Two hundred years ago, on 22 April 1819, in the now sleepy village of Grahamstown, a battle was fought that would , have a profound effect on the history of South Africa.
Some historians have described this as the most important battle of 19th Century South African history, it foretells events like the Battle of Blood River (1838) and the Battle of Rorkes Drift (1879). The Afrikaners launched a National Holiday to commemorate Blood River and 6 Victoria Crosses were awarded for British heroics at Rorkes Drift. In British military history records, Grahamstown is written up as little more than a skirmish. No accolades for the victors of Grahamstown? In due course I will explain why. First let us look at how the Battle of Grahamstown come about.
The first 150 years of the Dutch administered Cape Colony had seen a gradual migration Eastwards and an integration of the Settlers with the local Khoi people. The rugged remote life life, while rooted in Calvinism took on the appearance of the African tribes. From this melting pot came a new culture and a new language - Afrikaners. The Dutch and Khoi rolled into one race and rolled ever Eastward. The first real clash with a new culture came in the area East of Algoa Bay when this integrated group met the Xhosa. History placed the Xhosa on a destiny of wars with the Afrikaners and the British Empire that would span 100 years.
The Xhosa were fractured squabbling tribes continually at peace and at war with each other and the local San and Khoi tribes. They were herders and centered their culture around cattle. The battles were civilised affairs, almost sporting, where warriors lined up for orderly combat, finished by dusk, settled the matter in transfer of cattle and dinner was served to the victors. The Xhosa had never encountered the vicious nature of the British, who burned crops and attacked women and children, because “they couldn't tell the difference”.
In the early 1800s the Xhosa were ruled by Hintsa and two smaller chiefs Ngcika and Ndlambe lived in the area East of the Great Fish River. To the West lay the outskirts of the Cape Colony consisting of the Zuurveld. The Zuurveld was a constant clash area between Settlers and the Xhosa. Both were cattle herders and rustled each others cattle. Zuurveld was history's ideal crucible for war. In the Summer months it provides Africas best cattle grazing (still used today as dairy farms) and in winter the grass dies down and turns poisonous for cattle, who have to be moved off to other pastures. The annual cattle migrations of both Afrikaners and Xhosa, cycled the population and made it a rustlers paradise.
In 1806 the British Empire, now entering the Napoleonic Wars, by the truce of amiens Annexed the Cape and replaced the Batavian Administration. By this time The Xhosas had settled in the Zuurveld (later called Albany), a district between the Bushman's and Fish rivers, which lay beyond the Cape Colony's frontiers. The Zuurveld was mistakenly assumed by the British to be part of the colony as they misread the frontier laid down by Governor Joachim van Plettenberg in 1778.
In a time of stress in Europe only the expendibles were sent to the Cape as administrators and soldiers, and the local inhabitants of the Cape Colony, Dutch, Khoi and Xhosa were to bear the frustrations of this maladministration. No significant force could be spared and the Cape therefore teetered in state of lawlessness and vigilantism. Force and theft contributed to the turmoil. Nowhere was it worse than in the Zuurveld.
In 1811, Colonel John Graham and his corps was sent with British regulars and Boer commandos to undertake the task which was to define his military career: clearing around 20,000 Xhosa led by Ndlambe from the Zuurveld. The British campaign to push the Xhosa residents from the Eastern frontier was defined by Graham's plan to use "A proper degree of terror." The subsequent battles included the indiscriminate shooting of women and other civilians, as well as destruction of crops.
By 1812 Graham's task was complete, and so on the deserted farm De Rietfontein, he established Graham’s Town as Zuurveld's central military post, with a string of linked forts along the Fish River.
With resources tied up in Europe, Britain had little time or interested to move resources to the Eastern Cape. The province of Albany remained a lowly guarded area. Grahamstown was the garrison of the Royal African Corps.
