Revisiting the sinking of RMS Lusitania on 7th May 1915

The sinking of RMS Lusitania, a large passenger liner, remains one of the most controversial events of the Great War, the circumstances of its sinking still being shrouded in official secrecy. During the course of 2015, several British newspapers (such as The Observer of 8th February 2015 p 12) continued to refer to the May 1915 sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat as ‘a German atrocity’. A fairer and more objective examination of the facts relating to the sinking suggests that the truth, in as far as it is attainable at all, is likely to be somewhat different and that the major share of the responsibility for the tragedy lies with the British.

At the time of her maiden voyage in September 1907, the Cunard liner Lusitania was, at 44 000 tons displacement, the largest and one of the fastest ships in the world, cruising comfortably at 25 knots and thus easily able to outpace any submarine. She was twice the holder of the Atlantic Blue Riband.  She could carry 2 198 passengers and had a crew of 850 (a total of over 3 000) and was sumptuously fitted out with a view to capturing the patronage of wealthy trans-Atlantic passengers as well as the bread-and-butter income of European emigrants to North America.


Postcard of the RMS Lusitania c 1909.

In the early 1900s, the Cunard Line, which built the Lusitania was short of capital and negotiated a generous subsidy from the British government. In return, the ship had to be built to certain naval specifications so that it could be used as an armed merchant cruiser in the event of war. This involved inter alia:  gun platforms under the wooden decking; the hull being designed in Admiralty experimental tanks; the engines being similar to that of a Dreadnought battleship; all machinery having to be below the waterline where it would be protected from gunfire (submarines were not considered a serious threat at that stage); a requirement of 12 watertight compartments; and a double bottom. She also conformed fully to the Board of Trade safety regulations with 16 standard lifeboats which could accommodate only 1 000 people. In addition there were 32 collapsible lifeboats, giving a total of 48.

At the outbreak of the First World War, the 1856 Declaration of Paris (as amended), which codified the rules for naval engagements involving civilian vessels, was still in force. These were known as ‘The Cruiser Rules’, with both Britain and Germany being signatories. They were essentially as follows:

* Passengers and crew had to be safeguarded in the event of a ship being confiscated or sunk;

* Ships had to fly their own flag, not a false flag;

* Ships had to stop when confronted and allow themselves to be boarded and searched;

* Ships were not allowed to be armed or take any hostile action;

* Ships were not permitted to carry munitions of war.

It is significant that these rules were agreed to before the days of wireless/telegraph technology and hence ships’ capacity to warn others that they were under attack, or call for armed assistance. In 1914 these rules had not been updated to take account of new technologies such as the submarine.  Following the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, the Lusitania was, from September, placed on the official list of Armed Merchant Cruisers, about the time that submarines began to be recognised as a new threat to shipping.

Shortly after the start of the war, Britain imposed a naval blockade on Germany with a view to cutting off all her trade and starving her into submission. On 4th February 1915 the Germans responded by declaring that the seas around the British Isles would be a war zone and that from 18th February Allied ships in the area would be sunk without warning. This was not total unrestricted submarine warfare (USW) since efforts would be made to avoid sinking neutral ships. With few exceptions, the Imperial German Navy adhered to the ‘Cruiser Rules’. Britain however (with Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty) blatantly contravened them:  ships, including the Lusitania, were instructed not to fly their flag, and in some cases to use false flags; British merchant ships were instructed to attack submarines on sight by either ramming them or firing upon them (submarines were small and relatively frail craft and very vulnerable to even light gun fire); and Britain used passenger ships for transporting munitions of war.

This was the situation pertaining to the Lusitania when she left New York on 1st May 1915 under the command of Cunard’s senior and highly respected captain, William Turner OBE, RNR.

Captain Turner

Captain  William Thomas Turner, OBE,  RNR
(1856-1933) Master of the Lusitania.

Prior to her departure, a group of German-Americans, hoping to avoid controversy if the Lusitania were to be attacked by a U-Boat, discussed their concerns with the German Embassy in Washington. The Embassy consequently published a warning in 50 American newspapers, including several in New York, to the effect that Britain and Germany were at war; that the ships of Britain and her allies were subject to attack; and that passengers travelling on such ships would be doing so at their risk. Where possible, these were placed adjacent to notices of the sailing.


The official warning issued by the Imperial German Embassy about travelling on the Lusitania, alongside notices of  sailing.                                                                                               

On 7th May 1915, the Lusitania was running parallel to the south coast of Ireland off the Old Head of Kinsale where, by sheer chance, she encountered the U-Boat U-20 on her way home after a successful operational tour. Not only did the Lusitania inadvertently present a full broadside target at short range, but was, following instructions from the Admiralty, running at only 15 knots.  Seeing a large ship looming ahead of him, Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger, who was in command of U-20, took an opportunistic chance and fired a single torpedo at 14h10.  It struck the Lusitania on the starboard side just below the bridge.  Less than a minute later a second, larger internal explosion took place amidships. Schwieger recorded in his log his surprise at how quickly the great liner began to sink, and only as she did so, with the survivors (including women and children) struggling in the water, did he see the name of the ship and realise with regret what he had done.  Contrary to the British claim that he had fired two torpedoes, Schwieger wrote in his logbook: “I couldn’t have fired another torpedo into this mass of humans desperately trying to save themselves.”


