In 1840, Commander-in-Chief of the Cape Colony garrison, Lieutenant-Colonel Harry Smith, was transferred by the British government to India.
The colonists felt that the policies of his successor, Andreas Stockenstroom, were too lenient on the Xhosa and in 1844 the new Governor, Maitland, repealed Stockenstroom’s policies. This allowed white settlers to enter into Xhosa territory to retrieve what they said were ‘stolen’ cattle. Maitland also undermined the power of the Xhosa chiefs by ruling that Christianised Xhosa were not subject to their tribal laws.
During this time the demand for wool in Britain was growing and white settlers moved further into Xhosa territories east of the Fish River – into land they deemed to be prime sheep country.
Drought once again gripped this part of southern Africa, driving the desperate Xhosa into cattle rustling in order to survive. At one point a Xhosa man was arrested for stealing an axe. Whilst on his way to Grahamstown for trial, the escort was attacked and the prisoner set free. Once again the frontier was set alight in what became known as ‘The War Of The Axe.’
The British forces on the frontier amounted to about 1,000 men. The Xhosa had upwards of 15,000 warriors. The British planned to make a quick strike against the Ngqika Xhosa chief, Mgolombane Sandile. They began their march into the Amatola Mountains with a wagon train three miles long, yet with no stockpiles of ammunition, food, or fodder.
The Xhosa attacked the middle of the column, capturing the camping, equipment and medical and cooking supplies. In previous actions, the assegai was the weapon used by the Xhosa. In this attack the musket was their primary weapon, resorting to the spear only for hand to hand combat. The British retreated to the Keiskamma River and established an improvised fort.
As an increasing number of Xhosa poured across the frontier into the colony, the outposts were abandoned. Fort Peddie, halfway between the Great Fish and Keiskamma Rivers, was all that was left between the Xhosa and Grahamstown.
The Xhosa then attacked an Mfengu village near the fort. For five hours the Mfengu held off the Xhosa attacks before a British relief force arrived on the scene. However, the Commander of the force only ordered a few shots to be fired from his cannon and then retired to Fort Peddie. The Mfengu finally beat off the Xhosa, but they lost all of their cattle.
On 28 March 1846 the Xhosa attempted to destroy Fort Peddie. The British were inside the fort while the Mfengu, with the cattle, were left outside to fend for themselves. As the Xhosa charged, the British opened up with cannon and rockets, the noise of which stampeded the cattle. As they closed in, the muskets of the British and the Mfengu opened up. For two hours the 8,000 Xhosa warriors rushed in then fell back, before they finally melted away into the veld.
The British felt they had won the battle of Fort Peddie because they only lost 12 Mfengu in the action. The Xhosa felt they had won because they had made off with the British cattle.
After the battle the Xhosa began marching towards Grahamstown. However, Henry Somerset mustered a strong cavalry force and was able to turn the warriors away. The cavalry continued to patrol the frontier and they finally caught the Xhosa army in the open. Somerset led his troopers through the Xhosa masses twice before the warriors broke and ran, and were pursued right into the brush.
After much debate, the British were forced to take on Andreas Stockenstroom as the leader of the Burghers.
By this time the drought was taking its toll also. What fodder there was was dry and withered. Water was so scarce that men would give a months pay for a drink. The British spent the next ten days running up one side of the mountain and down the other. But the only time they saw the Xhosa close up was when they were being ambushed. Eventually the Xhosa set fire to the dry plains below.
It was becoming clear that the campaign could not be won in the Amatolas. Stockenstroom proposed a foray across the Kei River to see the paramount chief of all the Xhosa, Sarili. With a party of Burghers Stockenstroom rode into Sarili’s village. After some bantering, Sarili agreed to the British terms. Stockenstroom was satisfied and returned to camp treaty in hand. Maitland thought that the Boer was played the fool. He sent a sharp letter to Sarili renouncing the treaty and demanding proof that the Xhosa wanted peace.
Stockenstroom was furious, he released his Burghers from service and resigned his command The situation was now critical for everyone. The British lost most of their cavalry, were short on supplies, and morale was at an all time low. What fodder the drought didn’t kill, the Xhosa’s fire did. Cattle and oxen on both sides of the frontier were dropping in droves. Things were so bad that the British army moved to the coast in hopes of getting supplied by sea.
