King Ngqika and Prince Ndlambe led the Rharhabe people of the Amaxhosa in the early 19th century. Their relationship is of significance regarding the effect it had on historical events. At the time of their rule, colonial forces were at work fragmenting Xhosa society for the purposes of acquiring land and making labourers out of the people. As such, the focus on their relationship allows readers three scopes of insight. Firstly, we get a degree of understanding into the Xhosa institution of leadership juxtapositioned with the influence that colonial forces were exerting on leaders. Secondly, the subtler strategies that colonialists used beyond overt violence and force, gives us a closer reading of how the process of colonialism unfolded at a micro level aided by the manipulation of Xhosa political relations. Thirdly, the unravelling of the leaders’ relations proved to have dire consequences for the Xhosa nation but was not entirely inevitable as it was exacerbated by the determination and craftiness of colonial officials in accomplishing their agendas. With this framework in mind, Ngqika and Ndlambe’s relationship will be placed in as much accurate context as possible, given the difficulty of sources with contradictory facts and conclusions. 

The Royal Lineage

Gcaleka and Rharhabe were the sons of King Phalo, who ruled over all of the amaXhosa. Gcaleka was the heir to the throne. Rharhabe was the Right House son of Phalo. Chieftainship was determined by lineage. The King’s first son would be the next to take his father’s place. When the sons of the royal bloodline (Chief and King) came of age and underwent an initiation ceremony, he would acquire followers from that ceremony who he would then leave with to start his own homestead and establish his authority away from his father. [1]  This is how groups expanded their kingdoms, in which all Chiefs were connected in a web of royal lineage.

Although lineage was the main determinant to leadership, this was kept in check by other factors. [2]  For example, Chiefs could have more than one wife which could also result in conflicts over the status of sons. Usually there would be one wife (senior in rank) who would be specifically chosen to produce the heir and there would also be the Right Hand wife (secondary to the senior wife) who would produce the second ranking son. If one son was not deemed fit to follow, another could be chosen for whatever reasons propagated by the people.  So as the leadership institution dictated, Rharhabe moved away and established his own following.

Rharhabe’s heir was his son Mlawu, whose mother was Nojoli. [3] Ndlambe was Rharhabe’s Right Hand son. When Mlawu passed away in 1782 (Rharhabe also passed away soon afterwards, the precise date of which is unknown), he had not married the woman who would produce his heir, although the marriage had been organized. [4] It is not clear how exactly Mlawu died, all that is known is that he collapsed. [5] Ndlambe was in line to take the throne and marry the woman who had been chosen to birth the future Rharhabe King and people were in support of him. However, he insisted that the Rharhabe people had their King in the young Ngqika (who was estimated to have been born in 1779), for Mlawu did not pass away sonless. Along with Ngqika, whose mother was Yese, there was also another young son by the name of Ntimbo [6] The nation grew divided on the matter of which son should rule. Ndlambe favoured Ngqika’s claim as he was not easily susceptible to being manipulated by the councillors and he feared that Ntimbo was of poor health. [7] In the end, King Khawuta, son of Gcaleka and King over all the amaXhosa, was contacted to make the choice and he chose Ngqika.  While Ngqika grew up, Ndlambe served as the regent (roughly between 1783 and 1796) and he acted as a father figure to the young King. [8]

Tracing the Tensions

When Ngqika completed his initiation and was ready to rule, some sources claim that Ndlambe graciously stepped down, whilst others claim that he was reluctant to do so. However, it was here onwards that the two royal leaders’ relationship was characterised by bouts of clashes and co-operation. Ndlambe was a good ruler and favoured by many followers. He was:

an elderly chieftanly figure of great experience and presence, confident in his power and authority, and possessed of all the considerable Xhosa diplomatic gifts in blank-faced parley, circumvention and subtle disdain.” [9]

Ngqika is cast as the opposite. There are two opposing images of Ngqika’s personality. This is symptomatic of the sources from which they come, or else indicative of the changing tides of support in which Ngqika gained and lost followers. Ngqika was considered a volatile character, hot-headed, ambitious, insecure, greedy and jealous. [10] The following is an alternative image of Ngqika left by British visitors who had seen him:

Gaika was a young man at this time under twenty years of age, of an elegant form and a graceful manly deportment; his height about five feet ten inches; his face of a deep bronze colour, approaching nearly to black; his skin soft and smooth; his eyes dark brown and full of animation; his teeth regular, well-set and white as the purest ivory… He seemed to be the adored subject of his subjects; the name of Gaika was in every mouth, and it was seldom pronounced without symptoms of joy.” [11]

One must also keep in mind that with the looming threat that the colonialists posed for the amaXhosa, they had to consider which leader was best able to afford them protection and freedom.

