4. The Two Frontier Wars between the Afrikaners and the amaXhosa

Chapter 4 in the series WHO STOLE THE LAND?


♦ The First Frontier War – (1779-1781)

On 5 November 1779 Field Corporal Jan Scholtz reported1 that he found at the Swartkops River thirteen burgers and their cattle, along with the cattle of six more burghers. All had fled from the Zondaghs River (see the map of Fig.3-1) after the Black people had stolen their cattle. When they asked the Blacks why the cattle had been stolen, they were told it was because the white people were harbouring the Gonaqua Khoi, who stole the cattle of the Black people. They demanded that the Whites drive away the Gonaqua.

In a number of subsequent reports [under the same reference as above] it was revealed that Mahote’s imiDange had entered the general region of the Bushman’s River and had killed Khoi men, women and children looking after White farmers’ cattle and had stolen the cattle. By 19 December 1779, Field Corporal Johannes Potgieter reported that the imiDange claimed the thefts were by Black people situated further inland and that it was because the Gonaqua stole their cattle and that it was assumed the Whites supported the Gonaqua actions.

The situation assumed a different proportion when the present author’s ancestral brother, Josua Joubert, reported to the Magistrate of Stellenbosch on events in the Achter-Bruintjeshoogte region. The letter written by the Magistrate2 to the Governor is useful in that it clarifies that Van Plettenberg’s earlier border agreement had been with “Koba” (Kobela of the amaGwali), who kept penetrating across the Fish River, as may be seen from Gordon’s journey. Joubert also reports that Kobela complained that a hunting party led by Willem Prinsloo (further above)  had killed a member of Rharhabe’s tribe on the far side of the Fish River.

  • Comment by the present author: The Rharhabe and the Frontier amaXhosa were enemies. Clearly the leaders of the imiDange and amaGwali Frontier amaXhosa were pointing the fingers of both hands in two opposing directions so as to transfer guilt.  This was the same game the Khoi had played, with some success, with Van Riebeeck 130 years before. As it stood, Joubert made it quite clear anyway that he was opposed to Willem Prinsloo, who happens to have been an in-law of this author’s wife’s ancestor. The best explanation here that makes all-round sense, is that both the amaGwali and the imiDange had been chased over the Fish River by Rharhabe and were doing their best to implicate Rharhabe in the eyes of the “White Leadership”.

Kobela claimed Willem Prinsloo, or one of his men, had shot a Black man (likely of Kobela’s amaGwali) while the latter was attempting to steal a sheep. This had resulted in an attack by Kobela, which in turn had led to a commando of farmers under Josua Joubert (the man reporting) attacking and shooting quite a number of the amaGwali and taking their cattle. This had now turned into a tit-for-tat war in the Achter-Bruintjeshoogte district (today’s Somerset East) from which the farmers had withdrawn for now.

On 10 October 1780, a letter3 from Adriaan van Jaarsveld, Field-Sergeant in the Achter-Bruintjeshoogte, was laid before the Council of Stellenbosch Magistrate, Regional Councillors, and Militia Officers. It is VERY interesting, because none other than Rharhabe himself was offering “Friendship and Peace on a Permanent Footing” in exchange for military support from the Settler Authority in fighting the Frontier amaXhosa [author’s emphases]:

Extract Records of Landdrost, Heemraden, and Militia Court, Stellenbosch. 1780.

Oct. 10. – The undersigned Landdrost has this day laid before the combined Board two letters recently received by him from Adriaan van Jaarsvelt, Field Sergeant beyond De Bruyns Hoogte,…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 upon a permanent footing.

As we now know, the “hostile Captains” were not truthfully Rharhabe’s subjects under the amaXhosa succession structure, but Rharhabe saw in the frontiersmen a natural ally. Nine months later, on 20 July 1781, Adriaan van Jaarsveld, who had been given command of the campaign against the Frontier amaXhosa, reported4 (See Fig.3-1 and Fig.3-3),

I therefore, assembled a strong Commando, and began to expel the Kafirs on the 23d of May last, at the farm of the burger Erasmus Smit. I warned Captain Koba in the most earnest manner to depart with all his people, and also to tell all the other Captains to return to their own country…

On the 1st June, I warned the nearest Captains, Jerambam (Jalamba), Luca and Bazana, in the presence of the whole Commando, that they must remove, and that we must also have a restoration of the stolen cattle. … the said three Captains and all their fencible men were overthrown and slain.