Then, suddenly, the rains came. For days it rained. The barren earth was soon turned into a quagmire. Men and animals, weakened by the drought became exhausted trying to move through the mud. Then fever raced through the British camp. For the Xhosa the war was over. It was washed away by the rain. The Xhosa would no longer fight the British, but they would not move either. They would just sit down when the British came, even when they rounded up their cattle. The British were at a loss as to what to do.
On the 17th of September, 1846, the British sent demands to the Xhosa. By returning cattle they had stolen, surrendering their guns, and moving east of the Kei River, they could end the war. The Xhosa refused the terms and still they refused to resume the war.
The British decided to bluff the Xhosa into submission. After the rains, the British massed their army at the foot of the mountains as if to attack. The Xhosa, fearful of further destruction, gave in to the British demands. They turned over a few old muskets and some cattle. The British were not satisfied and at least wished to move the Ngqika East.
In June, 1847, the British found a reason to move against Sandile, Chief of the Ngqika. Four goats came up missing from a Mfengu village. It was determined that Sandile was responsible for the errant livestock. He offered12 goats that he said were found wandering on his territory. The British refused them.
A force of 150 redcoats was sent to arrest the Ngqika Chief, but the wily Xhosa eluded capture. The British settled for snatching some cattle. The Xhosa warriors rose up against the patrol and in the running battle in that followed, the British ran out of ammunition and were nearly destroyed. Angered by the Xhosa attack, the British undertook a slash and burn campaign against the Ngqika. The fighting spilled over the Kei River and into chief Pato’s territory.
Fearing the complete extermination of his people, Sandile went to the British camp to seek terms. He was promptly arrested and sent to Grahamstown. Pato was wearing down quickly and would soon surrender. As the last of the Xhosa warriors were being run down a new governor with a familiar face arrived at the Cape.
Harry Smith was the rising star of the Empire and it was hoped that he could pacify the frontier. The only thing left to do in the War of the Axe was to formalize the Xhosa surrender. Of this Harry made a fiasco. He embarrassed and belittled the Xhosa chiefs. He insulted the Xhosa people. Then in a final farcical display of British superiority, he blew up a wagonload of gunpowder.
For a second time the British took all of the land west of the Kei River. The land west of the Keiskamma had to be abandoned and those Xhosa that lived between the Keiskamma and the Kei would be under British rule. As in 1835, a string of forts was built up along the Keiskamma River to monitor the movements of the Xhosa.
Many tribes had to start over in a new land. Crops needed to be planted and villages to be built. Yet even though they rebuilt them in the traditional manner, things would never be the same. The land they were moved to was not as good as that which they left. The displaced tribes were packed into an area that could not possibly support such a large pastoral society. And even though the fighting was over, the Xhosa were still under attack.
This battle was not fought with bullets but with ploughs. The ploughs were given to the Xhosa chiefs who were expected to learn how to use them and then teach the others. Farming in Xhosa society was woman’s work and so the ploughs sat idle. Young men, women, and children were removed from their villages and moved west to work on colonial farms. The transplanted Xhosa were forced to wear European clothing and to attend church. Several other changes to Xhosa society were also discussed. Among these were a ban on polygamy, trading cattle for wives, and the sale of red clay which the Xhosa painted themselves with.
Because he had done such a good job with the Xhosa, Harry Smith decided to bring the trek Boers back under British control. He annexed the territory between the Orange and Vaal Rivers. The Boers were unwilling to come under British rule again and a revolt broke out which was put down and several of the ringleaders were hanged.
Smith’s actions were not popular with the Home Government and the territory Smith took would eventually be given back to the Boers. There was also talk of giving responsible government to the Cape Colony. This would put a kink in Smith’s plans, so to improve the image of his governorship, Harry had to reduce his expenditures. This meant reducing his forces on the frontier by 20 percent. This left 4,700 men to protect the colony against a possible 35,000 warriors.
