For the Khoikhoi the eighteenth century was a time of trouble and trauma as one catastrophe after the other hit them. It was estimated that only one in ten survived the smallpox epidemic of 1713 in the southwestern Cape. Epidemics also struck in the 1750s and the 1780s, wiping out half the Gona, one of the largest polities in the east. Scab and other diseases decimated their herds. From the 1750s the Xhosa, moving in clans, started pushing in from the east on the Gona, while individual trekboer families had moved over the Breede River and were taking up land ever further east.
By the beginning of the eighteenth century the Hessequa, Gouriqua and the Attaqua were living undisturbed on the broad coastal plain beyond the Hottentots Holland mountains. The Gona and the Hoengeiqua lay further to the east, in the land between the Fish and the Gamtoos rivers.
The relative lack of Khoikhoi political cohesion made it very difficult for them to withstand San raids. In 1752 a Dutch observer wrote about the Gona in the east: ‘[All] these [Khoikhoi], who formerly were rich in cattle, are now, through the thefts of the Bushmen, entirely destitute of them. Some have been killed and some are scattered through wars with each other and with the [Xhosa]. Those who are still around here and there consist of various groups, which have united together. They live like Bushmen from stealing, hunting and eating anything capable which they find in the field or along the shore.’
Those people described as living ‘like Bushmen’ were in some cases aborigines, who spoke non-Khoikhoi languages and whose ancestors had lived in the area as hunters long before the arrival of the Khoikhoi or Xhosa. They did not breed cattle but had learnt how to deal with them by working for the Khoikhoi or by theft. But there were also among them Khoikhoi who had lost their cattle and now tried to regroup by hunting and raiding. San raiders often consisted of both categories of people, prompting contemporaries to call them Bushmen-Hottentots and historians to call them Khoisan.