Kapitänleutnant Walther
Schwieger, Pour le Mérite,  EK 1
(1885-1917)  Commander, U-20.

The U-20’s log also records chaos on the decks but, fearing the imminent arrival of Royal Navy vessels, U-20 dived and proceeded to make its way home. The Royal Navy did not arrive: the cruiser, HMS Juno, which had originally been the designated escort for the Lusitania had been recalled and no replacement sent, for which no explanation has ever been forthcoming. Such rescue as did take place, was carried out by Irish fishermen from the nearby port of Queenstown (now Cobh) in rowing boats. The Lusitania sank in just 18 minutes after the torpedo had detonated. Schwieger expressed his surprise that a single torpedo could cause this, and assumed that something like coal dust must have caused the second explosion. What he could not have known was that the Lusitania had in her cargo a very substantial amount of munitions and explosive material for the manufacture of ammunition which blew the bottom out of the ship, a fact confirmed by civilian divers diving on the wreck in the early 2000s, thus accounting for its extraordinarily rapid sinking, particularly as all watertight bulkheads were closed. It has been argued that, given the structure of the ship, a single torpedo, no matter how well placed, would have required at least two hours to sink such a large ship.

The loss of life was considerable: 1 195 men, women and children. Most were British and Canadian, but of the 139 Americans on board, 128 lost their lives.  While it is presumed that most of the casualties were a result of drowning or hypothermia, some may have been as a result of the explosions.  The loss of life was exacerbated by several factors:

*   The watertight doors which were electrically operated were closed at the time. When electric power failed four minutes after the torpedo strike, many passengers were trapped;

*   The second explosion was below the First Class section where the majority of Americans were berthed;

*   There were insufficient lifeboats and not all could be a launched, especially the collapsible ones. In the end only six of the 48 lifeboats were successfully launched.

*   Accounts by survivors suggest that there was no orderly evacuation process. Some described it as ‘chaotic’.

The sinking led to outrage in the United States with pressure placed on President Woodrow Wilson to immediately declare war on Germany.  This was fanned by the British hoping to bring the US into the war on the Allied side. The idea was resisted by Wilson, who correctly sensed that the mood of the American people was not ready for war with Germany.  Largely in deference to the Americans, unrestricted submarine warfare was partially lifted, but re-imposed in 1917, when the memory of the Lusitania was again invoked as an argument for America entering the war on the Allied side. Contrary to popular mythology, the sinking of the Lusitania was not the direct reason for America’s entry. It was rather a number of accumulated factors, including financial considerations and the widespread sinking of American ships in 1917.

With the loss of the Lusitania, Britain’s propaganda machine, by far the most effective and vicious of all the belligerents rose to the occasion with intensified vilification of ‘the Hun’, accusations of a war crime, continued demonization of the Kaiser and fabrication of the most bizarre stories, such as children being given a day off school to celebrate the sinking. It was also almost immediately used as capital for military recruitment.

There was complete and official denial that the Lusitania was carrying any munitions or equipment of war, even though the cargo manifest recorded, amongst other items, 4.2 million rifle bullets.  Subsequent evidence has furthermore conclusively shown that a substantial amount of explosive material (some of it recorded on the manifesto as ‘butter’ and  ‘cheese’) and other munitions were also on board (See Lusitania Online u/d).  Only in 2014 was a partial public admission made, when the treasury put out a warning to divers and salvage operators that the wreck still contained dangerous explosives (The Guardian, 1st May 2014). Much of the documentation relating to the Lusitania remains under embargo however and the few records which are available in the UK are often missing critical pages or have sections redacted.

For examples of ammunition and explosive materials found in the wreck of the Lusitania, see       See also:   Greenhill (2008), Lusitania Online (u/d) and  Mullally (2009).

In Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm was appalled at the loss of life of so many women and children. Schwieger and his crew received no official praise for their deed and, again contrary to Allied propaganda, never received any rewards or decorations for the sinking of the Lusitania. There was in fact substantial criticism within Germany.  The German government, while regretting the loss of life, nevertheless pointed out that they had given due warning, that the Lusitania was sailing under no flag, that she was listed as an AMC, and had been ordered to ram submarines – all of which were true. Although they did not, at the time, have concrete evidence of the substantial quantity of munitions and explosive material on board, they did point out that on previous voyages the Lusitania had both carried munitions and transported Allied troops.

The wreck of the Lusitania lies in 90m of water and for various reasons, including extensive depth-charge blasting by the Royal Navy in the post-Second World War II period, is in poor condition. A Dublin-based technical diving team, who dived on the site in the 1990s, reported that there were so many holes in it that the wreck looked “like Swiss cheese”, and that the seabed around  was “littered with unexploded hedgehog depth-charges” (diver Des Quigley as reported in Sides & Sides 2009).  This suggests a concerted attempt to blow the wreck apart and destroy evidence of munitions on board or of what was in its hold. At 90m below the surface, it was certainly not a navigation hazard. No British government has ever admitted to the depth-charging.

