3. Setting the Fish River Boundary 1750-1779

Chapter 3 in the series WHO STOLE THE LAND?


— In the period from around 1702 to 1795, the end of Dutch East India Company control of the Cape, the frontier between the White and Black people would be solidified at the Fish River. It happened in stages. We can skip the massacre of the Hübner hunting party and proceed to the Beutler Expedition.

♦ The Beutler Expedition and the “French Colony” – 1752

On 29 February 1752 a large and formal expedition set out from Cape Town to inspect the eastern regions of the country1. Led by Ensign August Fredrick Beutler, it consisted of 37 military men, 25 wagon drivers and wagon leaders, a botanist, blacksmith, wagonmaker, a mapmaking surveyor, a marine officer to do latitude and distance measurements, and a superintendent. They had eleven wagons and even a boat for crossing rivers. This was a serious expedition with formal territorial powers and the right to defend itself. The actual description of the composition of the expedition in the pen of the Cape Council of Policy may be read HERE. The text of the diary kept may be read HERE (in Dutch).

At the Gouritsz River they were approached by a famished French sailor who had been abandoned along with a since-disappeared officer when their boat capsized on landing at Algoa Bay. Their ship had deserted them there. They reported that their ship had been “one of three” sent to look for a suitable spot near Algoa Bay for a French trading post. So, the French were interested in colonizing the East Cape.

Near George, they found the last white coastal farmer, the Widow Hasewinkel. They crossed the mountain via Attaqua’s Kloof, essentially the valley that runs below the Robinson Pass of today between Mossel Bay and Oudtshoorn. Making their way along the Langkloof behind the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma Mountain ranges, they eventually planted VOC territorial markers at Kabbeljouws River (Jeffreys Bay) and the Zwartkops River (Algoa Bay). They crossed the Zondaghs, Bushmans, and Fish Rivers. Beyond the Fish River and west of the Keiskamma (below) they found only Gonaqua Khoi and these people were on good terms with the Ba’Ntu.

At this point they started taking military precautions, as the Keiskamma was considered the boundary between Khoi and Ba’Ntu people. As soon as they crossed the Keiskamma, they were met by Black people.  All Khoi people, except for a few Gonaqua, deserted the train before they got to the Buffalo River near the present East London. They eventually stopped at the Great Place of the amaXhosa chief Gcalecka near what is now Komga, some 12 kilometres before reaching the Kei River. Beyond the Kei River lived the abaThembu (the Tambookies). It would appear the abaThembu had, possibly temporarily, driven the amaXhosa from their traditional home beyond that river.

One hundred years AFTER the Dutch landed at the Cape, the nearest formal amaXhosa were settled beyond the Keiskamma River and the leader Gcalecka was seated very near the Kei. Beyond the Kei lived the amaThembu. Between the Fish and the Keiskamma lived only the Gonaqua Khoi people. The formally settled Black people were therefore at least 850 kilometres or 530 miles as the crow flies from Cape Town.

♦ The Haarhof-Van Vuuren expedition – end 1755

On Tuesday, 11 May 1756 the Cape Council of Policy discusses the report2 of this expedition, sent by the magistrate of Swellendam, Jan Horak. The men went to the Bushman’s River and only met Khoekhoe people. There were no Black people, but they found lots of cattle dung.

The District Boundary Commission of 1770

On 4 December 1769 this commission left the West Cape to fix the boundary between the Stellenbosch and Swellendam “Colonies”. They travelled to the eastern outer reaches of the Cape Settlement and reached the last formal farm outside what is now Graaff-Reinet. It was named Uitvlugt and was  inhabited by Rudolph Gottlieb Opperman. From there they rode over open country for 33  hours to reach what they called “The first sprout of the Fish River3. [Any Afrikaans speaker will immediately recognise the word “sprout” here as actually being “spruit” in Dutch/Afrikaans, which more correctly means “small tributary” in this context] This would be the Little Fish River, which originates in the Sneeuberg (Snowy Mountains- below) and emerges next to the Bosberg behind what is now Somerset-East. At the turn of the year, a small party of them apparently attempted to find the Black people to the east and had zero success after riding seven hours, and venturing three more on foot. They were approached by some Khoekhoe, who told them that they were in contact with the enigmatic captain “Ruyter”, a renegade Khoekhoe leader, who was at the time near the Black people far to the southeast. It should be pointed out that Ruyter was not a Khoekhoe of the Eastern Frontier. He was actually a Fugitive of the Law in the Western Cape.

