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South Africa - More Than Zulus And Boers

The Cape Frontier Wars, Part 1

By Chris Ferree

Throughout Britain's involvement in South African affairs there has been turmoil. From 1800 to 1896 there were 14 major campaigns fought by British soldiers. The most popular of these conflicts among the public and wargamers are the Zulu War and the Boer Wars. In fact, the popularity of these three campaigns has over-shadowed the other struggles that took place on the fringes of Cape Colony.

Almost forgotten are the campaigns against Britain's most dangerous foe in South Africa, the Xhosa. All told, the Xhosa were involved in 7 major conflicts (the 3rd through 9th Cape Frontier Wars) against the English. All 9 Cape Frontier Wars (the first two were between the Boers and the Xhosa) covered a period of time from 1781 to 1877.

The Xhosa people originated in central Africa before migrating to the southeast, looking for new pasture, until they reached the sea. Once there, they turned southwest and followed the coast down toward the Cape. While the Xhosa were meandering down the coast, Europeans began building Cape Colony. First the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and finally the British expanded the Colony to the northeast. The main part of Cape Colony's outward expansion was led by the Boers, cattle herders of Dutch origin.

The Xhosa and the Boers met at the Great Fish River. Because both cultures centered around herding cattle, friction between the two was inevitable. The pressure increased as the availability of new grazing land diminished. By 1781 altercations between the Boers and the Xhosa led to a series of large scale cattle raids and skirmishes that were dubbed the First Cape Frontier War. The "war" petered out that same year with the Boers believing that they had pushed the Xhosa back to the east bank of the Fish river.

The "first war" had little effect on the overall situation of the frontier. Both the Boer and the Xhosa were guilty of cattle rustling and retaliations in kind. The uneasy peace lasted until 1793 when a severe drought gripped the land. At the same time the Dutch East India Company was on the verge of bankruptcy, so in order to save money, it pulled its military support back from the frontier. This move left the frontier Boers undefended. In an attempt to shore-up their situation, the Boers arranged a meeting with Ndlambe, the chief of a major Xhosa tribe that lived east of the Great Fish River. The idea behind this meeting was to make an alliance with Ndlambe and destroy the tribes west of the river.

In April of 1793, Barend Lindeque, of the frontier militia, led a small Commando to the appointed meeting place. Ndlambe was there along with all of his warriors,decked-out for battle and putting on an excellent display of their military zeal. Their display was so good that the Commando became frightened and fled, starting panic along the frontier as other Boers abandoned their farms and ran west. The Xhosa followed in their wake, burning farms and stealing cattle. This was the beginning of the "Second Cape Frontier War". Like the first, it amounted to nothing more than skirmishing and large scale cattle theft. By November of 1793 the Second Cape Frontier War fizzled out and a peace treaty was arranged and the status quo maintained.

Three years after the second "war", the British were given the Cape by the Prince of Orange. It was not long before the English style of government began to wear thin on the Boers. In 1799 the frontier Boers broke into open rebellion against the British. This rebellion was not pursued with vigor, however, and the British quickly subdued it.

The British decided that since their troops were already on the frontier, they would firm up the border along the Great Fish River. One patrol encountered Chungwa's tribe of Xhosa. He was asked to move his people to the east side of the river, to which he agreed, but on the patrol's return, the Xhosa were still there. Chungwa was again asked to move east of the river, but this time his answer was noncommittal. Upon this rebuff, the British recalled their reconnaissance patrols, and one of these was ambushed and only 4 of 21 soldiers escaped.

Thus began the Third Cape Frontier War. The commander of the British forces, General Vandelour, did not want to risk his regulars in bush warfare, so he sent most of them back to the Cape. Because of this, the British did not have enough troops to conduct operations against the Xhosa. The Boers were defending their farms as best they could, but they were dangerously short of ammunition and their supply was cut-off during the rebellion. To make matters worse, the Khoi Khoi (Hottentots to the Boers) who had been armed by the Boers to defend the border joined the Xhosa!

The initial response of the British was to fortify their camp at Algoa Bay and let the Boers take on the natives. In May of 1799, a Boer Commando attacked the Xhosa, but was soundly defeated in June. Every European settlement from the Great Fish River to the Outeniqua Mountains was in a state of siege. General Dundas, commander of all British forces on the Cape, was afraid to reinforce the frontier because French warships were seen patrolling off of the Cape.

By August the Xhosa and Khoi Khoi were arguing over the spoils of war. The Khoi Khoi were running low on ammunition and, therefore, bargaining power. The Boers were beginning to get the upper hand. By August General Dundas was able to send 800 reinforcements to the frontier. As the Xhosa dispersed with their booty and the Europeans were building up, missionaries were making inroads toward peace.