An artist’s impressions of the wreck of the Lusitania on the seabed can be found at:

Video footage can be found at:

Among the questions which remain include why, when the British authorities were aware that a German U-boat was operating in the area, did they fail to divert the Lusitania to a safer route? There is furthermore no evidence that any warning signal was sent. Why was there no escort, even though destroyers were available in a nearby port? Why was the ship ordered to reduce speed in the war zone? How could such a big ship sink so quickly from a single torpedo strike? These questions have inevitably given rise to rumours, imaginary explanations of the events, and the blossoming of conspiracy theories.  One of the most persistent of the latter, with some circumstantial evidence and documentation to support it, and implicating Churchill himself, is that the British Government deliberately put the Lusitania at risk in order to embroil the US in the war. This point of view is advanced by, among others Patrick Beesly, a former British naval intelligence officer.

The official inquiry into the event under Lord Mersey initially saw an attempt by the Admiralty to scapegoat Captain Turner. It took the form of a report of carefully constructed falsifications and omission of facts and was a disgraceful attempt by the Admiralty to exonerate itself from culpability. Turner found himself on trial accused of deliberately disobeying Admiralty instruction, gross negligence and treasonable behaviour, by deliberately putting his ship in harm’s way, with the preposterous suggestion that he was in the pay of the Germans. Due both to Turner’s impeccable track record and to the integrity of Lord Mersey, who strongly challenged the Admiralty’s version, he was cleared of all blame, although in his own view, and many others, his reputation was blemished. He re-joined Cunard and was torpedoed a second time in 1917. In 1918 he was awarded the OBE. After the war he retired, lived a quiet life and died in 1933 aged 77. He had found it difficult to bear the public scorn over the loss of his ship and never forgave the Admiralty and particularly Churchill, not least for the latter’s persistence in reiterating the false claims of the Admiralty, and their attempts to exonerate themselves of blame at his expense.

After the furore surrounding the sinking of the Lusitania, Kaiser Wilhelm called a halt to unrestricted U-boat warfare, but this was reinstated in 1917 when Germany found itself in dire economic straits, in large measure as a consequence of the Allied naval blockade in the North Sea. Schwieger continued his career as a U-boat commander. In 1916 he accidentally ran the U-20 aground in deep fog off the Danish coast while attempting to assist anther U-boat. It could not be re-floated and was subsequently destroyed by the Germans to prevent capture. Surviving parts of the wreck, including the conning tower, are in a Danish museum. After this he was given command of U-88, and in July 1917 he was awarded the Pour le Merite, Germany’s highest award for gallantry in recognition of having sunk nearly 200 000 tons of Allied shipping. The citation did not mention the Lusitania by name. Schwieger was killed in action six weeks later aged 32, when U-88 struck a mine and was lost with all hands.  He is ranked sixth in the league of First World War U-boat aces.

Footnote: There is an interesting South African connection to the sinking. Among the passengers who succumbed was William Broderick Cloete, son of Peter Lawrence Graham Cloete and his wife Helen (née Van der Byl) of Newlands, Cape Town and at some point of Carlisle Bridge near Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape Province. Broderick, as he was known, was also the grandson of Judge Henry Cloete, who had played a major role in the British usurpation of Natal in 1842 and was subsequently British High Commissioner for the colony in 1843-1844.

Selected references and further reading

Anon   1915   ‘Sinking justified, says Dr. Dernburg’   New York Times 9th May 1915                                                                  
Bailey Thomas A   1935   ‘The Sinking of the Lusitania’   The American Historical Review 41 (1) 54–73.  October
Bailey Thomas A (September 1936). ‘German documents relating to the Lusitania’ The Journal of Modern History 8 (3) 320-337
Beesly Patrick   1982   Room 40: British naval intelligence, 1914–1918   London   Hamish Hamilton
Danver Steven (Ed)  2011  Popular controversies in world history   Volume 4 Chapter 5  pp 107-126. The URL is:
Greenhill Sam   2008   ‘Secret of the Lusitania: Arms find challenges Allied claims it was solely a passenger ship’   [British] Daily Mail 20th December 2008    Available at:
Hoehling Adolph & Hoehling Mary   1956/1996   Last Voyage of the Lusitania   New York   Madison Books/Rowman & Littlefield.
Kingston William   2015   ‘Ireland spent $1 million preventing research into Lusitania’   History Ireland 23 (6)   Available at: 
Lusitania Online   u/d   ‘A deadly cargo and the falsified manifests. Lusitania Online: The Home Port of RMS Lusitania.    URL is:
Mersey Bigham 1st Viscount   1915   Proceedings in camera on 15thand 18thJune, 1915, at the formal investigation into the circumstances attending the foundering, on 7thMay, 1915, of the ‘Lusitania’, after being torpedoed off the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland.   Command papers.  Cd.381 (Session 1919, Vol. XXV, p. 469). London, UK: HMSO
Mullally  Erin   2009   ‘Lusitania’s secret cargo’   Archaeology 62 (10)    Available at:
Peeke Mitch, Jones Steven & Walsh-Johnson Kevin   2015   The Lusitania story: the atrocity that shocked the world     London   Pen and Sword Maritime
Ramsay David   2001   Lusitania: saga and myth   London   Chatham Publishing
Sides Hamptom & Sides Anne Goodwin   2009   ‘Lusitania rising’    Men’s Vogue   January  2009  [This covers a report by Dublin-based technical diver Des Quigley who dived on the wreck in the 1990s.]  To access   this article, enter , click on ‘View PDF’ and download.  See also at:

