Q: Was the battle of Grahamstown all about black people attacking white people?
A: No, coloured people fought on both sides and suffered great losses.
Because Grahamstown was created as a base for the British military, the needs of maintaining an armed force dominated the local economy from the earliest days. Its first people of colour came as soldiers in the employment of the British army. In ???, XX years before Grahamstown was founded, Col. John Graham was asked to create a special unit called the Cape Corps, made up of men of Khoekhoe and mixed-ancestry backgrounds. By that time in history, many indigenous people had been living for several generations as workers for Dutch-speaking farmers in the western Cape. They often spoke Dutch themselves, dressed in European-style clothing and were very familiar with the use of things like wagons and guns. When the British took control of the Cape Colony, they saw themselves as being more fair and just in their treatment of people of colour than the Dutch-speakers, who had been in South Africa for the previous 150 years. Working as soldiers of the British army gave Khoekhoe people higher pay and greater prestige.
They looked distinctive in their green uniforms, as opposed to the usual red uniforms typical of the army.
As soon as Grahamstown was proclaimed, barracks were built where Fort England Hospital now stands, for the Cape Corps and British soldiers. The officers took over Lucas Meyer’s old house, on the site of the Anglican Cathedral today, as their own headquarters. The early Cape Corps soldiers included not only those trained by Col. Graham in the western Cape, but also a number of men who had been recruited into the army at the time that the war of 1811-12 started. A mission station of the London Missionary Society has been operating at Bethelsdorp, near present-day Port Elizabeth, since 1803. It had become home for people of Khoekhoe descent from the eastern part of the Cape, as well as people choosing to leave work on farms claimed by the Dutch.
Many of the men in the locally-recruited Cape Corps brought along their wives, children and livestock. The families built their own houses in the area closer to the stream below the officer’s headquarters in the area that came to be known as Scott’s Farm and Hottentot Village. The LMS missionaries sent teachers to work among the children and preachers to speak with the soldiers.
The coloured soldiers from Bethelsdorp had found that working for the British army not only gave them steady pay, but also a share in what was taken from the Xhosa-speaking people when they were expelled from the area. They benefited from the abandoned food growing in the gardens, as well as getting a share of the cattle that were captured. Some men did not need to join the army, but simply worked for it as transport riders, trackers and interpreters. Providing timber for the new English-style buildings also brought income for people referred to as ‘sawyers.’
Not all people of Khoekhoe culture chose to cooperate with the British. David Stuurman had been a strong resister of Dutch domination during a war against them in 1799-1803. The efforts of his clan earned them the right to live independently in their own area near the Gamtoos River at that time. But when he refused to cooperate with the new British rulers who came into power in the area in 1806, they arrested him and sent him to Robben Island. Stuurman escaped from the Island and returned to the eastern frontier. He chose to reside with the Xhosa people instead of within the colonial boundaries. He lived and worked closely with Makhanda and the British greatly feared that he would stir up another rebellion of all the farm-workers, with assistance from the Xhosa. Another leader of the Khoekhoe resistance in 1799-1803 was Hans Trompetter. When he was capturedin ???, the British authorities sent him to Robben Island where he remained until 1820 when he was executed for having freed Makhanda from the Island.
At the time of the big battle for the future of Grahamstown in 1819, people of Khoe descent chose between three different options. David Stuurman helped Makhanda rally the attacking forces from a combination of Xhosa, Khoe, ex-slaves and British army deserters. A huge force, possibly as big as 10,000 men, attacked Grahamstown on 22 April, hoping to drive the British out altogether so they could reclaim the land that had once been theirs. People like Stuurman, who were familiar with the use of guns, horses and British military tactics, supplemented the traditional Xhosa warriors, armed with throwing spears.
A second option was exemplified by Jan Boesak. He was a former farm worker in the Long Kloofwho had secured his independence. He and his family formed part of the early Bethelsdorp mission community and he made a living by hunting game to provide meat for the British army. When the battle started at Grahamstown, he came to the defence of both the British and his own kin who lived in the barracks and village. From his trading and hunting experiences, he knew the Xhosa leaders well and is said to have used his sharp-shooting skills to pick off key figures at the height of the fighting. Chief Ndlambe lost two of his sons in the battle. He also took command of about 150 mounted men, which probably included much of the Cape Corps, as they were the only soldiers who used horses. Some writers attribute the British victory in the battle to his energetic involvement.
A third option was to work as a double-agent. Ngcuka was a Gonaqua Khoe who worked for the British army as an interpreter. He had been present at all the key events in the years leading up to the battle and had also at times been an interpreter for King Ngqika, an ally of the British at the time. He would have had a very deep knowledge of conditions and attitudes on both sides. But in the midst of the battle, it became clear that he had actually been working with Makhanda in the planning of the attack. The day before the battle he informed the British commanding officer, Col. Thomas Willshire, that there was some Xhosa military activity to the south and east along the Fish River. This resulted in about one quarter of the soldiers being sent out to investigate, thus reducing the number of those left to defend Grahamstown the following day. At the height of the battle, Ngcuka was seen crossing over from the British side to the Xhosa one. This so infuriated the soldiers who had trusted him, that they tracked him down and took him prisoner. He was shot to death before the battle ended and before he could be put on trial for treason.
In 1819, Grahamstown was defended from the major attack by the 38th Regiment, the 60th Regiment, and members of the Royal Artillery all from Britain, as well as the Cape Corps, made up of indigenous people. The British side recorded the loss of six soldiers’ lives and ??head of livestock, belonging to the Cape Corps and their families. After such a bitter battle, the British government then decided to rather populate the area around Grahamstown with its own settlers. Their presence was designed to ensure that the Xhosa people never returned.
Dear friends of SAHO
South African History Online (SAHO) needs your support.
SAHO is one of the most visited websites in South Africa with over 6 million unique users a year. Our goal is to fulfill our mandate and continue to build, and make accessible, a new people’s history of South Africa and Africa.
Please help us deliver this by contributing upwards of $1.00 a month for the next 12 months.