…on the 7th to the 10th, returned to our camp at the place of W. Prinsloo, and went out again, upon and behind the Boschberg, where I found the other portion of the Kafirs, namely the Captains Coba, Magoti, and Thatthoe ; attacked them also,…

The 11th and 12th; returned to our camp, and set off to Captain Langa who had moved to this side of Bushmans River, towards its mouth. On the 14th, desired him in the name of the Governor, for the preservation of the treaty of peace which had been made, to return peaceably to his own country, and never henceforth to make any pretension to the country on this side of the said River; with which he willingly complied.

On the 15th, went to warn two other Captains, Thiete and Zeka, who also lay on this side, but found on our arrival that they had fled the night before.

18th, —Went out again up the hills, and found that the upper Kafirs had gone up the Papezans (Baviaans) River, where, standing on the hills, they shouted to us that they would resume the fight, and that they would have no exchange of cattle, but should soon get back their own.

16th [July],— Fell in with Captain Thatthoe, at the junction of the Great and Little Fish River, defeated (or killed, geslagen) him, with all his fencible men, and captured 1,500 cattle ; they wounded 3 of our Hottentots.

17th,—Attacked the Captains Thiete and Zieka, lying at the Thouhie (Kowie?) on this side of Great Fish River, but from the number of forests could kill very few, but we also captured part of their cattle, to the number of 2000, and returned to Cornelis Botma’s.

In the above, Jalamba and  Magoti/Mahote were leaders of the imiDange, and both had been killed.  Coba/Kobela and Thiete/Titi were leaders of the amaGwali. Langa led the amaMbalu. Zeka/Cika was a leader of the amaTinde and the Kowie River is at what is today Bathurst. The names “Luca”, “Bazana”, and “Thatthoe” are more difficult to place in 1780, but there was a Tzatzoe in later frontier history.

The Baviaans River (above – looking southwest) is a northeastern tributary of the Fish River that would play a very big role later. It is quite evident that the Frontier amaXhosa had crossed the Fish River on a 100 mile wide front from the sea to the Winterberg. Neither the amaGcaleka Great House, nor the Rharhabe Right Hand House had crossed the Fish River. However, according to Pieres, it had been Rharhabe who had driven these Frontier Tribes over the Fish River and into the farmers5. Rharhabe had also killed Mahote of the imiDange. The Frontier amaXhosa were responding by crossing the Great Fish River and clashing with another tribe, being the Settlers, who they called the “amaBhulu”. “Bhulu” is an isiXhosa corruption of the word “Boere” (Dutch: farmers). “AmaBhulu” therefore simply means “the Farmer People”.

  • Comment by the present author: Clearly, we had here a Clash of two Civilizations that had little in common beyond being human, having cattle, and battling the same elements. Pretty much nothing else in the two cultures worked the same way. It was Western Civilization clashing with Tribal African Society against the broader world cultural backdrop of the Early Industrial Europe, Revolutionary America, and Louis XVI’s accession to the French throne six years before.

The First Frontier War of 1780, and the run-up to it, established the Great Fish River as the boundary between the Frontier Settlers and the Frontier amaXhosa. It is from this place in the year 1780 that fruitful debate can be started about who “stole” what land from whom. Neither group has a stronger claim to the opposing side of the river. In this war, Rharhabe of the amaXhosa solicited the help of the Dutch governor in defeating the  Frontier amaXhosa.

We note in particular that the amaGqunukhwebe people do not yet appear in any of the reports we have referred to. It is clear from a number of texts that Tshaka, their leader, was fearful of Rharhabe. Some amaXhosa cultural sources6 claim that Tshaka’s Great Son, Chungwe, was born in the mid-early 18th century in the Ciskei, the interior region between the Keiskamma and the Kei Rivers. That is also where Rharhabe had his stronghold. This explains a lot, as we shall see. This is also where Rharhabe earlier clashed with a Khoekhoe nation (see above). Perhaps it is these people who were inducted as “Honorary amaXhosa House” by Tshawe to create the amaGqunukhwebe. On a 1798 map by the exceedingly Afrikaner-hating Barrow (shown below: click to enlarge), the area between the Koonap River and the Keiskamma River is labeled “Well watered plains once inhabited by the Ghonaqua, a race now extinct“. He was quite wrong. They were still far from extinct several decades later and would play a key role, still caught between Western Man and the amaXhosa.

FIG.4-1 Barrow’s 1798 map of the east of the (now British) Cape Colony

The border is shown in a broken line at the right hand end of the map. The border of the Swellendam District is shown as ending at the Gamtoos River, and then departing that river to head for the Great Swartberg range. Barrow has the Winterhoek Mountain wrongly placed as east of that border. It is in fact immediately west of it. He can be forgiven, because the route of the river through that mountain range is tortuous in the extreme. The map shows the location of Ngqika as “Residence of the King“. This map is also useful in showing the border of the Colony in the Tarka. The abaThembu were still quite far east of that. Note also the extensive areas that are labeled “deserted on account of the Bosjesmans” (San Bushmen). They remained a very serious menace and would kill the author’s Labuschagne ancestor in 1792.