Useful websites: 9.3A_Wreck_symbols.doc&usg=AOvVaw3wX7FETp5F1ek1vpVtqNQn                                                                         


2 The Battle at Holkrantz, 6th May 1902

The battle which took place at Holkrantz (sometimes Holkrans), near Vryheid, in the early hours of 6th May 1902 remains controversial to this day. It is sometimes referred to as a ‘murder’, but is more accurately described as a major skirmish. The essence of the engagement was a pre-dawn surprise attack on 73 Boers of the Vryheid Commando under Veldkornet Jan Potgieter by 300 warriors of the abaQulusi clan of the amaZulu under Sikhobobo. 56 Boers were killed, three taken prisoner and 13 escaped. AbaQulusi losses were 52 killed and 48 wounded.

In most of the general histories of the Anglo-Boer War, the incident at Holkrantz receives little or no mention other than to state that it influenced Boer thinking in the peace negotiations under way in Vereeniging at the time. It appears to have influenced some delegates, but the overall impact is not clear. It did, however, have a major impact on the Boer farming communities in the Utrecht-Vryheid district of the Transvaal, where it is still to this day regarded by some as cold-blooded murder.

To the extent that the incident is covered in the history books, Pakenham’s two paragraphs being an example, it more often than not reflects the British or Jingoist view that the Boers had stolen abaQulusi cattle, insulted their chief, Sikhobobo (there are several different variations of these purported insults) and challenged the abaQulusi to come and get their cattle back. The latter, it is claimed, responded with alacrity and in some accounts the Boers were seen to be getting their just deserts. The most thorough and best documented examination of the incident, however, is by S J Maphalala in an article entitled ‘The Murder at Holkrantz (Mthashana) 6th May 1902’   After careful analysis of the data and available historical records, he concludes that blame for the incident lay largely with the British.

The crux of Maphalala’s argument is that not only were the abaQulusi under chief Sikhobobo part of the combined British force based in the Vryheid area, but that they had been encouraged to attack and arrest the Boers and take their cattle even though an armistice was in force. They were also armed by the British – part of the chain of events which led to the Holkrantz incident. After partially accomplishing these tasks, Sikhobobo and his men could not return to their kraals for fear of Boer reprisals and were protected in Vryheid by the British army, during which period they continued to raid farms and attack and kill isolated groups of Boers. Chief Sikhobobo and his men became known as ‘Mr Shepstone’s Commando’ due to being aided and abetted by A.J. Shepstone, the British appointed Magistrate of Vryheid.

General Louis Botha then instructed that Sikhobobo’s kraals were to be burnt with a view to placing the burden of responsibility and care for the wives and children of the abaQulusi on the British, and because some of the women were suspected of providing the British with information on Boer movements. Maphalala emphasises that the Boers allowed the women to take enough food with them to reach the British lines 15km away before burning the kraals. Homes in which there were sick or infirm individuals were not burnt and on occasion the Boers accompanied the women to Vryheid to ensure their safety. All Sikhobobo’s cattle were confiscated.

On 5th May Shepstone, having ascertained from spies the position of the Boers at Holkrantz, ordered Sikhobobo to attack them. This they did at 04h00 on 6th May, employing the traditional three-pronged amaZulu battle formation. The Boer commandos did not expect an attack from the British as an armistice was in force and so they were caught almost completely unawares. Some managed to fight their way out, but most were surrounded and killed. After the incident, a British commission of enquiry was convened and, after ignoring most of the crucial facts – not surprising given the sentiments of the time – concluded that the Boers had been killed because they had been ill-treating the amaZulu and thus brought reprisals upon themselves.

In conclusion, Maphalala notes that the attack was on the instructions of Magistrate Shepstone; that the British army should have prevented the attack; and that relationships between the amaZulu and the Boers had been relatively good prior to British interference. He makes no mention of any insults. The Boers themselves refuted that any ill treatment or attacks on their women by the amaZulu had taken place while the men were away on commando. Maphalala concludes that the abaQulusi were merely carrying out British orders at Holkrantz.

A monument to the Boers stands on the hill above the place where they were attacked and where the last of them retreated to.  There is also a memorial plinth in the precincts of the NG Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church) in the nearby town of Vryheid, where many of the commando members would have regularly worshiped. No monuments have been erected to the abaQulisi who died in the incident.

Key reference:
Maphalala SJ  1977  ‘The Murder at Holkrantz (Mthashana) 6th May 1902’  Historia 22 (1) 41-46.    This is the most balanced and best documented account of the event.

Some other references reflecting different viewpoints including the ‘jingo’perspective:
Hendey Brett    The Battle of Holkrans holkrans
Minnaar A de V   1989   ‘Zululand and the Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902)’   Military History Journal 8 (1) 14 – 20   June  [see Holkrans on p19]
Pakenham Thomas   1979   The Boer War   Jonathan Ball   Johannesburg  p 567
Thompson P S   1994   ‘Isandlwana to Mome: Zulu experience in overt resistance to colonial rule’   Soldiers of the Queen 77: 11 – 15   June
Von der Heide Nicki   2013   Field guide to the battlefields of South Africa   Cape Town   Random House  Struik   pp 178 – 179                                                                                                                          Wessels Elria   2002   ‘Die moord by Holkrans 6 Mei 1902’    Veldslae: Anglo-Boereoorlog 1899 – 1902   Pretoria   Lapa Uitgewers  [See Chapter 71 pp 29301]

The site of the battle: A view from the top of the hill where the battlefield monument is located.


