African Wars and White Invaders: Southeast Africa, 1770–1870 Part I

White invaders and their diseases destroyed most of the hunting and herding societies in the western part of Southern Africa during the regime of the Dutch East India Company. They did so to such an extent that, with the exception of a few bands of hunters who still eke out an existence in arid, isolated terrain in Namibia and Botswana that Whites have not coveted, the only descendants of the aboriginal Khoisan are the so-called Cape Coloured People—an amalgam of people of diverse origins who possess few of the cultural traits of their precolonial ancestors.

White people did not begin to invade the eastern part of southern Africa—the terrain of the Bantu-speaking mixed farmers — until the late eighteenth century. Most of the mixed-farming communities were scarcely affected by European colonization before the 1830s. In the early stages of contact in each successive chiefdom, Africans welcomed and assisted the intruders, despite their pale skins and strange clothing: hunters, who shot game, especially elephants for their ivory; traders, who bartered their imported beads, metal wares, clothing, and groceries in exchange for ivory, hides, and cattle; missionaries, who expounded novel religious ideas; and pastoral farmers with large herds of cattle and flocks of sheep. However, in African culture visitors should report to the chief on their arrival; they should ask his permission to carry out their activities; and, if they remain, they should expect to be incorporated in the chiefdom. In particular, if a chief allowed a visitor to pasture his cattle and sheep in a given locality in his domain, he was doing no more than giving the visitor the right to use the land; he could withdraw this right at any time. Some white people complied with those norms. Others did not and, as their numbers increased, became more demanding and more arrogant. White farmers, for example, claimed to own the land they had been permitted to use, whereas the idea that a person could have property rights in land did not exist in African culture. The time finally came when a chief and his councillors realized that they were confronted with a threat to their autonomy. Then, some accommodated, others resisted.

In the ensuing conflicts, neither side was monolithic. The interests of white hunters, traders, missionaries, and farmers did not coincide. The goals of the British government and its colonial officials were different from those of British settlers, and often quite antithetical to those of Afrikaners. Among Africans, there were tensions among chiefs and commoners; among rival members of ruling families; between chiefdom and chiefdom; and among established communities and refugees from other areas. In the last resort, however, Whites were able to exploit the cleavages in African society more successfully than Africans could exploit the cleavages in white society. When they considered that racial hegemony was at stake, Whites did not obstruct one another; whereas Africans never created a united front and Whites were able to use African allies in every conflict.

Whites also possessed great technological advantages. Their firearms were far more effective than African spears; and although there were always traders who were willing to make a profit by selling guns to Africans, most of the guns they dispensed were poor-quality, obsolescent models, grossly inferior to those used by the British army and the colonists. Even where Africans gained the upper hand in the opening stages of a conflict, they lost it as time went on. They lacked the equipment to capture fortified positions or laagers composed of circles of wagons, and when Africans resorted to guerrilla tactics the invaders forced them into submission by attacking their food supplies. Time after time, Afrikaner commandos and British regiments brought Africans to their knees by systematically destroying their homes, crops, and grain reserves, seizing their livestock, and turning their women and children into refugees. With their superior economy, which can accumulate and store wealth in a variety of forms, they were able to feed themselves from commissariats carried in ox-drawn wagons.

Some white settlers predicted that the African societies would disintegrate as the Khoisan in the southwestern part of Southern Africa and the aboriginal Indians in North America were doing. They were wrong. Unlike the Khoisan and the American Indians, the African farmers were already conditioned to the diseases brought from Europe. Smallpox and measles, which took a heavy toll of the Khoisan and the American Indians, do not seem to have affected the African farmers much more severely than they affected the white settlers. The African farming societies, moreover, were far more populous, their economy was far more complex, their social networks were far more resilient, and their political systems were far more durable than those of the Khoisan. They were thus able to resist the invaders more effectively than the hunters and herders had done. Furthermore, even though they, too, were eventually subjected and the world they had known vanished for ever, they did not disintegrate. They maintained their cohesion as organized communities. They adapted their culture and their social, economic, and political institutions to the new order. They occupied substantial blocks of their ancestral land. What is more, they continued to be far more numerous than the white invaders.

