which their stern commander had intended they should reach. The ramifications of the force were spreading also, for the camp at Harding was reoccupied, and there were other out-stations at Greytown and Estcourt, patrols keeping in constant touch with these places.
By August there were 94 men on the books, and of this number 62 officers, non-commissioned officers, and troopers were sent off on a general patrol over the east of the colony, which lasted about two months. Each man was mounted. No wagons were taken, as much rough country had to be traversed, and a dozen pack-ponies formed the only available transport. Leaving Pietermaritzburg, the men passed over the Noodsberg to the coast, and then turned south to Durban, where a halt was made for three days.
In the region of Umzinto there was a chief named Umkodoya who, three years previously, had settled without permission, and who took not the slightest notice of all official messages to the effect that he had to go. The magistrate, tired of being defied, sent down to Durban for the services of the patrol. The men moved to Umzinto. Umkodoya promptly deserted his kraals and trekked for dear life when he saw the police. The detachment occupied the huts until all the chief's household goods had been removed and he had settled down with his tribe on the land allotted to them.
A week's drill was put in at Park Rennie, and from there the men moved down the coast to the Umzimkulu River, there being rumours of unrest amongst the natives in East Griqualand. Their services were not required, however, and the force marched up the banks of the river to Middle Ford, and thence to Pietermaritzburg.
The grand tour had proved useful in several ways, and from an educational point of view had been excellent for the men. But the Natal Witness, which for many years pursued a steady policy of nagging the police, ridiculed the patrol, said it had been purely ornamental, and declared it was absurd to teach policemen to act as a concentrated force. As a matter of fact, it was of vital importance that they should learn to act in a body, and so be able to crush an insurrection at its birth before it had time even a few days to assume such proportions that it would have been beyond the power of the slowmoving regular troops and half-disciplined volunteers to subdue.
The first police law was published in 1876, and it was the custom to read portions of this law to the men on every full-dress parade. Not until the following year were the regulations issued to the men in printed form.
When, towards the end of 1876, Sir Theophilus Shepstone was appointed Special Commissioner to annex the Transvaal, he applied for an escort of the Natal Police, and, permission having been given by the Governor, the following members of the corps were detailed for this special duty : Sergeant Abbott ; Corporals Cushing, Faddy, Champ, McQueen ; Trumpeter Knott ; and Troopers Allison, Barclay, Bradshaw,Grissair, Jenkins, Holmes, Husband, Mathie, Myers, McDonald, Owen, Pleydell, Rafter, Scrivener, Sparks, W. H. Sharp, R. M. Sharp, Ward, and Whitwell. This force, under the command of Sub-Inspector Phillips, left Estcourt on i4th December 1876, and joined the Special Commissioner at Newcastle a week later.
The Transvaal was in a very unsettled state, there being strong opposition to the annexation. When the party reached the Transvaal border a number of Boers had an interview with the Special Commissioner. At Standerton, a week later, an address of welcome was read, and parties of mounted Boers fired volleys in honour of the occasion, there being another enthusiastic reception at Heidelberg.
President Burger's carriage went out to meet the Special Commissioner as he neared Pretoria ; the horses were taken out of the vehicle, and the crowd drew him through the streets. A camp was pitched in the market square, and the Union Jack was hoisted. But in spite of these demonstrations of delight, the general body of Boers were bitterly opposed to the movement, and Sir Theophilus was perfectly aware that at any moment the scenes of enthusiasm might change into scenes of strife. There is no doubt that there would have been fighting had not the leaders of those who opposed the movement persuaded the men to trust to an appeal to the British Government. Two deputations were, in fact, sent to England, but they were unsuccessful.
Throughout the time the police were in Pretoria a disturbance was hourly expected. While a special meeting of the Volksraad was being held the police were confined to camp. Sentries with loaded arms were posted round the building in which the Special Commissioner was staying, and the police camp was removed into the enclosure for greater security. On the 12th April the proclamation annexing the Transvaal was read, and although everything passed off quietly the police had to be kept under arms all day. A week afterwards the Commissioner was sworn in as Governor. The i3th Regiment was hurried up from Pietermaritzburg, and on their arrival the police were released from further duty. They were played out of Pretoria by the band of the 13th Regiment and marched down country, reaching their barracks three weeks later.
In some quarters the opinion had been expressed that the little force which accompanied the Special Commissioner was inadequate, and that Sub-Inspector Phillips was not sufficiently experienced to take charge of a detachment for such an important duty. Before leaving Pretoria Sub-Inspector Phillips received the following letter :
" GOVERNMENT HOUSE, PRETORIA, 2&th May 1877.
