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Frontier or Xhosa Wars, 1779 to 1879

The shifting frontiers of the Eastern Cape, was to be the setting for a truly epochal collision between two worlds - white and European, black and African" - Noel Mostert "FRONTIERS
Artist’s depiction of ‘Insurgents defending a stronghold in the forested Water Kloof during the 8th Xhosa war’. Source: wikipedia

Europeans who came to stay in South Africa first settled in and around Cape Town. As the years passed, they sought to expand their territory. This expansion was first at the expense of the Khoikhoi and San, but later Xhosa land was occupied as well. During the later half the 16th century, the Xhosa encountered eastward-moving White pioneers or Trek Boers in the region of the Fish River. The ensuing struggle was not so much a contest between Black and White races as a struggle for water, grazing and living space between two groups of farmers.

The first frontier war broke out in 1780 and marked the beginning of the Xhosa struggle to preserve their land, customs and way of life.  It was a struggle that was to increase in intensity when the 1820 British settlers arrived on the scene. 

This embittered struggle involved some of the greatest War Veterans in South Africa’s history e.g. renowned warrior Maqoma (the father of Guerilla Warfare), Sir Harry Smith (military legend and England's favorite General), Chief Hintsa (martyr) and Adriaan van Jaarsveld (known as the ruthless ‘red captain’ among the Xhosa). It was also during these wars that the Trek-Boers developed the technique of the Laager as a way of defending themselves against a large enemy force.


A type of ‘military camp’, with 5-or more heavy wagons in a circle, and thorn trees thrust between the openings. In the middle were four wagons in a square, roofed over with planks and raw hides to serve as protection for women, children and the elderly. Here the farmers could defend themselves until reinforcements arrived or the enemy decided to retreat.

VOC frontier wars

In 1779 Willem Prinsloo, a farmer living in the vicinity of Bosberg, near the present Somerset East, shot a Xhosa dead. Soon the incident escalated into a war, with raids and counter raids. The district authority in Stellenbosch called out a commando under Adriaan van Jaarsveld. They seized back some 5 000 head of cattle and drove the Xhosa over the central sector of the eastern border.

He and his men also perpetrated a massacre. Encountering a group of Dange in the field, Van Jaarsveld tossed out some pieces of tobacco to them and gave the order to fire while they were scrambling to pick them up. This massacre was remembered for many generations among the Xliosa, who gave Van Jaarsveld the nickname of the 'Red Captain'.

The focal point of the interaction between the frontier farmers and Xhosa now shifted to the Zuurveld. It was narrowly defined as the area between the Fish and the Bushman rivers, but more broadly as extending to the Sundays River and Algoa Bay.

In 1786 the government carved out a new district with a drostdy in Graaff-Reinet. Moritz Hermann Otto Woeke was appointed as landdrost for the new district. He soon grasped the impossibility of attempting to impose laws in the district with only three or four messengers-cum-policemen as his staff. In despair, he reported that unless he was sup­ported by 50 or 60 soldiers 'the rot will continue . . . and if not suppressed will increase to such an extent that everyone will act arbitrarily and do everything at his sweet will'.

After first war (1779-1781), a border was established between the Fish and Sundays Rivers. After the second war (1789-1793), the boundary was moved west to Sundays River. The third war (1799-1803) established the Sundays River boundary. The district between the Sundays River and Great Fish River known as the Zuurveld, became a neutral ground of sorts.

British Frontier Wars

In September 1775 a British Force occupied the Cape and British settlers began to move toward ‘Frontier Country’. As per the previous three war agreements the Zuurveld area had been declared a neutral ground and the Fourth War (1811-1812) began because for some time before 1811, the Xhosa had taken possession of this ‘neutral ground’ and attacked the colonists. In order to expel them from the Zuurveld, Colonel John Graham took the area with a mixed-race army in December 1811, and finally the Xhosa were driven beyond the Fish River. On the site of Colonel Graham’s headquarters arose a town bearing his name: Graham's Town, subsequently becoming Grahamstown.The Xhosa had lived according to their age-old customs and beliefs for centuries and saw no reason to change their ways because of the arrival of White pioneers. Consequently, hostile chiefs forced the earliest missionaries to abandon their attempts to evangelise them. The situation changed after 1820, when John Brownlee founded a mission on the Tyhume River near Alice, and William Shaw established a chain of Methodist stations throughout the Transkei.

