South Africa - Ian D. Colvin

Kafir Wars

We have seen how the Dutch settlers spread out like a fan from the mother colony of Cape Town. To the north they went from mountain valley to mountain valley, until at last, breaking through the great rocky gorges, they swept up on to the Karoo Itself. But the chief movement was eastwards, along the valleys that run east and west and down the rivers that flow towards the Indian Ocean. As they went the country became ever wilder and more picturesque. The climate grew milder, as they came within the range of the warm eastern sea, the rainfall grew heavier, and the vegetation more luxuriant. The valleys and ravines were forest-clad. Great timber-trees, hitherto unknown to man, climbed up out of a tangle of underwood. The Kafir-boom showered its purple blossoms in light and airy sprays, the geranium flooded the underwood with scarlet flowers, the tree crassula and the scarlet cotelydon mingled their blossoms; the spiky aloes raised high crowns of blood-red flowers; the giant euphorbia stretched their weird, green, leafless branches towards the sky, and from the higher trees fell wreaths of wild vine and tangled monkey-rope. The deep courses of rivers were marked by the light-green foliage of willows, and here and there thickets opened out into meadows of sweet grass covered with gorgeous flowers. Suddenly out of the forests rose huge masses of cliff, of deep-red and other glowing colours, rising high up into the blue sky in precipice upon precipice. Such were the valleys of the great Fish River and the Kei, with their neighbours and tributaries, and they rose among great mountain-ranges like the Winterberg, whose peaks were white with snow, and through whose narrow valleys came the rains that fell at long intervals upon the desolate plains of the great Karoo.

These valleys and wildernesses were peopled with vast herds of elephants and antelopes, gnus and quaggas and zebras; the rocks were alive with baboons; snakes glided among the bushes; the rocky kloofs sheltered the lion and the leopard, the wild buffalo and the rhinoceros fed on the river banks; and in the rivers themselves the hippopotamus floundered in the pools. On the Karoo flocks of ostriches lived in friendly intercourse with zebras and antelopes that passed over the wilderness in such herds that they sometimes covered the whole landscape as far as the eye could see.

Into this wonderful country the Boer farmers were pressing towards the end of the eighteenth century, and by the beginning of the nineteenth they had come face to face with its human inhabitants, very different people from the Hottentots and Bushmen whom they had enslaved or exterminated. The Kafirs were big men, tall and straight, and nearly black, with splendidly developed limbs and bodies, and features sometimes as straight and well-formed as those of Europeans. They lived in large villages of round, well-built huts; they used utensils of earthenware and basket-work; they had great herds of cattle and sheep and goats; they cultivated fields of maize with their iron hoes; they had chiefs and councillors and law-givers; they were in every way far in advance of the Bushmen and Hottentots. They wore karosses or cloaks of beautifully-dressed hide adorned with beads and the tails of wild animals; their arms were covered with copper and ivory rings. They had little aprons or fringes of leather and beads about their waists, and below the knees usually hung the end of a cow's tail. Their warriors carried a bundle of iron-tipped assegais and a heavy knobkerry—a stick with a round head; they had large oblong shields of bullock-hide; and their heads were ornamented with the long curved tail-feathers of the crane. These people were not scattered in small bands like the Hottentots, but consisted of great tribes numbering thousands of warriors. Against these people the white settler was destined to carry on intermittent warfare for more than fifty years before peace was finally settled, and black man and white agreed to divide the pleasant land between them.

It would be a wearisome business to tell the whole story of these wars. There were massacres on both sides. Sometimes the white man drove the black far eastwards and occupied his land, and sometimes a wave of savagery swept westward and drove the new settler back again into the older territories. The Dutch farmer by himself would not have held his own had he not been supported by the British Government.

The origins of the quarrel, indeed, go back to times before the British occupation. Some of the old stories resemble nothing so much as the pitiless, treacherous feuds between the Lowlands and Highlands of Scotland in olden time. Thus in 1780 the famous van Jaarsveld invited the Kafirs to discuss their grievances, and shot them down as they were scrambling for his presents of beads and tobacco. The Kafirs, as I shall presently show, were just as treacherous. Then, some years later, Tjaart van der Walt, a veteran leader of the frontier Boers, fell in a disastrous conflict near the Konga River. The debatable land chiefly consisted of the Zuurveld, an undulating tract of light soil, with here and there a patch of rich land, between the Bushmen and the Fish Rivers. This country the British Government at last resolved to give to the frontier Boers, and in 1811 Sir John Cradock organised an expedition under Colonel Graham to drive the Kafir tribes—twenty thousand strong—across the Fish River.

Twelve hundred soldiers and eight hundred burghers took part in this war, and it was at this time that Slachter's Nek, the mountain pass of which I have already spoken in the previous chapter, got its ill-omened name.