  • Comment by present author: Fascinatingly, the location of the future Port Elizabeth is given as “landing place”. Kragga Kamma is today a suburb of that City. “Sundays River” is actually Zondaghs River, named for Matthys Zondagh, an early farmer in that area. His namesake went to school with the present author. Incredibly, the road from the long dead lead mine on the coast to Zwartkops River still exists today. The lead mine was near what is today Maitlands River Mouth and the main town on the Zwartkops River is Uitenhage.

♦ The amaGqunukhwebe in the Suurveld

At some point during the 1780s, Rharhabe died in battle against the abaThembu. His great son Mlawu had died before him. Mlawu’s son, Ngqika was too young to ascend the throne of the amaRharhabe, and Ndlambe, Mlawu’s brother, was quite correctly appointed regent. He moved rapidly to try to consolidate his power before Ngqika came of age. But the Frontier amaXhosa now insisted that their vassalage to the amaRharhabe since the First Frontier War died with Rharhabe.

On 7 May 1785 the British East Indiaman, the Pigot, put ashore one hundred scorbutic passengers and crew near Algoa Bay. They were taken to a nearby farm. Some officers of the ship then made their way overland to the Cape, apparently doing surveys on the way. This so alarmed the Cape Dutch East India Company Government that in 1786 they decided to create the separate district of Graaff-Reinet (see map above) mostly out of the overextended Stellenbosch District. The Gamtoos River formed the border with the Swellendam District to the West and the Fish River was the border on the East. It included the Tarka (on the higher ground northeast of the present Cradock), from there north to Van Plettenberg’s beacon on the Seekoei River, and thence southwest through the expansive Karoo. Graaff-Reinet (below) was to be the only town and seat of the Drostdy/Magistracy.

In 1786 the Graaff-Reinet District was created to extend along the coast from the Gamtoos River to the Fish River. In the interior it included the Tarka northeast of the later Cradock and almost reached the Orange River. Its western limit was to be the Gamka River in the South Karoo.

The first Magistrate was a man named Maurits Herman Otto Woeke. It is at this point that Chungwa and the amaGqunukhewbe enter our picture. Chungwa would maintain that his father Tshaka had earlier bought the Suurveld from the semi-mystical Khoekhoe “Captain Ruyter”. Whatever the truth may be, Chungwa entered the region around the Bushman’s River at some time after Ruyter’s disappearance (after 1779 when Paterson saw Ruyter) and before 1793. Colonel Collins, in his 1809 report about the colony, addressed this matter as follows7:

“His [Ruyter’s] country being well stocked with game of every description, Zaka [Tshaka] applied for leave to hunt in it, and at first paid for his permission; but wishing to remove from the vicinity of his powerful neighbours Zlambie [Ndlambe, son of Rharhabe and regent for Great Son Ngqika] and Langa [Ulanga], he was induced to try to establish himself on the right bank of the Great Fish River. As a justification of his conduct, he gave out that he had purchased the Zuureveld. Having understood that his successor founds his claim to that country in a great degree upon this transaction, I thought the subject worth inquiry. The grandchildren of Ruiter are still living; and they declared to me, in common with all the other Hottentots whom I questioned upon this point, that there was not the least truth in the assertion.”

♦ The Second Frontier War (1789-1793)

By March 1789 the Frontiersmen were warning Woeke’s office that the Frontier amaXhosa were again crossing the Fish River, and he advised the Governor8. It has been rumoured for 230 years that Woeke was corrupt and sold the Suurveld (below) between the Fish and Bushman’s Rivers to chief Tshaka of the amaGqunukhwebe (see FIG. 3-1) in exchange for cattle9.  In fact, during the 1815 Slagtersnek Rebellion, this author’s own ancestral younger brother, Johannes Bezuidenhout, would suggest that Woeke had made this trade10.

Back in the early 1790s, the truth was that the entire Dutch East India Company was on its last legs and thoroughly corrupt. The Frontiersmen complained to the Governor that, when they warned Woeke that the Frontier amaXhosa were crossing the Fish River again, Woeke did nothing and accused them of being alarmists, that he repeatedly called them “mere damned Afrikaners“, that he was drunk on commando, and that he drunkenly fell off his horse on the farm of the author’s ancestral brother, Willem Grobler. In the original Dutch11:

…dat zij oproermakers zijn, en ten laatsten moeten de ondergeteekenden tot hun Smerten by alle gelegenheid aanhooren dat zij in alle gevallen maar verdoemde Africaaners zijn;… Voor eerst, wat het dronken drinken aangaat, heeft den Landdrost zig dikwils zelfs meede bezoedeld, als op de Cafferstogt, bij Willem Grobler zo dronken geweest, dat hij van zijn Paard is gevallen,…

Woeke was eventually dismissed from his job and Honoratius Maynier took over from him. Maynier never disguised his hatred of the Frontiersmen.  When they warned him that the Frontier amaXhosa were crossing the Fish River, he too disregarded their warnings until it was too late.