In 1870, the outcome in southeast Africa was still in doubt. Whites had made their presence felt as far north as the Limpopo River, had defeated many of the farming communities in a series of separate campaigns, had assumed ownership of much of the best land in the territories they called the Ciskei, Natal, the Orange Free State, and the Transvaal, and had drawn many of the indigenous inhabitants of the region into the labor market. But the white settlers were few in number, their polities were frail, and their pockets of settlement were bordered by autonomous African polities, including the Tswana chiefdoms in the northwest, the Venda in the northern Transvaal, and the Pedi, the Swazi, the Zulu, and the Mpondo in the east.

In this chapter we follow these events down to 1870, when the white impact intensified dramatically as a result of the discovery of the world’s greatest deposits of diamonds, soon to be followed by gold, in the heart of southern Africa. Since there were great variations over time and place, we shall deal in sequence with each major community, starting with the Xhosa, who were the first farming people to bear the brunt of invasion.

The Xhosa

Afrikaner trekboers moving eastward from the Cape began to overlap with the westernmost Xhosa settlements in the land between the Bushmans River and the Fish River in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. That was the beginning of a century of interaction that culminated in the conquest of all the Xhosa. The process was profoundly influenced by cleavages among Xhosa political factions. During the seventeenth century, a single lineage had dominated most of the Xhosa chiefdoms, but following the death of its head in about 1750 the lineage split into two rival sections, one of which split again in 1782. Thereafter, there were three major divisions: the Gcaleka centered east of the Kei River; the Ngqika between the Kei and the Fish; and the Ndlambe in the area known as the Zuurveld, west of the Fish. The Ndlambes shared the Zuurveld with several other Xhosa-speaking chiefdoms, including the Gqunukhwebe, who had incorporated numerous people of Khoikhoi origin.

In the first three conflicts—1779–81, 1793, and 1799—the Zuurveld Xhosa held their ground. Indeed, in the third war they benefited from a period of exceptional weakness in the colonial state. Trekboers were rebelling against the new British government of the Cape Colony, and some of their Khoikhoi servants absconded and joined the Xhosa. By 1800, the Xhosa and their allies had destroyed white farmsteads as far west as the Gamtoos River and were in firm control of the Zuurveld. The tide turned in 1811 and 1812 when, as we have seen, acting on the recommendations of Colonel Collins, the colonial government mustered a large force of regular troops and Afrikaner and Coloured auxiliaries who drove the Xhosa men, women, and children beyond the Fish River.

The government then tried to make the Fish River an absolute barrier between the colony and the Xhosa territory, impermeable to Whites and Blacks. In pursuit of this goal, it entered into cordial relations with the chief Ngqika, treating him as the supreme chief of all the Xhosa (whereas the Gcaleka chief had that status in Xhosa custom) and holding him responsible for preventing his people from raiding cattle across the border. The result was that Ngqika’s prestige plummeted, many of his followers deserted him, and the Gcaleka and the Ndlambe combined their forces and overwhelmed the Ngqika in a pitched battle in 1818. Confident in their strength, the Xhosa allies invaded the colony in 1819 and made a frontal attack on the new garrison town of Grahamstown in the heart of the Zuurveld. After barely surviving that attack, the colonial forces gained the upper hand. The government then annexed the territory between the Fish and the Keiskamma, indicating that it was to be a “neutral belt,” keeping Whites and Africans apart. Ngqika died in 1829. Some of his contemporaries regarded him as a collaborator, but he is honored in modern Xhosa tradition as a leader who stood up to the white invaders.

During the 1820s, newcomers arrived on both sides of the border to accelerate the erosion of Xhosa autonomy. On the colonial side, the 1820 Settlers from Britain took occupation of the Zuurveld and soon persuaded the government to abandon its effort to prevent people from crossing the border. By the end of the decade, British traders and missionaries were purveying new commodities and new ideas throughout Xhosaland, and several hundred Xhosa were sampling life in the colony by working for a few months at a time for white farmers. Meanwhile, thousands of African refugees were flooding into Xhosaland from Natal. Known as Mfengu, they had, as we shall see, been dislodged from their homes by the Zulu army. The Mfengu were accepted by the Xhosa, but since they arrived without property and had no local kin they had low status in Xhosa society. Consequently, the Mfengu were particularly susceptible to the ideas and practices of the traders and missionaries and prone to be disloyal to their Xhosa patrons.