Where were the White people in 1770?

The Boundary Commission described above proceeded to the Coucha (Koega) River, which is situated several miles east of the present Port Elizabeth, where they met with Khoekhoe who told them that the farmers Van Reenen and Dryer grazed their cattle in those parts. The Commission also had contact with farmers named Kok, Koekemoer, Freyne, and Van der Merwe in that area. As they approached the Gamtoos River from the East, they were told by the local Khoekhoe that Jacobus Scheepers had grazed his cattle there recently. This is the Jacobus Scheepers who would marry the author’s own ancestor, Sara Delport, on 25 November of that year. Another farmer, Jacob Kok, was at the Van Stadens River, immediately west of Algoa Bay. So,

By 1770 the present author’s Scheepers family ancestors were already established near the Gamtoos River, west of the present Port Elizabeth, and other European descended farmers were closer to what is now Port Elizabeth.

♦ The first formal Eastern Border – 1770

The escarpment of Bruintjeshoogte lies between the present Karoo town of Pearston, situated in the dry low-lying Karoo scrubland, and Somerset East on the higher and wetter grassland above the escarpment. Somerset East is normally considered part of the Cape Midlands. Geographically it is on a spur of the Sneeuberg. The picture below shows a view of the Sneeuwberge to the northwest from the top of Bruintjeshoogte, with the Karoo town of Pearston below.

On 26 April 1770, reacting in displeasure to the fact that some white people had crossed the Gamtoos River, Governor Ryk Tulbagh issued a Proclamation, forbidding farmers to settle east of that river4. At that time, there was no indication of Ba’Ntu people west of the Fish River. He also allowed loan farms along the foot of Bruintjeshoogte in the north.

The rest of this segment will be presented at the hand of the map below, which sketches the developing border through the mid-1700s.

FIG.3-1 The Development of the Eastern Boundary of the Cape Colony

Thirty months later, on 28 October 1772, the Magistrate of the Swellendam “Colonie” advises5 the Governor that farmers on the Swartkops River (the Uitenhage of today) wish to have their farms formalized, since a certain Stephanus Bekker “has already received loan-title to three farms” in that district. They are significantly beyond the Gamtoos River. There are no Black people there at the time.

On 5 April 1774 the Governor formally makes Bruintjeshoogte the border6 and announces penalties for trading with the Black people or grazing cattle beyond that border. He is so badly “behind the ball”, it is almost laughable.

On 10 November 1774, the farmers (“Boere” in Dutch/Afrikaans) located beyond Bruintjeshoogte petition7 the Governor to allow them to stay there and pay rent to the government. That is, they want the border moved eastward:

PETITION OF INHABITANTS RESIDING BEYOND De BRUYN’S HOOGTE 1774. Nov. 10. To the Governor and Council, &c. :—
We come in all submission and respect imploring your Honors to accept this our humble petition, and to extend to us mercy and indulgence:

Great Sirs, —Whereas we have understood, with great sorrow, that numerous complaints have been made by our fellow burghers, to your Honors, against us, and which have much excited the wrath of your Honors against us, to our greatest concern and sorrow. To the effect—that we are obstinate and rebellious against your Honor’s Proclamation, and also against the prohibition of barter with the Kafirs. But which we are not, and do not, but through our great poverty, for as we possess little, should we go to live upon the Sneeuwberg, and should the Bosjesmans Hottentots take from us a single beast or sheep, we should suffer more [in proportion] than an inhabitant of Sneeuwberg, by the loss of ten cattle or sheep. For many of these inhabitants beyond De Bruyns Hoogte, are not in possession of 100 sheep and 5 cattle. Therefore, as there is here peace and quiet with the Hottentots, as it is fruitful for stock and for cultivation, and as there is also much game for our needful supply of food, we have come to reside here. We request, implore, and pray for the forgiveness of your Honors, if we have done amiss by trekking over.

