In 1835, using the horse based postal system of the Cape Colony, it took Sir Harry Smith a staggering six days to ride the 950 km from Cape Town to take command of the British garrison at Grahamstown. This was a remarkable feat of human endurance and horsemanship. Bombastic, bungling, British hero he might have been but can Barry and Joe match this epic race against time?
Since the beginning of the British occupation of southern Africa at the Cape Colony in 1806, the Xhosa tribes had been pushed steadily eastwards. By the end of December 1834 this pressure on traditional Xhosa lands exploded with the outbreak of the Sixth Frontier War. Thousands of Xhosa warriors poured over the border laying waste to the farms of the Cape Colony. Settlers were abandoning their farms and Grahamstown was under threat of being over-run.
The Governor at the Cape, Sir Benjamin D’Urban, urgently sent Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Harry Smith (called “Harry Whackalong Smite” by his troops), veteran of the Peninsular War and of Waterloo, to take command of the garrison at Grahamstown. Smith chose to ride rather than make the journey by sea as was the norm, concerned that weather conditions may delay his departure. Utilising the established postal system of the day he was able to travel the 950 km in just six days. Even with fresh horses waiting for him at post stations every 40 km, it was a remarkable equestrian feat, a testament to Smith’s horsemanship, physical fitness and determination. He rode at an astonishing average speed of over 22 km per hour and covered a remarkable 224km in a single day. Smith was accompanied for the duration of his ride by Manie, a Khoikhoi trooper.
Barry Armitage and Joe Dawson, again attempt to emulate an epic equestrian achievement from South African colonial history. By using 40 horses sourced from the local trail and endurance riding communities they will replicate the postal system of 1835 and endeavour to match the furious pace set by Smith. Their route, filled with historical relics and references of the time, takes them from the heart of Cape Town eastwards through the majestic beauty of Western Cape and the game rich wilds of the Eastern Cape to their goal in the settler capital of Grahamstown.
Sir Harry Smith was credited with saving Grahamstown. In a nine month war he drove the Xhosa tribes further eastwards across the Keiskama River. The aftermath of this conflict was to have great consequences for another South African tribe: the Boers. It became the catalyst for thousands of Boers who had lost faith in British governance to shrug off British authority and leave the Cape Colony. This exodus, which we now know as the Great Trek, was to profoundly shape the history of South Africa. The Boers clashed violently with the Bantu tribes to the north in striving to establish their independence. This hard fought independence was ultimately challenged by the might of the British Empire, intent on gaining control of the goldfields beneath Johannesburg, leading to the Boer War: the last Imperial War that signalled the beginning of the end of the British Empire.