The Tyranny of Culture
A man should be just cultured enough to be able to look with suspicion upon culture.
Fear fills me at the very word culture. The word belongs to the same class of terrible words as nuclear war, genocide, and child abduction. All of those other words speak to the powerlessness of the individual, but the word culture positively celebrates it. The power of culture makes a mockery of an individual’s intelligence, insight, and power even as it twists them to its own ends. The power of culture turns individuals into a mob even as it makes them feel special. The power of culture has convinced countless peoples to commit national suicide or to become a nation of murders while making them feel as if they are defenders of the national life.
Men have tried to stand up to power of culture and to stop its awful course. These men came close to Nietzsche’s definition of supermen. They were far above ordinary men in intelligence and energy and they rose to positions of great power. But what made them super was their ability to think outside the box that was constructed by their culture’s mores and pre-existing thought patterns. They saw solutions and problems that other people simply could not see because they were blinded by their culture. These “super men” tried to use their own intelligence and power to prevent the disaster that their insight so clearly saw. But the grip of culture on the mob mind cannot be broken by mortal man, however super he might be.
Jacques Turgot, Peter Stolypin, and many others found this out to their own cost. It almost seems as if the spirit of the age played with such men like cat does a mouse. For a time they seem to be accomplishing something. But in the end all their efforts were revealed to have been for naught. They are relegated to foot notes in the history books. Only people who specialize in the obscure even know that they existed.
However, the lesser minds that chose to embrace the death and disaster that their cultures desired have prominent places in the history books. Stalin and Lenin could not hold a candle to Stolypin’s intellect. But they are remembered because they brought about the death that that their culture wanted, the death that Stolypin struggled so hard to prevent. Turgot was a far better administrator than Napoleon. But Napoleon is remembered because he was part of the wars and bloodshed that the culture of the time was calling for, whereas Turgot sought to prevent the war that everyone wanted. And there are many other examples I could give in the same vein.
The most depressing thing about these tragic tales is not the fact that they tried and failed to save their cultures, but the fact that they could not escape the doom of their cultures themselves. In part, of course, it was because the people who tried to save their cultures from disaster tended to care for those same cultures. Such concern drove many of them to ride the sinking ship all the way to the end. But those who were not inclined to ride a sinking ship found that their culture’s power over them was so great that they could not get off the ship. Even if they decided to abandon their culture, the power of culture prevented any escape.
Maqoma is the poster boy for those who try to escape the doom their culture has laid upon them. He was truly a Nietzsche type superman. When he was a small boy, European travelers who met him marveled at how extraordinary he seemed. Soldiers who had won great renown and had helped to defeat Napoleon were no match for him. Even his enemies were in awe of his intellect and charisma. A missionary who was no friend of Maqoma or his people the Xhosa said of him that…
He acquired by intelligence what he had not by birth or rank — the highest place among the other chiefs…Naked barbarian though he be, Maqoma has an intellectual character, that well entitles him to the consideration of anyone capable of estimating man by this standard, he can both give and understand a reason…
But even though the story of Maqoma’s life traces out the destruction of his culture, he did not willing follow his culture to its doom. Above all else he wanted to farm the land that he loved. If that meant fighting to save his culture, he would do it with all his might. If giving up his culture would have enabled him to farm the land he loved, he would have done that as well. But he was not given a choice. No matter what he did, he could neither save his culture nor escape its fate. In the end, his struggle to be a farmer on the land that he was born on brought him banishment to an island without any human company. It was an ironically cruel way for the spirit of the age to punish the man who tried to escape the fate of his own culture.
Of course, it was white men who prevented Maqoma from going to his farm. It was white men who sent Maqoma to Robin Island to die. People who know only this might wonder how I dare say that it was Maqoma’s own culture that did him in. They might wonder on what moral grounds I blame the victim for the crime. But the life of Maqoma stands as testimony against his own people that their doom was avoidable. Maqoma bested the South African colonist again and again, but he was helpless against the internal forces that tore his people apart. It was flaws in the Xhosa culture that lead to Maqoma being defeated, not the superior weapons of the white man.