On October 16, 1799 a peace treaty was signed. The treaty basically left things as they were before the war. The peace did not last long, however. The rebel Khoi Khoi trusted neither the British nor the Boers. The Boers were still being closely guarded by the British. The British again pulled their troops off the frontier, and the Xhosa went back to their practice of periodic cattle raiding. The situation deteriorated over the next two years and by February 1802 the Boers were allowed to field a Commando to meet the Xhosa. In a 36 hour battle, the Boers lost all of their cattle and the commandant even had his gun stolen.

Things were not going well for the Boers and they were about to get worse. In March of 1802 the Treaty Of Amiens was signed, which gave Cape Colony back to the Dutch. By August British officials at the Cape received word of the treaty. During September British forces were withdrawn from the frontier. As the British left, the Xhosa came in. By the end of the year the frontier was aflame. Nearly one third of the farms in the region were destroyed and at least as much of the population had fled to the west. About the only Boers left on the frontier were besieged in an abandoned British fort.

The Dutch, or The Batavian Republic at this time, arrived at the Cape on December 23, 1802. They brought only one regiment of infantry, the Waldeck, with them. Upon their arrival, the Batavian government ordered a cease-fire and an uneasy peace followed. The problems that the new government faced were great. Ndlambe's tribe of Xhosa were well established on the west side of the Great Fish River. On the East side was Ngqika's tribe. The two tribes were hostile towards one another. The Khoi Khoi were less than excited about the prospect of return to quasi-enslavement under Dutch rule. The Boers didn't like any of the natives except as free labor. In addition to their other problems, the Batavian government had neither the money nor the manpower to enforce much of anything.

Their new government's first action was to sign a peace treaty with Ngqika which established the Great Fish River as the border between Xhosaland and Cape Colony. To facilitate better control of the frontier, the town of Uitenhage was built in the area. Ludwig Alberti was made the landrost of the frontier. He was able to keep the peace by playing the Xhosa tribes against one another and by 1805 had greatly improved the situation on the frontier.

In 1805 the Napoleonic Wars flared up again. By July, the British had discovered a new use for Cape Colony, aside from keeping it out of French hands. The plan was to make the Cape a storehouse for goods bound for Britain coming from the East and South America. With this in mind, they sent out a fleet of 61 ships and 7,000 soldiers to retake Cape Colony. On January 5, 1806 the British landed and after a short battle Capetown was theirs, though it wasn't until March 1807 that the last Batavian official left the colony.

With their troops tied up in the Peninsular Campaign, Britain had no one to spare for the Cape frontier and, unfortunately, the British were unable to control the Xhosa or the Boers. Over the next four years the Xhosa pushed westward. Again, the Boers were compelled to abandon their homes and flee and by the end of 1811 the situation could no longer be ignored.

In December a British force reached the frontier. Their mission was to move Ndlambe's Xhosa east of the Great Fish River. Ndlambe was under the impression that he had purchased the land from the Boers, so he saw no reason to move. Tensions rose during the stalemate and it was not long before hostilities broke out. A party of Boers going to a parley with Ndlambe was ambushed and massacred. A British delegation almost suffered the same fate. However, General Graham, the commander of the frontier forces, was able to fast talk his way out of the situation, but did not sit idly by.

Graham sent his Boers and Khoi Khoi (of the newly formed Cape Frontier Regiment) into the bush. The nervous Boers would shoot at anything that moved n the bush and after 5 days they had managed to "bag" a dozen Xhosa. More important than the casualties, the assault on the bush captured the Xhosa's cattle. Also, Chungwa, the chief second only to Ndlambe west of the river, was killed. The loss of their cattle and a great chief disheartened the Xhosa and they began moving east of the Great Fish River. British patrols hounded the retreating natives, confiscated their cattle and destroyed their crops. In a little over 2 months the Fourth Cape Frontier War was over.

For the first time, the Xhosa were pushed east of the Great Fish River. The British built 20 military outposts along the river. Grahamstown was built as the military headquarters for the frontier. Tempers flared again in 1813 as a drought gripped the Cape and a Boer Commando was ordered up and made a half-hearted sweep through the frontier. The situation soon cooled and no other military action was needed.

By 1817 the Napoleonic Wars were over and Britain could now secure its frontier on the Cape, but this time they were going to seek a diplomatic solution. The Governor of Cape Colony, Lord Somerset, met with the principal chiefs of the frontier region to write a treaty. By it, Ngqika was made responsible for issuing passes to tribesmen wishing to enter Cape Colony and stopping his Xhosa from stealing cattle. This was a job that no one man, or tribe for that matter, could handle.

