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The Kaffir Wars

First Kaffir War1779-1781
Second Kaffir War1793
Third Kaffir War1799-1802
Fourth Kaffir War1811-1812
Fifth Kaffir WarWar of Nxele or Makana1818-1819
Sixth Kaffir WarHintsa's War1834-1835
Seventh Kaffir WarWar of the Axe1846-1847
Eighth Kaffir WarWar of Mlanjeni1850-1853
Ninth Kaffir War1877-1878
The word "kaffir," originally used by Arab slavers to denote unbelievers or heathens, came to be used in nineteenth-century South Africa to refer to any Bantu, particularly a member of the Xhosa tribe. In the 20th Century the term Kaffir became a slur, and eventually politically incorrect. The Kaffir Wars, also referred to as the Xhosa Wars and the Cape Frontier Wars, were a series of conflicts from 1779 to 1879, the precise number of which is uncertain but generally counted as nine, fought along the eastern border of the Cape Colony between settlers of Dutch and British origin and the the Xhosa people.

Also known as "Africa's 100 Years War", these different conflicts were a series of flare-ups in one long war of attrition - the longest in the history of colonialism in Africa. These Kaffir Wars are distinguished by the unwillingness of the colonial rulers, Dutch or British, to side with the Boers, and they made repeated attempts to prevent fighting by setting up borders and lands that were off-limits to settlers.

The history of the Kaffir Wars teaches that even European troops were not always sufficiently steeled against the displays of warlike savagery of the Xhosa. But the South African Boers developed from their Kaffir wars a force of cavalry capable of defending itself stubbornly and capable of attacking on a small scale, but not of pressing an attack on foot against sturdy resistance, nor yet of combining shock with fire tactics.

Each of the Frontier Wars and all of the historical sites have stories and legends attached to them. Of particular interest is the disaster of the Great Cattle Killing that followed the Ninth War. The Xhosa people were persuaded by a prophetess to slaughter their livestock. The whereabouts of the head of Hintsa, the Xhosa Chief beheaded during the Sixth Frontier War, is still a matter of heated speculation today - it is believed it was sent to Britain and the Xhosa people are still lobbying for its return. While the causes of the Seventh Frontier War can be attributed to increasing tension and friction caused by murders, cattle raiding, racism, cultural differences, mutual distrust, misunderstanding and the hunger for land, it is called the "War of the Axe". The theft of an axe by a leader named Tsili from a store in Fort Beaufort sparked the conflict. He was arrested and, together with three other prisoners, sent to Grahamstown under escort. To prevent escape, Tsili was handcuffed to a Khoi-San prisoner. En route, the party was ambushed, the Khoi-San's hand was lopped off and the prisoner escaped. This incident sparked off another war, one that saw the British and Colonial forces suffer a serious defeat, losing more than 60 heavily laden wagons at the Battle of Boomer Pass.

The so-called Kaffirs were a tall and warlike people, in no way resembling the Hottentots. The Dutch fought with them for many years, and in 1780 had succeeded in driving them beyond the Great Fish River. But they often came back: and there was no little difficulty in maintaining this river as the boundary. They dwelt mostly to the east of the colony: and as the colonists approached their borders, the Kaffirs stole their cattle : and this went on so much that it was made lawful to shoot the Kaffirs whenever they were taken in the act of cattle-stealing. The colonists also adopted a system of reprisals, by which they stole the cattle of the Kaffirs.

The British attempted to alleviate the land problems of Boers in the eastern Cape by sending imperial armies against the Xhosa of the Zuurveld (literally, "sour grassland," the southernmost area of Bantu-speaking settlement, located between the Sundays River and the Great Fish River). They attacked the Xhosa from 1799 to 1803, from 1811 to 1812, and again from 1818 to 1819, when at last, through ruthless warfare, they succeeded in expelling the Africans into the area north of the Great Fish River.

In 1818, English troops to the number of three or four thousand entered Kaffirland, and took possession of a large frontier tract; and there was another invasion ten years afterwards. Thereafter, the British sought to create a fixed frontier by settling 5,000 British-assisted immigrants on smallholder farms created out of land seized from the Xhosa south of the Great Fish River and by clearing all lands between the Great Fish River and the Keiskama River of all forms of African settlement.

In 1820, several thousand British settlers, who were swept up by a scheme to relieve Britain of its unemployed, were placed in the eastern Cape frontier zone as a buffer against the Xhosa chiefdoms. The vision of a dense settlement of small farmers was, however, ill-conceived and many of the settlers became artisans and traders. The more successful became an entrepreneurial class of merchants, large-scale sheep farmers and speculators with an insatiable demand for land. Some became fierce warmongers who pressed for the military dispossession of the chiefdoms.

They coveted Xhosa land and welcomed the prospect of war involving large-scale military expenditure by the imperial authorities. The Xhosa engaged in raiding as a means of asserting their prior claims to the land. Racial paranoia became integral to white frontier politics. The result was that frontier warfare became endemic through much of the 19th century, during which Xhosa war leaders such as Chief Maqoma became heroic figures to their people. By the mid-1800s, British settlers of similar persuasion were to be found in Natal. They, too, called for imperial expansion in support of their land claims and trading enterprises.