Such a charge flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom has it that superior weapons technology guaranteed Europeans military mastery. Thus it is thought that Africans in general, and the Xhosa in particular, had no hope of ever defeating the Europeans. Therefore it is assumed that any resistance to European might was bound to be noble, but suicidal. While this sounds plausible to those who only know that the Europeans had guns and the Xhosa did not (and even that was not always true), it has no basis in history. The Xhosa defeated the Europeans numerous times on the field of battle, even though the Europeans were better armed than then the Xhosa. In fact, Maqoma almost never lost a battle. Even the one battle that he lost, he did not lose anything of real value, and shortly won it back. But like the Americans in Vietnam, never losing a battle did not stop Maqoma from losing the war.
The belief that the superior weapons technology of the Europeans granted them automa
tic militarily mastery betrays fundamental lack of understanding of military conflict. Military power does not rest only on who has the best weapons. Factors such as maneuverability, intelligence, and logistics are at least as important as fire power. In their wars with the Xhosa, the Europeans may have had superior fire power and military discipline, but they were outclassed in terms of maneuverability of their forces and the ability to collect tactical intelligence. In practical terms, this meant that the Xhosa could always dictate the terms of the battle. Xhosa military success primarily relied upon having good commanders such as Maqoma who understood how to use this superiority to best affect. Often the odds were so stacked against them that the European solders were not up to the job of fighting the Xhosa. This forced Colonial powers to rely on other African tribes or different factions among the Xhosa to fight the Xhosa.
Superior technology is, in any case, a very weak explanation for the European’s success at conquering most of the world. It does not explain why China was conquered and Japan was not. It does not explain why Thailand remained independent and India became the crown jewel of the British Empire. It does not explain why Ethiopia was never a European colony, but the Xhosa were among the last of the African peoples to escape from white dominion.
What all the countries that fell to European conquest had in common was a culture that was more concerned with settling internal scores than in facing up to an external challenge. European success came in large part because of their success at playing people off against each other, as it did with their own military ability. If you look throughout the history of European expansion, you will find that most of their victories were won with forces composed primarily of native troops. The Xhosa were no exception to that rule. They were always willing to do the white man’s job by tearing each other down.
The experience of Xhosa fighting Xhosa, and of the white man playing the opposing faction off of each other is what shaped Maqoma’s early life. Maqoma grew up in the midst of a Xhosa civil war that was fought between Maqoma’s own father Ngqika and his great uncle Ndlambe over who would control one of the sub tribes of the Xhosa called the Rarabe. This civil war is sometimes portrayed as a battle between a Xhosa leader (Ndlambe) who advocated resistance to white encroachment and one who favored accommodating the whites (Ngqika). A cynic would point out that Nadlambe was not above making deals with the Europeans when it suited him. A cynic would also point out that that Ngqika made his alliances with the Europeans because Nadlambe was kicking his ass, not because he had any great love for the Europeans.
Nonetheless, it can not be denied that a victory by Nadlambe would have been better for Xhosa power, as he was a far better leader than his nephew. There would not have even been a civil war if Ngqika had been a half way decent ruler, for Ngqika had the legal right to rule by Xhosa custom. But even though Ngqika had the legal right to rule, he ruled so badly that he alienated his own people.
Ngqika would have been deposed if it were not for two factors. The first was the various deals that Ngqika made with the Europeans and the fact that the Europeans were too afraid of Nadlambe’s power to stay out of the fight. The second factor was the fact that most of the minor chiefs did not want either of the two men to get too strong and they would switch their support to whoever was losing.
In the end, neither side won the civil war and the Rarabe was divided into two different tribes who took their names from the two warring chiefs. And though the alliance of Ngqika and the Europeans who had settled in South Africa sharply reduced Ndlambe’s power, it was Ngqika who paid the ultimate price for making a deal with them. He was killed by his European allies after he had a falling out with them.
With a background like that, it is no surprise that Maqoma had a very cynical view of both his own people and the Europeans. But that background also saddled him with a number of serious problems. One of his headaches was that he had to deal with treaties that Ngqika had made with the British. The one that bothered the Maqoma the most was the treaty in which Ngqika ceded some of the land that Maqoma loved best to the Europeans. Most of this land was to remain empty as a buffer zone between two peoples. But some of it was given to people belonging to a rival tribe, the Khoikhoi. The settlement that they formed, called the Kat river settlement created formable problems for Maqoma and Xhosa in general.