In this war, Ndlambe again allied with Frontiersmen to oppose the Frontier amaXhosa. Three men in particular supported Ndlambe in his battles. They were Christoffel Botha, the author’s direct ancestor Coenraad Bezuidenhout, and his 7-foot giant cousin, Coenraad de Buys. The mothers of the last two were sisters.

In this war the attacks went back and forth across the Fish River Border. On 18 May 1793, Barend Lindeque and some Frontiersmen, in frustration with the inaction of Maynier, attacked the amaXhosa kraals and took 800 head of cattle in reprisal for the cattle theft of the amaXhosa, and shared them with Ndlambe on a 50:50 basis. This was followed by an invasion by the amaXhosa. The frontier settlers fled west, but several were killed. The author’s own ancestral brother was tortured to death by the Frontier amaXhosa. This invasion finally forced the hand of the Governor. The Afrikaner commandos drove the amaXhosa back over the Fish. They tried to flee further east, but Ndlambe cut them off, killed Tshaka and captured Ulanga12.

This war reinforced the Great Fish River as the border between the Cape Colony and the Afrikaner Settlers. But, to induce the Frontier amaXhosa to settle for “Peace” and move back across that border, Maynier, an ultra liberal Dutch East India Company man, felt compelled to buy them off by giving them presents and allowing them to keep most of the cattle they had looted. Chungwa of the amaGqunukhwebe settled again west of the Fish River near the Bushman’s River and Maynier did nothing about it. The Frontier amaXhosa had made a perfect idiot out of Maynier.

Beyond frustration with Maynier, the Frontiersmen of Graaff-Reinet ran him out of town for his denial of their every plea and his hapless misconduct of the war. They wanted nothing more to do with Dutch East India Company government, which they experienced via Woeke and Maynier as something akin to an enemy.

The Second Frontier War of 1793 reinforced the Great Fish River as the border between the Cape Colony and the Frontier amaXhosa. Maynier, Magistrate of the Graaff-Reinet District, bought off Chungwa of the amaGqunukhwebe and left him west of the Fish River near the Bushman’s River. Chungwa had been born beyond the Keiskamma river. In June 1795, the Frontiersmen ran Maynier out of Graaff-Reinet for his extreme bias and incompetence and they declared independence. The burghers of Swellendam followed suit.

This review sets the political border between the Western World and the Black African amaXhosa at the Fish River. While the worst wars between the Colony and the amaXhosa were still to follow, we terminate our review at this Second Frontier War, because the remaining seven Frontier Wars would be fought between the amaXhosa and the new Colonial master, the British.  The Third Frontier War took place on British watch and was an unmitigated disaster for the Frontiersmen, but they were stuck in their own struggle with British Authority. Those unhappy with South African history on the above frontier after 1795 may feel free to take it up with the British Government, whose historic conduct was beyond despicable in this matter.

This author acknowledges the right of the amaXhosa to the land beyond the Fish River, with the exception of the Koonap, situated immediately north of where the Fish River turns sharply to the West. This is the piece of land situated today between Cookhouse near the Fish River and Fort Beaufort on the Kat River.

With this, our attention moves to the interior to assess the border between the Western World and the abaThembu.

—Harry Booyens



1.  D. Moodie, The Record, Part III (1838), pp.90-91

2.  D. Moodie, The Record, Part III (1838), pp.92-94

3.  D. Moodie, The Record, Part III (1838), pp.96

4.  D. Moodie, The Record, Part III (1838), pp.110-112

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

6.  http://xhosaculture.co.za/history/amagqunukhwebe/

7.  D. Moodie, The Record, Part V (1838), p.10

8.  Cape Town Archives Repository, Resolutions of the Council of Policy of the Cape of Good Hope, Reference code: C. 182, pp. 62-103; March 20, 1789

9.  Andries Stockenstrom, The Autobiography of the Late Sir Andries Stockenstrom, (1887), p.58

10. H.C.V. Leibbrandt, The Rebellion of 1815, (1902), p.248

11. Cape Town Archives Repository, Resolutions of the Council of Policy of the Cape of Good Hope, Reference code: C. 207, pp. 26-110; September 7, 1792

12. Jeffrey P. Peires, The House of Phalo, (1981), p.51