The Boers felt further threatened when, in 1834 and 1835, British forces, attempting to put a final stop to Boer-Xhosa frontier conflict, swept across the Keiskama River into Xhosa territory and annexed all the land up to the Keiskama River for white settlement. The greatest Kaffir war broke out in 1835, when 10,000 fighting men invaded the colony, sweeping over the Eastern Province, and striking a panic into Capetown itself. In 1836, however, the British government, partly in response to missionary criticism of the invasion, returned the newly annexed lands to the Xhosa and sought a peace treaty with their chiefs.

The English endeavoured to treat the Kaffirs fairly and humanely, and to make the Dutch do the same. The Dutch boer, however, can not understand why this should be, and he hated the English for coercing him into it. The boers all over South Africa had the same characteristics. They were ignorant and grasping; and as regards the Kaffirs they had a doctrine which completely satisfied themselves, though it did not satisfy any other of the parties concerned in the question. They were stern Calvinists, and held the Bible as their only moral law. When the English remonstrated with them, they turn to the five books of Moses, and point to the passages where the people of Israel were commanded to go in and possess the land, and to drive out the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. "Ye shall utterly drive out the inhabitants thereof. Ye shall make no covenant with them nor show any mercy unto them. The Lord hath given the land for an inheritance to you and to your children."

In this blind stubbornness had the Dutch Boers went on, forgetting that they were in the midst of a land which was far from being conquered from the inhabitants, who were a numerous and warlike people, and gradually learning the use of fire-arms. Their treatment of the natives often provoked hostility to all white people ; and although in most parts of South Africa the natives fully understood the difference between the English and the Dutch, in the case of a general rising against the Dutch the English settlers would be seriously endangered. It was this, besides motives of common justice and humanity, which lea England, however unwillingly, to keep her hand upon the Dutch wherever they go.

Frontier Country in the Eastern Cape Province is aptly named; nine frontier wars were fought in the area over almost a century between 1779 and 1878. These wars are now referred to as the First to the Ninth Frontier Wars respectively. Some have other appellations, such as the War of the Axe (7th), the War of Nxele or Makana (4th), Hintsa's War (6th) and the War of Mlanjeni (8th). Some of the names are a little misleading; while the theft of an axe was the spark which ignited the 7th Frontier War, it was not the cause, but of such incidents and anecdotes are legends made! The real causes were of a more complex nature.

For a great many years frontier wars were the principal features of Cape history, and it is by them that South Africa was for more than fifty years best known in England. As the settlers of 1820 advanced along the frontier, their scattered farm-houses, with their flocks and herds, were so many tempting baits held before the marauding Kaffirs, with whom 'cattle lifting' was an ordinary accomplishment. Sometimes the struggle between the races assumed the proportions of a regular campaign, at other times it was simply a local raid and an individual act of reprisal.

The periods between the wars were only relatively peaceful, witnessing minor skirmishing, murders and stock theft and the building of forts, garrisons, military posts and signal towers. Many of these remain today as ruins and sites in various degrees of restoration. Military villages were established, such as Woburn, Auckland, Ely, Juanasberg, Kempt and Fredericksburg. A number of farmsteads were fortified, notably Septon Manor, Barville Park and Heatherton Towers.

The Kaffirs continued from the mid-18th Century to spread rapidly over the country along the banks of the Great Fish River. And, the game being plentifid in the very extensive bush surrounding that locality, they attempted to settle on the south-west of that river, being a part of the district, originally ceded to the first Dutch settlers, and which was claimed, and had been partly taken possession of, by them.

In the year 1780, their governor, Plettenberg, then at the head of the colony, succeeded in fixing formally, and with the consent of the Kaffirs, the colonial boundary at the Fish River; and the district south of that river, now known as "Albany," was colonized by the Dutch boers, who hired the Kaffirs to live among them at cattle-herdsmen and servants. A quarrel however arose between them, and ended in an insurrection of the latter. Having expelled the Dutch from their farms, and taken forcible possession of them and of the adjoining country, to about a hundred miles inland, the Kaffirs commenced and extended their predatory devastations throughout its whole extent, that is to say, so far south as the Gamtoo or Sunday River, 38 miles north of Algoa Bay. The revolutionary war which was being carried on in Europe at this period, prevented the Dutch home Government from sending out troops to the aid of their colonists at the Cape.

Colonists formed themselves in 'burgher commandoes' for the purpose of punishing the Kaffirs, and such commandoes were levied in 1819, 1823, 1829, 1830.

Sixth Kaffir War

The first formidable rising of the Kaffir tribes took place in 1834, when it was calculated that no fewer than 30,000 Kaffirs, under their chiefs Macomo and Tyali (Gaikas), Hintza and Botma (Gcalekas), attacked the whole line of British settlements from the Winterberg to the sea. The assagai and the torch began their deadly work along the whole eastern border of the colony. The unfortunate frontier farmers, (most of whom were the original settlers of 1820,) were pillaged of their flocks, herds, and property. Their homesteads were burnt over their heads, and in many instances their lives were lost, while they were endeavoring to save those of their relatives. The total loss of this luckless community at this period has been rated, and not over-rated, at £300,000. This war continued to ravage the eastern frontier of the colony until the year 1835, when it was at length terminated by the then governor, Sir Benjamin D'Urban, who concluded a second treaty with the Kaffirs.