Great powerful Sirs: —We entreat, in all submission, respect, and obedience, that you will take pity on us, and permit us to remain here, and to pay rent to the Company for this country. Then we shall, as obedient burgers and faithful subjects, each as far as he is concerned, take good care that such troublesome complaints be not conveyed to your Honors to awaken your anger. Also requesting respectfully that, in that event, you may select a fitting person residing beyond Bruyns Hoogte, as Field Commandant, and impose on him an oath that he may arrange petty disputes, such as differences between neighbours, and that he may report to the high council of policy such as might trade or barter with the Kafirs, so that the transgressor might be punished as an example to the others. We hope the Lord may bestow his grace upon your Honors, towards the desired result. Meanwhile we shall not cease to pray God Almighty to preserve the dear persons of your Honors still many years in his holy keeping, and remain with all imaginable respect, your Honors most obedient humble servants,

A. Krugel, W. Prinsloo, Johannes Klopper, Johannes Nortje, Jz., Jacobus Potgieter, Frans LabusCagne, Louis Nel, Pirh Schalwijk, Pieter Willemz Nel, Willem Prinsloo, Jr., Hendrik Kloppers, Hendrik Prinsloo, Claas Prinsloo.

Among the above signees, Frans Labuschagne and Johannes Klopper were respectively the present author’s ancestor and that of his wife. That is, both our ancestors were right at the limit of the Cape Settlement. They were at the very outer edge of Western Civilization.

♦ The border is placed at the Bushman’s River – 1775

After a series of boundary reports during the course of 1775, Governor Van Plettenberg on 27 December of that year set the boundary of the Colony as the Fish River for the northern section, and the Bushman’s River for the southern section8.

It is against this background that Anders Sparrman of Sweden visits the Cape of Good Hope in 1775, and proceeds as far as what is then the boundary. Upon reaching the Bushman’s River9, he does not report any Black people, but he does meet Gonaqua Khoekhoe people both west and east of Port Elizabeth,  and furthermore also San Bushmen nearer the Bushman’s River. He also meets up with white farmers at Zwartkops River. When he crossed the Fish River north of the present Kommadagga and south of Cookhouse, he did not mention any Black people being there10. He was guided by San Bushmen. He actually stayed with Willem Prinsloo on his farm at the foot of the Bosberg (below). Many years later, that farm would become Somerset-East11, the town in the image.

♦ The Cape Military Commander visits the Frontier – 1777

A mere two years later, in December 1777, Robert Jacob Gordon, the Dutch East India Company military Commander at the Cape toured the eastern limit of the colony and visited Willem Prinsloo at his farm at the foot of the Bosberg in Achter-Bruintjeshoogte. On 4 December 1777 he climbed Bosberg behind the farm, and when he returned later in the day, he found three Black men at Prinsloo’s place12. Their leaders, including a certain “Coba” (Kobela of the amaGwali in Fig.2 below), were encamped immediately west of the Fish River at the farm of Theunis Botha and Gordon met with them.  Gordon clearly states, “Coba’s kraal is situated an hour north-east across the river“, referring to it being east of the Fish River. Yet, Kobela was now moving around on Colonial Territory.

To understand what was happening, and why Black people were suddenly at the Fish River, we now return to a view of the world on the amaXhosa side of history. Meanwhile, we note that the “Chinese Hottentots/Bushmen” he speaks to13 place the Tambookies (the abaThembu) behind the Zomo/Tsomo River, which runs between what are now Indwe and Elliot in the far Northeastern Cape. They were located furthest west of all the Ba’Ntu tribes on the coastal side of the Drakensberg/Kathlamba nearest that mountain range. While they speak isiXhosa, they are a distinctly different nation, and traditionally provide Great Wives (see below) to the amaXhosa. Rolihlahla “Nelson” Mandela was a member of the AbaThembu. They will enter our picture more significantly later.

♦ The Indefinite Territorial Expansion of the amaXhosa

The royal succession scheme of the amaXhosa is the unspoken problem that lurks behind much of the sociopolitical trouble in South Africa since the 18th century. As a polygamy-based culture, a Xhosa king may have several wives. One of the wives is deemed the “Great Wife”. She is not necessarily the first wife in time. The eldest of her sons by the king is the Royal successor by birth. That is, he is the son of the “Great House”, the Great Son. The first son of the “Second Wife” is deemed the head of the “Right-hand House”. In this fashion, there may be yet further “Houses”. To compound matters, the son of the Right-Hand House takes precedence over the second son from the Great House. Given that the primary sons from the different houses did not share the same mother, competition among them was a serious and often extremely bloody business.

As the sons reached maturity, they would move out to occupy their own new territories with their supporters. However, in the greater scheme of things, all owed allegiance to the Great House. The problems often came in the third and further generations when the competitors were effectively half-cousins, all with dreams of power. The amaXhosa succession plan is an exponential runaway function of polygamy, lending itself inherently to conflict, conquest, and indefinite territorial expansion.  Its design ensured simply too many princes with territorial ambitions.

