5. The British Cape Frontier before the Great Trek 1799-1836

Chapter 5 in the series WHO STOLE THE LAND?

— Our attention now moves to the interior to assess the border between the Western World and the abaThembu. By 1800, both the author’s ancestral  Labuschange family and his wife’s ancestral Jordaan family were already living in the Tarka region north of the Winterberg or Amatole Mountains, as may be seen in THESE 1799-1801 muster roll records at the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA, reproduced here by shrinking the horizontal dimension of the entry:

Pieter Willem Coetzer                          | Anna Susan: Jordaan                | Heeft 1 le. Plaats… legt aan de Tarka

Casper Labuscagne Casper z.              |                                              | Woond bij Piet Coetzer..”

Pieter Jordaan Pieter z.                       | Martha Cathar. Snijman             | Legt aan de Tarka

The Tarka may be seen in Barrow’s map of 1798 which we give again below (click on map to enlarge), but focused on the north of the region. On this map the eastern border of the colony is denoted by a broken line which we have toned in red. The abaThembu lived some distance east of this border, off the right hand edge of the map to the east of what is now Queenstown. Much of the Northern Tarka was under the control of San Bushmen, who repeatedly raided the farmers. The author’s direct ancestor, Casper Labuschagne, father of Casper above, had been killed by San Bushman in 1792 some distance to the south, as reported by the ineffectual Graaff-Reinet Magistrate Woeke in a letter1 dated 9 February 1792.

FIG 5.1 The Tarka and adjoining regions (Barrow-1798)

The rain-shadow country behind the Amatole/Winterberg is dry. It is largely horse, sheep and goat country. It is, however, marginally better grazing country than the regions further west, which are much like Southern Arizona and Nevada.

This whole region was spared the depredations of the Suurveld amaXhosa. However, one small but significant episode needs to be recounted here from the Third Frontier War, because it took place in the Tarka but affects the Koonap south of the high Winterberg. To this end, the Kat, Fish, and Baviaans Rivers are toned blue on the map.

♦ The Third Frontier War comes to the Tarka … sort of – 1800

In the middle of 1799, the British Governor basically disarmed the frontier Afrikaners, thinking them to be the main military threat. The immediate consequence was a Khoekhoe rebellion in the east of the Colony with support of the mixed-descent amaGqunukhwebe Xhosa. This horde fell on the disarmed Afrikaner  farmers. The author’s own Scheepers and Delport family was massacred at Great Winterhoek mountain northwest of the present Port Elizabeth. The detail of the disastrous British effort may be read in The Black King with the White Stepfather, elsewhere on this site.

Everywhere across the east of the colony the farmers fled westward or to Graaff-Reinet, or to to the beach at Algoa Bay, hoping for protection by the British Army that had just disarmed them. The idiocy of the British knew no bounds during this debacle. Incredibly, they actually managed to hire some of the Khoekhoe rebels into the British Army and ended up being driven onto the beach at Algoa Bay. It was over this period that the first ever British soldiers died in Southern Africa.

The farmers of the Achter-Bruyntjeshoogte region gathered at the confluence of the Baviaans and Fish Rivers and set off up the Baviaans River valley to attempt to reach the Tarka. They fought off attacks by the imiDange Xhosa all the way. Upon reaching the Tarka, their leader, Piet Prinsloo, set off to the capital of amaRharhabe King Ngqika. As fate would have it, the authors’s giant ancestral cousin, Coenraad de Buys, had married Ngqika’s mother, Yese, and was now key adviser to Ngqika.

The result of the consult with Ngqika was that Prinsloo returned with a message for his people, recorded by Johannes van der Kemp of the London Missionary Society in his diary2. Van der Kemp was in the same wagon train with these folks and had as yet not revealed himself as the mortal enemy of the Afrikaner he would later become:

Aug.14th.— […] soon after, Piet Prinslo arrived; he said Gika intended to keep peace with the colonists, and to protect them, offering them a piece of ground between the Kacha [Kaga] mountains, and the Konap River, that he has sent out four deputies to proclaim that all hostilities committed by his subjects were against his will, and immediately put a stop to them.

Aug.15th— […] and this morning Gika’s men arrived, and staid at this farm. In the evening the Mondankian* Caffres again appeared, but kept themselves in the river: our dogs flew at them, and as soon as one of Gika’s men oredered them to make their retreat, they obeyed.

*: Mondankian Caffres: The imiDange Xhosa

So, King Ngqika himself gave the land between the Koonap and the Kaga Mountain to his Afrikaner allies.

♦ Until December 1834

Two more Frontier wars with the Suurveld amaXhosa would range back and forth over the region between the Winterberg/Amatole and the coast, but they would leave the Tarka laregly undistrubed. This is largely due to the Xhosa interest in the wetter country on the coastal side of those mountains. They had little interest in the scrubland, inconsistent grass, and sub-freezing winters of the high and dry Tarka (below).

During the course of the Fourth Frontier War of 1811, the British would establish Grahamstown on the high ridge overlooking the Suurveld. They would turn the Suurveld into the new district of Albany, named for the new British Magistrate Jacob Cuyler’s place of birth, being Albany in New York State in the USA. His father had been a Dutch American Loyalist mayor of Albany who had been forced to flee to Canada.

In the Fifth Frontier War of 1819, the amaXhosa, now led by a “Medicine Man” (in American terms) named Nxele, attacked Grahamstown with the help of deserters from the British Royal African Corps. It was only with the timeous help of the Khoekhoe big game hunter Boesak that the amaXhosa were beaten off and the town saved.