By the 1830s, relations between Blacks and Whites were deteriorating. There was cattle rustling both ways across the frontier. Government officials and British settlers humiliated African chiefs in the presence of their followers. Colonial forces expelled Africans whom the government had allowed to settle in part of the “neutralbelt.” White traders, with access to capital and supplies of Western commodities, eliminated Xhosa competitors and formed cartels to change the terms of trade to their advantage. By December 1834, Xhosa resentment was so general that, with few exceptions, the chiefs cooperated in organizing a massive invasion of the colony. Absorbing the lesson of their failure to capture Grahamstown in 1819, they attacked on a wide front and waged a skillful guerrilla war, forcing most of the British settlers to abandon their farms. Eventually, however, an imperial force carried out a destructive expedition into the heart of Xhosa territory across the Kei River. The Gcaleka chief Hintsa, who was generally recognized to be the senior of all the Xhosa chiefs, was tricked into captivity and shot dead when he tried to escape; and many Mfengu deserted their patrons and joined the colonial forces. In September 1835, the surviving chiefs capitulated.

Egged on by inflammatory settler pressures for the ejection of the Xhosa, the British governor then announced peace terms to assembled Xhosa chiefs. All the land between the Keiskamma and the Kei was to be annexed as the province of Queen Adelaide. A fire-eating colonel named Harry Smith began to administer it, intent on imposing British civilization upon its inhabitants. This new order had scarcely begun, however, when, responding to the still influential humanitarian lobby, the British colonial secretary ordered the abandonment of the province and appointed Andries Stockenstrom as lieutenant-governor of the eastern districts.

Stockenstrom, who had held official appointments in the frontier zone since 1808, sought to pacify the frontier by making treaties with the Xhosa chiefs and holding the colonists responsible for organizing the protection of their property. The system did not work. The chiefs had never had autocratic powers, and by 1836, some of the Xhosa people, battered and impoverished by the wars and the land losses, were taking to banditry. Moreover, the government did not provide funds to police the border and the settlers themselves could not do it. The settlers never favored the system. They had hoped to get hold of more land in Queen Adelaide and raised a clamor for its reannexation.

The tenuous peace collapsed after Stockenstrom was superseded by men who lacked the will to check the settlers. In 1846, war broke out again. In white circles it was known as the War of the Axe, because it was sparked by an incident in which a Xhosa band released a man who had been arrested for stealing an ax and killed the Khoikhoi prisoner who had been handcuffed to the accused. The Xhosa—assisted this time by allies from the neighboring Thembu chiefdoms-drove the colonial forces back beyond the Keiskamma River, but once again the troops concentrated on destroying their homes, cattle, crops, and grain reserves. With their women and children facing mass starvation, the chiefs sued for peace.

In 1847, Sir Harry Smith—the man responsible for killing Hintsa-be-came governor of the Cape Colony, and on 23 December he paraded his troops in the presence of two thousand Africans. Sitting on horseback, he read out a proclamation reannexing the land between the Keiskamma and the Kei as a separate colony, called British Kaffraria. Then, according to one report, he called the chiefs forward and required them to kiss his feet. Two weeks later, the report continues, he assembled the chiefs again and, after lecturing them, told them to look at a wagon that he had loaded with gunpowder. The gallant governor then gave the order “Fire!” whereupon the wagon exploded into a thousand pieces. “That is what I will do to you,” Smith is reported to have said, “if you do not behave yourselves.” Whether or not apocryphal, these stories celebrate the importance of technological superiority.