At the beginning of 1850, Harry Smith thought he had everything under control, but he was mistaken. The Cape Colony Burghers were upset about the way that the Orange River rebellion was suppressed. The Mfengu and Khoikhoi were riled by unscrupulous officials that set exorbitant taxes. The Xhosa were suffering from over- population and the assault on their traditional lifestyle.
With June came the coldest winter remembered. Along with the winter came a drought of equal proportions. It was at this time that British officials decided to remove Xhosa squatters from the Kat River region. As many Xhosa families were left to wander homeless about the countryside, a prophet fell in with them. Within a month of the coming of Mlanjeni the Xhosa were agitated to a dangerous level. Those that were working in the colony began to return to their tribes. Warriors were being instructed on how to make themselves invincible. Mlanjeni also ordained all dun coloured cattle evil and therefore had to be destroyed.
Throughout October colonists retreated from the frontier. Smith called a meeting of the Xhosa chiefs to try to settle the problem, but none of the important ones showed. In his wrath, Smith deposed Sandile and instated Charles Brownlee, commissioner of the Ngqika, as the new chief.
The situation continued to degrade. November saw a steady stream of colonists heading west and a steady stream of Xhosa labourers heading east. In December Smith called up the militia and deployed his troops for action. Five hundred-seventy men were sent to Fort Cox, 457 were sent to Fort Hare, 389 men were sent to the Kabousie Neck and the remainder, between 400 and 500 men, were spread between King William’s Town and the frontier outposts. On the 19th of December, Smith offered a $500 reward for the capture of Sandile. He also promised the local chiefs that no redcoats would hunt the Ngqika chief.
To Smith, his promise did not include sending a column up into the mountains to try to scare Sandile out. On December 24, 1850, a force was sent up Boma Pass to attempt just that. The column was led by the Kaffir Police, made up of Xhosa loyal to the colony, then followed by the Cape Mounted Rifles with the British regulars bringing up the rear. After a two hour breakfast the column entered Boma pass.
The pass was a mile long tunnel through the bush. To one side was a sheer cliff, to the other the rushing Keiskamma River. The path itself was so narrow that it could only be followed in single file. The two native units made it through the pass without mishap, but as the first regular exited the tunnel the Xhosa attacked. In the battle that followed, the British lost 23 killed and 23 wounded along the pass. The outlying pickets were not as lucky. Fifteen men of the 45th Regiment of Foot were overwhelmed by hundreds of warriors and killed.
It was on Christmas day that all hell broke loose. In the towns of Woburn, Aukland, and Juanasburg seemingly friendly groups of Xhosa came in to enjoy the holiday with the settlers. But at a given signal, the warriors murdered the men who allowed them into their homes. With this attack most of the Ngqika tribes joined the war. The Kaffir Police also threw in their lot with Sandile and went over with their weapons. The only Ngqika chief to remain friendly was Pato (who received the blunt end of The War of the Axe).
All along the frontier the situation was critical, but at Fort White it was desperate. The outpost defended by 120 men of various units, was a fort in name only. Then Captain Mansergh, the officer commanding, went to work. Before the Xhosa could attack, he was able to throw up a defensible earthwork in preparation. When the attack did come, it lasted two days, but the men at Fort White beat back every rush with discipline and valour.
Meanwhile, Harry Smith was besieged at Fort Cox. Somerset tried twice to break through to the fort, but both times he was turned away. He finally got a messenger through to Smith with the advice that Sir Harry should not try to break out with infantry as he would be chopped to bits. Smith took Somerset’s advice and with 250 men of the Cape Mounted Rifles he made the perilous 12 mile ride to King William’s Town.
Now that Smith was free he was ready to take action. The problem was that he didn’t have any men to take action with. The Boers and Burghers were still in a huff over the Orange River affair. The natives of the Kat River settlement, where many of the levies came from, rose up in rebellion. And for the most part, Smith’s regulars were besieged in their forts.
It was not long before British ingenuity began to turn things around. The colonial secretary, Montagu, working without orders, was able to levy a force of Khoikhoi to garrison the frontier forts. This would allow Smith a small field force for offensive actions. At the same time, Somerset was able to put down the Kat River Rebellion when he assaulted and captured Fort Armstrong with a force of loyal Burghers and Cape Mounted Rifles (CMR).