It happened thus. Mr. Stockenstrom, the Landdrost of Graaff Reinet, had a camp of armed burghers on the north side of the Zuurberg. After going to Gaika, the great chief, and persuading him to take no part in the war, he left his camp again to cross over the great mountain range in order to confer with Colonel Graham. The camp he left in charge of his son, then Ensign Stockenstrom, who was afterwards to take part in quelling the Slachter's Nek rebellion. The father took with him only forty burghers, for the war had not then begun, and he did not expect any fighting, though some of the troops were at this very moment entering the Zuurveld. Major Cuyler was on the right, Colonel Graham and Captain Frazer were with the centre, and Stockenstrom himself had command of the left wing of the expedition.

On their way over the mountains Stockenstrom and his party had to pass along a narrow ridge since called Slachter's Nek, which connects two arms of the great mountain-chain. It is a wild and savage place. Above rise the stupendous cliffs of the mountain peaks broken into all manner of fantastic shapes; below are no less tremendous abysses, of which the bottom, jagged with rocks and shaggy with jungle, can only be faintly distinguished. The wild ravine, lined with tall trees and thick brushwood, holds a tributary of the Fish River, while another no less sombre and picturesque stretches down into the valley of the Koornay, while far below on either side rolls the waste of hill and valley, jungle and grassy plain.

Along this narrow pass, where sometimes a false step on either side might throw horse and rider into the gulfs below, Stockenstrom was passing when he observed bands of Kafirs coming out of the thickets and massing themselves so as to close the road. The Boers advised an immediate attack, on the good military principle that it is wise to strike first; but the Landdrost thought he saw a fine chance of persuading the Kafirs not to make war, and against the advice of his two field-cornets, Potgieter and Gryling, rode straight up to the armed warriors and saluted them in a friendly way. The field-cornets and some of the Boers followed, doubtful, but determined to share the fate of their leader. Stockenstrom sat down, smoked a pipe with the chiefs, and began to discuss terms of peace. His words seemed to have effect; but a dark mass of Kafirs were gathering near and gradually grew more threatening in their words and gestures. It is said that at this moment word had come to them that fighting had already commenced to the south and blood had been shed; but whatever the cause the murder of the party was determined upon.

One of the Landdrost's followers was whispering his suspicions, and Stockenstrom was in the act of replying that there was no danger, when the Kafir war-cry echoed among the rocks and the savages rushed upon the white men. Stockenstrom and fourteen of his men fell pierced by a hundred assegais, while the rest of the little force galloped along the ridge amid a shower of spears.

A little bush-boy brought the news to young Stockenstrom, who hurried towards the spot with twenty men. On the way he met the Kafirs triumphantly returning with the guns and horses of the murdered men. But now they were in open ground, and in the fight that followed they received a terrible punishment from the muskets of the mounted Boers. Next day Captain Frazer, with a party of cavalry, met the Ensign after himself defeating a desperate attack of the enemy, and together they found the bodies of their comrades and buried them in a nameless grave somewhere near the crest of that wild pass.

But in spite of this disaster, the war was successful: the Kafirs were driven over the boundary of the Fish River; a line of military posts was established and garrisoned by regular troops, burghers and Hottentots, and the frontier was thus secured. But it was secured only upon a doubtful and dangerous tenure. The Kafirs never ceased to make raids upon the settlers' cattle, and many were the fights and murders in this wild borderland.

The Colonial Government made the great chief Gaika their ally; but 'Slambie, Hintza and other chiefs continued their depredations, and jealous of his friend-ship with the white man, attacked and defeated him at the battle of Debe Nek, taking from him 9,000 of his cattle. A fugitive, he appealed to the Government for help, and Colonel Brereton (of Bristol Riots fame) marched into Kafir-land, attacked the kraals of the hostile chiefs, captured 20,000 cattle, of which he gave half to Gaika and divided the rest among the settlers who had been robbed.

Now at this time there was in Kafirland a young native called Makana and sometimes "Lynx." He was very different from the ordinary type of Kafir, and it was even said that he was descended from some unhappy European woman who had been thrown on the shores of Kafirland by shipwreck. However that may be, Makana was a clever man. He made friends with the missionaries, learned a good deal about their doctrines, and, mingling them with native superstitions, formed a new religion of his own, calling himself "the brother of Christ." He practised all the arts of Mahomed, assuming "a reserved, solemn, and abstracted air," and by such means gradually collected a great following. Though he was of lowly birth even the chiefs acknowledged his power, and he was consulted on all matters of importance. When Brereton carried punishment into the heart of Kafirland, Makana preached a holy war. The Great Spirit, Uhlanga, he said, had sent him to avenge the wrongs of his people; he had power to call up the spirits of their ancestors from the grave to assist them in battle, and he could render the guns of the white men of no effect. They were to drive the colonists into the ocean, and having done so they could then sit down and eat honey.

