from ocean to harbour has been a difficult one at nearly every port on the African coast. A heavy sea from the Indian Ocean is always breaking on the shore, even in the finest weather, and at the mouth of every natural harbour a bar occurs. To deepen the channel over the bar at Durban so that steamers might enter the harbour was the cause of labour and expenditure for many years. Harbour works were begun in 1857, piers and jetties were constructed, dredgers imported, and controversy raged over the various schemes for harbour improvement. In 1881 a harbour board was formed under the chairmanship of Mr Harry Escombe. It controlled the operations for improving the sea entrance until 1893, when on the establishment of responsible government it was abolished. The work of improving the harbour was however continued with vigour, and finally, in 1904, such success was achieved that vessels of the largest class were enabled to enter port (see Durban). At the same time the railway system was continually developing.
For many years there had been an agitation among the colonists for self-government. In 1882 the colony was offered Self-government granted.self-government coupled with the obligations of self-defence. The offer was declined, but in 1883 the legislative council was remodelled so as to consist of 23 elected and 7 nominated members. In 1890 the elections to the council led to the return of a majority in favour of accepting self-government, and in 1893 a bill in favour of the proposed change was passed and received the sanction of the Imperial government. At the time the white inhabitants numbered about 50,000. The electoral law was framed to prevent more than a very few natives obtaining the franchise. Restrictions in this direction dated as far back as 1865, while in 1896 an act was passed aimed at the exclusion of Indians from the suffrage. The leader of the party which sought responsible government was Sir John Robinson (1839–1903) who had gone to Natal in 1850, was a leading journalist in the colony, had been a member of the legislative council since 1863, and had filled various official positions. He now became the first premier and colonial secretary with Mr Harry Escombe (q.v.) as attorney-general and Mr F. R. Moor as secretary for Native Affairs. The year that witnessed this change in the constitution was also notable for the death of Sir Theophilus Shepstone, Natal's most prominent citizen. In the same year Sir Walter Hely-Hutchinson became governor. His immediate predecessors had been Sir Charles Mitchell (1889–1893) and Sir Arthur Havelock (1886–1889). Sir John Robinson remained premier until 1897, a year marked by the annexation of Zululand to Natal. In the following year Natal entered the Customs Union already existing between Cape Colony and the Orange Free State. Sir John Robinson had been succeeded as premier by Mr Harry Escombe (February–October 1897) and Escombe by Sir Henry Binns, on whose death in June 1899 Lieut.-Colonel (afterwards Sir) Albert Hime formed a ministry which remained in office until after the conclusion of the Anglo-Boer War. Meantime (in 1901) Sir Henry McCallum had succeeded Sir Walter Hely-Hutchinson as governor.
For some years Natal had watched with anxiety the attitude of increasing hostility towards the British adopted by the Pretoria administration, and, with bitter remembrance of the events of 1881, gauged with accuracy the intentions of the Boers. So suspicious had the ministry become of the nature of the military preparations that were being made by the Boers, that in May 1899 they communicated their apprehensions to the High Commissioner, Sir Alfred Milner, who telegraphed on the 25th of May to Mr Chamberlain, informing him that Natal was uneasy. The governor expressed his views to the prime minister that the Natal government ought to give the British government every support, and Colonel Hime replied that their support The war of 1899–1902.would be given, but at the same time he feared the consequences to Natal if, after all, the British government should draw back. In July the Natal ministry learnt that it was not the intention of the Imperial government to endeavour to hold the frontier in case hostilities arose, but that a line of defence considerably south of the frontier would be taken up. This led to a request on their part that if the Imperial government had any reason to anticipate the breakdown of negotiations, “such steps may be at once taken as may be necessary for the effectual defence of the whole colony.” Sir William Penn Symons, the general commanding the British forces in Natal in September, decided to hold Glencoe. On the arrival of Lieut.-General Sir George White from India, he informed the governor that he considered it dangerous to attempt to hold Glencoe, and urged the advisability of withdrawing the troops to Ladysmith. The governor was strongly opposed to this step, as he was anxious to protect the coal supply, and also feared the moral effect of a withdrawal. Eventually Sir Archibald Hunter, then chief of staff to Sir Redvers Buller, was consulted, and stated that in his opinion, Glencoe being already occupied, “it was a case of balancing drawbacks, and advised that, under the circumstances, the troops be retained at Glencoe.” This course was then adopted.
On the 11th of October 1899 war broke out. The first act was the seizure by the Boers of a Natal train on the Free State border. On the 12th Laing's Nek was occupied by the Boer forces, who were moved in considerable force over the Natal border. Newcastle was next occupied by the Boers unopposed, and on the 20th of October occurred the battle of Talana Hill outside Dundee. In this engagement the advanced body of British troops, 3000 strong, under Symons, held a camp called Craigside which lay between Glencoe and Dundee, and from this position General Symons hoped to be able to hold the northern portion of Natal. There is no doubt that this policy strongly commended itself to the governor and ministers of Natal, and that they exercised considerable pressure to have it adopted. But from a military point of view it was not at all cordially approved by Sir George White, and it was afterwards condemned by Lord Roberts. Fortunately Symons was able to win a complete victory over one of the Boer columns at Talana Hill. He himself received a mortal wound in the action. Brigadier-General Yule then took command, and an overwhelming force of Boers rendering the further occupation of Dundee dangerous, he decided to retire his force to Ladysmith. On the 21st of October General Sir George White and General (Sir John) French defeated at Elandslaagte a strong force of Boers, who threatened to cut off General Yule's retreat. He again attacked the Boer forces at Rietfontein on the 24th of October, and on the 26th General Yule reached Ladysmith in safety. Ladysmith now became for a time the centre of military interest. The Boers gradually surrounded the town and cut off the communications from the south. Various engagements were fought in the attempt to prevent this movement, including the actions of Farquhar's Farm and Nicholson's Nek on the 30th (see Transvaal). The investment of Ladysmith continued till the 28th of February 1900, when, after various attempts to relieve the beleaguered garrison, Sir Redvers Buller's forces at last entered the town. During the six weeks previous to the relief, 200 deaths had occurred from disease alone, and altogether as many as 8424 were reported to have passed through the hospitals. The relief of Ladysmith soon led to the evacuation of Natal by the Boer forces, who trekked northwards.
During the Boer invasion the government and the loyal colonists, constituting the great majority of the inhabitants of the colony, rendered the Imperial forces every assistance. A comparatively small number of the Dutch colonists joined the enemy, but there was no general rebellion among them. As the war progressed the Natal volunteers and other Natal forces took a prominent part. The Imperial Light Horse and other irregular corps were recruited in Natal, although the bulk of the men in the forces were Uitlanders from Johannesburg. As the nearest colony to the Transvaal, Natal was resorted to by a large number of men, women and children, who were compelled to leave the Transvaal on the outbreak of the war. Refugee and Uitlander committees were formed both at Durban and Maritzburg, and, in conjunction with the colonists, they did all in their power to assist in recruiting irregular corps, and also in furnishing relief to the sick and needy.