The monument on the hill above the battlefield.  The names recorded are the same as those at the NG Kerk in the town of Vryheid.


The memorial plinth in the precincts of the Vryheid NG Kerk  (Dutch Reformed Church).

The historic perspective on the plinth.

The names of the 56 Boers who died as recorded on the plinth.

The plaque commemorating those Boers who escaped or were captured. Only 13 of the 14 said to have escaped are listed.

1 An overview of the East Cape Frontier Wars

This topic is offered as an introduction and overview to some of the forthcoming entries which will deal with forts and fortifications in the Eastern Cape.

The eastern Cape has been an area of known military conflict from the time that the amaNguni people moved into the area, probably in the 16th and 17th centuries and possibly long before that, involving Khoi and Khoisan groups. From what little is known militarily of this early amaNguni period, it was confined largely to disputes between clans, these often relating to succession disagreements, promises not kept and cattle raiding as a lifestyle activity. Warfare as such was to a large degree ritualised and casualties, with a few notable exceptions such as the Battle of Amalinde in 1818, were relatively few. From the late 18th century however things began to change as Dutch-speaking stock farmers (known as Trekboere or itinerant farmers), expanding north-eastwards in search of pasture and grazing, came into contact with the south-westerly movement of the amaNguni pastoralists and, later, refugees from the mfecane*.  Despite trading opportunities, competition for grazing, mutual cattle lifting and a clash of values between the two polities increasingly led to armed conflict.

* The mfecane / dificane / lifekane was a period between approximately 1815 and 1840 characterised by military, social and political disturbances, uprooting and sometimes annihilation of traditional clans as an indirect result of Zulu expansionism in the Eastern part of South Africa during the reign of iShaka kaSenzangakhona (c 1787 -1828). It had a knock-on effect which reverberated throughout southern Africa.

The general area and its shifting boundaries where this took place is referred to in an historical context as ‘the East Cape Frontier’ (Figures 1 and 2). It initially stretched from roughly the Gamtoos River, south-west of Port Elizabeth, to the Great Kei River some 360km to the north-east although it was not confined to these geographical boundaries, fighting also taking place up to 150km inland from the coast and as far west as George. Most of the military activity, involving invasion and counter-invasion, took place in this area over the 99-year period between 1779 and 1878.  There were nine ‘peaks’ of fighting in which major incursions, widespread killing, looting and destruction took place over both sides of wherever the ‘frontier’ was at the time. These are what are generally referred to as the ‘East Cape Frontier Wars’. The dates during which they occurred are indicated below. In between these periods of intense conflict, there was a more or less continuous pattern of livestock rustling with raids and counter raids by all sides as well as considerable loss of life.

While the wars were sometimes triggered by a specific incident, such as the theft of an axe in Fort Beaufort in 1846, or the squabble at a wedding party in 1877, they were more generally the culmination of a series of incidents. They, and the lower level interwar conflicts, were in essence over livestock, especially cattle, and the land to graze them on. Cattle, as wealth, cultural goods and currency, constituted part of the social fabric of all the amaNguni clans as well as the trekboere and some of the British settlers who arrived in 1820. The net result was a north-eastwards movement of the frontier, with the concomitant dispossession of land which the amaNguni had previously regarded as their own.

Figure 1   The general area in which the East Cape Frontier Wars took place between 1779 and 1878.  Source: Pat Irwin

The frontier, and the wars associated with it, was also a kaleidoscope of constantly changing alliances over this period. Far from being a simple ‘black vs. white’ confrontation as nationalists of all stripes (including the immediate past and the present regimes) like to argue, the reality was different. It was rather one of complex social, economic and political relationships exacerbated by broken promises; constantly vacillating colonial policy; avarice for cattle as the primary sources of wealth and status, and hence the land to graze them on; the tradition and thrill of cattle raiding; and often rank opportunism. The amaNdlambe, for example, confronted the Colony for most of the period while the amaMfengu (‘Fingos’) a conglomerate refugee group from the mfecane in the east of the country allied themselves both politically and militarily to the British from 1836 onwards — effectively from the Sixth to the Ninth Frontier Wars. Other groups, such as the amaNgqika and the amaGqunukhwebe (mixed Khoi/amaNguni chiefdoms), remained militarily neutral or changed sides according to the needs of the situation and the pressures they felt, as they saw it at the time. Over the period 1806 – 1879 almost every group was in conflict with every other at some point. To add to the mix, until the mid-19th century a significant proportion of the British Army in South Africa was composed of indigenous Khoi troops. (At the time, and in historical writings they were referred to as Hottentot troops after a name given to them by the early Dutch settlers.)

Figure 2   A contemporary map of the Eastern Frontier in 1860.  Original source unknown.  Common Domain.

