The lost history of the Griqua

The Griqua, who trekked from the Cape and settled before the boers pushed them off the land, suffered a defeat at the hands of the Ndebele and faded from the history books – until now.

In the moonlight on an early winter’s evening in 1831, a commando celebrated victory after what they saw as the end of a successful raid. Their fires dotted the plain below a small conical-shaped hill, as they feasted on some of the cattle they had seized. In just a couple of days, they would be back safely across the Vaal River, rich with the herds of cattle they had plundered.

For days the horsemen had met little resistance as they swept through Ndebele territory collecting thousands of head of cattle. King Mzilikazi’s feared army was nowhere in sight. But as the men enjoyed Ndebele beef, some of the women prisoners – glad to be free from the hold of Mzilikazi – approached a captain of the commando named Gert Hooyman.

The women warned him that while Mzilikazi’s main army was away, his older veterans were still around and they would come for them at night. Hooyman was ridiculed when he suggested the men set up pickets. Instead, they went back to their revelry and, the story goes, feasted until after midnight.

Perhaps a sharp-eyed sentry on top of the hill that night might have noticed the impi quietly surrounding the camp. The impi crept to within 200m of the sleeping men before they were spotted. By then, it was too late. The veteran regiment surged through the camp stabbing and clubbing the men, some of them still under their kaross blankets.

By daybreak, as many as a thousand men lay dead. In years to come, travellers visiting the site spoke of the veld white with skeletons. That conical-shaped hill that today sits in the heart of the North West province’s platinum belt was given the name Moordkop, meaning murder hill.

2 October 2019: Moordkop is seen in the background from a T-junction leading to Marikana, about 20km away. In 1831, close to a thousand Griqua were killed when King Mzilikazi’s Ndebele attacked them after they raided cattle.

Griqua commando

Today, there is no memorial on Moordkop listing the dead. The battle, one of the most surprising victories in South African history, has been forgotten and the reason for this, say historians, is that the defeated commando was not white but black.  

It was a Griqua commando, made up of men of mixed ancestry. Like so much of the Griqua story, the battle of Moordkop has been drowned out by other, competing South African histories. Once the Griqua were a major force on the South African frontier, occupying territory just north of the Orange River, centred around the town of Philippolis.

Just like the boers, they had trekked from the Cape and by the 19th century had set up states in the interior of South Africa and Namibia. Little distinguished them from their fellow white frontiersmen and women. They were pastoral, wore the same wide-brimmed hats, carried firearms and centred their lives around the church. But during the course of the 19th century, the Griqua were squeezed slowly off their land by encroaching boers and the discovery of diamonds. Some of the Griqua were forced to move on.  

In 1861, Griqua leader Adam Kok III led his people on a trek to the southern foothills of the Drakensberg after they gave their land to the new boer state of the Orange Free State. His rival, Nicholaas Waterboer, who ruled near Kimberley, was able to prevent being absorbed into the Free State by getting the British to annex his land in 1871.

The marginalisation of the Griqua had begun, says author and historian Edward Cavanagh. “The Griqua people are non-conformers in South African historiography because their experiences were so different to others upon the loss of their political autonomy between the abandonment of Philippolis and the dispersal of the Kokstad Griquas,” he explains.  

 “After commanding such heights in the 19th-century story, the Griqua people never found their own special place in the state’s classificatory system, and were usually believed to fall under the umbrella of ‘coloured’ throughout the 20th century.”

During apartheid, the Griqua were further marginalised when they were not given “Griquastans” or special territorial reserves. But in the decades post 1994, there has been a revival in not only Griqua culture but also in history. Griqua historians in South Africa and Namibia are digging into their past and telling their stories.

2 October 2019: The Griqua met little resistance from the Ndebele while raiding, but the veterans of King Mzilikazi’s army were waiting for the cover of night to attack.

Oral history

But collecting these histories can be difficult.

“The challenges of writing Griqua history will be to find new materials, particularly when it comes to the second half of the 20th century. Oral history will be important in this endeavour,” says Cavanagh. “Careful oral history, undertaken now, has the potential to add more texture to the recent Griqua past.”

Chester Meyer is of Griqua descent and has taken up the challenge of exploring a different kind of oral history. Meyer wrote his thesis for his magister musicae degree on Griqua hymnody. He discovered how these hymns contained snippets of history, and some have their origins from the time of the missionaries.

“Sometimes it is not historically correct, but it is what they believe,” says Meyer. “It is interesting how the Griqua don’t just connect with more recent leaders like Andries le Fleur but also with their Adam Kok roots as well.”

Most of Griqua history is dominated by their better-known leaders, the likes of Adam Kok III, Nicholas Waterboer and Andries le Fleur. But there are other “volk” whose histories are waiting to be told.

One of these groups is the Barends Griqua. The founding father of the Barends Griqua was Barend Barends, who led that ill-fated commando massacred at Moordkop. The current leader of the Barend Griqua is Captain Chris Pienaar and he admits he knows little about his ancestor and the battle of Moordkop. 

2 October 2019: Before being pushed off the land, the Griqua dominated the territory north of the Orange River. Today, there is no memorial to mark the place where almost a thousand people died.

Story of a leader

One man who does though is Bart de Graaff, a Dutch historian and author who soon will be launching his biography of the Griqua leader Barends. From what De Graaff has learned, Barends believed he was doing God’s work when he crossed the Vaal River with the largest Griqua commando ever seen. He had in his command 300 Griqua horsemen, supported by 700 Koranna footsoldiers. Barends had come to deliver the Tswana from the Ndebele.  

“He had told his men to kill as many Ndebele as possible in the name of God and Christianity,” says De Graaff. But Barends’ religious quest to rid the world of Mzilikazi was forgotten when ill health forced the ageing leader to leave his commando and set up camp at a mission station near present day Mogwase.

Without Barends, the Griqua began raiding cattle rather than seeking out Mzilikazi. Only three men escaped the Ndebele night attack, and they were able to tell Barends about the terrible defeat.

“It was quite disastrous for Barends, who was one of the most important Griqua chiefs, as some of his most influential backers left and went over to Andries Waterboer. Only a couple of families remained loyal to him,” says De Graaff.

Barends was to suffer a further loss at the hands of his archrival, Mzilikazi. A few years after Moordkop, his granddaughter Truide was captured by the Ndebele. Truide was forced into Mzilikazi’s royal harem. Years later, English explorer William Harris mentioned meeting Truide when he visited the Ndebele king. He wrote in his diary how she burst into tears when she heard her mother tongue of Afrikaans spoken. “It must have been the final humiliation of Barend Barends,” says De Graaff.

2 October 2019: The Griqua were on a religious mission to rid the world of King Mzilikazi. But after their leader fell ill, they began raiding cattle instead.

The land now

Today, Moordkop is just a name on a 1:50 000 topographical map. Nothing remains of the battle that was once fought here. Those who live in the area have heard that something terrible happened around the hill.  

“The problem is that you can’t read about this history,” laments John Motlhagodi, the owner of the farm on which Moordkop stands.

Also lost in the saga of Moordkop and Barends is the fate of his granddaughter, Truide. She might have been rescued by the famed missionary Robert Moffat, but it is unclear. There are plans to approach the Ndebele in Zimbabwe to learn more about their clashes with the Griqua. Perhaps hidden in Ndebele oral history is the story of Truide.

“It is fascinating to think that with Truide, our blood probably flows through the tribe that fought us all that time ago,” says Meyer.  

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