The RAC was originally raised in 1800 as the Goree Corps, a penal unit in the British Army used to recruit deserters and convicts, this unit subsequently was renamed the African Corps. On 25 April 1804 the distinction of "Royal" was added to the title. In 1806 a detachment of the Royal African Corps was sent to serve in the West Indies as the Royal West India Rangers. The remainder of the Corps continued to perform garrison duties in various African colonies. By1817 several companies of the Royal African Corps had been posted to the Cape Colony. Its behaviour there was complained of by local residents.
It was onto this group of renegades, that the defense of Grahamstown fell. A motly crew. As Lord Charles Somerset related to Colonial Secretary Lord Bathhurst, “I cannot describe as soldier that of which the Regiment is composed... foreigners, deserters from all nations, grumblers and of general desperate and bad characters.” A set of the most desperate villains and worthless thieves and vagabonds that ever disgraced any country in the world.
It was a penal unit, where death and prison sentences were commuted. Those belonging to the Royal African Corps were sent to the frontier and wasted little time in proving the point. Their behavior caused such terror that the colonists feared the Xhosa less than those who had been sent to protect them. Not exactly material for the Order of the British Empire.
Inevitably, many of them deserted and went to live among the Xhosa. Once there, they were committed for life. Only the hanging judge waited for them in returning to the Colony.
Many of the Khoi in the colony were bound into service, their livestock and land confiscated. David Stuurman was a leader of the Khoi people, who fought against Dutch and British colonial rule in the Eastern Cape. Stuurman was imprisoned in Cape Town on 11 September1809 and sent to Robben Island—he was among the first political prisoners to be jailed on the island. Stuurman and others had escaped Robben Island using whaling boats to reach the mainland. Most of them were recaptured, but Stuurman made his way back to the Eastern Cape. He became a trusted advisor to Ndlambe
Until 1815, Christianity had won no converts among the Xhosa. It had however become the dominant religion of the Afrikaner allies. Enter the Wesleyan Missionaries. The area over the Fsh River was know as Cafrerira or the land of the unbelievers. Two if the first Christian converts were to have a significance influence. In the religious turmoil, two opposing prohets arose. Makhanda and Ntsikanna. Ntsikanna, woke up one morning to see a golden light shinning on his favourite Ox, washed of his red clay covering and became an aide to Ncgika. His prophesies reflected the fear of the white man and gratitude for the bringing of the new religion. His new God promised him a wealthy life by cooperating with the British.
Makhanda, a trusted leader for Ndlambe, postulated a different world. One in whch there were two gods, Thixo the god of the white people and Mdalidiphu, the god of the black people. The whites had murdered the son of their god and had been driven from their country to come and invade the land of the Xhosa. Makhanda had the ear of Ndlambe and the advice of a Sargent who had deserted the Royal African Corps. War was in the prophecy. Makhanda applied his red ochre.
The racist politics of 20th century South Africa has blurred our image of frontier history of the early 19th century. We have been sold a clear cut – black vs white history. Albany in 1819 was an outpost of the British Empire and few insiders were spared to go there. Those that did go, predominantly men, soon took local wives and were quickly assimilated. The Local Governor Jacob Cuyler, was himself a US native, whose family had sided with the British in the 1776 Revolution and found himself banished to the Eastern Cape, where he married a local woman. Hence the name “Albany” after Cuylers native New York.
Very few British Settlers actually live in Albany at this time. It was only later that volumes of British Settlers arrived. What made the outcome of the Battle of Grahamstown so important is that given a different result, this British migration may never have happened. The 1819 war was an African Civil war administered by the British. At the Battle of Grahamstown, Xhosa fought Xhosa, Afrikaner fought Afrikaner, Khoi fought Khoi and Prophet fought Prophet. Such was the Colonial genius of British divide and rule.
