Henry Bartle Frere

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Sir Henry Bartle Frere, Bt
Sir (Henry) Bartle Frere, 1st Bt by Sir George Reid.jpg
Commissioner of Sind
In office
Monarch Victoria
Preceded by Richard Keith Pringle
Succeeded by Jonathan Duncan Inverarity
Governor of Bombay
In office
Monarch Victoria
Preceded by Sir George Russell Clerk
Succeeded by William Vesey-FitzGerald
High Commissioner for Southern Africa
In office
Monarch Victoria
Preceded by Sir Henry Barkly
Succeeded by Henry Hugh Clifford
Personal details
Born 29 March 1815
Clydach, Monmouthshire, Wales
Died 29 May 1884 (aged 69)
Wimbledon, London, England
Nationality British
Alma mater East India Company College

Sir Henry Bartle Edward Frere, 1st Baronet, GCB, GCSI, (29 March 1815 – 29 May 1884) was a British colonial administrator. He had a successful career in India rising to become Governor of Bombay. His actions unilateral maneuverings and orders to invade the Zulu Kingdom, as High Commissioner for Southern Africa, began the Anglo-Zulu War, and led to his recall to London to face charges of misconduct whereby he was officially censured for acting recklessly.

Early life[edit]

Frere was born at Clydach House, Clydach, Monmouthshire, the son of Edward Frere, manager of Clydach Ironworks and Mary Ann Green. His elder sister, Mary Anne Frere was born circa 1802 in Clydach, and his younger sister Frances Anne Frere was born circa 1819 in Clydach. He was the grandson of John Frere and a nephew of John Hookham Frere; William Frere; Bartholomew Frere; James Hatley Frere; and Temple Frere - canon of St Peters, Westminster. He was educated at the East India Company College the precursor of Haileybury and Imperial Service College.[1]

Family life[edit]

On 10 October 1844, he married Catherine Arthur (born c.1821 in Honduras), daughter of Sir George Arthur, 1st Baronet who was the Governor of Bombay and to whom he had been appointed private secretary two years earlier. Their children were: Mary Eliza Isabella Frere, born 1845 at Bitton, Gloucestershire; Catherine Frances Frere, born c.1849 in the East Indies; Georgina Hamilton Chichester Frere, born c.1850 in the East Indies; Bartle Compton Arthur Frere, born c.1855 in Paddington, Middlesex; and Eliza Frederica Jane Frere, born c.1857 in Wimbledon, London.[2]


After leaving the East India Company College Frere was appointed a writer in the Bombay (now Mumbai) civil service in 1834. Having passed his language examination, he was appointed assistant collector at Poona (now Pune) in 1835, and in 1842 he was chosen as private secretary to Sir George Arthur, Governor of Bombay. Two years later he became political resident at the court of Raja Shahji of Satara; on the rajah's death in 1848 he administered the province both before and after its formal annexation in 1849.

Commissioner in Sindh[edit]

In 1850 he was appointed chief commissioner of Sindh. In 1851 he founded the modern Indian postal service. In 1857, he sent detachments to Multan and to Sir John Lawrence in the Punjab in order to secure those locations during the Indian Mutiny. His services were fully recognized by the Indian authorities, and he received the thanks of both houses of parliament and was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB). Sir Bartle Frere, as the commissioner of Sindh issued a decree in 1851, making it compulsory to use Sindhi language in place of Persian in Sindh. The officers of Sindh were ordered to learn Sindhi compulsorily to enable them to carry on day-to-day work efficiently. A committee was constituted (1853) under Asst. Commissioner & Chief of Education Department comprising equal number of Hindu & Muslim members which unanimously decided on the use of Persio-Arabic Sindhi script with slight modifications. Sir Bartle Frere not only gave Sindhi language one script but he even published different Sindhi books related to various streams of the literature, which encouraged impetus to Sindhi writers to move quickly with literacy.

Governor of Bombay[edit]

He became a member of the Viceroy's Council in 1859, and in 1862 was appointed Governor of Bombay, where he continued his policy of municipal improvements, establishing the Deccan College at Pune, as well as a college for instructing Indians in civil engineering. His order to pull down the ramparts of the old Fort allowed the city to grow, and the Flora Fountain was commissioned in his honour. During Frere's administration his daughter, Mary Frere, collected Old Deccan Days (1868), the first English-language field-collected book of Indian folklore.[3]

In 1867 he returned to England where he was made GCSI, and given honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge;[4] he was also appointed a member of the Council of India.