The following diagram shows the amaXhosa Royal structure that formed the background to the conflicts to erupt from the 1770s onward. We have omitted some sons who did not play a big role in frontier matters. Regents (typically brothers of dead kings) are likewise omitted, unless they played a major frontier role, as Ndlambe did. Some were significant in other ways, such as Mnyaluza. Khama was a brother of Phatho.

Fig.3-2 The Royal Succession Plan of the amaXhosa

Togu’s Great Son was Ngconde, and headed the amaXhosa around 1675, when the Dutch had been settled at the Cape for some twenty-three years. The amaTinde tribe arose from a half-brother of Ngconde, named Tinde or Ntinde. They are the earliest “Spin-Off Tribe” in our diagram. The Great Son of Ngconde was Tshiwo and Mdange was a half-brother of Tshiwo. By this point in the succession plan, we are contemplating a Royal House led by Tshiwo, a Right Hand House led by Mdange, and a more distantly related House of the amaTinde. To this we still further add the amaGqunukhwebe, a tribe with a genetic mix of Gonaqua Khoekhoe and real amaXhosa, who were inducted as an amaXhosa tribe by Tshiwo as reward for supporting him in a moment of need. They were “Honorary amaXhosa”. Just this tribal picture alone already promised problems.

By the time we get to Great Son Phalo, a great hero of the amaXhosa, we are faced with Phalo’s Great House, half-brother Gwali’s amaGwali, the imiDange under Mahote, the amaTinde under Ngethane, and the amaGqunukhwebe under Shaka. Some of these leaders were now half-second-cousins and “felt” nothing for one another. Furthermore, the amaTinde were by now a Right Hand House of longer standing than, for example, the amaGwali or the imiDange. On top of this, the amaTinde had a huge admixture of Khoekhoe blood. All this complexity showed in their mutual relationships.

Gwali, Phalo’s half-brother from the Right Hand Royal House tried to kill Phalo. However, he failed and had to flee with his followers and the amaTinde clan westward over the Kei River to the Khoekhoe people. This is the origin of the amaGwali. The amaGwali or amaTinde are likely the people who the hunting expedition of 1702 clashed with.

As the Royal Succession Plan generated more and more “Spin-off Houses”, there was constant pressure on the losers of these various contests to move further southwestward to have their own territory. Since their culture was based almost totally on milk, if they lost a contest and therewith their cattle, they had to steal someone else’s cattle, enter subservience, or starve to death. They generally seemed to prefer the first option. The concept of turning completely to agriculture simply did not occur to them.

By the time Phalo had sons Gcaleka, Rharhabe and Ulanga, there was already very bloody competition among the amaGwali, imiDange, and amaTinde. The amaGqunukhwebe tried to stay out of the way of the rest by moving along the coast.

*: pronounced “chachabe” with the “ch” as in the Scottish “loch”

♦ The amaRharhabe and amaGcaleka

The inevitable war between Gcaleka and the ambitious Rharhabe eventually broke out. When Rharhabe led the amaRharhabe out of the land beyond the Kei River to settle at the headwaters of the Keiskamma River and in the Tyumie Valley, he was in reality stronger than his half-brother Gcaleka, to whom he owed obeisance. This would lead to problems that have extended into the 21st century.

After intense fighting with the local Khoekhoe on the Keiskamma River, Rharhabe eventually bought from the Khoekhoe the land between the headwaters of the Buffalo and Keiskamma Rivers, including the adjoining portion of the Amatola Mountain and its Tyumie Rver Valley, where he made his home with his amaRharhabe. They would eventually become the most powerful amaXhosa. Despite being a Spin-off Tribe themselves, they were and still are powerful enough to warrant a category of their own. They were bitterly opposed to the other Spin-Off Tribes in the diagram above and there were several wars between the amaRharhabe and these other Spin-offs, which we shall refer to as the “Frontier amaXhosa”, being the imiDange, amaMbalu, amaTinde and amaGqunukhwebe. In the oral record, Mdange is supposed to have specifically refused to recognize any authority on the part of Rharhabe, but swore allegance to Phalo, who was the son of his (Mdange’s) own elder brother Tshiwo. Mdange had formerly acted as regent for the underage Phalo.

The picture we have presented here, based in part on the work of Peires, sets the stage for the first formal territorial clashes between White and Black, which would only happen in 1780. It would be between the Frontiersmen and the Frontier amaXhosa encroaching from the northeast down the coast. That would be just on 130 years (more than five generations) after the Dutch first settled the Cape and would happen some 500 miles from the Cape.