The 1811 push of Ndlambe's people East of the Fish River into the Amatolas put strain on the relationship between Nlambe and Britain's Xhosa ally, Ncgika. The rivalries between Nlambe and Ncgika were intensified. This came to a head in the Battle of Amalinde in November 1818, where Ndlambe rose triumphant. Ncgika was soon calling for Help from the Colony and this was obliged by Somerset who sent a contingent led by Lt Colonel Thomas Brereton and the Royal African Corps and the Graff Reinett Commando lead by Andries Stockenstroom. Ndlambe refused to engage his people and scattered them.
Brereton used the opportunity to round up 23,000 cattle and gave 9,000 to Ncgika and the rest were shared by the benefactors of the mission. England always looked after its supporters. This left the followers of Ndlambe and the victors of Amalinde without the spoils of victory. Based on a culture of cattle the people starved. The platform was set for the attack on Grahamstown. At this point Brereton abruptly resigns and left the Colony. Colonel Thomas Willshire and 45 men of the 38th were docked at Cape Town at the time and were hastily enrolled and sent to The Frontier.
Fresh from his victory at the Battle of Amalinde, it was the charismatic preacher Makhanda that led the attack. He had full support of the Xhosa tribes and collected an estimated 10,000 warriors and marched on Grahamstown. Ensign Lennox Stretch said of the Prophet, “His whole soul seems to have been set on revenging the aggression of the Christians and emancipating his country from their arrogant control.”
Against a Garrison of 450 soldiers, with 10,000 warriors Makhanda had every reason to believe he would carry the day. He had a spy, Nquka in the garrison, who was ostensibly acting for Ncgika in Grahamstown, but was passing him information. It was Nguka mission to diminish the force in the city. He did this by convincing Willsire to follow a lead suggesting their were Xhosa East of the city, exactly opposite to where Makhanda waited. It was on the 21st that Makhanda sent Willshire the message saying that he would breakfast with him the following day. This act of arrogance was to change the history of South Africa. He warned the enemy of his arrival with such an insolent challenge just as he prepared to lead his followers forward to the high ground East of Grahamstown in to a hill called today Makanna's Kop.
The defenders, consisting of 48 men of the 38th (1st Staffordshire) Regiment of Foot, 39 men of the Colonial Troop, 135 of the Royal African Corps, 82 Khoikhoi of the Cape Regiment and they held off the attackers with musket and artillery fire. They were reinforced during the battle by the arrival of a group of some 130 Khoikhoi natives from Bethalsdorp under the command of Jan Boezak. Willshire, even given the challenge by Makhanda did little to preapre the Town. By mid morning he was still scouting the area around the town when he found himself face to face with several thousand Xhosa. It was noon by the time he had regrouped on the towns parade ground and the Xhosas were still preparing their lines for attack.
Grahamstown in 1819 was a straggling collection of 30 houses with no fortification. The defenders stood on the open parade ground with nothing more than their infantry skills in a hopelessly out numbered encounter.
And so it was that a force of consisting 80% of Africans under the command of a British Colonel were able to hold off 10,000 Xhosa warrior who were charging from High Ground. For the next hundred years soldiers of the 19th century soldiers were to learn that warfare had tilted in favour of the defense. Willshire lined up his artillery above his men with a small stream as their protection and then delivered a rendition of precision firing and devastating artillery. The guns were loaded with Shrapnel, exploding bullets that cut lanes through Xhosa and left them stunned. In the midst of this mahem, a renowned Khoi hunter named Jan Boesak arrived with 130 of the finest marksmen in the colony who singled out the Xhosa leaders and levelled the leadership in a matter of minutes.
Dismayed as their leaders were cut from under them and a wave of shock and awe at their first encounter with Artillery left the Xhosa dased and the attack began to break. Willshire order the buglars to sound a counter attack and the Xhosa ran. Willshire did not follow further that the protected range of the Cannons. The Battle, that would change the history of South Africa, was over in an hour and panic and rout followed. Between 1,000 and 2,000 Xhosa died on the battle field or shortly thereafter as they crawled away nursing their wounds into the bushes. By night fall the noise of battle had ceased and the bodies lay strewn on the slopes before the village. The garrison lost 5 men, one of whom was shot by a Xhosa marksman, likely one of the RAC deserters.
