Xhosa warrior-prophet Makhanda attacks Grahamstown

April 22 marks the bicentenary of the attack on the British garrison in Grahamstown, led by warrior-prophet, Makhanda, in whose honour the town has now been renamed.

April 22 marks the bicentenary of the attack on the British garrison in Grahamstown, led by warrior-prophet, Makhanda, in whose honour the town has now been renamed.

The attack on Grahamstown was an early phase of the century-long Xhosa struggle to hold onto their lands in the face of colonial encroachment.

This article was originally written in Pretoria Local Prison as part of a clandestine collection to mark what the ANC declared the Year of the Spear in 1979, a century after the Zulu defeat of the British at Isandlwana.

In 1819, Makhanda, the Xhosa warrior-prophet, united a large body of the western Xhosa to expel the British who had recently invaded their territory and caused much misery.

By the beginning of the 19th century the Xhosa had split into a number of separate chiefdoms. While Hintsa the Gcaleka chief (and direct descendant of Xhosa and Mnguni, the earliest ancestors) might have been consulted on matters of custom, for all practical purposes, the separate chiefdoms were quite independent of one another.

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The tendency towards fission – to break up into segments – is connected to the polygynous marriage system. While the eldest son of the “great wife” of the chief was supposed to succeed him, the sons of the “right-hand” and other wives also acquired their own followings. They were consequently sometimes in a position to challenge the authority or succession of the lawful heir. That is why the Xhosa say, as recorded by Tiyo Soga, that “Polygamy enlarges [population] but assegais are its progeny.”

Where tensions did not lead to the lawful heir being directly challenged (or often, as a result of an unsuccessful challenge) the sons of junior wives might trek with their followers to empty land or areas populated by Khoi who might be relatively easily dispossessed. The fact that the Bantu-speaking people were pastoralists (as well as agriculturalists and hunters) meant that migration was not difficult. So long as there was land available, intra-tribal tensions might often have been most easily resolved in this way.

By the early 19th century, however, it was no longer easy to trek. To the east there was already intense population pressure, and this was one of the factors promoting the rise of large militarist states like the Zulu and the subsequent dislocation known as the difaqane/mfecane, which sent refugees in all directions, including westwards.

But more problematic was the gradual eastward migration of the trekboers, whose need for pasturage brought them into early conflict with the Xhosa. The earliest wars waged by Boers against the minor westernmost Xhosa tribes were inconclusive. It was only after 40 years of stubborn resistance and with direct British intervention in 1812, that 20 000 Xhosa, at the precise moment of their harvest, were driven over the Fish River.

A representation of Grahamstown as it appeared in 1823. (Image courtesy of Gallo Images)

Ndlambe and Ngqika

One of the last of the Xhosa to be forced back were the followers of Ndlambe. They had previously fled westwards after disputes with Ngqika (known as Gaika to the white colonists) – nephew of Ndlambe.

It did not take long before these old disputes and fresh ones resulting from over-crowding, brought Ngqika and Ndlambe into renewed conflict. The colonial authorities were not directly involved in this friction, but they appear to have increased intra-tribal jealousies by their decision to treat Ngqika as the only Xhosa chief. This, in spite of his initially indicating that he had no power over the other chiefs and that Hintsa, if anyone, was the “paramount chief”. Yet Governor Somerset insisted that any Xhosa wanting to trade or deal in any way with the colony or colonists would require permits from Ngqika.


At this time, Makhanda, son of Bulala, a Xhosa commoner, had risen to prominence and leadership of the western Xhosa and large sections of the Gcaleka, through his reputation as a prophet, his general wisdom and moral sway. Although not a chief, he came to exercise powers similar to one, under the rule of Ndlambe.

In Xhosa society, like all Bantu-speaking peoples at the time, rank was determined by birth, so that it is exceptional in itself that a man who made no pretensions to royal birth could exercise such influence.