In 1820 Britain settled around 1,600 British Settlers in the Suurveld. This included  ancestors of the author’s wife. Some managed to figure out how to farm in that tough country, but many promptly fled to the towns, leaving only 552 as farmers. Life in London or the towns of Kent does not prepare one for the realities of farming in Africa. This is especially true when one’s own government is using one as a human shield on a dangerous frontier.

Meanwhile, in the Tarka, north of the winter-snowcapped Winterberg mountains, our Jordaan family and its Potgieter and Du Plessis relatives were systematically being troubled more and more by horse thieves from Maphasa, an important chief of the abaThembu, better known as the Tambookies. Maphasa had moved the abaThembu westward across the Tsomo River where they had originally lived (See Chapter 3 : The Cape Military Commander visits the Frontier – 1777). His new location was southeast of the modern Queenstown on the Klaas Smit’s River. Some landmarks and farms in the area are still named for him. On one occasion, the tracks led directly to Maphasa’s kraal  (village/stockade). This eventually led to a violent clash3 between some of the author’s Jordaan and Du Plessis family on the one hand and Maphasa’s Tambookie warriors on the other.

♦ The Sixth Frontier War – Hintsa’s War – 1834-1835

On 21 December 1834, the amaXhosa army invaded the Cape Colony on a 100-mile front stretching from the Winterberg to the sea. The amaXhosa armies streamed past the helpless mission stations and those who were not missionaries were dragged out and killed. The Afrikaners knew how to defend themselves against these attacks using their wagon circle laagers, but the entire thing was new to the British Settlers. On Christmas Day 1834, the amaXhosa fell upon the British Settlers. They killed all the male settlers they could find, but, with some exceptions, spared the women and small children. The Settlers fled to Grahamstown, Bathurst, and Salem. The amaXhosa bypassed many military posts and focused on killing the civilians.

At the end of this war, the British extended the entire border eastward as the so-called Queen Adelaide Province. This included territory to the east of the Tarka behind the Amatole. However, a new government took over in London and sank to the level of blaming the British Settlers, the Cape Governor, and the Frontier Afrikaners for the war. Given that the British Government was only listening to the London Missionary Society, that outcome was assured. The British Settlers would ultimately have their revenge on these Missionaries. However, no one spoke for the Afrikaners of whom many had lost all. Eventually, the London bosses reversed the territorial decision at least in part. This meant that many Afrikaner families in the new Province next to the Tarka had to move back westward.

The Frontier Afrikaners had had enough of disastrous management. They admired the British Governor, and the respect was returned, but London had dismissed him. A good man, he stayed on at the Cape as citizen.

♦  The Burgersdorp District

Before our analysis leaves the Cape Colony on the Great Trek north of the Orange River, we first look forward in history to the period up to the early 1850s to obtain a picture of the empty portion of the Barrow map above. For this we turn to the narrative of Captain W.R. King who was part of a British Army expedition to “Punish” the Ba’Sotho king Moshesh for attacking the Free State, which Britain had recently annexed. The important contribution of the good captain is that he describes how they found the first Afrikaner homestead the moment they crossed the Black Kei River out of “Tambookie Country” around Whittlesea4. He also describes how the countryside turns into dry treeless Karroo, and how the mountains got covered in snow one night in high summer. His description of the 1852 Burgersdorp as a “Boer town” is simply marvelous to read:

The stores, in which everything one could think of was to be bought, saddlery, groceries, ironmongery; Gunter’s preserves, Dutch cheeses, Crosse and Blackwell’s pickles; clocks, roers, ploughs, rifles, crockery, stationery, wines, spirits, Bass’s pale ale; fiddles, mirrors, pots, pans, and kettles; ostrich feathers, cases of gin, tobacco, and ten thousand things besides, were filled all day long with a crowd of officers of all arms and corps with leather-patched uniform, mahogany-coloured faces, and long beards, trying on boots, buying preserved meats, and stuffing their pockets with bundles of cheroots, boxes of lucifer matches, and pots of cold cream to anoint their sun-blistered noses.

Then there were Dutchmen, in purple trowsers, saluting each other in the politest manner possible, lifting the craped hat with the left hand and shaking the proffered fist with the other, discussing politics and cattle, their vrouws and daughters busy purchasing dresses or household supplies; while Bushmen and Griquas elbowed their way in and out for bottles of Hollands.

The camp was besieged all day long by visitors; rough Boers, with strings of colts for sale; townspeople on foot; and respectably dressed, well-mounted Dutchmen, with very pretty girls in pink or sky-blue riding habits, who rode up and down the lines, stared unceremoniously into the tents, and when the ‘warning’, ‘dinner pipes’ or ‘assembly’ were played, flocked round the unfortunate “Piper of the day” with as much astonishment as if he had just dropped from the moon, drawling out the constant exclamation “Allamachtig! Allamachtig!”

So irrespective of how the politicians wish to describe the situation, the Black Kei River was the effective border between the Afrikaner and the AbaThembu.

—Harry Booyens



1. Cape Town Archives Repository, Resolutions of the Council of Policy of the Cape of Good Hope, Reference code: C. 202, pp. 196-303; March 27, 1792

2. Transactions of the Missionary Society, Vol.1 Second Edition. (1804) p.388. First attempt to enter Caffraria. Part of the Journal of Johannes Vanderkemp.

3. G.D.J. Duvenhage, Van die Tarka na die Trans-Gariep, (1981), p.67

4. William Ross King, Campaigning in Kaffirland, (1853), p.286