In reporting the battle to the colony, the British Officers had expressed dismay that Makhanda had not attacked at night. For if he had done so, without the arrogant warning, Grahamstown would surely have fallen. Such was the religious zeal that filled Makhanda, that this strategic option never even came up. He was so confident of victory that he scorned the idea of creeping up on the British at night. Instead he brought along wives and families carrying pots and mats in anticipation of dinning that night in Grahamstown. His vision was large and his sense of his own destiny was limitless. This cost his people their country and their religion.
From the evidence and the record it is safe to say that The Battle of Grahamstown was not won by Willshire, but rather lost by Makanda. Willshire dithered, having been given all the signs of the imminent attack. Instead he left his troops to face the assault on open ground. Stretch reported that during the battle Willshire said of his men that he would 'not have given a feather ' for their survival. Captain W.W. Harding described Grahamstown as a 'spirited' affair and thought, 'absolutely that the savages would have carry the day'. It was a 'near run thing'.
Besides the obvious error of giving up the element of surprise, Makahanda also displayed ignorance of generalship. Intoxicated by his own success at Amalinde, he failed to recognise that in fact he did not lead an army, he led a commando of farmers. At Amalinde it was farmers against farmers. At Grahamstown it was farmers against soldiers and as it was to be proved again and again in the 19th Century and right up until 1918 - the thin red line held.
Makhanda had overwhelming advantage, and had he born the business by leading the main charge himself he might have convinced his men to run through the first barrage and they would surely have beaten the few. Instead – they broke and ran. Most of his men died running away from the battle, rather than running towards it. If you have ever stood in an infantry division, you know the value of the fact that the man standing next to you has the will to stand. This will is drilled on the parade ground each morning. In battle, if that will crumbles the whole army crumbles. Even a unit of thieves and deserters like the RAC could rely on each other to stand.
In the ensuing months a Commando of 2,500 swept through the Amatolas and pushed the remnants of the Xhosa force back beyond the Keiskama river. The Invasion of Caffreria had begun. The Fish River would no longer be the border of The Cape Colony. Makanda gave himself up and he was taken to Robin Island where he drowned a few months later while attempting to escape.
Makhanda came as close as any Xhosa or any African leaders after that, to sweeping the Colony back from the Frontier. Had he succeeded South African History could have turned out much differently. Had Makhanda succeeded at Grahamstown, the Settler immigration would hot have secured its first foothold. This was the last time that a possible radical change in direction in South African history could have been engineered by indigenous inhabitants. While later clashes with the Zulus and the Boers would be much bigger, for the Empire the result of these was never in doubt. Victory for Makhanda would have seen the collapse of the frontier, instead it spread East and then North.
Back in Europe, Britain had entered a tumultuous recession and economic upheavals would bring first the 1820 Settlers and later more arrivals. These immigrants including artisans and ex soldiers would begin the Anglicization of The Cape, and import the racist caste system that placed Englishmen at the top of a social pyramid. From 1820 onward every South African would be judged first by their race and then by their deeds. This system that would grip the country in a vice that has still not released 200 years later.
British racism started with the Royal African Corps. In an encounter on a par with Blood River or Rorkes Drift, where were the medals? Read British Military history and Grahamstown is depicted as a skirmish, a footnote in the mediocre career of mediocre officer. Even Willshire's own Biography emphasizes his deeds in Spain and dismisses his actions in Grahamstown.
450 troops and militia had saved the Empire in South Africa, but they were servants, thieves and deserters and worse - they were Black. For their reward, The Royal African Corps was disbanded in 1821.
It is indeed history's irony that 200 years ago that white South Africa was saved by a unit consisting predominantly of Africans.
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