In 1872 the foreign office sent him to Zanzibar to negotiate a treaty with the sultan, Barghash bin Said, for the suppression of the slave traffic. In 1875 he accompanied the Prince of Wales to Egypt and India, with such success that Lord Beaconsfield asked him to choose between being made a baronet or a Knight Grand Cross of the Bath. He chose the former, but the queen bestowed both honours upon him.

High Commissioner for Southern Africa[edit]

In 1877, Frere was made High Commissioner for Southern Africa by the London based Sub-Secretary for the Colonies Lord Carnarvon, who continued to support the imposition of the unpopular system of confederation upon the southern Africa region. Frere accepted the position with the understanding that successful implementation would result in being created the first British governor of a federated southern African dominion.[citation needed]

Second attempt at a confederated Southern Africa[edit]

Lord Carnarvon sought with Frere's elevation another attempt at implementing the ill-fated and locally unsupported confederation scheme that was met with fierce resistance by all the local groups involved. South Africans resented the perceived high-handed manner in which it was being imposed from London with little accommodation and knowledge of, or concern for, local conditions and politics. Cape Prime Minister, John Molteno, advised that that under current conditions confederation was ill-suited to and badly timed for Southern Africa. It would lead to a lop-sided confederation with resulting instability and resentment. He advised that full union status was a better model but only at a later date and once it was economically viable.

The different states of southern Africa remained resentful after the last bout of British imperial expansion. The Afrikaners resented the recent annexation of the Transvaal, did not support confederation and would successfully rebell in the First Boer War. The various Black South African states were suspicious of this new effort of British expansion. The ill-advised policies of both Frere and his local ally John Gordon Sprigg ended up causing a string of wars across Southern Africa, culminating in the disastrous Anglo-Zulu/Boer Wars.[5]

The British historical war film Zulu (1964) depicts the British victory against tremendous odds in the Battle of Rorke's Drift; the latter followed the defeat in the Battle of Isandlwana in the Anglo-Zulu War.

Local Resistance to Confederation from the Cape and Xhosa[edit]

Henry Bartle Frere by Spy in Vanity Fair, 1873

He was welcomed by the local (Molteno-Merriman) Cape government, but soon he met with difficulties in the second attempt to implement the unpopular Carnarvon confederation scheme; a formal objection to Carnarvon's confederation model had been conveyed to London via Frere's predecessor Sir Henry Barkly. The Cape government was primarily liberal and non-expansionist in its policies, and believed that any federation with the illiberal Boer republics would endanger the rights and franchise of the Cape's Black citizens.[6] The second attempt was viewed as an imperialist move to extend to British control over the whole of southern Africa by overriding the Cape's constitution. They also believed that the move would then result with British military action to invade the remaining independent states of the region including the Zulu Kingdom, and result in political instability.[7]

In September 1877 a minor tribal conflict erupted on the Cape frontier, between the Mfengu and Gcaleka tribes. The Cape government viewed the dispute as local; Frere immediately traveled to the frontier and declared war on the neighbouring independent state of Gcalekaland. Frere saw the opportunity as an opportunity to annex Gcalekaland for the planned confederation. Frere shared Carnarvon's concerns that the continued existence of independent African states posed an ever-present threat of a "general and simultaneous rising of Kaffirdom against white civilization". The 9th Frontier War resulted.[8]

The Transkei Xhosa were subjugated and annexed early in 1878, by General Thesiger and a small force of regular and colonial troops.[9]

Frere appealed (February 1878) and received the authority from the British Colonial Office to dismiss the Cape's elected government. His political ally Mr John Gordon Sprigg was then asked to form a puppet ministry. This unprecedented move solved any constitutional hindrances in the Cape, but did not quill a growing set of conflicts across Southern Africa and Lord Carnarvon resignation in early 1878.[10]

Outbreak of Zulu and Boer Wars[edit]

The Zulu Kingdom under King Cetshwayo remained independent of British control but Frere impressed upon the Colonial Office his opinion that if confederation was to succeed, Cetshwayo's forces had to be eliminated and Zululand annexed. While Carnarvon remained as Foreign Secretary in London the view had support but his replacement, Sir Michael Hicks-Beach strongly wished to avoid any war in southern Africa. Frere used the delay in the mail service between London and Cape Town to time the posting of his letters so as to delay communication and circumvent the Colonial Office's opposition to war. Frere sent Cetshwayo an impossible ultimatum in December 1878 to which all that could come of the effort was a state of war.[11]

Photo of Sir Henry Bartle Frere in the 1880s.