The reason the Khoikhoi were such a problem for the Xhosa was in part due to the Xhosa culture of contempt for other weaker African tribes. The Xhosa were a powerful people who, up until the time they meet up with Europeans, were always expanding their territory. The Xhosa had driven the Khoikhoi out of many lands throughout their history, so it is natural that there should have been some bad blood between the two peoples. But it was the Europeans that completely destroyed any shred of independence that the Khoikhoi had. They even enslaved the Khoikhoi for a while, until the British took South Africa over from the Dutch and put and end to that. Even after slavery was ended they were still treated very badly by the Europeans.
As a result of how the Europeans treated them, the Khoikhoi should have been more than willing to forget past grievances and help the Xhosa against their common foe. But Xhosa despised Khoikhoi and continued to prey upon them, even as they were being oppressed by the British. Khoikhoi responded by fighting for the Europeans against the Xhosa. Even when the Khoikhoi were enslaved by the Europeans they often put up a fiercer resistance to Xhosa raids than their Dutch masters.
The fact that Xhosa contempt for the Khoikhoi did not totally preclude all Khoikhoi attempts to make common cause with the Xhosa is a testament to how badly Europeans treated the Khoikhoi. Nonet
heless, far more Khoikhoi fought with the Europeans against the Xhosa than fought with the Xhosa against the Europeans. Once the British took over, the Khoikhoi provided the manpower for the Cape Mounted Rifleman who proved themselves to be the most effective military unit that Colony possessed. When formed into professional military units by the British, the Khoikhoi combined the best of European military training and technology with African brush skills. Thus, in spite of the contempt that Xhosa had for the Khoikhoi, they were actually among their most dangerous foes.
Showing some of the shrewdness that helped them build an empire, the British gave their retired Khoikhoi Mounted Rifleman land in the area that Ngqika ceded. This is why Kat River Settlement, as the Khoikhoi settlement on the land was called, was such a big problem for Maqoma. Not only did it create a buffer between him and the British on land that he did not think that his father should have ever given away, but it gave the British a large pool of soldiers that they could call up at moments notice.
As formable of a problem as the Kat River settlement was, it was only one of the problems that Maqoma faced after the death of his father. Another major problem was the settlement of British’s settlers near Xhosa land. Before, the Cape Colony had mostly been settled by the Dutch and the British had only been interested in it as a useful re-supply point for their ships. The British had wanted no part of an expansion into the rest of what was to become South Africa and had tried to restrain the Dutch Settlers who wanted to do just that. However, the British settlers began to make South Africa into something that was economically valuable in its own right. This weakened the British government’s determination to keep the Cape Colony small.
But Maqoma greatest problem was the culture of his people and the legacy that his father had left him. The Xhosa culture was a lot like the Scots. In theory, all the Xhosa owed allegiance the paramount chief. But just as with the Scots, that did not stop the various sub tribes and clans from raiding each others’ cattle and carrying out their own private vendettas, or from going against the wishes of the paramount chief. These private wars, such as the fight between Maqoma’s father and great uncle, could leave a lot of bad blood and prevent the Xhosa from forming a common front.
What made it even more difficult for the Xhosa to form a common front were some of the ways in which the Scots and the Xhosa were not alike. For one thing, the Xhosa Paramount Chiefs never led the fight against the British like the Scottish kings did. Often, the Paramount Chiefs were quite happy to see British trash the frontier Xhosa chiefs as they were powerful potential rivals to the Paramount Chief. Even when the Paramount Chiefs were sympathetic to the frontier chiefs’ plight, they only gave covert support. They never openly used their prestige to try to unify the Xhosa against the Europeans.
Another way in which the Xhosa differed from the Scots was that they passed down the right to rule from father to youngest son. At least, that is the way that it usually worked out. The actual requirement was that the heir be the oldest son of the woman chosen from the right bloodline for the function of bearing the future chief. The Xhosa chiefs almost always took this wife late in life, so that the child born would be the oldest child of that woman, but one of the younger children of the chief in question. Xhosa culture can get pretty complex, but the basic thing to remember is that the heir to a Xhosa chief would usually only be a child when his father died. In that case it was expected that the oldest son (or sometimes a brother of the fallen chief) would act as regent until the youngest son came of age.
