In 1840, Commander-in-Chief of the Cape Colony
garrison, Lieutenant-Colonel Harry Smith, was
transferred by the British government to India.
The colonists felt that the
policies of his successor, Andreas Stockenstroom,
were too lenient on the Xhosa and in 1844 the new Governor, Maitland, repealed Stockenstroom's
policies. This allowed white settlers to enter into
Xhosa territory to retrieve what they said were "stolen" cattle.
Maitland also undermined the power of the Xhosa
chiefs by ruling that Christianised Xhosa were not
subject to their tribal laws.
During this time the demand for wool in Britain
was growing and white settlers moved further into Xhosa
territories east of the Fish River - into land they deemed to
be prime sheep country.
Drought once again gripped this part of southern
Africa, driving the
desperate Xhosa into cattle rustling in order to
survive. At one point a
Xhosa man was arrested for stealing an axe. Whilst
on his way to
Grahamstown for trial, the escort was
attacked and the prisoner set free. Once again the
frontier was set alight in what became known as "The
War Of The Axe."
The British forces on the frontier amounted to
about 1,000 men. The Xhosa had upwards of 15,000
warriors. The British planned to make a quick strike
against the Ngqika Xhosa chief, Mgolombane Sandile.
They began their march into the Amatola Mountains
with a wagon train three miles long, yet with no
stockpiles of ammunition, food, or fodder.
The Xhosa attacked the middle of the column,
capturing the camping, equipment and medical and
cooking supplies. In previous actions, the assegai
was the weapon used by the Xhosa. In this attack the
musket was their primary weapon, resorting to the
spear only for hand to hand combat. The British
retreated to the Keiskamma River and
established an improvised fort.
As an increasing number of Xhosa poured across
the frontier into the colony, the outposts were
abandoned. Fort Peddie, halfway between the Great
Fish and Keiskamma Rivers, was all that was left
between the Xhosa and
The Xhosa then attacked an Mfengu village near
the fort. For five hours the Mfengu held off the
Xhosa attacks before a British relief force arrived
on the scene. However, the Commander of the force
only ordered a few shots to be fired from his cannon
and then retired to Fort Peddie. The Mfengu finally
beat off the Xhosa, but they lost all of their
On 28 March 1846 the Xhosa attempted to destroy
Fort Peddie. The British were inside the fort while
the Mfengu, with the cattle, were left outside to
fend for themselves. As the Xhosa charged, the
British opened up with cannon and rockets, the noise
of which stampeded the cattle. As they closed in,
the muskets of the British and the Mfengu opened up.
For two hours the 8,000 Xhosa warriors rushed in
then fell back, before they finally melted away into
The British felt they had won the battle of Fort
Peddie because they only lost 12 Mfengu in the
action. The Xhosa felt they had won because they had
made off with the British cattle.
After the battle the Xhosa began marching
towards Grahamstown. However, Henry Somerset
mustered a strong cavalry force and was able to turn
the warriors away. The cavalry continued to patrol
the frontier and they finally caught the Xhosa army
in the open. Somerset led his troopers through the
Xhosa masses twice before the warriors broke and
ran, and were pursued right into the brush.
After much debate, the British were forced to
take on Andreas Stockenstroom as the leader of the
By this time the drought was taking its toll
also. What fodder there was was dry and withered.
Water was so scarce that men would give a months pay
for a drink. The British spent the next ten days
running up one side of the mountain and down the
other. But the only time they saw the Xhosa close up
was when they were being ambushed. Eventually the
Xhosa set fire to the dry plains below.
It was becoming clear that the campaign could
not be won in the Amatolas. Stockenstroom proposed a
foray across the Kei River to see the paramount
chief of all the Xhosa, Sarili. With a party of
Burghers Stockenstroom rode into Sarili's village.
After some bantering, Sarili agreed to the British
terms. Stockenstroom was satisfied and returned to
camp treaty in hand. Maitland thought that the Boer
was played the fool. He sent a sharp letter to
Sarili renouncing the treaty and demanding proof
that the Xhosa wanted peace.
Stockenstroom was furious, he released his Burghers
from service and resigned his command The situation
was now critical for everyone. The British lost most
of their cavalry, were short on supplies, and morale
was at an all time low. What fodder the drought
didn't kill, the Xhosa's fire did. Cattle and oxen
on both sides of the frontier were dropping in
droves. Things were so bad that the British army
moved to the coast in hopes of getting supplied by
Then, suddenly, the rains came. For days it rained.
