The nine Frontier or Xhosa Wars re-shaped and dominated 19th Century South African History, and took place in the Eastern Cape between the Xhosa and European settlers (both English and Boers). The Xhosa fought for one hundred years to preserve their independence, heritage and land. Even today this area is still referred to by many as Frontier Country.
The Fifth Frontier War (1818-1819) began because of a difficulty that arose between the Cape Colony government and the Xhosa in 1817. The immediate cause of this difficulty was an attempt by the colonial authorities to enforce the restitution of stolen cattle. Somerset (the British commander) told Xhosa Chief Ngqika that he should ensure that the cattle and horse theft was stopped, but Ngqika found this task impossible as he had no real power over the other chiefs. As he was aware of Ngqika's weakness, Somerset promised military assistance.
In 1818, Xhosa Chief Ndlamba inflicted a shattering defeat on Ngqika. The British gave instruction to Lieutenant Colonel Brereton to proceed to Ngqika's assistance with a combined force of burghers and soldiers. In December 1818, Colonel Brereton crossed the Fish River, and after joining forces with Ngqika's adherents, attacked Ndlambe.
Ndlambe and his followers, however, did not venture to make a stand on open ground, but retired to dense thickets, which afforded them shelter. Their kraals were destroyed, and 23 000 head of cattle were seized. The British commander withdrew his army before Ndlambe was thoroughly defeated, and on reaching Grahamstown the burghers were disbanded and permitted to return to their homes.
The Xhosa prophet-chief Makana (Nxele or Makhanda) advised Ndlambe that the gods would be on their side if they chose to strike back at the British at Grahamstown, and promised that the British 'bullets would turn to water'. The people believed that Makana was in communication with the spirits of the mighty dead, and that his visions and dreams were inspired.
Ndlambe took Makana's advice, and on 22 April 1819 Makana (with Ndlambe as his patron) attacked Grahamstown in broad daylight with a force of approximately 6000 men (some sources say 10 000 men). The British garrison of approximately 350 troops was able to repulse the attack only after timely support was received from a Khoikhoi group led by Jan Boesak.
The Xhosa force suffered heavy losses and fled toward the Kei River. The fifth war ended with the surrender of Makana, who gave himself up in the hope that his friends would then be spared. He was imprisoned on Robben Island and later drowned while trying to escape.
- Potgieter, D.J. et al. (eds) (1970). Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa, Cape Town: NASOU, v. 8, p. 123
- Kruger, D.W. (ed) (1972). Dictionary of South African Biography, Cape Town: Human Sciences Research Council, v. 1, p. 597.
- Theal, G.Mc (date unknown), South Africa, The Cape Colony, Natal, Orange Free State, South African Republic, and all other territories south of the Zambezi [online], available at: archive.org [accessed 14 April 2009]
- Giliomee et al. (2007), New History of South Africa. Tafelberg Publishers: Cape Town. pg 102.
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