Smith strengthened the human barrier against the Xhosa by settling Mfengu and white military veterans in the fertile land between the Fish and the Keiskamma. British Kaffraria east of the Keiskamma he ruled autocratically, placing white magistrates over the chiefs. He interfered drastically in domestic Xhosa politics-—for example, by deposing Sandile, the senior Ngqika chief, and proclaiming the son of a British missionary as regent in his stead. Deeply humiliated, in December 1850 the Ngqika chiefs and councillors initiated yet another round of military resistance. In this, they were encouraged by a prophet, Mlanjeni, who had been influenced by Christianity. Mlanjeni claimed that “he had been to Heaven and had talked to God who was displeased with the white man for having killed his Son . . . God would help the black man against the white … a stick from the plumbago plant would make them invulnerable.”

Mlanjeni’s War, as it became called, continued for more than two years. The Ngqika were joined by many other Xhosa, by numerous Thembu, and by Khoikhoi rebels from the Kat River settlement, making a total of about 20,000 fighting men. The colonial government mustered nearly as many, including Mfengu, Gqunukhwebe, colonial volunteers, a few Khoikhoi, and 8,600 British regular troops. At the outset, as in previous conflicts, the Xhosa took the offensive, destroying the military villages along the Cape colonial frontier and forcing colonists to abandon their farms deep inside the colony. But, as in every previous war since the Zuurveld was cleared in 1811-12, the imperial forces eventually prevailed by systematically destroying Xhosa food supplies.

Further forced removals and relocations followed that war. “Loyal” Africans were given relatively generous landholdings, whereas the Ngqika were confined to a small tract of land, and much of the new colony of British Kaffraria was thrown open to white settlement. Assuming office in December 1854, Governor Sir George Grey, a high-minded soldier who, unlike the egregious Harry Smith, had serious intellectual interests but also possessed the unquestioning cultural arrogance of the ruling class of Victorian Britain, presided over a program inspired by his recent dealings with the Maori in New Zealand. The chiefs became salaried officials, responsible to white magistrates. Their people were to be “civilized.” Missions, schools, and hospitals would wean them from “barbarism”; employment on beneficial public works—roads and irrigation ditches—would teach them the dignity of wage labor; and, with white settlements interspersed among their landholdings, they would profit from the example of civilized people.

No sooner was peace restored than a lethal cattle disease, lung sickness (bovine pleuropneumonia), arrived from Europe and spread rapidly, intensifying the anguish of the battered, impoverished, and humiliated Xhosa. They responded by trying to control the movements of infected beasts and by holding individuals responsible for these calamities and executing them as witches. But to no avail. All chiefdoms were affected; some lost more than 80 percent of their cattle—their most valuable possessions.

Conquest and lung sickness turned the Xhosa world upside down. People wondered how they could account for these unprecedented events and how they should respond. They naturally sought: answers in their indigenous concepts of witchcraft, pollution, sacrifice, and the powers of the ancestors; but they also adapted concepts of sin and the resurrection from the teachings of the missionaries. If they erased the pollution that had caused the calamities by a massive sacrifice of the remaining cattle and the grain, they might eradicate witchcraft and their ancestors might return and restore “a happy state of things.”

Several prophets gave expression to these ideas—most notably, a sixteen-year-old girl named Nongqawuse, who lived in the country of the Gcaleka Xhosa, four miles east of the Kei River. Nongqawuse declared that when she and another girl were in the fields scaring away the birds from the corn, two men appeared and said they had died long ago:

You are to tell the people that the whole community is about to rise again from the dead. Then go on to say to them all the cattle living now must be slaughtered, for they are reared with defiled hands, as the people handle witchcraft. Say to them there must be no ploughing of lands, rather must the people dig deep pits (granaries), erect new huts, set up wide, strongly built cattlefolds, make milksacks, and weave doors from buta roots. The people must give up witchcraft on their own, not waiting until they are exposed by the witchdoctors. You are to tell them that these are the words of their chiefs.

Later, she had more visions. On one occasion, she reported that “there was another chief . . . [whose] name was Grey, otherwise known as Satan. All those who did not slaughter their cattle would become subjects of the chief named Satan.”