This practice caused many civil wars among the Xhosa. It was major contributor to the problems between Nadlambe and Ngqika. But they were hardly unique. Many older sons who were grown men in there thirties and forties did not want to give up power to a teenager from a mother who was younger than they were, no matter what tradition dictated. But the younger sons could usually find plenty of support. First, because Xhosa had high regard for tradition, as it served the same functions as law in their society. Another factor seems to have been the fact that the Xhosa never seemed to have wanted their chiefs to be overly strong. Throwing a kid into the job was a good way of making sure that never happened.
Maqoma was the oldest son of his father and it was his younger brother Sandile who had been born of the right mother. So in addition to all the rest of the problems he faced, Maqoma also had to deal with the fact that, politically speaking, he would be a nobody as soon as his brother Sandile came of age. The fact that he was only to be a caretaker for a few short years limited his standing with the other Xhosa chiefs. Given all of his problems, it is no surprise that Maqoma showed no desire to become a champion for his people or to fight against the British. In fact, Maqoma probably would have never struggled so hard against the British and the failings of his own culture, were it not for the fact that he loved the ground that his father had ceded.
Even in regards to the ceded territory, Maqoma did not act in a warlike manner. Unlike most other Xhosa, he seems to have done his best to get along with Khoikhoi. Early on, he seems to have realized what a disaster it would be for the British if the Xhosa and the Khoikhoi united. But Maqoma also did his best to get along with British. Having been involved in wars since he was a child, Maqoma seems to have highly valued peace. But he also valued the ceded territory.
Since most the ceded territory was designed to be buffer between the Xhosa and the Europeans, most of it was empty except for where the Khoikhoi had settled. Therefore, Maqoma was able to simply move back onto the land without fighting anyone. He did not bother the Khoikhoi that were there and they did not bother him. Moreover, with his considerable charisma, he was able to get the British General in charge of the frontier military forces to agree to let him stay on the ceded territory. As Maqoma said over and over again, to be able to live in peace on that land was all he ever wanted. But it was not to be.
Maqoma soon had all sorts of problems on his hands. The ceded territory had been created in large part to stop that back and forth cattle stealing that had caused so many past European/Xhosa conflicts. It is doubtful that even if Maqo
ma had stayed off of the ceded territory that it would have worked as intended. For one thing, the Xhosa could cover considerable distances with ease. So the idea that an empty area between the two peoples would deter the Xhosa from stealing cattle was pretty dubious.
But the other problem is that many times the Xhosa were completely innocent. The Europeans, especially the English who were new to Africa, did not watch over their animals nor did they have them fenced in. Thus many times they lost their animals to predators. Or if the were really dishonest, they had not lost their animals at all and only said that they did to get free cattle. In any case, most colonial authorities did not bother to investigate, they just formed a commando and went took a bunch of cattle away from the Xhosa, often times burning their homes in the process.
Needless to say, the Xhosa who were the victims of the commandos were often not the Xhosa who stole the cattle (if any stealing had, in fact, taken place). And since, unlike the Xhosa, the Europeans could not cover long distances, they always took the cattle from the closest Xhosa they could find. Often, the closest Xhosa were Maqoma and his people. Nor was the amount of cattle they took comparable to what they had lost. They simply grabbed as much as they could find.
If that was not enough, when the government at the Cape heard that Maqoma was living on the ceded territory with the permission of the General in charge of the area, they were furious. They ordered the same general who had originally given Maqoma permission to live on the ceded territory to break his own word and drive Maqoma off of the ceded land.
Amazingly enough, during all of this, Maqoma and the Xhosa did not fight back. Instead, Maqoma tried diplomacy. He tried to explain to the British that he did not control all of the Xhosa. He tried to explain to them that by punishing people regardless of whether they were guilty the British were removing any incentive to be innocent. He tried to explain to the British that they were destroying what authority he did have by punishing his people even when it was other Xhosa who did the stealing. How, Maqoma asked, am I to keep my people from stealing when they will be punished in any case?
But when he was driven off of the ceded land and he continued to be one of the principle victims of the commandos, Maqoma started mixing in threats with his complaints. At the same time, he used his considerable charisma to convince other Xhosa who were not part of his sub tribe to help him in the coming contest. He also continued to offer no military resistance to the commandos that kept afflicting his people.
