The Land Wars: The Dispossession of the Khoisan and AmaXhosa in the Cape Colony - a discourse on the unrelenting and ruthless process of colonial conquest
If anyone who is intimidated by the hefty bulk of Noel Mostert’s Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People were to ask me for an introduction to the South African Frontier Wars I would point them towards The Land Wars by John Laband.
The Land Wars is greatly influenced by Mostert as well as the scholarly work of Jeff Peires on the history of amaXhosa. As such it also suffers from the limitations of those influences, especially the jumbled up genealogy of the Xhosa nation, which goes into the primacy of that nation’s historical narrative. The genealogy Laband follows was first written by George Cory. Jeff Peires, in his book House of Phalo, adopted it.
According to George Cory’s genealogy, around the 17th century the main nkosi yamaXhosa was Togu, who gave birth to [N]Gconde the father of Tshiwo that gave birth to Phalo, Gwali and Umdange [Mdange]. Phalo gave birth to Rarabe [Rharhabe], Gcaleka and Langa. Gcaleka begot Kauta [Khawuta] whose son was Hintsa the father of Kreli. In turn Rharhabe gave birth to Umlao [Umlawu], Ndlambi [Ndlambe] and Cebo, etc.
The established oral history of amaXhosa differs slightly from this by also emphasing the brief rule of nkosi Gando between Ngconde and Tshiwo. The first written book about Gando was by Rev John Knox (also the biographer of Xhosa prophet, Ntsikana). It was published in German by Albert Kropf as Das Volk der Xosa-Kaffern [The Xosa Kaffir People] in Berlin (1889). Gando was the eldest son in the Right-Hand House of Ngconde. According to Knox
“Ngconde fathered, by Sizakwenza (Great House), Tshiwo (who was only born after his father’s death) and Gandowentshaba [Gando], the hero of the old days, the first-born of the right-hand house. Hleke was born in the support house of the Great House but due to his stupidity, his younger brother Mdange took his place”.
Ngconde died before his son from the Great House, Tshiwo was born. Gando was more popular and powerful during Mdange’s regency. To prop up his own strength Mdange revealed a boy named Tshiwo who, with his followers, he claimed was the son of Ngconde’s Great Wife before Ngconde died. Eventually, incited by his councillors, Tshiwo challenged Gando for the popular rule among amaXhosa. Gando resisted, leading to a war between the two factions. Gando was defeated, crossed iNciba (Kie) and fled to settle among the Khoikhoi of King Hintsati in the Camdeboo district, south of present day Graff-Reinet. At some point Tshiwo visited Gando with an olive branch, requesting him to return to Xhosaland. When Gando insisted that his sister, who was married to King Hintsati, come with him, a scuffle arose between amaXhosa and the Khoikhoi. Some of Gando’s followers chose to remain with the Khoikhoi thereafter, becoming known as amaRanuga whom the white people called the Gonaqua.
The grave fault of ignoring Gando and the earlier wars of Tshawe taking the reign from his brother Cirha is that you end up skipping over the period when droves of amaXhosa tribes fled across iNciba before Rarabe who joined and tried to subdue them into one nation in the late 17th and early 18th century. These tribes, like iMidange, iMigwali, amaGqunukhwebe, etc. were the first Xhosa people to encounter white people at places like the Gamtoos Valley.
Laband sketches over this early history that is crucial to the understanding of both the KhoiSan and amaXhosa as nations, especially their long established interactions. It is therefore best to pair this book with The Lie of 1652: The Decolonised History of the Land by Patric Tariq Mellet.
From the writings of white people the Gonaquas are defined as a mixture of Khoe and Xhosa blood. Nxele, aka Makhanda, was also a Gonaqua by this discription. In her comprehensive and extremely informative article history Professor Julie Well, says:
“In his in-depth study of the 1850 rebellion of the Kat River settlement, Ross concluded that the complexities of the Gonaqua made them masters of all, impossible to categorize or even identify. They were neither colonial Khoe servants nor Xhosa, but something else. By the 1850s, colonial officials were “frequently at a loss to tell when a Gona is a Hottentot (sic.), Fingo or Kafir (sic.) as he appears Proteuslike as each occasionally”.
As Ross puts it, the Gonaqua were “bilingual, bicultural and able to make use of whichever cultural repertoire gave a greater chance of accumulation.” He compares them to a “fifth column”, able to “serve as camouflage to others” and confounding the British, who could not understand how to handle such people. Their creative hybridity remained a factor well into the 1850s when Gonaqua played a distinctive role during the Frontier Wars, especially the War of Nxele where they fought on both sides and won that war for the white settlers of what later became known as Grahamstown.