Each farmer took to himself a large stretch of land, varying from six to twenty thousand acres, only a small part of which he actually occupies, the rest being left as wild pasture. In this way a very thin European population spread over a vast area, from which it was impossible to exclude the natives, who were warlike, multiplying faster than the Europeans, and continually recruited from the populous interior of the continent. It was thus most difficult for the settlers either to combine for self-defence, or to calculate the extent of their danger. The natives had confidence in the rule of the English, but none in that of the Dutch. They were advancing in many ways, especially in the use of firearms; the Dutch were ever giving them provocations to break out, which they were only too ready to accept; and until some government was established which secured them the rights to which they had been accustomed under English rule, no district was ever free from apprehensions of a general rising against the Europeans.

Seventh Kaffir War

In 1846 the second severe struggle known as 'the war of the axe' arose. A Kaffir had stolen an axe from a trader's store, and when arrested was rescued by his tribesmen. At the conclusion of the Seventh Kaffir War [the War of the Axe] in 1847 it was found absolutely necessary, for the future safety and peace of the colony, to extend the frontier line of British possessions to the Great Kei River, including the large district named British Kaffraria, which, with the lately "Ceded Territory," were declared to be forfeited by the vanquished Kaffirs.

Eighth Kaffir War

But within a few years, the chiefs found their power and influence melting daily before the advance of civilization, the settled habits of peace, and the irresistible superiority of a just and duly administered government. Naturally jealous of their hereditary power, they felt it would soon be superseded; and Sandilli, their Paramount Chief, and an accomplished Kaffir diplomatist, availing himself of this state of feeling, visited all the several chiefs, and urged on them the necessity of a last struggle for their waning independence, instigating them to use every means to spread disaffection among their people. To further his views he enlisted the services of Umlanjeni, one of their Witch-doctors and prophets, in whose predictions, the most absurd and preposterous, the Kaffirs placed superstitious faith. His influence was extraordinary, and spread like wildfire among them, and the spirit of disaffection was once more deeply at work. Secret and active emissaries were sent far and wide to the Kaffirs located on the different farms in the service of colonists, with orders to desert their employers, which they promptly obeyed, absconding without warning, and in many instances leaving their property and wages behind. At length, in spite of the reluctance of the authorities to believe in any hostile intentions on the part of the enemy, the truth of such suspicions became apparent. This war lasted until 1853.

Sir George Grey's policy of gradually increasing British control over the natives throughout Kaffirland caused Sandili and other chiefs to assume a defiant attitude. Aided by some Tembus and Hottentots, the Kosas commenced the Eighth Kaffir War — the longest and most costly of all the native wars of the Cape — by attacking a body of troops in the Boomah Pass, and massacring a number of settlers in the military villages of the Chumie Valley. The frontier districts were ravaged; and so fierce a guerilla warfare was kept up in the Amatolas, that it took three years' hard fighting and an expenditure of three millions sterling to suppress it. It was while conveying troops to assist in this war that the steam transport Birkenhead struck on a reef off Danger Point, and gave to the world that noble example of true heroism—four hundred British soldiers drawn up on deck as if on parade, and standing calmly, without a murmur, while the boats put off with the women and children and the sick people; and then, just as the ship sank, leapin;, into the sea, there to perish.

The Kaffirs, however, were not really subdued ; and, in 1857, occurred the cattle-killing mania — , gigantic imposture instigated by the crafty Galeka chief Kreli, who thus hoped to throw an irresistible mass of famishing and desperate natives across the border. Moved thereto by Kreli, a witch doctor named Umhlakaza, through the medinm of his niece, Nongkause, prophesied "an approaching resurrection from the dead of all the old chiefs and their followers, who would unite with the tribes to drive the white men and the Fingoes out of the country, and restore the glory of the Amakosa nation." But to this end the tribesmen must utterly destroy their cattle and their corn. This they did, and, half mad with excitement and hunger, the Kosas waited ardently for the day of resurrection; but in vain. About 30,000 Kaffirs were thus scattered over the Colony; about 25,000 died, and large tracts of land became vacant.

Ninth Kaffir War

For twenty years after the cattle-killing mania there was peace, but the jealousy between the Galekas, originally a section of the Pondo tribe, and the loyal Fingoes, brought about the ninth Kaffir war. Bands of Xosas swept off the Fingoes' cattle, and in February, 1878, the British camp at Kentani was charged by dense masses of warriors, who, however, were driven back. Kreli at once fled over the Bashee, and, some months later, Sandili was killed in action. Kaffir resistance was not finally settled until the war of 1878, during the governorship of Sir Bartle Frere. The paramount chief Kreli was overthrown, and on the eastern frontier the tribal system utterly destroyed. When Cetywayo was defeated at Ulundi by Lord Chelmsford, the two great centers of native resistance in the south-east of Africa were broken once and for all.

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