Fresh out of initiation, the renowned literate, Mqhayi asserts that Ngqika’s attitude towards his uncle was influenced by his mother, Yese’s councillors. [12] For when Ndlambe gave over rule of the Rharhabe to Ngqika, he left and many of the amaXhosa followed him, because of his popularity. So, a sense of jealousy and insecurity may have been teased out of Ngqika and made manifest. Furthermore, their relationship was further intensified by the physical clashes that their followers had with each other. The specific reasons or number of conflicts are hard to gage, as well as a precise chronology. However, there are three important incidents to note.

King Hintsa, Paramount over all amaXhosa Image source

At some point, Ndlambe was imprisoned by Ngqika for roughly two years and he had been stopped from killing his uncle by his councillors. In this period, there are again conflicting depictions of Ndlambe’s time there. One narrative maintains that Ndlambe was treated well, had all his wives with him and was consulted regularly by Ngqika on decision-making, but he was kept out of real power. [13] The other describes Ndlambe as having been ill-treated, lonely and having had his freedom largely restricted. [14] The second incident is a joint attack by Ndlambe and the Gcaleka, after King Khawuta passed away, against Ngqika, who won. In his victory, Ngqika captured the young son and heir of King Khawuta, Hintsa, and nearly killed him, having been stopped by his councillors. [15] Thirdly, the incident involving Thuthula  (despite the varying accounts on what exactly happened) is one that has been incorrectly considered as being the central cause of the Battle of Amalinde by some scholars. Thuthula was one of Ndlambe’s wives. One narrative describes the incident as Thuthula having been kidnapped and the result was incest, to which many including Ngqika’s own followers found to be highly offensive. [16] In this case, Ngqika’s councillors and followers had reasons to be disgruntled. These reasons had more to do with the laws he was implementing that centralised his power at the expense of the people, for example he seized homesteads whose heads passed away without a direct heir. [17] The following is another take on the incident:

Famous for her exceeding beauty, Thuthula appears to have had her own romantic interest in Ngqika. When he sent men to fetch her from Ndlambe’s kraal, she willingly complied.” [18]

Another narrative minimises the incident and traces the source of the conflict to one of Ndlambe’s sons first having seized one of Ngqika’s concubines. When Thuthula was then taken by one of the followers of Ngqika, he was punished, and she was returned before the matter became a big issue. [19] What is important to understand is that the relationship between Ndlambe and Ngqika could not purely on its own, affect the political affairs of the amaXhosa as a whole, because of the very nature of the Xhosa leadership institution. [20] Their followers and councillors also had a hand in influencing their relationship and in turn Xhosa politics.

Ambushing Xhosa Leadership

The institution of leadership among the amaXhosa was functional and adaptable enough to contain volatile personalities, such as Ngqika’s. Every homestead had a head and within each cluster of homesteads was a chief. All chiefs fell under a Paramount King who ruled over all amaXhosa, who was descended by a direct line of heirs to the original Xhosa. This political system is geared towards expansion and land was critical for this. The following were some ways in which this institution of leadership contained checks and balances on the powers of leaders:

1. The system allowed for co-ruling. With the Rharhabe people, Ngqika and Ndlambe sometimes worked together to make decisions or lead.

2. Ngqika and Ndlambe never killed each other, because conflicts were attempted to be resolved through assertion of authority not necessarily the destruction of each other. “It was not a question of Ndlambe ousting Ngqika and taking over, but rather a contestation of how to share powers within the royal hierarchy.” [21]

3. The role of councillors was critical in decision-making and maintaining followers, ensuring that the leaders they serve do not become tyrants.

