Read an excerpt from The Land Wars: The Dispossession of the Khoisan and AmaXhosa in the Cape Colony by John Laband
 More about the book!

Penguin Random House SA has shared an excerpt from John Laband’s new book The Land Wars: The Dispossession of the Khoisan and AmaXhosa in the Cape Colony.

Perhaps the most explosive issue in South Africa today is the question of land ownership. The central theme in this country’s colonial history is the dispossession of indigenous African societies by white settlers, and current calls for land restitution are based on this loss. Yet popular knowledge of the actual process by which Africans were deprived of their land is remarkably sketchy.

This book recounts an important part of this history, describing how the Khoisan and Xhosa people were dispossessed and subjugated from the time that Europeans first arrived until the end of the Cape Frontier Wars (1779–1878).

‘This is truly an excellent book’ – Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, author of The Land Is Ours.

‘An immensely readable and valuable account of a brutal process’ – Nigel Penn, University of Cape Town

‘A triumphant achievement from a master historian and a master storyteller’ – Bongani Ngqulunga, author of The Man Who Founded the ANC

About the book

The Land Wars traces the unfolding hostilities involving Dutch and British colonial authorities, trekboers and settlers, and the San, Khoikhoin, Xhosa, Mfengu and Thembu people – as well as conflicts within these groups. In the process it describes the loss of land by Africans to successive waves of white settlers as the colonial frontier inexorably advanced. The book does not shy away from controversial issues such as war atrocities committed by both sides, or the expedient decision of some of the indigenous peoples to fight alongside the colonisers rather than against them.

The Land Wars is an epic story, featuring well-known figures such as Ngqika, Lord Charles Somerset and his son, Henry, Andries Stockenström, Hintsa, Harry Smith, Sandile, Maqoma, Bartle Frere and Sarhili, and events such as the arrival of the 1820 Settlers and the Xhosa cattle-killing. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand South Africa’s past and present.

About the author

John Laband is a Professor Emeritus of History, Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada, and a research associate in the Department of History, Stellenbosch University. He is also a life member of Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, and a fellow of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He specialises in the history of the Zulu kingdom and in colonial wars in Africa. Among his recent books are The Assassination of King Shaka (2017); The Battle of Majuba Hill: The Transvaal Campaign 1880–1881 (2017); and The Eight Zulu Kings from Shaka to Goodwill Zwelithini (2018).

Read an excerpt from The Land Wars, from Chapter 15, ‘The War of the Axe’:


In mid-January 1846, a small party of Royal Engineers under Lieutenant J Stokes crossed the Tyhume River at Block Drift and provocatively set about surveying the site for a new fort. Precisely why the fortification had to be built on that side of the river, in Ngqika territory, rather than on the colonial bank, within the Ceded Territory, has never been satisfactorily established. It does seem, though, that Sandile, wishing to appear accommodating, had given his prior permission. Yet, once they saw what Stokes’s party was about, many in Sandile’s council vehemently objected to its presence, and the Rharhabe chief hastily changed tack. He rescinded his permission and talked tough, as his council required of him: ‘We thought the white man could not be killed, but we see they are also like us, they can also be killed … [T]hat tent which there is at Blockdrift, must be off tomorrow.’ The British responded angrily, and a military confrontation threatened. Maqoma used his influence to persuade Sandile to pull back from the brink, and he agreed to meet Lieutenant-Governor Hare at Block Drift on 29 January. Hare arrived with a strong military escort, and Sandile was accompanied by a great throng of several thousand warriors, some of whom carried firearms and fired warning shots over the heads of the British. Each party was sufficiently daunted by the other to be accommodating. Sandile apologised and Hare did not insist on the new fort being built. Both then withdrew without further incident.

This meeting resolved nothing, however, because the basic issue of who was to rule the land remained unaddressed. The Graham’s Town Journal continued to press for the annexation of the Ceded Territory along with the relinquished Province of Queen Adelaide, and Governor Maitland (who thoroughly sympathised with this agenda) began seriously to consider a pre-emptive military strike against the amaXhosa to settle the matter once and for all.

Then, on 16 March 1846, a man named Tsili was arrested for the theft of an axe from a shop in Fort Beaufort, more a straggling village than a fort as such, and the headquarters of the 7th Dragoon Guards, whose fashionable officers were hard-pressed to entertain themselves in such a dismal spot. Tsili was a member of the imiDange, ruled over by Nkosi Bhotomane, and his headman was Tola, one of the notorious border bandits. While Tsili was on his way to Grahamstown to stand trial, Tola and his desperadoes ambushed his small Khoikhoi police escort and rescued him. They found Tsili handcuffed (as was customary) to another prisoner, a Khoikhoi man. To release Tsili, his rescuers brutally hacked off the hand of the man manacled to him, and chucked him into the Kat River. The man died, and Hare first ordered Bhotomane, and then Sandile, to deliver up the killers. But both came under considerable popular pressure not to do so, and refused to comply. Hare decided to regard their contumacy as their call to war, and on 24 March he announced his own intention to march into emaXhoseni to exact satisfaction. With barely any hesitation, Maitland backed him up with a declaration of war on 1 April 1846.

This time, it was unequivocally the British who initiated hostilities and invaded Xhosa territory. The ensuing conflict is called the Seventh Cape Frontier War of 1846–1847. The British dubbed it the ‘War of the Axe’ after the unsavoury incident that was its official casus belli, but the amaXhosa knew it appropriately enough as the ‘War of the Boundary’ because, as Peires has commented, the war was not fought over the theft of an axe or anything so trivial, but ‘over the land, like the wars which had gone before it’.