The barren earth was soon turned into a quagmire.
Men and animals, weakened by the drought became
exhausted trying to move through the mud. Then fever
raced through the British camp. For the Xhosa the
war was over. It was washed away by the rain. The
Xhosa would no longer fight the British, but they
would not move either. They would just sit down when
the British came, even when they rounded up their
cattle. The British were at a loss as to what to do.
On the 17th of September, 1846, the British sent
demands to the Xhosa. By returning cattle they had
stolen, surrendering their guns, and moving east of
the Kei River, they could end the war. The Xhosa
refused the terms and still they refused to resume
The British decided to bluff the Xhosa into
submission. After the rains, the British massed
their army at the foot of the mountains as if to
attack. The Xhosa, fearful of further destruction,
gave in to the British demands. They turned over a
few old muskets and some cattle. The British were
not satisfied and at least wished to move the Ngqika
In June, 1847, the British found a reason to move
against Sandile, Chief of the Ngqika. Four goats
came up missing from a Mfengu village. It was
determined that Sandile was responsible for the
errant livestock. He offered12 goats that he said
were found wandering on his territory. The British
A force of 150 redcoats was sent to arrest the
Ngqika Chief, but the wily Xhosa eluded capture. The
British settled for snatching some cattle. The Xhosa
warriors rose up against the patrol and in the
running battle in that followed, the British ran out
of ammunition and were nearly destroyed. Angered by
the Xhosa attack, the British undertook a slash and
burn campaign against the Ngqika. The fighting
spilled over the Kei River and into chief Pato's
Fearing the complete extermination of his people,
Sandile went to the British camp to seek terms. He
was promptly arrested and sent to
was wearing down quickly and would soon surrender.
As the last of the Xhosa warriors were being run
down a new governor with a familiar face arrived at
Harry Smith was the rising star of the Empire and it
was hoped that he could pacify the frontier. The
only thing left to do in the War of the Axe was to
formalize the Xhosa surrender. Of this Harry made a
fiasco. He embarrassed and belittled the Xhosa
chiefs. He insulted the Xhosa people. Then in a
final farcical display of British superiority, he
blew up a wagonload of gunpowder.
For a second time the British took all of the land
west of the Kei River. The land west of the
Keiskamma had to be abandoned and those Xhosa that
lived between the Keiskamma and the Kei would be
under British rule. As in 1835, a string of forts
was built up along the Keiskamma River to monitor
the movements of the Xhosa.
Many tribes had to start over in a new land. Crops
needed to be planted and villages to be built. Yet
even though they rebuilt them in the traditional
manner, things would never be the same. The land
they were moved to was not as good as that which
they left. The displaced tribes were packed into an
area that could not possibly support such a large
pastoral society. And even though the fighting was
over, the Xhosa were still under attack.
This battle was not fought with bullets but with
ploughs. The ploughs were given to the Xhosa chiefs who
were expected to learn how to use them and then
teach the others. Farming in Xhosa society was
woman's work and so the ploughs sat idle. Young men,
women, and children were removed from their villages
and moved west to work on colonial farms. The
transplanted Xhosa were forced to wear European
clothing and to attend church. Several other changes
to Xhosa society were also discussed. Among these
were a ban on polygamy, trading cattle for wives, and
the sale of red clay which the Xhosa painted
Because he had done such a good job with the Xhosa,
Harry Smith decided to bring the trek Boers back
under British control. He annexed the territory
between the Orange and Vaal Rivers. The Boers were
unwilling to come under British rule again and a
revolt broke out which was put down and several of
the ringleaders were hanged.
Smith's actions were not popular with the Home
Government and the territory Smith took would
eventually be given back to the Boers. There was
also talk of giving responsible government to the
Cape Colony. This would put a kink in Smith's plans,
so to improve the image of his governorship, Harry
had to reduce his expenditures. This meant reducing
his forces on the frontier by 20 percent. This left
4,700 men to protect the colony against a possible
At the beginning of 1850, Harry Smith thought he had
everything under control, but he was mistaken. The
Cape Colony Burghers were upset about the way that
the Orange River rebellion was suppressed. The
Mfengu and Khoikhoi were riled by unscrupulous
officials that set exorbitant taxes. The Xhosa were
suffering from over- population and the assault on
their traditional lifestyle.
