SIR BENJAMIN D'URBAN (1777-1849), British general and colonial administrator, was born in 1777, and entered the British army in 1793. Promoted lieutenant and captain in 1 794 he took part in that year in operations in Holland and Westphalia. In 1795 he served under Sir Ralph Abercromby in San Domingo. He went on half-pay in 1800, joining the Royal Military College, where he remained until 1805, when he went to Hanover with the force under Lord Cathcart. Returning to England he filled various staff offices, and in November 1807 went to Dublin as assistant-quartermaster-general, being transferred successively to Limerick and the Curragh. He joined the army in the Peninsula in 1808, and his marked abilities as a staff officer led to his selection by General (afterwards Viscount) Beresford as quartermaster-general in the reorganization of the Portuguese army. He served throughout the Peninsular War without once going on leave and took part in nine pitched battles and sieges, Busaco, Albuera, Badajoz, Salamanca, Vittoria, the Pyrenees, the Nivelle, the Nive and Toulouse. He was promoted major-general in the Portuguese army and colonel in the British army in 1813, and made a K.C.B. in 1815. He remained in Portugal until 1816, when he was summoned home to take up the posts of colonel of the royal staff corps and deputy quartermaster-general at the Horse Guards. In 1819 he became major-general and in 1837 lieutenant-general. From 1829 he was colonel of the 51st Foot.
Sir Benjamin began his career as colonial administrator in 1820 when he was made governor of Antigua. In 1824 he was transferred to Demerara and Essequibo, then in a disturbed condition owing to a rising among the slaves consequent on the emancipation movement in Great Britain. D'Urban's rule proved successful, and in 1831 he carried out the amalgamation of Berbice with the other counties, the whole forming the colony of British Guiana, of which D'Urban was first governor. The ability with which he had for nine years governed a community of which the white element was largely of Dutch origin led to his appointment as governor of Cape Colony. He assumed office in January 1834, and the four years during which he held that post were of great importance in the history of South Africa. They witnessed the abolition of slavery, the establishment of a legislative council and municipal councils in Cape Colony, the first great Kaffir war and the beginning of the Great Trek. The firmness and justice of his administration won the cordial support of the British and Dutch colonists. The greater part of 1835 was occupied in repelling an unprovoked invasion of the eastern borders of the colony by Xosa Kaffirs. To protect the inhabitants of the eastern province Sir Benjamin extended the boundary of the colony to the Kei river and erected military posts in the district, allowing the Xosa to remain under British supervision. Since his appointment to the Cape there had been a change of ministry in England, and Lord Glenelg had become secretary for the Colonies in the second Melbourne administration. Prejudiced against any extension of British authority and lending a ready ear to a small but influential party in South Africa, Glenelg adopted the view that the Kaffirs had been the victims of systematic injustice. In a momentous despatch dated the 26th of December 1835 he set forth his views and instructed Sir Benjamin D'Urban to give up the newly annexed territory. At the same time Sir Andries Stockenstrom, Bart. (1792-1864), was appointed lieutenant-governor for the eastern provinces of the colony to carry out the policy of the home government, in which the Kaffir chiefs were treated as being on terms of full equality with Europeans. D'Urban in vain warned Glenelg of the disastrous consequences of his decision, the beginning of the long course of vacillation which wrought great harm to South Africa. One result of the new policy was to recreate a state of insecurity, bordering on anarchy, in the eastern province, and this condition was one of the causes of the Great Trek of the Dutch farmers which began in 1836. In various despatches D'Urban justified his position, characterizing the Trek as due to "insecurity of life and property occasioned by the recent measures, inadequate compensation for the loss of the slaves, and despair of obtaining recompense for the ruinous losses by the Kaffir invasion." (See further South Africa: History, and Cape Colony: History.) But Glenelg was not to be convinced by any argument, however cogent, and in a despatch dated the 1st of May 1837 he informed Sir Benjamin that he had been relieved of office. D'Urban, however, remained governor until the arrival of his successor, Sir George Napier, in January 1838.
During his governorship Sir Benjamin endeavoured to help the British settlers at Port Natal, who in 1835 named their town D'Urban (now written Durban) in his honour, but his suggestion that the district should be occupied as a British possession was vetoed by Lord Glenelg. Though no longer in office D'Urban remained in South Africa until April 1846. In 1840 he was made a G.C.B., and in 1842 declined a high military appointment in India offered him by Sir Robert Peel. In January 1847 he took up the command of the troops in Canada, and was still in command at the time of his death at Montreal on the 25th of May 1849.
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