After a distinguished military career in the East Indies and elsewhere, Sir Harry Smith went out to South Africa in 1848 as Governor of the Cape Colony, and its dependencies; and in that year he proclaimed the country between the Orange and the Vaal to be British Territory.
The Boers of the Great Trek resented the annexation, and one Pretorius took the field, but was beaten on August 29 at the battle of Boomplatz by Smith, who had under his command six companies of infantry and two squadrons of cavalry; a force which strangely contrasts with the masses of soldiery opposed to Pretorius’ successors, Joubert, Botha, Cronje, De Wet, and Delarey.
Harrismith, in the Free State, was named after him; his services in the Sikh War were commemorated by an Aliwal on the Orange; while upon a new township in Natal, she who was once Donna Juana Maria de los Dolores de Leon of Badajoz on the Guadiana, bestowed the commonplace designation for which she had exchanged her retinue of tuneful Spanish, and it was called Ladysmith.
[Illustration: The siege of Ladysmith.]
After fifty years of obscurity, Ladysmith suddenly became the pivot upon which the fortunes of the British Empire were poised. Its loss, at least during the early weeks of the siege, would not only have thrown a British Army into captivity, but would have left an encouraged and very mobile enemy, replenished with the spoils of war, free to march irresistibly towards the sea.
In November, Buller was prepared, if Ladysmith should fall, to abandon the whole of Natal except Durban. He had private information that, if the Boers reached the coast, a certain European power would intervene. There was also the fear that another reverse would call out the disaffected Dutch in the Cape Colony, and the danger lest the British nation, treacherously harassed by the cries of the disaffected at home, who sympathize with the misfortunes of every nation but their own, would again write off South Africa as a bad debt, and offer peace on ignominious terms. In India the news of the capture of White, a former Commander in Chief, and of his removal as a prisoner of war, would have seriously, if not fatally, impaired the British raj.
At a later period, when the reinforcements had arrived and the plan of campaign had been altered to suit the situation in Natal, the loss of Ladysmith would not have so vitally affected the position in South Africa; and, in fact, Buller on December 16, authorized White to surrender.
On November 1, the commanders of the allied forces, Joubert and A.P. Cronje, decided to invest and bombard Ladysmith, confidently expecting that the only obstacle in the way of the procession to the sea would soon be removed by the fall of the intimidated town. They were even urged by some of the subordinate leaders, who, as a rule, were never so venturesome as when there was no immediate prospect of meeting the enemy, to mask White and march at once upon Durban, but Joubert would only sanction a minor effort in that direction which was postponed until it was too late to be effective.