The Fifth War (1818-1819) began because of another difficulty that arose between the Cape Colony government and the Xhosa in 1817, the immediate cause of which was an attempt by the colonial authorities to enforce the restitution of some stolen cattle. When overcrowding among the Xhosa east of the Fish River led to civil war, the British intervened. The Xhosa prophet-chief Maqana Nxele (or Makana) emerged at this time and promised “to turn bullets into water.” He led the Xhosa armies in several attacks. On 22 April 1819, Maqana with 10,000 amaXhosa attacked Graham’s Town, and then held by a garrison of 350 troops. The garrison was able to repulse the attack only after timely support was received from a Khoi-khoi group led by Jan Boesak. Maqana suffered the loss of 1,000 soldiers.

Maqana was eventually captured and imprisoned on Robben Island. This time, the British pushed the Xhosa even further east, beyond the Keiskama River. The land between the Fish and the Keiskamma rivers became a neutral buffer zone, which the British tried to populate with loyal Africans. The Albany district was established in 1820 and populated with some 5,000 Britons. The Grahamstown battle site is still known as Egazini, or Place of Blood, and a monument was erected here for fallen amaXhosa soldiers.

Up until this point the Xhosa had lived according to their age-old customs and beliefs for centuries and saw no reason to change their ways because of the arrival of White pioneers. Consequently, hostile chiefs forced the earliest missionaries to abandon their attempts to evangelise them. But, the situation changed after 1820, when John Brownlee founded a mission on the Tyhume River near Alice, and William Shaw established a chain of Methodist stations throughout the Transkei.

Other denominations followed suit. Education and medical work were to become major contributions of the missions, but the bonds of traditional Xhosa society were weakened through missionary activity. Furthermore, by 1828, the Xhosa were encountering pressure from expanding colonial society, population increase, and limited availability of land.

In the 1820s and 1830s the Southern Nguni peoples were drawn into the battles and migrations known as the mfecane. As the Zulu king Shaka gained ascendancy, refugees swarming southwards aggravated the overcrowded drought stricken situation on the frontier. At this time, the paramount chief of all the Xhosa was Hintsa, chief of the Gcaleka.

When Sir Benjamin D'Urban was appointed Governor of the Cape Colony in January 1834, he introduced a more peace-making policy on the frontier. It was based on treaties with Xhosa chiefs and the appointment of White resident magistrates. But Xhosa grievances were still great. In 1834 the Xhosa invaded the Cape Colony. They were primarily motivated by the confiscation of some of their lands and the killing of a high ranking chief by a government commando party on 11 December 1834. Later in the month, 12 000 Xhosa raiders destroyed the homes of many White settlers in the Eastern Cape districts, killing the men, but sparing the women and children, and driving off their cattle (Sixth War 1834-1836).

Colonel Harry Smith led the counter attack against the Xhosa. Hintsa, trusting in British assurances of his safety, entered their camp and was kept a prisoner. Later, in making a dash for freedom, he was shot. The killing of Hintsa was a national calamity because even the Rharhabe chiefs across the Kei River viewed him as their king.

Smith successfully repelled the Xhosa and in 1835 D'Urban annexed the area between the Keiskamma and the Kei Rivers. He ordered the defeated chiefs and their followers to move across the Kei River. D'urban planned to establish military posts throughout the land of the Xhosa with White resident magistrates to administer them so that all the Xhosa would lose their independence. In 1836 the task of putting these plans into practice was given to Harry Smith. While the Xhosa chiefs were laying plans to attack King William's Town, missionaries were protesting about the attacks by Whites on Xhosa homesteads. This led to the appointment of the Aborigines Committee to investigate matters on the Eastern Cape frontier.

Secretary of State for the Colonies Lord Glenelg informed D'Urban that the Xhosa “had ample justification” for invading the colony. He prevented the Xhosa uprising by reversing D'Urban's frontier policy. Andries Stockenström was appointed Lieutenant Governor of the Eastern Districts and he concluded new treaties with the Xhosa chiefs. The chiefs felt they had a protector in him, but Stockenström was unpopular among the colonists, who wanted Xhosa lands.

Sir Peregrine Maitland thought the Xhosa could be harassed into obedience. To their dismay, he substituted new treaties for the old Stockenström ones. Forts were built, missions and Christians were placed above Xhosa law, and White farmers were again allowed to follow up stolen cattle or claim compensation.

Sarhili was the last true king of independent Xhosaland. He became paramount chief of all the Xhosa and chief of the Gcaleka after the death of his father Hintsa. His reign spanned the Sixth to the Ninth Frontier War, when he was finally defeated in 1878. Once the chiefs lost power over their people bandits took to the bush, illicit trade in firearms increased, and trading goods were often seized.