Leaders of “traditional” societies are usually depicted as conservative and inward-looking. While Makhanda was first and foremost a Xhosa leader concerned to maintain the integrity of the Xhosa people in the face of colonial attack, he was, nevertheless, keen to learn and use what he could of the teachings of missionaries and other “agents” of colonialism. Although he never adopted Christianity, he spent much time arguing about Christian teachings with Van der Kemp and other missionaries and listened carefully to their sermons, especially on the resurrection.

When in Grahamstown, Makhanda also spent much time discussing warfare with the colonial soldiers. When it came to a full-scale assault on the colonial garrison, it was Makhanda who prepared the strategy and he introduced significant tactical innovations. Quite independently of Shaka, in addition to the throwing spear, he used the short stabbing spear in close quarters. Since he had only one opportunity – and unlike Shaka, against colonial troops – to test its efficacy, nothing came of it.

African warfare is often depicted as primitive charging with wild cries and little else. Yet Makhanda also developed an extensive intelligence and courier system. Before the battle of Amalinde (when Ndlambe/Makhanda trapped and routed Ngqika in 1818), Ngqika’s precise route to the battleground was made known to Makhanda. Similarly, Ngqika’s special messenger to the Grahamstown garrison provided Makhanda with up-to-date information on the exact disposition of the British forces, and the lay-out of their garrison. Furthermore, this man, on Makhanda’s instructions, provided the colonial troops with disinformation which sent about one-fifth of the garrison off in a direction which took them away for the duration of the 1819 battle.

Makhanda did not want the dispute with Ngqika to develop into warfare. He sought to achieve a consolidation of the western Xhosa and it was only when this failed that he threw his support behind Ndlambe. So great was his influence, that all the other western Xhosa as well as Hintsa’s Gcaleka were ranged against Ngqika.

The battle of Amalinde and colonial intervention

Before Ngqika fell into Makhanda’s ambush, he was warned by Ntsikana, one of his councillors, later to be regarded as one of the most famous Christian converts:

“Listen, son of Umlawu, to the words of the servant of God and do not cross the Keiskamma. I see the Gaikas [Ngqikas] scattered on the mountains, I see their heads devoured by ants. The enemy is watching there, and defeat awaits your plumed ones.”

That is exactly what happened. The Ngqika were thoroughly routed. Ngqika’s power appeared to be broken but when he fled he sent to the nearest military post urgently requesting aid.

Thomas Pringle wrote in the 1830s:

“No aggression [was] committed by them [the Ndlambes] upon the colonial territory … There was, therefore, not the slightest pretext for our interference … the quarrel being entirely upon matters proper to the politics of the tribe, with which the colony had no concern.

“But unhappily the colonial government thought otherwise. They had declared Gaika the paramount chief or king of  [the Xhosa], and sovereign it was determined he should be …”

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The colonial troops crossed the Fish river in December 1818 with a mixed force of infantry and mounted farmers. They were joined by Ngqika in attacking the Ndlambe.

At their approach Ndlambe protested at the unprovoked invasion, declaring that he was anxious to remain at peace with the colony, though he was not prepared to submit to Ngqika. The expedition ignored this plea and marched forward, butchering or driving the ordinary people into the woods, while 23 000 head of cattle were plundered.

Much of these cattle was divided between Ngqika and those burghers who had “suffered from depredation” while the rest was sold to meet the expenses of the expedition. On reaching Grahamstown, the burghers were disbanded and allowed to return to their homes.

The battle of Grahamstown

Meanwhile, despite heavy losses Ndlambe’s power had not been broken and he was quick to retaliate, driving Ngqika into the mountains. The main object was, however, to respond to the colonial aggression. Makhanda saw that this could not be achieved, as Pringle says, “by mere marauding incursions”. He planned a decisive blow, persuading wide sections of the Xhosa, including many of Hintsa’s followers, to unite their forces for a simultaneous attack on Grahamstown. Pringle writes:

“He told them that he was sent by Uhlanga, the Great Spirit, to avenge their wrongs, that he had power to call up from the grave the spirits of their ancestors to assist them in battle against the English … whom they should drive, before they stopped, across the Zwartkops river and into the ocean ‘and then’ said the prophet ‘we will sit down and eat honey!’”