The suppression of this rebellion had some unfortunate repercussions. Many of the men of the CMR were drawn from the Kat River settlement and still had friends and relatives living there. Concern over the treatment of the prisoners captured at Fort Armstrong prompted a large number of the CMR to defect to the rebellion. As a precaution, Smith had the remainder of the corp disarmed, leaving the British with no cavalry.
It was Smith’s feeling that whatever the situation, he must make an offensive showing. With that in mind, he took his infantry and defeated a band of rebels on the Keiskamma River then moved on to Fort Hare. Smith was joined there by Somerset and together they made a foray into the Amatola Mountains. Another rebel force was defeated and Smith rode back to King William’s Town with 1,000 head of enemy cattle.
The next major action took place at Fort Beaufort. Hermanus Matroos, a mixed- blood to whom the government was indebted for prior service, joined the rebels with a substantial force. He boldly attacked the fort but was defeated. In the battle, Hermanus was shot through the head and, without a leader, his army disintegrated.
Smith could not mount a major offensive, but he continued to patrol the bush. The Xhosa and rebels also continued their attacks. They mounted a major assault against the town of Whittlesea. Captain Tylden, R.E. , along with 60 volunteers and 300 Mfengu, fought off a dozen separate attacks before the Xhosa retreated. The defence of Whittlesea has been credited with stopping an all-out invasion of the colony.
By February, 1851, Harry Smith had about 9,000 men in hand, 3,000 of which could be called ‘regulars.’ He was able to resupply forts Cox and White. On his way back from that mission, Smith defeated a large Xhosa army. In March, Sir Harry scored another victory against the Xhosa near Fort White. Two days later he made off with another 1,000 of the enemy’s cattle and returned to King William’s Town.
As Smith was turning things around, a new enemy took the field. Moshesh had built the Basuto nation from the refugees of the Zulu expansion. Up to now they had been British allies but this time Moshesh threw in with the Xhosa. The movement of a large native force close by prompted the Boers to action. In their only engagement of the war, the Boers defeated Moshesh and sent him back to his stronghold.
By May the first reinforcements arrived. The 74th Highlanders were immediately sent to the front. Once there they marched on the rebel stronghold of Theopolis. At the sound of the pipes, the rebels routed off and the 74th scored a bloodless victory.
Smith was now ready to strike at the heart of the Xhosa. With his infantry and a unit of reinstated CMR, Smith made a sweep through the Amatolas destroying crops and capturing cattle. In early July, Somerset went back through the mountains and was chased out only after the Xhosa set fire to the grass. Meanwhile, Smith was beating the Fish River bush as more reinforcements began flowing in.
In August, the 2nd (Queen’s) Infantry arrived followed closely by the 12th. September saw the 60th Rifles and 200 other replacements land. In October the first British cavalry unit, the 12th Lancers took the field.
Somerset spent the next two months cris-crossing the Amatolas, finally driving the Xhosa out to the east. Smith then took an expedition to the Kei River. Despite heavy rains, Harry’s men captured 30,000 head of cattle. Upon his return, Smith sent Somerset back up into the mountains to flush out any remaining Xhosa.
Even though Smith had received his reinforcements, he had not achieved a decisive victory. The Home Government assumed this was the fault of Smith and not his foe. It was therefore decided to replace Sir Harry with Major-General George Cathcart.
In February, 1852, as Harry Smith’s replacement steamed for the Cape, replacements for his infantry were heading for Algoa Bay. On the 25th the steamship Birkenhead struck a rock off Danger Point. As the ship sank, Major Seaton, as ranking officer, paraded the men on deck. The troops, mostly new recruits, fell in and remained in ranks as the lifeboats were loaded with the women and children. They stood silently on parade even as the ship slipped below the waves. In all, 349 men and 14 officers went down with the Birkenhead.
By March the Xhosa had lost 6,000 warriors, 80 chiefs, 80,000 cattle and a vast number of goats. Though the war would drag on for almost another year, the Xhosa would not be able to mount a serious threat to the colony. On the 26th of March, Cathcart took command of the Army of South Africa and early in April Sir Harry Smith sailed for home.