With June came the coldest winter remembered. Along
with the winter came a drought of equal proportions.
It was at this time that British officials decided
to remove Xhosa squatters from the Kat River region.
As many Xhosa families were left to wander homeless
about the countryside, a prophet fell in with them.
Within a month of the coming of Mlanjeni the Xhosa
were agitated to a dangerous level. Those that were
working in the colony began to return to their
tribes. Warriors were being instructed on how to
make themselves invincible. Mlanjeni also ordained
all dun coloured cattle evil and therefore had to be
Throughout October colonists retreated from the
frontier. Smith called a meeting of the Xhosa chiefs
to try to settle the problem, but none of the
important ones showed. In his wrath, Smith deposed
Sandile and instated Charles Brownlee, commissioner
of the Ngqika, as the new chief.
The situation continued to degrade. November saw a
steady stream of colonists heading west and a steady
stream of Xhosa labourers heading east. In December
Smith called up the militia and deployed his troops
for action. Five hundred-seventy men were sent to
Fort Cox, 457 were sent to Fort Hare, 389 men were
sent to the Kabousie Neck and the remainder, between
400 and 500 men, were spread between King William's
Town and the frontier outposts. On the 19th of
December, Smith offered a $500 reward for the
capture of Sandile. He also promised the local
chiefs that no redcoats would hunt the Ngqika chief.
To Smith, his promise did not include sending a
column up into the mountains to try to scare Sandile
out. On December 24, 1850, a force was sent up Boma
Pass to attempt just that. The column was led by the
Kaffir Police, made up of Xhosa loyal to the colony,
then followed by the Cape Mounted Rifles with the
British regulars bringing up the rear. After a two
hour breakfast the column entered Boma pass.
The pass was a mile long tunnel through the bush. To
one side was a sheer cliff, to the other the rushing
Keiskamma River. The path itself was so narrow that
it could only be followed in single file. The two
native units made it through the pass without
mishap, but as the first regular exited the tunnel
the Xhosa attacked. In the battle that followed, the
British lost 23 killed and 23 wounded along the
pass. The outlying pickets were not as lucky.
Fifteen men of the 45th Regiment of Foot were
overwhelmed by hundreds of warriors and killed.
It was on Christmas day that all hell broke loose.
In the towns of Woburn, Aukland, and Juanasburg
seemingly friendly groups of Xhosa came in to enjoy
the holiday with the settlers. But at a given
signal, the warriors murdered the men who allowed
them into their homes. With this attack most of the
Ngqika tribes joined the war. The Kaffir Police also
threw in their lot with Sandile and went over with
their weapons. The only Ngqika chief to remain
friendly was Pato (who received the blunt end of The
War of the Axe).
All along the frontier the situation was critical,
but at Fort White it was desperate. The outpost
defended by 120 men of various units, was a fort in
name only. Then Captain Mansergh, the officer
commanding, went to work. Before the Xhosa could
attack, he was able to throw up a defensible
earthwork in preparation. When the attack did come,
it lasted two days, but the men at Fort White beat
back every rush with discipline and valour.
Meanwhile, Harry Smith was besieged at Fort Cox.
Somerset tried twice to break through to the fort,
but both times he was turned away. He finally got a
messenger through to Smith with the advice that Sir
Harry should not try to break out with infantry as
he would be chopped to bits. Smith took Somerset's
advice and with 250 men of the Cape Mounted Rifles
he made the perilous 12 mile ride to King William's
Now that Smith was free he was ready to take action.
The problem was that he didn't have any men to take
action with. The Boers and Burghers were still in a
huff over the Orange River affair. The natives of
the Kat River settlement, where many of the levies
came from, rose up in rebellion. And for the most
part, Smith's regulars were besieged in their forts.
It was not long before British ingenuity began to
turn things around. The colonial secretary, Montagu,
working without orders, was able to levy a force of
Khoikhoi to garrison the frontier forts. This would
allow Smith a small field force for offensive
actions. At the same time, Somerset was able to put
down the Kat River Rebellion when he assaulted and
captured Fort Armstrong with a force of loyal
Burghers and Cape Mounted Rifles (CMR).