The ‘amaXhosa’, as most of the clans of the time today refer to themselves, were not at that stage a ‘united nation’ but rather a collection of semi-independent isiXhosa-speaking clans who lived and fought as such. They generally owed primary allegiance to their clan. As with any social structure of this nature, there were mutual antagonisms and alliances, both often temporary, and frequently resulting in raiding for cattle. Moving on to land previously occupied by Khoi/Khoisan, they were also colonists in their own right. Parallel to this loose grouping were colonists of European origin, initially trekboere, some of whom settled semi-permanently and, after 1806, British military forces, as well as significant numbers of British settlers entering the colony in 1820 and the years following. There was likewise often mutual antagonism between these groups. To all these constituents could be added a volatile  mix of missionaries, prophets, army deserters (who sometimes linked up with one or more of the clans) profiteering and unethical traders, refugees from other conflicts, hunters and arms smugglers – the latter’s activities ensuring that access to firearms was spread gradually over the entire region.

The frontier however, moved inexorably eastwards as the isiXhosa-speaking clans lost more and more of the land which they had earlier colonised, now regarded as their own and had had free access to. In the end this shared perception of dispossession probably contributed significantly to an emerging sense of amaXhosa nationhood.  The building and subsequent abandonment of fortifications, a topic to be covered later, was also reflected in the eastward shifting of the frontier.

The First Frontier War (1779 -1781) consisted of a series of cattle raids, punitive expeditions and skirmishes between the trekboere and a number of the smaller clans: the imiDange, imiNtinde, amaMbalu and amaGwali.

The Second Frontier War (1789 -1793) involved trekboere who invaded the Zuurveld  occupied by the amaGqunukhwebe.  At the time, the trekboere were temporarily allied to the amaNdlambe who like all other groups coveted the summer grazing opportunities offered by the Zuurveld. This situation was compounded by internal struggles among amaNguni clans (especially between the amaNdlambe and the amaNgqika who were in a succession struggle) and between the trekboere of the Graaff-Reinet district and the Dutch East India Company, which nominally ruled the Cape, in 1795.

As a sideshow to the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, which were taking place in Europe in the late 18th and early 19th century, the British invaded and occupied the Cape from 1795 to 1803 after which they returned it to Dutch rule in the shape of the Batavian Republic. The British again invaded it in 1806 and thereafter occupied it permanently until 1914. As they consolidated their occupation they found they had inherited an ongoing problem of border clashes on the eastern frontier of the colony.  These clashes which had hitherto been primarily between the Dutch trekboere and some of the amaNguni, now increasingly involved the British with their self-imposed obligations to ‘keep the peace’ and protect all parties from each other. The trekboere and some of the amaNguni clans had first met in the approximate area of the Great Fish River and among the early actions of the new British administration was the proclamation of the Fish River as the border between them.

The Third Frontier War (1799 -1803) saw the first involvement of the British Army, ranged against a second rebellion of trekboere in the Graaff-Reinet district (the first having been against Dutch rule), the amaGqunukhwebe and the Khoi, these latter two mainly in that part of the frontier known as the Zuurveld, but also beyond, as far as Oudtshoorn. A tenuous peace was reached before the British departure from the Cape in 1803.

During the Fourth Frontier War, which erupted in 1811, Lieutenant-Colonel John Graham, Commanding Officer of the Cape Regiment, composed largely of high quality Khoi troops recruited by the British, was appointed by Governor John Cradock to relocate the Xhosa-speaking clans who had grossed to the west side of the Fish River, to the east of it. These were mainly the amaNdlambe but also some minor clans such as the imiDange and the amaGwali, all of whom had only relatively recently occupied the area known as the Zuurveld. The amaNdlambe resisted. “The land”, in the words of Chief Ndlambe himself, “is mine by right of conquest”. These actions, known as the ‘Zuurveld clearances’, are controversial to this day and have become something of an opportunistic political football at the turn of the 21st century.

Figure 3   Lt Col John Graham, founder of Grahamstown. After taking part in the 1806 British invasion of the Cape, he became the Commanding Officer of the Cape Regiment, composed almost entirely of Khoi troops, for whom he had a very high regard. As the officer in charge of the Zuurveld clearances on 1812 he has in some quarters, and for purely political and ideological reasons, been demonised for the role he is purported to have played. A fairer view of him in the context of the times suggests however, that apart from being a competent military commander, liked by his men, he was an intelligent and compassionate man.  Source: Common Domain.


Graham was also given the task of surveying the frontier for the location of a series of fortifications. Needing a place for a military headquarters he, in 1812, chose the site of an abandoned farm ‘De Rietfontein’* on which he established the town which was to bear his name by proclamation of the then Governor, Sir John Cradock.  A small village, which was to grow into the city of Grahamstown, slowly emerged around the military camp.

*   There is some controversy around this which will be dealt with in a future posting.

From this time onwards there developed a network of about forty fortified places along or in the general vicinity of the Fish River, the structures varying from forts to observation posts to fortified farm houses. The purpose of the forts was specifically declared by the Governor of the day, Lord Charles Somerset, to be primarily for observation and early warning of any enemy approaches. They were not, he declared, to be for aggressive purposes, but to curtail the actions of warriors raiding across the Fish River.