Throughout the next 6 months, the British continued to scour the countryside, evicting bands of Xhosa and Khoikhoi rebels. In November, Cathcart mounted his only major offensive. His target was the Basuto stronghold. He moved into Moshesh’s country with 2,300 men, 3 guns, and some rockets. In the poorly run engagement, the British captured 1,500 cattle. If Moshesh had been willing to press an attack, it is possible that the British could have suffered a defeat as bad as Isandlwana. Moshesh said he had seen the power of the Great Queen and had no wish to quarrel with her. As Cathcart marched back to the colony, the Basuto warriors could be seen dancing around the column wearing the uniforms of dead British soldiers.
In February 1853 Sandile and the other chiefs were ready to surrender. The treaty that followed pushed the Xhosa east of the Amatola Mountains. The natives were forced into a still smaller area while the frontier settlers had to rebuild their farms one more time. The next four years were a time of rebuilding for everyone.
In 1857 the Cape received a new group of settlers. These were the Corps of German Volunteers. They were raised in Britain for the Crimea, but the war ended before they were shipped out. Instead of releasing them to wander about England, they were offered the chance to go to South Africa. They gratefully accepted the offer and 3,000 people, mostly men, moved to the Cape. They arrived fully armed and would be used, if the need arose, as an emergency militia. Many were to join the Frontier Armed And Mounted Police (FAMP) where they performed excellent service.
In the same year, a new prophet came to Xhosaland. A girl named Nonquanse had a vision. If the Xhosa would kill all of their cattle and destroy all of their crops then, on February 18th, 1857, the old chiefs would return with more cattle and grain than thought possible. Also, a great storm would arise which would sweep the white men out into the sea.
The British authorities were able to stop the Gaika tribes before too much damage was done, but for the Galekas it was a disaster. In a 7 month period the population of British Kaffiria dropped by two-thirds. To cope with the problem of cattle rustling that was bound to occur, the Galeka were pushed further east and the vacated land was occupied by Mfengu. In 1869 the Tembu, another Xhosa tribe, suffered from witch- doctor problems. Then in 1873 the Langalibalele Rebellion broke out. Both of the uprisings were controlled by the FAMP.
By the mid 1870’s the fortune’s of the Xhosa hit rock bottom while those of the Mfengu were on the rise. Many of the Xhosa fell victim to drink. In fact, it was an inter- tribal bar-room brawl between Mfengu and Xhosa that turned into the 9th–and final– Cape Frontier War. On the same day as the bar fight, the Galeka attacked a police outpost in the Gwadana Mountains. Even though the outpost was reinforced by a party of Mfengu, it was forced to retreat when their cannon broke down.
On September 29th 8,000 Galeka warriors attacked the police station at Ibeka. With the firepower of breech-loading Snider rifles, the FAMP were able to drive off the Xhosa. On October 9th two more engagements were fought. A troop of FAMP under Major Elliot defeated a minor Xhosa tribe. Meanwhile Inspector Hook had his hands full with the attack on the outpost of Lusizi.
With a force of police and native levies, Colonel Griffith was able to push the Xhosa east, past the Bashee River. Thinking the Xhosa were defeated, Griffith released his levies from service. The Xhosa were only regrouping, however. In December, Sandile and the Ngqika joined the war and several small actions were fought. In one of these, Major Moore, of the Connaught Rangers, won the first Victoria Cross awarded in South Africa while defending a postal convoy.
With the beginning of 1878 the Xhosa suffered two major defeats. At N’Amaxa and Kentani the warriors charged across open ground against British forces in defensive positions. With the increased firepower of the Martini-Henry the British soldiers were able cut down the charging warriors before they could get close. The battle at Kentani ended the war for the Galeka, but Sandile was still on the loose.
The Ngqika Chief was chased through the mountains and down into the Great Fish River bush. It was there, near the outpost of Isidenge, that Sandile was brought down by a stray bullet. Sandile’s son, Siyolo, was killed by a German volunteer shortly thereafter.
The loss of the great chief Sandile brought the last Cape Frontier war to an end. The new leaders of the Xhosa were men educated in the missionary schools, not the hereditary chiefs or witch-doctors of the old days. The ancient and traditional Xhosa way of life had come to the ‘End of the trek.