It took the British close to two weeks to assemble their forces for Maitland’s strike into emaXhoseni, and meanwhile the governor ordered all the missionaries to leave. Most missionaries had been making it very clear that they were anxious to civilise the amaXhosa under the umbrella of British rule, and that they were losing patience with Xhosa recalcitrance. They would consequently have been vulnerable when hostilities started. The white traders operating in Xhosa territory were already at risk and some had been plundered or killed. The rest of them made haste to get out of harm’s way.

On 11 April 1846, three columns under the command of Colonel Somerset, the commandant of the eastern frontier, crossed the Great Fish and then the Keiskamma, aiming to converge on Sandile’s Great Place near Burnshill, the abandoned Glasgow Missionary Society station in the foothills of the Amathole. The soldiers were supported by a cumbersome, five-kilometre-long supply train of 125 wagons, each drawn by twenty-four oxen.

The three advancing columns encountered no resistance and rendezvoused at Burnshill as planned. Leaving his wagon train under guard at Burnshill under the command of Major John Gibson, on 16 April Somerset led 500 men into the Amathole valley. The amaNgqika were present in force in the surrounding bush, and brought Somerset’s men under a heavy, if inaccurate, fire.

This was the first frontier war in which the amaXhosa made really extensive use of their firearms. Yet they still lacked practice in using them effectively, and their quality remained poor. Most of those they had acquired from unscrupulous dealers were out-of-date, inferior ‘trade’ flintlock muskets, which were very liable to misfire. Consequently, with regards to firearms there was a technological mismatch between the amaXhosa and the British. Even so, the amaXhosa had learnt to adopt tactics that largely neutralised the superior British firepower. Since they understood that they stood little chance against the British in the open field (even if they were learning to keep up their resolve when facing artillery), in 1846 they were prepared to resist tenaciously with hit-and-run tactics and ambushes, and to make more extensive use of their firearms when doing so. And, under Maqoma’s prompting, they decided that the best way to attack the British was through the baggage trains on which they depended.

On the same afternoon that Somerset found himself under Xhosa fire in the Amathole valley, a party of Ngqika raiders daringly snatched some oxen from the Burnshill camp to his rear. Captain R. Bambrick, a dashing veteran of Waterloo, led out a troop of the 7th Dragoons and some CMR in pursuit. The amaXhosa were waiting for them, and ambushed the horsemen in dense bush. Bambrick was shot dead. According to some accounts (but not mentioned in others), his skull was then despatched to the dreaded Mpondomise war-doctor, Myeki, to make ritual ‘medicine’ used to conjure up supernatural forces against the invaders.5 Chastened by the loss of their commander, the horsemen withdrew. As darkness fell, the amaXhosa emerged from the bush to attack the camp from all sides, and were driven off after a short, intense engagement in which superior British firepower was vital.

Already under attack, Gibson was dismayed to receive orders from Somerset to move his vulnerable supply train forward to his commander’s position. He had no choice but to obey, and on the morning of 17 April the convoy set out, with the amaXhosa massed menacingly on the surrounding hills. Five kilometres from Burnshill, the convoy, which was itself strung out for over five kilometres, and which was protected by an advance guard and a rearguard, began passing through a defile that led down to a drift over the Keiskamma River. A large Ngqika force, under the command of Sandile himself, was lying in wait. They swooped down out of the bush, targeting the poorly defended middle of the train, and to immobilise the wagons either cut the oxen loose from their traces and drove them off, or killed them. For Gibson, the four ammunition wagons at the tail of the column were the most important part of the convoy, and the spirited action of 250 men of the Kat River Settlement under Andries Botha succeeded in saving them. Gibson pulled them back to Burnshill, while the vanguard and its wagons pushed on ahead and made it safely to Somerset’s camp. Nevertheless, Gibson had been compelled to abandon sixty-five wagons to the amaXhosa. Many of these wagons were carrying the splendid baggage of the stylish 7th Dragoons, including fine wines, dress uniforms, expensive private firearms and all the regimental silver, which was never to be recovered.

After this debacle, Somerset decided to call off his invasion of the Amathole. On the following morning, 18 April, just as he was about to lead his troops out, two large groups of amaXhosa, emboldened by their spectacular success of the previous day, attacked his camp from all directions. Somerset was forced to conduct a fighting retreat, during which the infantry’s sustained musket volleys and several charges by the Dragoons kept the amaXhosa at bay. With the loss of yet another wagon, Somerset finally withdrew his entire force over the Tyhume River at Block Drift, and took up a defensive position in a laagered camp at the Lovedale Mission.

Sandile’s spectacular victory over Somerset spurred on other Xhosa chiefs between the Keiskamma and Kei Rivers to take up arms. They were in no doubt that by invading emaXhoseni the British had broken the treaties they had concluded with them, and that retaliation was entirely justified. The cautious Mhala, the chief of the main section of the amaNdlambe, committed himself to the struggle, as did Bhotomane of the imiDange, Tokwethe of the amaMbalu, and even the Christian convert and missionaries’ pet, Dyani Tshatshu of the amaNtinde. Maqoma and his amaJingqi, although their actions remained low key, also joined in. Phato of the amaGqunukhwebe, who had been allied with the British in the previous war, but who deeply resented subsequently forfeiting so much of his land around Fort Peddie to the amaMfengu, changed sides. In the far north, beyond the Amathole, Maphasa of the amaTshatshu also decided to attack the Colony, not least because he felt threatened by Mtirara, the Thembu paramount, who had aligned himself with the British.


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