The Fifth Frontier War (1818 -1819) also known as ‘Makana’s War’ was mainly between the amaNdlambe clan and some minor allies on the one hand, and the British army, with a large proportion of Khoi troops, and trekboer commandos on the other. Following their heavy defeat by the amaNdlambe at the Battle of Amalinde in 1818 (possibly the largest battle ever fought in southern Africa) the amaNgqika had sought protection, and an alliance, with the British. The amaGqunukhwebe, previous antagonists of the British, remained neutral.

Flush with their victory over the amaNgqika, the amaNdlambe led by the prophet Makana (also variously called Nxele, Makhanda and ‘Links’), with some 6 000 warriors under his command, attacked the embryo village of Grahamstown on 22ndApril 1819, but against all odds were defeated by a determined defence of the settlement by 333 men, and a small number of women, under the military command of Colonel Thomas Willshire.  Apart from poor military judgement on the part of Makana, technically superior weaponry played a role. This event has subsequently become known as the ‘Battle of Grahamstown’ and was the first set piece battle of the frontier wars. Despite its relatively small scale, the battle was politically decisive for both sides. *

*    There is a common misconception that Colonel John Graham was present at the Battle. He was not and at the time was Commandant of the Simon’s Town Naval base.

It was followed by devastatingly punitive raids across the Fish River until the amaNdlambe surrendered. Makana, who had given himself up to the British near Trompetter’s Drift on the Great Fish River in August 1819 in the hope that it would bring about peace, rapidly found himself incarcerated on Robben Island. He drowned attempting to escape later in that year. In his banishment to an isolated island, Makana kept historical company with many defeated military opponents of the British including Napoleon and later, many clan chiefs of the amaXhosa.

Although the amaNgqika had initially not actively participated in the war, they joined the British in the reprisals and cattle acquisition subsequent to the battle at Grahamstown, driving their erstwhile enemies, the amaNdlambe, eastwards. The decisive British military victory at Grahamstown also allowed for the influx of the 1820 British Settlers, permanently changing the social, political and physical landscape of the eastern Cape.* Had the battle gone the other way, the 1820 Settler scheme would almost certainly have been abandoned and South Africa would probably have been a very different place today.

*    It is significant to note however that the 1820 British Settlers were not sent to the Cape as a result of the Battle of Grahamstown, but that the movement and arrangements were already in place in 1818, well before the battle. The outcome of the battle merely facilitated their arrival and placement.

The sudden and unexpected irruption of the Sixth Frontier War (1834 -1836), also called ‘Hintsa’s War’, came as a great shock to the British settlers who had arrived in the eastern Cape Colony from 1820 onwards with promises from the British government of a new life of relative prosperity. As a result of border friction, an estimated 12 000 warriors were mobilised to invade the Cape Colony which led to widespread devastation, burning of farms and carrying off of cattle. Grahamstown’s Church Square was transformed into a protected laager incorporating the then St George’s Church which had been completed in 1830. The major antagonists were an amaNgqika/amaGcaleka alliance in opposition to the British and the colonists to whom the amaGqunukhwebe had allied themselves. Several other clans remained neutral. It was also at this time that the amaMfengu allied themselves with the British and the Cape Colony.  After the Sixth Frontier War large numbers of Trekboere emigrated from the eastern Cape frontier area to the interior of South Africa, in a movement which has come to be known as the Great Trek. More on this will follow in later postings.

The Seventh Frontier War (1846 -1847), was initiated by the British although evidence suggests that all the antagonists were agitating for it. It was widely welcomed by the colonists and their amaMfengu allies, where the purpose in invading ‘Nqgikaland’ was proffered as ‘bringing its people under the Dominion of Law’. Also called the ‘War of the Axe’, it was sparked off by the theft of an axe from a shop in Fort Beaufort and the sequence of events which followed.  With initial military successes by the amaNgqika, this time allied to the amaGqunukhwebe’, many British positions and posts were overrun or abandoned, including the chain of signal towers (to be covered in a later posting) which had been erected at considerable cost, while other posts and fortified farmhouses were isolated or besieged. Once again streets in Grahamstown were barricaded. Eventually however, with far greater access to resources and technically more advanced weaponry, British and colonial forces under command of Sir Harry Smith prevailed. The net result of the war was that all participants suffered severe disruption and destruction of their economic infrastructure and their livelihoods.

The Eighth Frontier War (1850 -1853), the ‘War of Mlanjeni’*, was fought between the British army and the colonists, supported by the amaMfengu, some of the amaNdlambe sub-clans and some of the Khoi. Their opponents were an amaNguni alliance led by the amaNgqika supported by the amaGcaleka in the east as well as the amaThembu in the north-east part of the Frontier who joined the fray for the first time. It started on Christmas day 1850 with co-ordinated attacks upon the military villages established by Sir Harry Smith. Most were destroyed and their inhabitants killed. Farms were attacked and burned and people in the countryside either fled en masse to Grahamstown for sanctuary or formed laagers to defend themselves. Smith, the governor of the Colony was himself besieged in Fort Cox for six days.  The initially successful invasion of the colony by the amaNgqika alliance was compounded by the defection to their side by many of the British Khoi troops, due to accumulated grievances and perceived unfair treatment.

