The Sixth Frontier War of 1834–1835 is known to the Xhosa as Hintsa’s War. It was not started by King Hintsa but by the Maqoma and Tyhali, Xhosa chiefs on the immediate colonial border who were infuriated by the loss of their lands and the ongoing raids of the colonial commandos. But the death of Hintsa during this war has overshadowed all else in the collective memory of the Xhosa.
Hintsa was not active in the actual military operation, although he had sanctioned the war and allowed the fighting chiefs to hide their cattle in his country. When the British forces crossed the Kei River, Hintsa entered the British camp at Butterworth to negotiate with Governor Sir Benjamin D’Urban and General Harry Smith. He had been assured of his personal safety, but found himself held hostage against the payment of 25 000 cattle and 500 horses. ‘What have the cattle done that you want them?’ he asked. ‘Why must I see my subjects deprived of them?’
At the Nqabarha River, Hintsa made a dash for freedom. He was pulled off his horse, shot through the back and through the leg. A
colonial volunteer named George Southey, coming up fast behind him, blew away the top of his head. After that, his ears were cut off and his body otherwise mutilated, an act that shocked the British government in London and eventually led to the repudiation of Governor D’Urban. Hintsa’s death was ever after a cause of intense anger among the Xhosa – and the source of future wars. ‘Where is my father?’ asked Hintsa’s son Sarhili on the eve of the War of the Axe. ‘He is dead. He died at the hands of these people. He was killed in his own house. He died without fighting . . . Today, we all fight.’
The same Hintsa War also saw another potent cause of future battles in the form of the Mfengu revolt. Mfengu is actually a somewhat derogatory term meaning ‘homeless people in search of work’. It was used at the time as shorthand for Hlubi, Bhele and Zizi people who had left Natal during the time of Shaka Zulu. Most of them had been soldiers in the army of Matiwane, chief of the Ngwa ne, who had confronted the three kings of the Eastern Cape – Xhosa, Thembu and Mpondo – at the Battle of Mbholompo near Mthatha (August 1828), the biggest battle ever fought on Eastern Cape soil. Matiwane’s army was scattered and his followers dispersed. Many of them found work in Hintsa’s country but they were not regarded as equals of the Xhosa. Discontented, they found a listening ear in Rev. John Ayliff, the missionary at Butterworth. When the British forces crossed the Kei in 1835, the Mfengu revolted and joined the British army, taking their employers’ cattle with them.
Under a milkwood tree in Peddie district where they settled, the Mfengu swore a great oath to accept Christianity, educate their
children and obey the government. They fought alongside the colonial forces in the wars that followed, not as subor dinates but as allies in the cause of Christian civilisation. They were an integral part of the Cape liberal experiment, the hollowness of which they only discovered when it was already too late.