The Seventh Frontier War, or the War of the Axe, took place in 1846. Like all the previous frontier wars it was fought over the land. The Xhosa were determined to resist the intrusion of White settlers. They gathered in the Amathole Mountains, captured British supply wagons, and after forcing the British into retreat, invaded the colony. By January 1847 Colonel Henry Somerset's troops were engaged in a disastrous campaign against Phato, Chief of the Gqunukwebe, a people who were largely Khoikhoi by descent. Rain, dysentery, and cumbersome equipment impeded Somerset’s progress and his men never managed to engage the enemy at all. However, later Phato was obliged to surrender himself to Somerset.

Sir Harry Smith returned to the Cape in December 1847. After a great deal of clashes he defeated a large force of Xhosa warriors on the banks of the Gwangqa River. They had fought well, but with their houses burned, and crops and cattle taken, there was famine in the land. They sued for peace because they needed to sow their lands, but Smith tightened his grip on the exhausted territory.

Convinced that he would solve the frontier problems, Smith ordered a return to the D'Urban system, which he had administered during the brief existence of the province of Queen Adelaide. He concluded a treaty with the Gcaleka, the Ciskei Xhosa, acknowledging Paramount Chief Hintsa's son, Sarhili, whose authority was not yet well established, as an independent chief. He also annexed the land between the Fish and the Keiskamma Rivers to the Cape Colony as the district of Victoria.

The whole territory of British Kaffraria, formerly occupied by the Xhosa, was surveyed. Lands were allotted to Whites who had lost their possessions during Xhosa attacks. Smith, as High Commissioner, directly administered British Kaffraria on behalf of Britain.

The creation of British Kaffraria effectively divided the Xhosa kingdom between Sarhili's Gcaleka and the Rharhabe led by Sandile. Smith deposed Sandile and appointed Charles Brownlee, a White commissioner, in his place. Being subjected to colonial law meant the Xhosa could no longer practice certain customs. Most importantly, the custom of lobola, by which marriages were celebrated, was also outlawed.

Deprived of their lands, and bitter at their recent defeat in the War of the Axe, the Xhosa found hope in a new prophet Mlangeni, who, like Makana in the past, promised supernatural aid to assist in the overthrow of the White oppressors. They decided to make another stand. An expedition sent to arrest Sandile was attacked and British Kaffraria erupted in a massive uprising in December 1850. This became the Eight Frontier War. The uprising was put down in 1952.

Sir George Cathcart, Smith's successor, made the Xhosa surrender the territory in the Amathole Mountains and along the Keiskamma and Tyhume Rivers. These lands were resettled by the military, by White colonists, and by Mfengu groups who had been loyal to the British during the war. When Sir George Grey came to the Cape from the governorship of New Zealand in 1854, he introduced further White settlement interspersed with the Xhosa population in British Kaffraria. He hoped that, with considerably increased opportunities for education, the Xhosa would learn the values of Western civilization, develop improved agricultural methods, or be drawn into the labour market as wage earners. The Xhosa, however were soon driven to desperate action by the loss of still more land.

A prophetess, Nongqawuse, proclaimed that if the people would slaughter their cattle and destroy their food stocks before an appointed day, the sun would rise in the west and new cattle, plentiful grain would be provided and the White colonisers would be driven into the sea. The widespread killing of cattle took hold in 1856 and1857. When the appointed day arrived, the sun rose in the east and nothing miraculous happened. Disillusionment gave way to widespread starvation.

At the same time White settlers were setting up trading stores on a much larger scale than in the past. Agriculture, commerce, and trade spread throughout the Transkei after the discovery of diamonds accelerated the pace of life. The Cape administration was formally extended through the appointment of magistrates to reside and advise the chiefs of East Griqualand and the lands occupied by the Thembu.

In August 1877 a fight at a drinking party between Xhosa and Mfengu men escalated into serious conflict. Cape frontier police came to the assistance of the Mfengu. Sarhili refused to present himself before Sir Henry Bartle Frere, the High Commissioner, who was visiting the Eastern Frontier on his way to the Transvaal. While the Ninth Frontier War was in progress the Griqua and Mpondo rose in rebellion against an administration that seemed to be siding with White traders. Fighting ended on the Eastern Cape frontier in June 1878. Frere prepared to annex the western districts of the Transkei and establish White administration under Cape authority. Although he was officially pardoned in 1883 for his part in the Ninth Frontier War, Sarhili and his people remained in exile across the Bashee River.