The suppression of this rebellion had some
unfortunate repercussions. Many of the men of the
CMR were drawn from the Kat River settlement and
still had friends and relatives living there.
Concern over the treatment of the prisoners captured
at Fort Armstrong prompted a large number of the CMR
to defect to the rebellion. As a precaution, Smith
had the remainder of the corp disarmed, leaving the
British with no cavalry.
It was Smith's feeling that whatever the situation,
he must make an offensive showing. With that in
mind, he took his infantry and defeated a band of
rebels on the Keiskamma River then moved on to Fort
Hare. Smith was joined there by Somerset and
together they made a foray into the Amatola
Mountains. Another rebel force was defeated and
Smith rode back to King William's Town with 1,000
head of enemy cattle.
The next major action took place at Fort Beaufort.
Hermanus Matroos, a mixed- blood to whom the
government was indebted for prior service, joined
the rebels with a substantial force. He boldly
attacked the fort but was defeated. In the battle,
Hermanus was shot through the head and, without a
leader, his army disintegrated.
Smith could not mount a major offensive, but he
continued to patrol the bush. The Xhosa and rebels
also continued their attacks. They mounted a major
assault against the town of Whittlesea. Captain
Tylden, R.E. , along with 60 volunteers and 300
Mfengu, fought off a dozen separate attacks before
the Xhosa retreated. The defence of Whittlesea has
been credited with stopping an all-out invasion of
By February, 1851, Harry Smith had about 9,000 men
in hand, 3,000 of which could be called "regulars."
He was able to resupply forts Cox and White. On his
way back from that mission, Smith defeated a large
Xhosa army. In March, Sir Harry scored another
victory against the Xhosa near Fort White. Two days
later he made off with another 1,000 of the enemy's
cattle and returned to King William's Town.
As Smith was turning things around, a new enemy took
the field. Moshesh had built the Basuto nation from
the refugees of the Zulu expansion. Up to now they
had been British allies but this time Moshesh threw
in with the Xhosa. The movement of a large native
force close by prompted the Boers to action. In
their only engagement of the war, the Boers defeated
Moshesh and sent him back to his stronghold.
By May the first reinforcements arrived. The 74th
Highlanders were immediately sent to the front. Once
there they marched on the rebel stronghold of
Theopolis. At the sound of the pipes, the rebels
routed off and the 74th scored a bloodless victory.
Smith was now ready to strike at the heart of the
Xhosa. With his infantry and a unit of reinstated
CMR, Smith made a sweep through the Amatolas
destroying crops and capturing cattle. In early
July, Somerset went back through the mountains and
was chased out only after the Xhosa set fire to the
grass. Meanwhile, Smith was beating the Fish River
bush as more reinforcements began flowing in.
In August, the 2nd (Queen's) Infantry arrived
followed closely by the 12th. September saw the 60th
Rifles and 200 other replacements land. In October
the first British cavalry unit, the 12th Lancers
took the field.
Somerset spent the next two months cris-crossing the
Amatolas, finally driving the Xhosa out to the east.
Smith then took an expedition to the Kei River.
Despite heavy rains, Harry's men captured 30,000
head of cattle. Upon his return, Smith sent Somerset
back up into the mountains to flush out any
Even though Smith had received his reinforcements,
he had not achieved a decisive victory. The Home
Government assumed this was the fault of Smith and
not his foe. It was therefore decided to replace Sir
Harry with Major-General George Cathcart.
In February, 1852, as Harry Smith's replacement
steamed for the Cape, replacements for his infantry
were heading for Algoa Bay. On the 25th the
steamship Birkenhead struck a rock off Danger Point.
As the ship sank, Major Seaton, as ranking officer,
paraded the men on deck. The troops, mostly new
recruits, fell in and remained in ranks as the
lifeboats were loaded with the women and children.
They stood silently on parade even as the ship
slipped below the waves. In all, 349 men and 14
officers went down with the Birkenhead.
By March the Xhosa had lost 6,000 warriors, 80
chiefs, 80,000 cattle and a vast number of goats.
Though the war would drag on for almost another
year, the Xhosa would not be able to mount a serious
threat to the colony. On the 26th of March, Cathcart
took command of the Army of South Africa and early
in April Sir Harry Smith sailed for home.