Nongqawuse convinced her uncle, Mhlakaza, that her visions were authentic. Mhlakaza was the head of her homestead and a councillor of the Gcaleka chief Sarhili. News of Nongqawuse’s visions spread throughout the country, causing immense excitement. The news was hotly debated at every level. The community was split in two. Father fell out with son, brother with brother, chief with subjects. Nongqawuse’s converts were known as amathamba, “soft” believers, who submitted to the common will and accepted the truth of the prophecy; those who rejected the prophecy were known as amagogotya, “hard” unbelievers, who pursued their own individual interests.

Chief Sarhili was skeptical at first, but after going to Mhlakaza’s homestead to investigate, he became convinced that the prophecy was authentic and threw his immense prestige behind the movement. Most Gcaleka chiefs followed suit, and the movement spread across the Kei river, where Sandile, the principal Ngqika chief, eventually participated. It stopped short of the Mfengu. According to one tradition, the ancestors had no message for the Mfengu.

A sensitive historian of these events, J. B. Peires, considers that “the believer/unbeliever divide followed no clear pattern of kinship, age, gender, or social class.” He also considers that the believers were engaged in “a popular mass movement of a truly national character, uniting both chiefs and commoners … in a communal defence of their way of life.” Peires adds: “The ‘soft’ party of believers saw themselves as properly loyal and submissive adherents of the old order, who put their nation first in giving up their cattle for the good of all. They viewed the amagogotya as selfish and even despicable ‘cowards who fear hunger.’ The unbelievers probably thought of themselves as sensible men, who realized that one could not eat grass, but their unbelief was probably sustained by a deep unwillingness to slaughter their cattle.”

A mass slaughter of cattle and destruction of grain ensued. The frenzy rose to a crescendo at the new moon on February 18, 1857, when the prophecy was to have been fulfilled; and again on successive dates designated in revised prophecies. The scale of the catastrophe was appalling. It is estimated that the people destroyed 400,000 head of cattle and that at least 40,000 Xhosa died of starvation. By the end of January 1858 another 33,000 had moved inside the Cape Colony to become laborers on farms or in the towns and villages as far away as Cape Town.

Throughout most of 1857 social relations bordered on anarchy, as amathamba plundered amagogotya for food. Sir George Grey took advantage of the occasion to relegate the British Kaffrarian chiefs to the sidelines, while real power was exercised by magistrates and their African assistants. He also used the opportunity created by the depopulation of the territory to make more land available in British Kaffraria for white settlement, notably for a group of German immigrants.

On January i, 1866, British Kaffraria was incorporated in the Cape Colony, which then included all the land west of the Kei River between the mountain escarpment and the Indian Ocean. The African inhabitants of that area, which later became known as the Ciskei, were Mfengu and the remnants of the Gqunukhwebe, Ndlambe, and Ngqika chiefdoms. The invaders had deprived them of the land their ancestors had occupied west of the Fish River and had confined them to small landholdings between the Fish and the Kei. These were insufficient for their subsistence, so they were obliged to provide the main labor force for the white farmers and the white inhabitants of the towns and villages in the eastern districts of the Cape Colony. The British government, however, had halted plans for white settlement in what became known as the Transkei, where the Gcaleka Xhosa and the Thembu were still nominally independent people.

Repeated military defeats, lung sickness, and the cattle-killing had profoundly affected the religious beliefs and social aspirations of the Xhosa, especially those living in the Ciskei. Tiyo Soga, a Xhosa commoner back from Britain with a Scottish education, a Scottish wife, and the status of minister of the Presbyterian church, was to be a forerunner in the process of evangelization. Soga showed his fellow Xhosa how they might adapt to their condition as conquered people in a capitalist economy. In 1861, in words that foreshadowed the doctrines of Booker T. Washington in the United States, he wrote: “The country of the Kafirsjs now forfeited and the greater part of it has been given out in grants to European farmers. I see plainly that unless the rising generation is trained to some of the useful arts, nothing else will raise our people, and they must be grooms, drivers of wagons, hewers of wood, or general servants. But let our youth be taught trades, to earn money, and they will increase and purchase land.” Soga added a most prescient statement: “When a people are not land-proprietors, they are of no consequence in this country and are tenants on mere sufferance.”

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