Such was Makana's eloquence that he had soon gathered a great army of some nine thousand warriors in the thickets of the Great Bush River opposite Grahamstown. His plans were cunningly laid. Colonel Wilshire, the commandant of Grahamstown, had an interpreter, Klaas Nuka, who was really in the service of Makana. This wretch told Wilshire that he "heard a noise towards Kafir Drift," meaning that the enemy was crossing at that point, a long way from the true place of crossing. Thus the colonel was induced to detach a hundred of his small force of 450 men to reconnoitre in that direction, and this part of the force was not present when the attack took place.

Early on the morning of the 22nd of April 1819, Colonel Wilshire was inspecting a detachment of his troops, when a Hottentot buffalo-hunter, Captain Boezac by name, told him that Makana was advancing along a line of country known as the Queen's Road. The colonel, with an escort of only ten men, galloped off to see for himself, and at a turn of the road he suddenly came upon part of Makana's army lying in a ravine which skirts the open plain subsequently turned into a racecourse. The colonel turned his good horse "Blucher," and not a moment too soon, for the enemy were after him like lightning. But he escaped, and reaching his troops, with Blucher "in a lather of foam, they awaited the rush of the enemy.

The troops were arranged in a hollow square on the slopes of some high land outside the town. They consisted of four companies of the 38th Regiment, and there was besides a well-secured company of artillery.

At the break of dawn Makana had formed his warriors in order of battle and made them a speech, in which he promised them the aid of the spirits of earth and air. Inspired by his words they had followed Wilshire at a run and charged up the hill only a few moments after he arrived at the square, which fortunately had been drawn up in his absence. As Wilshire galloped up he called out the order to fire. The guns opened with shrapnel and the muskets of the 38th rang out in a volley. The Kafirs were mowed down in swathes, while their showers of assegais fell short or had lost their force before they reached the troops. Not since Francisco Barreto fought his great battle in East Africa in the middle of the sixteenth century had there been such a slaughter.

But just as in that fight the witch had promised invulnerability, so now Makana told his men that the guns of the soldiers were only loaded with hot water, and the great mass of warriors surged forward, breaking their last assegais by Makana's order to use them as stabbing weapons in a hand-to-hand fight. If they had reached the troops it might have gone ill with the 88th, for the Kafirs were twenty to one. But just at this moment when, as Wilshire afterwards said, "He would not have given a feather for the safety of the town," Captain Boezac with a hundred and thirty of his buffalo hunters rushed forward upon the enemy's flank along the river-banks from the old Cape Corps barracks. They got close up to the Kafirs, and singling out the chief's, whom they knew well, they bowled them over as fast as they could fire and reload their long elephant guns. At the same time Lieutenant Aitcheson of the artillery loaded with grape and opened anew more destructively than ever. Some of the Kafirs rushed forward almost to the guns before they fell. But it was their last effort. Makana, urging them to the last, was borne away in the headlong flight, and the broken enemy sought refuge among the ravines to the east of the town. Two thousand Kafirs were left upon the field, and many more must have crawled into the bush to die; some of them were found afterwards with grass plugs stuffed into their gunshot wounds in a vain attempt to stop the bleeding. Among the slain was Nuka, the interpreter, who was well punished for the false part he had played. When we remember that there were only two six-pounders and 350 soldiers against an army of between eight and ten thousand splendid fighting men, we see that this defence of Grahamstown was one of the great battles of South Africa. And we must not forget the brave Hottentot, Captain Boezac, and his followers, without whom the town could hardly have been saved.

Makana had been so sure of victory that he sent a message to Wilshire promising to breakfast with him that morning, and some thousands of Kafir women and children were found on the hills above the town with their mats and pots and cooking jars, calmly waiting to take possession.

Lord Charles Somerset lost no time in dealing a heavy counter-blow. The burghers of the whole colony, east and west, were called out. Andries Stockenstrom, now Landdrost in place of his father, commanded a thousand of them; Commandant Linde led the Cape burghers for the first time into Kafirland, and a force of 12,000 colonials and troops crossed the Keiskamma, being joined by six hundred of Gaika's warriors. But only women and children were found. The men had driven their cattle over the Kei. At last, after two months of marching and counter-marching, the troops beheld the warrior chief and prophet walking into their camp, followed only by two of his wives.

"If I have made the war," he said, "let me see if delivering myself to the conquerors will restore peace to my people."

The officers were struck by his lofty demeanour. They made him prisoner, and he was placed on Robben Island, where van Riebeck had imprisoned Herry nearly two hundred years before. A year or two afterwards, with some of his fellow prisoners, he attempted to escape in a boat, but it was capsized, and poor Makana was drowned among the surf and thick seaweed somewhere near the spot where Baird lost thirty-six of his men in landing to attack Janssens. Thus miserably perished the Mahomed of the Kafirs, but for long years his people would not believe that he was dead. They waited for his second coming with the pathetic confidence of the early Christians, and it was only after nearly thirty years of waiting that they abandoned all hope and sorrowfully buried his ornaments and spears. He had done what he could to atone for the destruction he had brought upon his people, for with his surrender the war ended, and there was a short spell of peace on the eastern frontier.