Cetshwayo was unable to comply with Frere's ultimatum - even if he had wanted to; Frere ordered Lord Chelmsford to invade Zululand, and so the Anglo-Zulu War began. On 11 January 1879, British troops crossed the Tugela River; fourteen days later the disaster of Isandlwana was reported, and that was enough for the House of Commons to demand that Frere be recalled. Beaconsfield supported him, however, and in a strange compromise he was censured but asked to stay on. Frere had severely underestimated the Zulus, who he had characterized as "a bunch of savages armed with sticks."[12]

The Zulu trouble, and disaffection brewing in the Transvaal, reacted upon each other most disastrously. The delay in giving the country a constitution afforded a pretext for agitation to the resentful Boers, a rapidly increasing minority, while the defeat at Isandlwana had badly tarnished the reputation of the British Empire in the region. Owing to the Xhosa and Zulu wars, Sir Bartle had been unable to give his undivided attention to the state of things in the Transvaal until April 1879, when he was at last able to visit a camp of about 4,000 disaffected Boers near Pretoria. Though conditions were grim, Frere managed to win the Boers' respect by promising to present their complaints to the British government, and to urge the fulfilment of the promises that had been made to them. The Boers did eventually disperse, on the very day upon which Frere received the telegram announcing the government's censure. On his return to Cape Town, he found that his achievement had been eclipsed—first by 1 June 1879 death of Napoleon Eugene, Prince Imperial in Zululand, and then by the news that the government of the Transvaal and Natal, together with the high commissionership in the eastern part of South Africa, had been transferred from him to Sir Garnet Wolseley. Meanwhile, growing Boer resentment at Frere's policies erupted in December 1880 into the disastrous First Boer War. The First Boer War, with the humiliating British defeats at Bronkhorstspruit, Laing's Nek, Schuinshoogte and Majuba Hill led to the independence of the Boer Republics and the final end of Carnarvon's confederation scheme.

Outbreak of the Basotho Gun War[edit]

Basutoland. home of the Basotho, had been under the nominal control of the Cape Colony since 1872 all the while the Cape government had allowed the Basotho leadership to keep much of their traditional authority. Frere pushed "The Peace Protection Act" (1879), during the Xhosa Wars, and decreed that all those of African descent had to be disarmed. The Basuto Gun War (1880) followed, as the Basothos rebelled at what they saw as a racist and high-handed ruling. Further aggravation cam when Premier John Gordon Sprigg attempt to enforce this disarmament of the Basotho that included setting aside Basotho land for white settlement.

The resulting war led to British defeats such as that at Qalabani, and ended in 1881 with a stalemate and a treaty that favoured the Basotho (This rebellion is a primary reason why Lesotho is now an independent country, and not part of surrounding South Africa). At the same time as the Basuto Gun War broke out, unrest flared up once again among the Xhosa of the Transkei.

Remains of the Frere Bridge over the Orange River at Aliwal North. The bridge was opened on 21 July 1880, shortly before Frere's departure from the Cape.


In 1880 Frere was recalled to London to face charges of misconduct. When Gladstone's ministry first came into office in the spring of 1880, Lord Kimberley originally had no intention of recalling Frere. In June, however, a section of the Liberal party memorialized Gladstone to remove him, and the prime minister complied (1 August 1880).

The disaster of Isandlwana was compounded by the humiliating defeats of the First Boer War. He was replaced by Sir Garnet Wolseley, charged with having acted recklessly, and censured by Whitehall.[13]


Upon his return Frere replied to the charges relating to his conduct with regard to Afghanistan as well as South Africa, previously referred to in Gladstone's Midlothian speeches, and was preparing a fuller vindication when he died at Wimbledon on 29 May 1884. He was buried in St Paul's Cathedral.


Henry Bartle Frere's Statue on the Thames embankment.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in May, 1877.[14]

Frere Hall in Karachi was built in his honour. The city also named a road, street and town after him. In 1888, the Prince of Wales unveiled a statue of Frere on the Thames embankment. Mount Bartle Frere (1622m), the highest mountain in Queensland, Australia is named after him, as is a boarding house at Haileybury. A road in Parktown, Johannesburg, is also named after him. (Frere Road in also the home of Nadine Gordimer, the Nobel Prize-winning author). In Durban, (KwaZulu-Natal), there are two roads which honour him: the first, Frere Road, transforms a little later to Bartle Road.


