The Frontier Wars

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Xhosa Wars 1851

an artist's depiction of the Xhosa Wars in 1851, showing Khoikhoi and Xhosa

As Dutch maritime power declined, British power rose and sought to control trade routes to Asia. The British seized Cape Town in 1795, and the peace treaties of 1815 which ended the Napoleonic Wars granted the Cape to Britain. For the British, as it had been for the Dutch, the goal was a colony which could supply their ships to and from Asia.

For over 70 years, first the Dutch and then the British fought frontier wars with the Xhosa, Bantu speaking farmers. The Xhosa were tougher opponents than the Khoikhoi had been. They were stronger, more numerous, and had better resistance to European diseases.

The Khosa had lived in the same way for centuries and made no significant changes when the white settlers arrived. They resisted missionaries' attempts to convert them, sometimes with bloodshed, until 1820 when John Brownlee founded a mission on the Tyhume River near Alice, and William Shaw established a chain of Methodist outposts throughout the Transkei. The door was opened to all kinds of missionary activity. The missionary activity weakened the Khosa culture and this, along with disappearing grazing land and a steadily increasing while population, hastened the disintegration of the Khosa people.

Xhosa Land losses

British Land Aquistions, 1800s
4th Frontier War (1811)
5th Frontier War (1818)
7th Frontier War (1846)
Purple--"Cattle Killing" Relocations (1858)
Green--9th Frontier War (1878)
Mpondoland Campaigns (1894)

map courtesy nguni.com

In 1834 the Xhosa invaded the Cape Colony because of the confiscation of some of their lands. The violence continued in a series of wars (There were a total of 9 Xhosa wars starting in 1779). Even after 1853, there continued to be resistance. The deterioration of the Xhosan culture and power came to a head when their cattle became infected with a deadly lung infection, killing large numbers of Xhosa cattle.

In 1856 a young Xhosa girl had a vision in which ancestors demanded a sacrifice to put things right again. They must kill all their cattle and destroy all their crops and the dead will rise and everything will be put right.


"You are to tell the people that the whole community is about to rise again from the dead. Then go on to say to them all the cattle living now must be slaughtered, for they are reared with defiled hands, as the people handle witchcraft.

Say to them there must be no ploughing of lands, rather must the people dig deep pits, erect new huts, set up wide, strongly built cattlefold, make milksacks, and weave doors from buka roots." - The words of the spirits, talking to 16-year-old Nongqawuse, as recorded by W.W. Qqoba in his narrative of the Cattle killing, based on oral sources. Quoted by J.B. Peires, in his book The Dead will Arise.

The Xhosa destroyed their crops and killed 200,000-400,000 cattle. The result was catastrophic famine which killed approximately 30,000-40,000 Xhosa (out of about 90,000), and forced an estimated 30,000 to leave their lands. Many went to work for the British on the land or in the city.


"Every day King Williams Town was thronged and its inhabitants distressed at the sight of emaciated living skeletons passing from house to house. Dead bodies were picked up in different parts within and around the limits of the towns, and scarcely a day passed over, that men, women or children were not found in a dying state from starvation.

My consulting room was every day surrounded with emaciated creatures craving food, having nothing to subsist on but roots and the bark of the mimosa, the smell of which appeared to issue from every part of the body, and to whom it would be a mockery to say, you must seek employment, or proceed on to the colony." - Dr. John Fitzgerald Founder of the Native Hospital, King Williams Town. Quoted by J.B. Peires, in his book The Dead will Arise.

After 1857, the Xhosa were unable to seriously resist continued British expansion into their lands. However, unlike the Khoisan, the Xhosa did not disappear. They lost their lands but remained in South Africa, and their population grew.

This is part of the Bitter Union: The Story of South Africa Exhibit

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