4. Alliances were important, and marriage was one way in which tensions between royal rivals could be defused. [22]

What prevented a successful reigning in of Ngqika was the influence of colonial agents that disrupted the amaXhosa’s nature of politics. For the colonialists, their target was the royal leaders, for they were the custodians of the land and the heart of the amaXhosa nation. The colonial theft of the land and subjugation of the amaXhosa is often described in the structure of the frontier wars, which are sets of conflict from 1779-1878, in which the amaXhosa launched their defences and resistance against the threat to their communities. However, the treatment of Ngqika illustrates more tactical strategies that were used by colonial officials. For example, Joseph Williams had set up his missionary station near Ngqika around 1816 and he was instructed by the magistrates to spy on him. [23] Williams was said to have wielded significant influence over Ngqika, particularly with regards to Christianity, but the King’s councillors attempted to discourage his interests, for many of the amaXhosa were wary and distrusting of the religion and intentions of the missionaries. [24] For example, Ngqika’s own prophet, Ntsikana, who was regarded as the first Xhosa convert, did not have much influence in this period and only kept a small following. [25] Another strategy employed by colonial officials was to flatter and impress the leaders with material commodities in order to stimulate desire and create dependency, as well as to bribe them for varying concessions that would in turn lead to progress in pushing the frontier further. [26] Ngqika was particularly susceptible to this strategy, for he thoroughly enjoyed the receipt of gifts. Furthermore, there was a trader, Coenraad de Buys, who resided in Ngqika’s kraal and may have exercised a degree of influence on him. [27] Alcohol, another colonial control strategy, was also used on the leaders and with Ngqika it was also successful, for in a few instances he was referred to as a drunk. [28] Naturally, it is unclear to what extent these strategies had influenced Ngqika’s inclinations towards the colonial authorities, but it is worth mentioning. Thus, to fulfil his ambitions, Ngqika saw in the colonialists’ potential allies to expand his power and influence, particularly in combating that of his uncle’s. It was the way of the amaXhosa to expand through integrating those they went to war with and defeated or those they allied with, so it is not unusual that Ngqika may have underestimated the threat the colonialists held for him and the other royal leaders.

Strides in Colonial Politics

When Ngqika resumed leadership over the Rharhabe, Ndlambe had moved into the Zuurveld region, an area that the Europeans were coveting for occupation. [29] The third frontier war (1799-1802) saw Ndlambe and his people successfully ward off colonial attacks to remove them from the land. [30] Diplomacy was also utilised to get the amaXhosa to abandon the land, and Ndlambe defended his rights to the territory to Magistrate Jacob Cuyler and tried where he could to keep the peace with colonial agents:

The encounter with Cuyler reveals that the amaNdlambe were in full occupation and control of the Zuurveld right up to Algoa Bay in the west and extending northward into the interior mountains.” [31]

Jacob Cuyler Image source

By 1812, the British had resorted to brute force to remove Ndlambe and his people from the land, which was a huge turning point in Xhosa and colonial relations. [32] This forced Ndlambe and his followers to reside in Ngqika’s territory, leading to the increased manifestation of tensions between these groups. [33]

Ngqika’s relations with the Europeans was an issue of contention for the amaXhosa and they were suspicious of his actions. For his part, Ngqika saw himself as an equal to these potential allies who could assist him in expanding his power and thwart the authority of Ndlambe. It is unclear how much the colonialists understood of the Xhosa political system, and as such whether they were hoodwinked by Ngqika’s ambitions of being the King over all amaXhosa or whether they understood his precise role and simply saw an opportunity to use him to cause division among the royal leadership. As a result, scholars have also fell under the trap of mistaking the relationship between Ngqika and Ndlambe as that of a bid for power to rule over the Rharhabe. Either way, colonialists treated Ngqika with reverence and expected him to help them with cattle-raiding and runaway slaves. Ngqika’s people were also largely guilty of such cattle-raiding and it was difficult for him to maintain alliances with subordinate chiefs when the colonial authorities expected him to curtail their activities. [34] Ngqika also wanted to use his relations with the colonialists to exude himself as being powerful against his opponents; so, he painted a picture of his uncle as being jealous and threatening. [35]

Impression of Ntsikana and Nxele Image source

However, by 1817, the threat colonial forces posed to the amaXhosa became more defined. It was also at this point that both Ndlambe and Ngqika each had prophet advisors, who are often mentioned along with the royal leaders indicating their immense significance in this historical context. Nxele, the more influential, was Ndlambe’s prophet and rallied the amaXhosa against the colonialists, as he represented the protection of the old precolonial sanctity of the amaXhosa nation. In contrast, Ntsikana preached heavily on Christianity.