By the end of the year there was no improvement in the situation so a Boer Commando was sent out to chastize Ndlambe. The Xhosa chief, a well informed and capable leader, hid his cattle and laid a trap for the commando. The Boers recognized the trap and broke off the attack, then as while returning to their farms, the Boers lifted about 2,000 cattle from Ngqika, their ally. This action by the Boers showed the Xhosa that Ngqika's support was nominal at best. The Xhosa chiefs thought the time was ripe to increase their power.

Throughout 1818 the Xhosa built a strong alliance against Ngqika and in October the fighting began. Ngqika's army met the combined forces of the other Xhosa chiefs at the battle of Amaline. In the one-sided battle Ngqika's army was almost totally destroyed and Ngqika was forced to flee to the British for protection and help. By December another commando was assembled to chastise Ndlambe. When the force arrived at Ndlambe's Great Place, they found it deserted. The Xhosa had taken their cattle and disappeared into the bush.

It was now up to Lieutenant Colonel Brereton to get the Xhosa out of the bush. He decided to randomly fire his cannon in to the jungle. The cannonade caused few, if any, casualties to the Xhosa. However, it caused the cattle to stampede and the commando was able to round up 10,000 head in the attack. In a follow-up attack the British led commando captured another 13,000 cattle. The loss was a staggering blow to Ndlambe's people.

A Xhosa wise man once said, "For every cow you take from our country you make a thief." By Christmas Day 1818, there were about 23,000 new cattle thieves on the frontier.

The Xhosa began cattle raiding on a large scale. By the end of January 1819 they had reclaimed all of the land lost in the 1812 treaty. Again, the farmers abandoned their homes and fled to the towns and the military outposts were kept busy just defending themselves. The Fifth Cape Frontier War was now underway in earnest.

For the British, reinforcements were at least a month away. In addition, their commander, Brereton, was given permission to take leave and was on his way back to London as the Xhosa came rushing into the Colony. Luckily for the frontier, Lieutenant Colonel Willshire was on a ship lying in the harbor. Willshire, a light infantry officer, was familiar with the tactics of bush warfare and had some idea of how to conduct the campaign. He began assembling his troops at Grahamstown in April in hopes that he could march out in May.

Willshire had a total of 532 men and two guns on hand by the later half of April. It was about this time that a report was received of a sizable force of Xhosa in the area. The British commander sent out 100 men on an extended patrol to find the natives. Then, on the 21st of April, a Xhosa messenger arrived telling Willshire that they would "breakfast" in Grahamstown tomorrow.

Even with this ominous message, Willshire did nothing to prepare the town for attack. On the morning of April 22, 1819 Ndlambe's Xhosa army began forming up for a three pronged attack on the heights over-looking Grahamstown. Two divisions were to make a frontal assault and the third division a flank attack. A fourth division was left in reserve and to watch for the absent patrol. The Xhosa took two hours preparing for the battle, which allowed the British time to deploy. The women and children were moved into the barracks, the only building big enough to house them all. Willshire was also able to deploy his troops with the support of overhead fire from his guns.

The Xhosa began their charge at noon. As they came howling down the hill towards the small creek, the British opened fire with everything they had. The flash of the cannon would momentarily startle the Xhosa, but they kept on coming. The British infantry was pushed back to their guns and the Xhosa were breaking into the barracks. Things looked bleak for the defenders.

As the Xhosa closed in for the kill, a renowned Khoi Khoi big game hunter, Boesak, and his 130 men arrived on the scene. The hunting party began picking off the Xhosa leaders. The unexpected relief rejuvenated the British, who redoubled their efforts. The Xhosa, caught off guard, broke and ran. The British were able to pursue only a short distance before Ndlambe's broken host melted into the bush. The British lost 3 men killed and 5 wounded in the battle. Xhosa casualties were estimated between 1,000 and 2,000.

The loss at Grahamstown broke the Xhosa spirit. As they retired back to the east, they were harried by British patrols which showed them no mercy. Men, women, and children all fell victim to reprisals. Their cattle were stolen and the Xhosa were pushed back across the Keiskamma River starving and homeless.

The Fifth Cape Frontier War was over. By treaty the border between Cape Colony and Xhosaland became the Keiskamma River. From this time on the Xhosa's actions would take on a more desperate tone.

To Be Continued...

Next month's article will recount events of the 6th through 9th Cape Frontier Wars with notes on Xhosa tactics, weaponry, and dress.

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