*   Mlanjeni was another prophet to aid and abet in bringing disaster upon his people in that he preached for a war that could not be won against the overpowering might of the British and their allies.  

Much of the cause of the war can be laid at the door of vacillating British policy and inept administration and the tensions and antagonisms which built up from these.  In the longer run however, despite the guerrilla successes of Maqoma (an amaNgqika chief) in the Waterkloof Mountains, the superior resources which the British could muster, as well as their scorched earth policy in the amaNguni homeland, forced the clans to sue for peace in 1853. The economic impact for the rest of the colony beyond the frontier and the land to the east of the Fish and Kei rivers, was extremely severe. This is widely regarded as the most destructive and economically devastating of all the Frontier Wars.

Between the Eighth and Ninth Frontier Wars, a disastrous event known as the Cattle Killing took place among some of the isiXhosa-speaking clans in late 1856 and 1857. A young prophetess known as Nongquase, supported by several other ‘seers’ preached that the amaXhosa peoples would be restored to their former glory and ascendancy by the ancestors if they killed all their cattle and livestock. While many chiefs and missionary-educated individuals opposed this, sufficient numbers supported it to result in a massive famine when the promised events failed to materialise.

The Ninth Frontier War (3/8/1877-2/7/1878) also known as ‘Ngcayechibi’s War’ or the ‘War of the Mfengu-Gcaleka’  broke out as a result of simmering tensions between the amaMfengu and the amaGcaleka which came to a head at a wedding party. The British rallied to the support of their long time amaMfengu allies and were joined by the amaThembu and elements of the amaGqunukhwebe, while the amaNgqika sided with the amaGcaleka.  By February 1878 the amaGcaleka having suffered military defeat, surrendered. The amaNgqika however fought on until July 1878 when due to overwhelming British military power, they too were defeated and then expelled across the Kei River to live among the amaGqaleka. This final armed confrontation in a 99-year conflict had lasted 11 months.

As a final point we might reflect on colonisation in its various forms, as an age-old phenomenon – literally from the beginning of human social interaction. While it is, from the perspective of our current values sometimes seen as a heartless and dispossessing process, it has also been a means of transferring and sharing technology (in our context ranging from clothing to cell phones) and one in which values and traditions on all sides are challenged. We need to take a long term historical perspective, not to justify, but to understand socially, economically, politically and psychologically why such processes occur at all.  Colonisation has nearly always led to resistance from those being colonised and often dispossessed of their resources and values. Such was the case for example in the Roman conquest of Britain and in just about every country in Europe, Asia and the Americas. There are countless examples in history.

The amaXhosa people are no exception in this regard nor, by a long mark, and despite claims to the contrary, have they suffered worse than other colonised peoples. In reality, while there have inevitably been what could be considered negative, exploitative or even destructive practices within the colonisation process, much of the technology, social, economic and even political transfer which has taken place has been overwhelmingly beneficial to both colonised and coloniser. And so it has been throughout the ages despite justifiable opposition and resistance in the early stages of the process.  

 Selected references

There is a great deal of writing on the East Cape Frontier Wars but much of it is either superficial or has a distinct political agenda. The most balanced and considered overview is John Milton’s 1983 The Edges of War: A history of Frontier Wars (1702-1878) published by Juta & Co. of Cape Town.  It is regrettably out of print but is still widely available in libraries and at second hand book shops.  Jeff Peires’ The House of Phalo’ published by Ravan Press in 1981 is another excellent source. Regrettably the same cannot be said of Noel Mostert’s Frontiers. There are also many interesting primary accounts of these years of conflict. A few examples are PPJ Coetser’s Gebeurtenisse uit die Kaffer Oorloge van 1834,1835,1846.1850 tot 1853 published in 1897; Buck Adams’ (1884) The narrative of Private Buck Adams, 7th (Princess Royal’s) Dragoon Guards  on the Eastern Frontier of the Cape of Good Hope 1843 – 1848,  published by the Van Riebeeck Society in 1941; John Shipp’s  Memoirs of the extraordinary military career of John Shipp, late a Lieut. in his Majesty’s 87th Regiment published in 1832; and Isaiah Staples’ Narrative of the Eighth Frontier War of 1851-1853 – a reprint published by the State library in 1974.

There is also much official and military documentation, but these too need to be seen within the contexts and values of their times, as well as the political and ideological agendas which they propagated. Almost all of the contemporary writings are from a colonial or missionary perspective each with their biases. It is a matter of great regret to military historians that there are no first-hand accounts of the conflicts from an amaNguni perspective. Current claims and accounts of events from purported oral history sources need to be viewed with the greatest circumspection.  Much of what is on the Internet is also inaccurate and of dodgy provenance: all too often the articles appear to have been compiled by individuals who have not visited the sites described nor consulted much in the way of primary material. Even more problematic are those who tend to start with preconceived conclusions and selectively seek material to support them.

Figure 4   The hamlet of Grahamstown in 1822, three years after the battle which was fought to the right (east) of the picture.  The painting shows the axis of the modern High Street: the small St George’s Church can be seen on the extreme right. The single storey building at centre left is possibly the original gaol which still stands in High Street.   Watercolour by ‘An Officer’.   The painting is owned by the Albany Museum in Grahamstown and is in the Common Domain on the Internet.