Category Archives: Campaigns

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 1179 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 1895 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 (1899 -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 (1819 -1820) 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 major 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 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 may well 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 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 ascendency 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.