Throughout the next 6 months, the British continued
to scour the countryside, evicting bands of Xhosa
and Khoikhoi rebels. In November, Cathcart mounted
his only major offensive. His target was the Basuto
stronghold. He moved into Moshesh's country with
2,300 men, 3 guns, and some rockets. In the poorly
run engagement, the British captured 1,500 cattle.
If Moshesh had been willing to press an attack, it
is possible that the British could have suffered a
defeat as bad as Isandlwana. Moshesh said he had
seen the power of the Great Queen and had no wish to
quarrel with her. As Cathcart marched back to the
colony, the Basuto warriors could be seen dancing
around the column wearing the uniforms of dead
In February 1853 Sandile and the other chiefs were
ready to surrender. The treaty that followed pushed
the Xhosa east of the Amatola Mountains. The natives
were forced into a still smaller area while the
frontier settlers had to rebuild their farms one
more time. The next four years were a time of
rebuilding for everyone.
In 1857 the Cape received a new group of settlers.
These were the Corps of German Volunteers. They were
raised in Britain for the Crimea, but the war ended
before they were shipped out. Instead of releasing
them to wander about England, they were offered the
chance to go to South Africa. They gratefully
accepted the offer and 3,000 people, mostly men,
moved to the Cape. They arrived fully armed and
would be used, if the need arose, as an emergency
militia. Many were to join the Frontier Armed And
Mounted Police (FAMP) where they performed excellent
In the same year, a new prophet came to Xhosaland. A
girl named Nonquanse had a vision. If the Xhosa
would kill all of their cattle and destroy all of
their crops then, on February 18th, 1857, the old
chiefs would return with more cattle and grain than
thought possible. Also, a great storm would arise
which would sweep the white men out into the sea.
The British authorities were able to stop the Gaika
tribes before too much damage was done, but for the
Galekas it was a disaster. In a 7 month period the
population of British Kaffiria dropped by
two-thirds. To cope with the problem of cattle
rustling that was bound to occur, the Galeka were
pushed further east and the vacated land was
occupied by Mfengu. In 1869 the Tembu, another Xhosa
tribe, suffered from witch- doctor problems. Then in
1873 the Langalibalele Rebellion broke out. Both of
the uprisings were controlled by the FAMP.
By the mid 1870's the fortune's of the Xhosa hit
rock bottom while those of the Mfengu were on the
rise. Many of the Xhosa fell victim to drink. In
fact, it was an inter- tribal bar-room brawl between
Mfengu and Xhosa that turned into the 9th--and
final-- Cape Frontier War. On the same day as the
bar fight, the Galeka attacked a police outpost in
the Gwadana Mountains. Even though the outpost was
reinforced by a party of Mfengu, it was forced to
retreat when their cannon broke down.
On September 29th 8,000 Galeka warriors attacked the
police station at Ibeka. With the firepower of
breech-loading Snider rifles, the FAMP were able to
drive off the Xhosa. On October 9th two more
engagements were fought. A troop of FAMP under Major
Elliot defeated a minor Xhosa tribe. Meanwhile
Inspector Hook had his hands full with the attack on
the outpost of Lusizi.
With a force of police and native levies, Colonel
Griffith was able to push the Xhosa east, past the
Bashee River. Thinking the Xhosa were defeated,
Griffith released his levies from service. The Xhosa
were only regrouping, however. In December, Sandile
and the Ngqika joined the war and several small
actions were fought. In one of these, Major Moore,
of the Connaught Rangers, won the first Victoria
Cross awarded in South Africa while defending a
With the beginning of 1878 the Xhosa suffered two
major defeats. At N'Amaxa and Kentani the warriors
charged across open ground against British forces in
defensive positions. With the increased firepower of
the Martini-Henry the British soldiers were able cut
down the charging warriors before they could get
close. The battle at Kentani ended the war for the
Galeka, but Sandile was still on the loose.
The Ngqika Chief was chased through the mountains
and down into the Great Fish River bush. It was
there, near the outpost of Isidenge, that Sandile
was brought down by a stray bullet. Sandile's son,
Siyolo, was killed by a German volunteer shortly
The loss of the great chief Sandile brought the last
Cape Frontier war to an end. The new leaders of the
Xhosa were men educated in the missionary schools,
not the hereditary chiefs or witch-doctors of the
old days. The ancient and traditional Xhosa way of
life had come to the "End of the trek."