An Unstable Frontier A Xhosa Chief’s Dilemma

Instead of ending cattle raids, the expulsion of the Xhosa from the Zuurveld had exacerbated the problem. In 1817 Somerset arrived on the frontier intending to impose his conception of a solution. He summoned Ngqika and told him that the theft of cattle and horses had to stop and that it was Ngqika’s responsibility to make sure that it did. For Ngqika the task was impossible. He had, he said, no real power over other chiefs, and if he were to act against the thieves among his own followers they would join other chiefs (See we do not do things as you do them’). Aware of Ngqika’a weakness, Somerset promised active military assistance.

In 1818 Ndlambe inflicted a shattering defeat on Ngqika, who appealed to the British government for help, whereupon a force of soldiers, burghers and Khoikhoi troops rode out and defeated Ndlambe’s force. British soldiers backed by burgher commandos blasted the wooded valleys causing few casualties, but enabling the capture of 23 000 cattle, almost the entire subsistence of Ndlambe’s followers. In 1819 a Xhosa force struck back. The ‘war doctor’ Nxele (or Makhanda) (see Nxele Makhanda and Ntsikana), who had the chief Ndlambe as his patron, attacked the small garrison town of Grahamstown with 6 000 men. Assisted by Khoikhoi marksmen, the garrison narrowly averted defeat and possibly also the collapse of the settlement on the southeastern frontier. When another large force of soldiers, Khoikhoi troops and burgher commandos went out, the Xhosa fled towards the Kei River, Nxele gave himself up and the war was ended.

Somerset now hit on the idea of an unpopulated zone beyond the boundary. He promptly designated the area between the Fish and the Keiskamma rivers as a neutral belt that everyone living there had to evacuate. Even Ngqika, the government’s chief ally, was told to leave his land, estimated at 10 000 square kilometres between the Kat and Keiskamma rivers – ‘as fine a portion of ground as to be found in any part of the world’, Somerset called it. In addition, he had to continue to act against cattle thieves.

He reportedly remarked that ‘although indebted to the English for his existence as chief, yet when he looked upon the fine country taken from him, he could not but think his benefactors oppressive’. He was now completely discredited. His sons, Maqoma and Tyhali, bitterly resented leaving their home in the Kat River Valley in the ceded territory. They despised their father as a craven, vacillating, drunken coward.

Soon it became clear that the ban on settlement applied only to the Xhosa. The ‘neutral territory’ became the Ceded or Conquered Territory. Effectively nearly 7 800 square kilometres had been added to a colony already hard to defend. The government gave out farms to burghers and settlers in the northern part of the neutral belt.

The Ceded Territory was a turning point in frontier relations. With the further loss of land as a result of having to give up the neutral belt, the Xhosa found the land deprivation acute; the western Xhosa who were driven eastward impinged on other peoples already hard-pressed for pastoral land. For many Xhosa survival had become a desperate struggle and the loss of both the Zuurveld and the Ceded Territory a grievous injustice.

Soon other injustices were piled upon this. Patrols and commandos headed by British officers and consisting of British soldiers, as well as mixed units of burghers and soldiers, performed the task of recovering stolen cattle and increasingly harassed kraals in their efforts to recover stolen cattle and stamp out theft. The reprisal system failed and was open to all kinds of abuse. Since farms were not fenced, stock losses were frequent. When stock went missing farmers went to the nearest military post and applied for a search party, with no effort having been made to check whether the stock had actually been stolen.

Kraals were seldom given the opportunity to prove their innocence. The patrols often plundered innocent kraals and consequently they simply invited Xhosa counter-raids. The Xhosa told Stockenstrom: ‘We do not care how many Xhosa you shoot if they come into your country, and you catch them stealing, but for every cow you take from our country you make a thief.’

The loss of land in the Ceded Territory remained a burning grievance among the Xhosa, particularly for Maqoma, the son of Ngqika. He was allowed to return to the Kat River Valley, one of the few well-watered spots in a period of severe droughts, but was expelled again. Stockenstrom used the land to establish the Kat River settlement for the Khoikhoi to serve as a defensive barrier against invaders.

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