The Black King seeks White Help

Part 1 in the series on Black and White South African Allies

♦ The Cape of Good Hope: Eastern Frontier, 1780

—In 1776, Anders Sparrman, the Swedish naturalist, traveled the Cape of Good Hope and met his first Black people at the Fish River (see the map below)[1]. He reported no amaXhosa (Xhosa people) west of the Fish River in the so-called Suurveld (“Sour country”). His Gonaqua Khoekhoe guides told him the Black people lived much further east [2].

The very next year, 1777, Black Ba’Ntu people were west of the Fish River en masse, while several farmers had driven their cattle across the Zondaghs River into the Suurveld for grazing. White and Black had finally met territorially. It was now one-and-a quarter centuries, or five generations, since the founding of the Settlement at the Cape in 1652. The details of this period may be found in AmaBhulu. The map below  shows the location of ancestral family of the author in the late 18th century. Their experiences are addressed in Chapter 4 of that book.  That chapter is available for free from Goodreads.

In 1778, Governor Van Plettenberg toured the border himself, during which he declared the Fish River the formal boundary of the Colony. However, by 5 November 1779 the farmers started fleeing the eastern border when some of the amaXhosa began to raid farms and steal cattle. The amaXhosa in turn accused the local Gonaqua Khoekhoe of raiding their cattle [3]. They considered the Gonaqua associated with the Whites.

Fig 4-10 East Cape Frontier 1780-1795Small21780 was an important moment in history, conveniently politically forgotten by all sides. This is the year that a powerful amaXhosa chief named Rharhabe asked the frontier Dutch Afrikaners in South Africa for their help in crushing his Suurveld amaXhosa opponents, offering permanent friendship and peace in return [4]. The opponents were to be the amaMbalu, amaGwali, imiDange, amaTinde and the ‘halfblood’ special ‘House’, the amaGqunukhwebe. Collectively, they formed the “Suurveld amaXhosa”. These groups did not want to swear fealty to Rharhabe. In truth, Rharhabe had no more status than their chiefs did. See the amaXhosa Royal  House structure below, most of which is descended from Tshawe. The way this structure worked and still works is described in detail in AmaBhulu. It played a huge role in the westward expansion of the amaXhosa.

Fig.4-8Rharhabe wanted the Suurveld amaXhosa “brought to heel”. At the same time, these were exactly the groups that were troubling the farmers. This made natural allies of the Frontier Afrikaners west of the Fish River and the amaRharhabe, located behind the Suurveld amaXhosa, near the Hogsback in the Winterberg or Amatole. To the amaXhosa, the Afrikaners were known as the amaBhulu.

At this time, an experienced frontiersman by the name of Adriaan van Jaarsveld was made “Field-Sergeant” in command of the Frontier with both the San Bushmen to the north and the amaXhosa to the east. The nearest town, Swellendam, was several hundreds of miles to the west along a difficult route that was weeks by oxwagon. The fractious frontiersmen were a difficult group of men to manage. They valued their independence and were not accustomed to taking orders from anyone. Van Jaarsveld did not have an easy job.

The First Frontier War

Located safely at Cape Town, five hundred miles as the crow flies from the boiling Fish River frontier, the Governor thought the amaXhosa a “timid people.” He instructed Van Jaarsveld to use a strong Commando to persuade the Xhosa to move across the Fish River without using force. To this end, the Cape Council made available 1000 lbs of powder and 2000 lbs of lead [5].

By now, the farms of some Afrikaners on the frontier had been destroyed by the “timid” Suurveld amaXhosa. The Prinsloo family had lost almost all. In May 1781, Van Jaarsveld set up his base at Marthinus Prinsloo’s burnt-out farm below the Boschberg (below, location of the present Somerset East). He organized the families into protective laagers [6], and set out against the Suurveld amaXhosa, driving them back across the Fish River [7]. Here, Rharhabe was waiting for them with his army.

Fig 4-9 Own- BosbergSmall3Despite the efforts of remote historians to describe events in Southern Africa as an unequal struggle between spears and guns, the two parties to the conflict were well matched. The amaXhosa had numbers and the Afrikaners had flintlocks. The amaXhosa were capable of holding their own, combining superior tactics with their less sophisticated weapons. These latter day historical experts and revisionist social commentators ought to be challenged to reload a flintlock with powder from a horn while being charged by an overwhelming horde of battle-crazed amaXhosa, each expert at hurling a spear with astounding accuracy, and each carrying a supply of four to six of these weapons, known as assegais (see image below).

It had taken fully one hundred and thirty years from the founding of the Cape Settlement for the white man and the black man of South Africa to clash over matters of territory in the Suurveld. Two hundred and thirty years later, the ANC government of South Africa would attempt to mislead the world into believing the Dutch settlers at the Cape took South Africa from them. To sustain this political position, the ANC would have to rewrite history, and that is exactly what they are busy doing. It is also one of the reasons for the creation of AmaBhulu and for its focus on proper references and evidence. In fact, it was already the great-grandchildren of the original immigrants who were serving in the Commando on Afrikaner side, and they were doing so six hundred miles by oxwagon from Cape Town.

Strategically, the clash came at the worst possible time for the settlers. With the Netherlands now distinctly diminished, the Dutch East India Company government at the Cape had become utterly enfeebled. It would get worse. The independent-minded frontier people were becoming disenamored with what they saw as a distant and useless Company government. That government was preoccupied with Dutch shipping schedules and political contests among white men in Europe, while the frontiersmen were locked in a three-way struggle for their own survival in drought ridden bush country next to the Great Fish River, six hundred miles away. Discontent was at an all-time high, and it would get progressively worse. Most of the trouble could be traced to two factors. A new nation was being run by a commercial company with essentially zero interest in their well-being, and that company was now nearing bankruptcy.

Cover imageThis First Frontier War created an alliance between the Frontier Afrikaners and the amaRharhabe Xhosa that would last at least 20 years. It would play the strangest role in 1800 in an episode that the British Empire would simply write out of its own history. We shall return to that subject later, when we shall learn how Britain ended up paying tribute to men with spears.

All this may be read in AmaBhulu.



  1. Anders Sparrman, A Voyage to the Cape of Good Hope, Vol. 2, (1786), p. 253
  2. Anders Sparrman, A Voyage to the Cape of Good Hope, Vol. 2, (1786), p. 147
  3. D. Moodie, The Record III, (1960), p. 91; Declaration of Field Corporal Scheepers.
  4. D. Moodie, The Record III, (1960), p. 96; Records of Stellenbosch Heemraad, Oct. 10, 1780. The document records that the Landdrost laid before the board two letters from Field-Sergeant Adriaan van Jaarsveld about the Frontier. We quote from the minutes, “.. the furthest distant Chief of that Nation named Gagabie [Rharhabe] had requested the aid of the inhabitants, to attack the said hostile Captains, who are properly his subjects and in rebellion against him, with a combined force, and compel them to submit to him, offering his friendship and peace on a permanent footing.” It was resolved to forward the letters to the Governor in Cape Town. At the time, the frontier was managed from distant Stellenbosch.
  5. D. Moodie, The Record III, (1960), p. 97; Extract resolution of Council, Oct. 24, 1780; The planning for the campaign was completed on December 27, 1780. The detailed instructions to the Commandant of the Frontier are also on record at p.100 of the same document.
  6. Strengthened wagon circles laid out for optimal fields of fire, often with branches tied between wagons.
  7. George McCall Theal, History of South Africa under the administration of the DEIC, Vol. 2, (1897), p. 174

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