" The Administrator of the Government desires me, on the occasion of your returning to Natal with the detachment of the Natal Police under your command, to convey to you the high sense he entertains of the manner in which you have discharged the duties of the officer commanding his escort, and his thanks for the ready cheerfulness with which you have always complied with his wishes.
" He requests you to express to the non-commissioned officers and men of the escort the pleasure it has given him to observe their orderly and praiseworthy conduct, which has won for them the good opinion of the inhabitants.
" They have been engaged on a mission the results of which will permanently, and, His Excellency trusts, beneficially affect the history of South Africa ; and to have been connected with such a mission will hereafter, he hopes, be a continually increasing source of gratification to them."
It is recorded that on the return journey all the horses stampeded excepting two, and the troopers had to do part of their trek on foot until they came upon the animals at Newcastle.
Fresh signs of insubordination were showing in Pakadi's location in Weenen County, and for two months a patrol kept the natives quiet, after which every available man of the corps was rushed off to Pretoria, as it was stated that an attack on the Special Commissioner was contemplated. The attack was not made, however, and the force returned to headquarters.
The first small station (as distinguished from troop stations) was opened in 1877 at Karkloof, a corporal and six men being posted there. It came to a sudden end not very long afterwards, a grass fire which swept over the whole district burning it to the ground ; and the place was not rebuilt.
There was still the utmost difficulty in getting recruits for the corps in South Africa and, as it was considerably under strength, thirty men were sent out from England in 1877 and twenty-five the following year.
Some trouble was caused at this time by Smith Pommer, a Griqua who had the idea that he could run a rebellion with advantage to himself. Both the police and the 3rd Buffs were ordered down to the East Griqualand border in a hurry. The Buffs left Pietermaritzburg two and a half days before the police, who were encamped at the Noodsberg when the call arrived. By making forced marches they overtook the Buffs on the road near Ixopo. Smith Pommer was eventually shot on the slopes on the Ingeli Mountain.
Colonel Clarke, the present Chief Commissioner, joined the corps before the troops returned from the East Griqualand border, and his own story of his arrival at Pietermaritzburg shows that in those days they were not by any means arm-chair soldiers.
" I cannot remember a more miserable night," he writes, " than the first I spent as a trooper. I was served out with two blankets, a bed-board and two trestles, a pannikin, and a combination knife and fork and spoon. Three of us were put in a bell tent with no mattress or pillow, and the cold it was the end of April was intense. Our private effects had not come from Durban, and did not arrive for several days, so we had no extra covering. ' We had arrived in the city by the omnibus which ran between Durban and Maritzburg. Our dinner was handed out to us in a mess-room, lit by one solitary candle, and the appetising food, served on the bare table, consisted of tough steak and rice.
" After dinner we strolled down to see what sort of a place we had struck in our travels, and I hardly need say that our youthful spirits sank to zero. Open sluits ran down the sides of the principal streets, and one or two faint oil-lamps only intensified the darkness. Every shop was closed, and not a soul was to be seen in the streets. We sat on the railings at the corner of Longmarket Street and Commercial Road, and cursed our folly in coming to such a place.
' When the bulk of the men returned to headquarters, things became somewhat livelier, and the presence of Sergeant-Major Stean infused some animation into us. We were always at the ridingschool in the Zwaartkop Valley, near the entrance to the Botanical Gardens, by dawn, and until 6 p.m. we could never find a moment's rest.
" We had military saddles, with a heavy steel curb bit, a bridoon bit, steel stirrups, brass bosses on curb bit, crupper and breastplate, white helmets with spike, chin chain and monogram of brass, black boots with metal buckle up the sides, and black cord uniform. All this superfluous kit had to be kept in a high state of polish, and by the time we had got through our physical drill, rifle exercises, goose step and stables, we felt we had earned a night's rest.
" Riding-school meant a six-months' course, for we had riding on numnahs, single and double ride to go through, and then each man had a turn at drilling the squad. To make men feel contented with headquarters, the sergeant-major constantly held out threats to those who were awkward that he would send them to an out-station, until we dreaded the very thought of it."
The mention of white cotton gloves should bring a smile to the face of men who were serving in the corps in its infancy. The greatest offence a man could commit, according to the view of " Puffy " Stean, was to go out in the town on Saturdays or Sundays without these gloves. Many men were sent back to camp under arrest for having committed the awful crime of being abroad in bare hands. Men who had passed through the riding-school were permitted to take their horses out on Saturday, but it was a sorrowful moment for any man if he was seen rising in his stirrups at the trot.
At 9.30 p.m. every man had to fall in to answer his name, and the eagle eye of " Puffy " glanced along the ranks when " Right turn, dismiss " was given. The troopers under him were not angels, and occasionally he would order men to stand fast while the night parade was being dismissed, in order that he might put them through their turnings " by numbers " to see whether they were sober or not.