Andries Botha, a prominent community leader and ultimately a rebel against British rule, defined himself as a Gona Xhosa as did Jacomina, a Gona widow of Ngqika, also living at Kat River. The Gonaqua may have disappeared as an independent, self-governing community, but they remained everywhere west of iNciba. As good marksman they won many battles for Maqoma, like Waterkloof, during that longest and most atrocious Frontier War. In fact, in the strict sense of white people’s definition, Maqoma, whose mom was also Khoe, would be regarded as Gonaqua, but that’s an argument for another time. Several of his wives were also Khoikhoi or of that descent. He also had very good relationships with the first Xhosa tribes to cross iNciba to an extend that Noyi (Balfour) of Gando’s royal blood line descent was his personal friend.
I like how Laband highlights the tragic role the Boers played in helping amaXhosa destroy each other, especially the likes of Rharhabe, and later on, Ndlambe, who wished to subdue these minor cheifdoms to gain strength in challenging Ngqika for power. Naturally, this narrative complicates the Frontier Wars. Before the Nxele War on Grahamstown the majority of the so-called Frontier Wars were in actual fact Xhosa to Xhosa wars for dominance that got complicated by the arrival of Boers, themselves fleeing from the dominance and confusion of the Cape Colony under the DOC, Bavarian or British colonial government. The Boers and the British, through the Frontier Wars, not only robbed the Khoikhoi and Xhosa people of land but generational wealth through the vast numbers of cattle they stole from them, thus destroying their economic system and means of sustainable self sustenance. Tembeka Ngcukaitobi’s Land Matters is the best book to pair with The Land Wars in order to follow through with this discussion and the failures of land reform in post colonial Southern Africa.
Another complication the historians throughout the years have tended to avoid is the Ngcayichibi War, itself one of the Mfengu vs Xhosa skirmishes the British colonial government escalated into a full blown war when they went to the assistance of their Mfengu and Thembu client agents. Laband touches on this war but in a rather superficial manner that ignores many primary source documents. The fatal error this leads to is to ignore the crucial role abaThembu played during this decisive war. I also disliked Laban’s proclivity for shifting the blame to the amaMfengu in order to excuse the British their horrendous acts of war. I see no point in historians pretending that the manner in which the Khoikhoi nation was wiped out, and how the Zuurveld was cleared of black people for White colonial settlement, was anything short of genocidal. An example being the cold blooded manner in which nkosi Chingwa of amaGqunukhwebe, one of the original occupiers of the so called Zuurveld and Gamtoos Valley lands, was murdered point blank, when he was old and incapacitated with one side of his body stiff from a stroke.
Though competent I often felt Laband’s book failed to register the complexities of the epoch. For instance, by the end of Ngcayichibi War, many Mfengu were actually fighting against the British and had even formed a highly trained regiment that guarded, protected and directed the resistance of amaNgqika under nkosi Sandile. Laband makes it seem they were just not committed, rather than that they were actively aiming to subvert and sabotage British rule.
Among the bodyguards nkosi Sandile died with were Gonuqua, Gqunukhwebe, Mfengu and Christian converts that included Dukwakana, Ntsikana’s son; who had picked up their riffles to resist British atrocities and brutal encroachment because they felt the aim of the British was no longer just to conquer but to eliminate all black nations. Though his sympathy is often with the KhoiSan and Xhosas, Laband writes with a British liberal tone that downplays the genocidal tendencies of white colonial governments in the early Cape Colony history. As he confesses about the article he wrote for the Sunday Times, I think he had underestimated the extent of it:
“For The Land Wars I limited my investigation to the old Cape Colony, and the story I unravelled is indeed an ugly one. Historians want the truth about the past, as far as it is possible. Even so, while researching the book I was repeatedly surprised and dismayed by just how unrelenting and ruthless the process of colonial conquest had been…”
Despite these few misgivings this is a great book for a comprehensive introduction to the topic. The book also reads beautifully without turgid academic jargon. It is probably unfair of me to have expected much more from such a book, especially since it is Zulu, not Cape history, that is Lanban’s speciality. I learned a lot about the side information of British military attires, their significance and all. And the book gave a commendably believable structure to a very complicated history and a competent behind the scenes description of what was happening within British officialdom. For all that The Land Wars deserves its place in the podium of the historical understanding of our young country.