♦ The Final Dutch Eastern Frontier:  The Fish River – 1778

In 1778 Governor Joachim van Plettenberg became the first ever Governor of the Colony to visit the Eastern Frontier in person14. He came deeply under the impression of the tremendous struggle the farmers had against the San Bushmen who would raid them, kill their animals, and then withdraw to the Bamboesberg, far to the Northeast. The records from 1778 to 1780 are filled with the trauma of these San attacks. It is also on this visit, the records claim, that he met with the “chiefs of the Kafirs” to agree on the Fish River as boundary. It would later become clear that he had only made this agreement with the amaGwali, as we shall show below.

Governor van Plettenberg made the Fish River the border in 1778 in agreement with the amaGwali

It is only on 14 November 1780 that the records reflect the actual decision15 for the first time. By then the First Frontier War had broken out between White and Black. Moodie16 states that, “A comparison of the facts now supplied with the published naratives of Thunnberg, Spaarman, Paterson, and Vaillant, from 1772 to 1782, will, however, suffice to settle the question of the position of those tribes.”

This author has studied all those texts, and Thunberg never proceeded beyond the Gamtoos River, Sparrman was headed far up along the Fish and had not met any Black people by the end of his first volume, and La Vaillant turned inland before entering the area between the Bushman’s River and the Fish River. Paterson, however, is helpful in his journey, though it occurs in February 1779.

He met Gonaqua Khoi in the region east of the Swartkops River and also stopped at the kraal of the enigmatic Khoi chief Ruyter17, who had apparently shortly before beaten off an attack by Mahote of the imiDange beyond the Bushman’s River. Mahote had been driven west over the Fish River by Rharhabe18 who would kill Mahote soon after.

Paterson reached the Fish River some twenty miles from its mouth. He states19 ,

I proceeded easterly towards the Caffres, being informed that we could reach their country in two or three days.

He had sent off his wagon, crossed the river, and was presumably now on horseback. He eventually reached the Black people who were led by a chief named “Khouta”.

—Harry Booyens



1.   George McCall Theal, The History of South Africa 1691-1795, (1888), p.143

2.   Cape Town Archives Repository, Resolutions of the Council of Policy of the Cape of Good Hope, Reference code: C. 134, pp. 224-258; Tuesday 11 May 1756

3.   D. Moodie, The Record, Part III (1838), p.2

4.   D. Moodie, The Record, Part III (1838), p.6

5.   D. Moodie, The Record, Part III (1838), p.17

6.   D. Moodie, The Record, Part III (1838), p.24

7.   D. Moodie, The Record, Part III (1838), p.39

8.   D. Moodie, The Record, Part III (1838), p.50

9.   A. Sparrman, A Voyage to the Cape of Good Hope towards the Antarctic Polar Circle and Round the World but chiefly into the Country of the Hottentots and the Caffres, from the year 1772 until 1776 – V.1, (1785), pp.38-74

10. A. Sparrman, A Voyage to the Cape of Good Hope towards the Antarctic Polar Circle and Round the World but chiefly into the Country of the Hottentots and the Caffres, from the year 1772 until 1776 – V.1, (1785), p.138

11. A. Sparrman, A Voyage to the Cape of Good Hope towards the Antarctic Polar Circle and Round the World but chiefly into the Country of the Hottentots and the Caffres, from the year 1772 until 1776 – V.1, (1785), p.140

12. https://www.robertjacobgordon.nl/travel-journals/second-journey/4th-december-1777 See also Patrick Cullinan, Robert Jacob Gordon 1743-1795, The Man and his Travels, (1992), p.41

13. https://www.robertjacobgordon.nl/travel-journals/second-journey/5th-december-1777  See also Patrick Cullinan, Robert Jacob Gordon 1743-1795, The Man and his Travels, (1992), p.41

14. Cape Town Archives Repository, Resolutions of the Council of Policy of the Cape of Good Hope, Reference code: C. 156, pp. 379-412.; December 1, 1778

15. D. Moodie, The Record, Part III (1838), p.99

16. D. Moodie, The Record, Part III (1838), Note at bottom of p.76

17. William Patterson, A Narrative of Four Journeys into the country of the Hottentots and Caffraria in 1777, 8 &9, (1789), pp.83-85

18.  Jeffrey P. Peires, The House of Phalo, (1981), p.50

19. William Patterson, A Narrative of Four Journeys into the country of the Hottentots and Caffraria in 1777, 8 &9, (1789), pp.88