His Life and Correspondence, by John Martineau, was published in 1895. For the South African anti-confederation view, see P. A. Molteno's Life and Times of Sir John Charles Molteno (2 vols.,London 1900).

A more recent work on Bartle Frere's life, The Zulu and the Raj; The Life of Sir Bartle Frere by D. P. O'Connor, examines details of Frere's life and motives more fully than was permissible in Victorian times when Martineau was writing. In particular, O'Connor points to Frere as a leading thinker on imperial defence. He sets the Zulu war in the context of the overall global crisis, contingent on the 1877 Balkan War, which was widely expected to result in war between Britain and Russia. Frere was sent to South Africa to turn this vital area into a secure bastion on the route to India, but was distracted from the task by the routine instability of the South African theatre.

Popular culture[edit]

He was played by Sir John Mills in Zulu Dawn. His portrayal in the film is negative. He is depicted as a corrupt, greedy, deeply racist administrator who casually orders the invasion of Zululand after issuing his unfair, biased, impossibly demanding ultimatum.


  1. ^ Rootsweb, Mary Anne Green
  2. ^ Rootsweb. 1871 census - Frere household in Wimbledon
  3. ^ Dorson, R. M. (1999). History of British folklore. Taylor and Francis. ISBN 0-415-20476-3. p. 334.
  4. ^ "Frere, Sir Henry Bartle Edward (FRR874HB)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  5. ^ Illustrated History of South Africa. The Reader's Digest Association South Africa (Pty) Ltd, 1992. ISBN 0-947008-90-X. p.182, "Confederation from the Barrel of a Gun"
  6. ^ N. Mostert: Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa's Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People. Pimlico: London, 1993. ISBN 0-7126-5584-0, p.1247.
  7. ^ V.C. Malherbe: What They Said. 1795-1910 History Documents. Cape Town: Maskew Miller. 1971.
  8. ^ M. Meredith: Diamonds, Gold and War. Simon & Schuster. 2007.
  9. ^ N. Mostert: Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People. New York: Knopf. 1992.
  10. ^ Cape Times: Correspondence, Memoranda and Minutes connected with the Dismissal of the Late Ministry. Cape Town: Houses of Parliament Library. 1878.
  11. ^ A. Parker: 50 People who stuffed up South Africa. Burnet Media: Cape Town. 1910. p.64. "Bartle Frere".
  12. ^ http://www.anglozuluwar.com/content/html3/2011/05/16/2011051612075330000100.htm
  13. ^ F. Statham: Blacks, Boers, & British: A Three-cornered Problem. MacMillan & Co. 1881.
  14. ^ "Library and Archive catalogue". Royal Society. Retrieved 3 December 2010. 


  • Robert Fruin: A word from Holland on the Transvaal question. A reply to Sir Bartle Frere and an appeal to the people of England. By Dr. Robert Fruin, Professor in the University of Leiden. Utrecht: L. E. Bosch und son, 1881
  • John Martineau: The life and correspondence of the Right Hon. Sir Bartle Frere, Bart., G. C. B., F. R. S., etc.. London: J. Murray, 1895
  • Percy Alport Molteno: The life and times of Sir John Charles Molteno, K. C. M. G., First Premier of Cape Colony, Comprising a History of Representative Institutions and Responsible Government at the Cape and of Lord Carnarvon's Confederation Policy & of Sir Bartle Frere's High Commissionership of South Africa. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1900
  • Rekha Ranade: Sir Bartle Frere and his times: a study of his Bombay years, 1862 - 1867. New Delhi: Mittal Publ., 1990, ISBN 81-7099-222-2
  • Phillida Brooke Simons: Apples of the sun : being an account of the lives, vision and achievements of the Molteno brothers, Edward Bartle Frere and Henry Anderson. Vlaeberg: Fernwood Press, 1999. ISBN 1-874950-45-8

See also[edit]

Government offices
Preceded by
Richard Keith Pringle
Commissioner in Sind
Succeeded by
Jonathan Duncan Inverarity
Preceded by
Sir George Clerk
Governor of Bombay
Succeeded by
Sir William Fitzgerald
Preceded by
Sir Henry Barkly
Governor of Cape Colony
High Commissioner for Southern Africa

Succeeded by
Sir Hercules Robinson
Baronetage of the United Kingdom
New title
Granted by
Queen Victoria
(of Wimbledon)
Succeeded by
Bartle Compton Arthur Frere

Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.