The Kat River meeting on the 2nd of April 1817 gives us a window of insight into the political state as it may have been. However, there are two different narrative interpretations on the event; with some saying it was Ngqika’s conduct in this meeting that led to the Battle of Amalinde, for he had sold out the nation and their land:

Many Xhosa today believe that Ngqika sold the land in exchange for colonial assistance and a bottle of brandy, but in fact Ngqika was as helpless before his terrible allies as Ndlambe and Hintsa [36]

The more convincing of the two narratives gives far more details of the meeting. Governor Charles Somerset wanted to host a meeting with the Xhosa leadership “that was designed to impress on a Xhosa the might of the white men and deter him from conflict [37] whereby the presence of military could be made a show of:

one hundred dragoons, detachments of the 83rd, 72nd and Cape Regiments, a small detachment of artillery with two field pieces, and three hundred and fifty burghers, armed and mounted.” [38]

Charles Somerset Image source

It is said that Ngqika had been very reluctant to appear at this meeting possibly for fear of his safety and had to be convinced to attend by both his own peers and the likes of Joseph Williams. [39] At the meeting, there was a strong turnout of the Xhosa royal leaders and their guards, as well as interpreters to ensure efficient communication. However, there were no official documents drawn up based on what was discussed or “agreed” upon. [40] Somerset insisted on treating Ngqika as the true King over all the amaXhosa and flattered him with gifts and alcohol. Somerset wanted to only deal with Ngqika and would not listen to protests that Ngqika’s position was not that of Paramount. The leaders were all very nervous in this meeting and in the end, Somerset walked away with the idea that he had received consent from Ngqika to curtail cattle-raiding, assistance with returning run-away slaves and exerting authority over “insubordinate” chiefs to implement colonial laws governing frontier dynamics. [41]

Battle of Amalinde

Prior to the Battle of Amalinde, the Rharhabe as well as other leaders were uniting against the colonial forces. Ngqika had taken a new wife, indicating a possible alliance, and he had begun shunning the influences of missionaries (Williams was abandoned by a number of followers) while also appearing at ceremonies. [42] The increase in cattle-raids gave further proof that the amaXhosa were preparing for battle. [43] Despite Somerset’s meeting, there were no morally binding agreements made and on the side he was already making military plans for forced removal and European occupation. [44] In 1818, it is not clear what changed the tides to affect the unity between Ndlambe and Ngqika. Ngqika was still maintaining relations with the colonialists and at times returned their “stolen property”, so the royal leaders had cause to believe that Ngqika could not be trusted and was a national threat to their plans for unification against the enemies. [45]

Ndlambe and other chiefs, including that of King Hintsa, united against Ngqika’s army at the Battle of Amalinde, which is known today as a devastating civil war among the amaXhosa. In the preparation for this war, Ntsikana warned Ngqika:

I see the heads of the Gaika being devoured by ants… [46]

Ngqika did not heed the prophet’s caution, and his son Maqoma led his army. Ndlambe’s son, Mdushane led his army in the battle. Mqhayi and Wells convincingly argue that this battle was an attempt to discipline Ngqika and it was not about the personal relationship that Ngqika and Ndlambe had.

Brereton Raid

Ngqika’s people suffered a devastating loss and so the King found himself turning to the colonial authorities for aid and revenge. Colonel Thomas Brereton heard Ngqika’s pleas and before receiving official consent, proceeded to launch an attack against the amaXhosa and it was mainly Ndlambe’s people who suffered gravely. [47] This act solidified the path to war. Two weeks after the raid Ngqika took refuge in the Kakaberg Mountains and later in the colony and eventually he too lost chunks of his land to the colonialists. [48]

The rest of the amaXhosa nation began preparing for the Grahamstown Battle and:

Ngqika was nothing to Ndlambe; Ngqika’s power destroyed other nations because he had handed himself over to the whites – people abandoned him for Ndlambe.” [49]


The Grahamstown Battle saw the amaXhosa suffer more losses against the colonialists. Ndlambe passed away in 1828 and his grave lies in King Williams Town. [50] Ngqika passed away in 1829 and he is buried in Burnshill on the Keiskamma River. [51] Ngqika’s sons went on to make their stamp in the historical struggle to maintain the amaXhosa nation and lands against colonial onslaught.

