What Were the Xhosa Wars?

The Eastern Cape, where the Xhosa Wars took place.
The Eastern Cape, where the Xhosa Wars took place.

The Xhosa Wars

The Xhosa Wars, also known as the Frontier wars, lasted over a century. The Xhosa people are a Bantu-speaking ethnic group in South Africa. The Xhosa people, also known as Amaxhosa, speak Isixhosa dialect. In the 16th century, Europeans went to South Africa and settled in Cape Town. Over time, they expanded their territories towards the Khoisan and Xhosa lands by the 18th century. Initially, there was no race conflict except for small skirmishes that were resource based. Due to their organized lifestyle, the Xhosas proved to be a tougher opponent to Europeans than the Khoisan.

Early Conflicts With Boers

The first war broke out in 1779 and ended in 1781, and occurred because Boer Frontiersmen captured many cattle from Xhosa. The second war was from 1789 to 1793, and it was fought on a larger territory between resisting Xhosa clans and those who collaborated with the Boers. This led to the abandoning of large tracks of land. The third war occurred between 1799 and 1803. The war saw the Khoikhoi join hands with the Xhosa and attacked white farmlands that were encroaching Xhosa lands.

British Involvement

The fourth war was a first under British rule. The Cape Colony and Xhosa territory were buffered by Zuurveld. In 1811, armed conflict against the settlers erupted. The British soldiers inflicted terror and bloodshed to instil fear into the Xhosas while driving them further away. The fifth war, War of Nxele, started in 1818 from the judgment on stolen cattle. This wave of conflict pitted the loyal clans of the Xhosa with the support of the Europeans on one side and the resisting ones on the other side. During this war, a Xhosas Prophet promised his 10,000 strong force that he would turn bullets into water. The result was catastrophic and more than 1000 Xhosa soldiers died while the British created a bigger buffer zone. Tensions continued to rise because Xhosa felt they were expelled from their territories only for other Africans and Europeans to settle on them. When Xhosas were finally allowed to return to their territories, they could not provide for themselves and therefore resorted to cattle raiding. The responses to these raids by the colonial power resulted in the sixth war between 1834 and 1836. Some responses were violent and radical. When a government commando killed a high-ranking Xhosa chief, 10,000 men Xhosa combatants invaded the Cape Colony and caused destruction. The Brits and Boers retaliated leaving many dead including Paramount Chief Hintsa whose ears were chopped off and body mutilated posthumously. Over 70,000 people from all races were left destitute by the end of this war.

British Expansion and Brutality

The seventh Xhosa war, also known as War of the Axe or Amatola War was the bloodiest war. Unlike the other wars, these locals had access to guns, were well trained and outnumbered the colonial government. The war was triggered by calls for more British annexation and a lack of resources for the locals. The eighth war occurred from 1850 to 1853 and was a result of high taxes imposed on the locals, displacement of Xhosa squatters and being forced to adapt to the European culture among other reasons. Initially there was a Xhosa victory, but Britain received reinforcement to defeat the Xhosa campaign. This brutal war lasted two years and saw the Xhosa defeated. The Xhosas killed their cattle between 1856 and 1858 after a sixteen-year-old convinced them that the gods had said they need to kill all cattle to start a fresh life for them to be conquerors. Results were disastrous as starvation and diseases ravaged the powerless Xhosa people. The final war, Fengu-Gcaleka war, was between 1877 and 1879 and involved the multi-racial Cape Colony, the British Empire, and Xhosa armies. Britain wanted to increase control while the Colony did not have any expansionist ideologies. The British took advantage of an isolated Xhosa attack on the Colony to start a comprehensive campaign that disarmed black soldiers in the Colony and other settlements.


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