Reinforcing this early Africanist message, Thomas Pringle’s poem, Makanna’s gathering records that they advanced in the spirit of a crusade. They sang that they came:

To chase the white men from the earth
And drive them to the sea.
The sea that cast them up at first
For AmaXhosa’s curse and bane
Howls for the progeny she nursed
To swallow them again.

Makhanda and Dushane (Ndlambe’s son) mustered an army of 10 000 men and then sent a message of defiance to the British commander – “that they would breakfast with him next morning.” The challenge was not taken seriously, and the garrison was not fully prepared for the attack. Despite their fire power, which caused heavy Xhosa losses, they were not able to have their own way until the chance arrival of Khoi members of the “Hottentot corps”, turned the tide decisively in favour of the garrison. Eventually the attackers were forced to retreat, leaving 700 to 1 500 dead, with a handful of colonial losses.

A welcome-sign at the Grey Street entrance to Grahamstown in the 1960s. (Photograph courtesy of Gallo Images)

Colonial losses and the surrender of Makhanda

“This formidable attempt,” writes Pringle, “altogether unprecedented” in warfare against Africans, “alarmed the colonial Government, and awakened all its vengeance.” A large force of British, Khoi and Boer troops fell on Ndlambe. Villages were burnt, cattle carried off, fields of maize and millet trodden down and all inhabitants were targets to be shot.

Matters did not end there. The war continued because the colonial government wanted Ndlambe, Makhanda and other leaders dead or alive. Though starving, the tribespeople refused to betray the whereabouts of their leaders. But Makhanda himself decided to surrender, telling the colonial military leader, Stockenstrom:

“People say that I have occasioned the war: let me see whether my delivering myself up to the conquerors will restore peace to my country.”

Makhanda was sent to Robben Island (for life imprisonment) where he drowned a year later, in 1820, attempting to escape in a boat, together with rebel slaves and others held for political offences. Most of the others escaped and they recorded:

“… that Makana clung for some time to a rock, and that his deep sonorous voice was heard loudly cheering on those who were struggling with the billows until he was swept off and engulfed by the raging surf”.

“The war, British chiefs, is an unjust one”

Meanwhile, shortly after Makhanda’s arrest, some of his councillors approached the British troops with a plea for his release, and in a full statement, outlined their view of the conflict:

“The war, British chiefs, is an unjust one; for you are striving to extirpate a people whom you forced to take up arms. When our fathers and the fathers of the Boers first settled in the Zuurveld, they dwelt together in peace. Their flocks grazed on the same hills; they were brothers – until the herds of the AmaXhosa increased so as to make the hearts of the Boers sore. What these covetous men could not get from our fathers for old buttons they took by force …

“We lived in peace [with the Colony] … [To Ngqika] you sent … copper; you sent him beads; you sent him horses … To us, you sent only commandoes …”

“We quarrelled with Gaika [Ngqika] about grass – no business of yours. You sent a commando – you took our last cows – you left only a few calves, which died for want, along with our children … Without milk – our corn destroyed  – we saw our wives and children perish – we saw that we must ourselves perish; we followed, therefore, the tracks of our cattle into the colony … [W]e attacked your headquarters – and if we had succeeded our right was good, for you began the war. We failed – and you are here.

“We wish for peace; we wish to rest in our huts; we wish to get milk for our children; our wives wish to till the land. But your troops cover the plains, and swarm in the thickets, where they cannot distinguish men from the women and shoot all.

“You want us to submit to Gaika … Leave him to himself. Make peace with us … Set Makanna at liberty; and the rest will come to make peace with you ….”

Colonial intervention ended on an ironic note. Having re-established Ngqika’s authority, Governor Somerset decided to move the frontier eastward into Xhosa territory. This was done simply enough –  by grabbing some of the best land of their ally, Ngqika.

Author’s Note: This article does not take account of recent scholarship not available to me at the time of writing. Also, I would now be more careful about who is encompassed by the designation “Xhosa”.

A reworked welcome-sign at the Grey Street entrance to Grahamstown in 2019. (Photograph by Daylin Paul)
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