The following is an excerpt from Isaac Williams Wauchope’s poem about the Battle at Amalinde, written in 1895 [52]:

“The Gcaleka forces were allied to Ndlambe,

Weapons click-clacked in the beat of a dance,

Ngqika wheeled and fled from the battlefield,

Hot on his heels the hordes gave him no rest.


Off he went on his way to the whites!

And the tribes of Nonibe flanked the army!

And how are we now? The land is fenced in

And those lacking God are assailed by misfortune.


Physical power has ended in Xhosaland,

The chiefs have yielded their place to the Agents,

People have stopped their appeal to the ancestors,

Opponents of darkness have raised their banners.”


[1] Jeff Peires, The House of Phalo (Johannesburg and Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 1981), 23

[2] Ibid, 34

[3] S.E.K. Mqhayi, Abantu Besizwe – Historical and biographical writings, 1902-1944 (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2009), 92

[4] Ibid, 94

[5] Ibid, 260

[6] Ibid, 92

[7] Ibid, 92

[8] Julia C. Wells, The Return of Makhanda – Exploring the Legend (Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2012), 107

[9] Ibid, 105

[10] Ibid, 106

[11] Ibid, 110

[12] S.E.K. Mqhayi, Abantu Besizwe – Historical and biographical writings, 1902-1944 (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2009), 268

[13] Julia C. Wells, The Return of Makhanda – Exploring the Legend (Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2012), 109-110

[14] S.E.K. Mqhayi, Abantu Besizwe – Historical and biographical writings, 1902-1944 (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2009), 302

[15] Julia C. Wells, The Return of Makhanda – Exploring the Legend (Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2012), 109

[16] Jeff Peires, The House of Phalo (Johannesburg and Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 1981), 66

[17] Julia C. Wells, The Return of Makhanda – Exploring the Legend (Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2012), 113

[18] Ibid, 112

[19] S.E.K. Mqhayi, Abantu Besizwe – Historical and biographical writings, 1902-1944 (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2009), 310

[20] Ibid

[21] Julia C. Wells, The Return of Makhanda – Exploring the Legend (Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2012), 112

[22] Ibid, 102-103

[23] Ibid, 127

[24] S.E.K. Mqhayi, Abantu Besizwe – Historical and biographical writings, 1902-1944 (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2009), 272

[25] Julia C. Wells, The Return of Makhanda – Exploring the Legend (Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2012), 52

[26] Ibid, 116

[27] Ibid, 110

[28] Ibid, 116

[29] Ibid, 82

[30] Ibid

[31] Ibid, 91

[32] Ibid, 93-94

[33] Ibid, 96

[34] Jeff Peires, The House of Phalo (Johannesburg and Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 1981), 67

[35] Ibid, 65

[36] Ibid, 89

[37] S.E.K. Mqhayi, Abantu Besizwe – Historical and biographical writings, 1902-1944 (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2009), 314

[38] Julia C. Wells, The Return of Makhanda – Exploring the Legend (Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2012), 129

[39] Ibid

[40] Ibid, 130

[41] Ibid, 130-131

[42] Ibid, 140

[43] Ibid, 134

[44] Ibid, 132

[45] Ibid, 140

[46] Ibid, 51

[47] Ibid, 146

[48] Ibid, 148

[49] S.E.K. Mqhayi, Abantu Besizwe – Historical and biographical writings, 1902-1944 (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2009), 320

[50] Ibid, 86

[51] Ibid, 102

[52] Opland, Jeff and Nyamende, Abner. Isaac Williams Wauchope – Selected Writings 1874-1916.  Paarl: Van Riebeek Society, 2008.


Mqhayi, S.E.K. Abantu Besizwe – Historical and biographical writings, 1902-1944. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2009.|Peires, Jeff. The House of Phalo. Johannesburg and Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 1981.|Wells, Julia C. The Return of Makhanda – Exploring the Legend. Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2012.

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