For this reason, in spite of Maqoma’s threats and the obvious anger that commando raids were causing among the Xhosa, the European settlers were taken completely by surprise when Maqoma struck. The defeats he inflected and the damage that he did caused complete panic along the frontier. A fort was abandoned to Maqoma without a shot. All of the farms along the frontier were plundered and burned. The principle town of the frontier, Grahamstown, almost fell to Maqoma. There was panicky talk of Maqoma driving the British back to the cape. This was the beginning of a war that was to last for roughly a year and is known today as they Sixth Cape Frontier War.
In spite of his initial success, there were two things working against Maqoma. The first was that one of the most celebrated British solders of the time was stationed in the Cape. Henry George Wakelyn Smith (more commonly known as Harry Smith), won fame in almost all the wars that he had fought in or would fight in. He fought with distinction against the French during the Napoleonic wars and the Americans in the war of 1812. After he had fought Maqoma for the first time, he went on win military fame in India. He would end his military career fighting against Maqoma in a later war on the South African Frontier.
The second thing that was working against Maqoma was his own lack of authority among the Xhosa. He could only count on those of Xhosa who had owed allegiance to his father. With his charisma he seems to have persuaded other Xhosa to give him some help, but it was of dubious quality and lead to some bitterness on Maqoma’s part towards his fellow chiefs. This lack of reliability robbed Maqoma of critical military support. For example, after his initial victories, the volunteers from the other sub tribes went home to enjoy their plunder leaving Maqoma to face the colonial counterattack by himself.
As Maqoma’s volunteers were leaving him to enjoy the fruits of victory, Harry Smith was galloping, pony-express style, towards Gramstown, riding horses right to ground as he went. It may have been unnecessary; it is debatable whether Maqoma still had enough strength to take the town without the volunteers from the other sub tribes. But it was still a very brave thing for Harry to do, as Maqoma’s raiding parties filled the countryside, and Harry was riding without an escort. Moreover, the panic that Maqoma had caused with his initial success had so filled the military commander of Gramstown with fear that he was on the verge abandoning the fortified town. Had he done so, it would have put Maqoma in an immeasurably stronger position. Even if Harry Smith’s heroic ride wasn’t necessary from the strictly military point of view, it was necessary due to psychological factors that Colonial forces on the frontier were suffering from.
The war then became a contest between Harry Smith and Maqoma. It was unequal contest. Maqoma fought alone with an only a tiny fraction of Xhosa military might at his disposal, but Harry Smith could call on of the resources of the Cape colony. Not only could he conscript the Boor and English settlers, but he could also call upon the Khoikhoi. In fact, one of the first things Harry did when he got to Gramstown was to gather all the Khoikhoi in the area into military units and start drilling them. The only thing that Maqoma had going for him was his own brains and the fact his forces were faster and were more brush savvy then Harry Smith’s men. Using these two advantages and taking full advantage of some of Harry Smith’s foibles, Maqoma managed to achieve what he wanted when he started the fight.
In many ways, Harry Smith had a similar command style to Patton. He was full of energy, brave beyond reason, never doubted himself, and was always looking to go on the offense. In fact, he was offensively minded to a fault. Harry thought that every problem could be solved by charging after the enemy and forcing him to fight. His faults were also similar to Patton’s. Harry was not very skilled at interpersonal relations and he could be extremely arrogant. Harry’s virtues meant that he accomplished many feats that awed hi
s contemporaries. But his vices meant that he did a number of things that were so stupid you marvel that a grown man actually did them.
Maqoma on the other hand had a style that was a lot like General Lee’s. Speed, surprise, and audacity were the hall marks of his attacks, but he was not slavishly devoted to the offensive. When strategic situation warranted, he would sucker his opponents in to attacking him on ground that was favorable to him. It was just such a strategy that Maqoma pursued once the changing balance of power made an offensive victory impossible for him to obtain. By moving his base of operations to the Amatola Mountains, Maqoma guaranteed that any move by the British to destroy Maqoma would be fought a terrain that was extremely favorable to the defense. From this natural fortress, Magoma continued to send out raiding parties to prevent the colonial farmers from planting their crops or rebuilding their farms.
Harry Smith had no good answer to this strategy. He tried going after Maqoma in Amatola Mountains, but his European troops were completely worthless and his forays accomplished nothing. It was only his Khoikhoi that prevented Maqoma from routing Smith and destroying his military power. With a military victory out of reach, and Xhosa raids making food increasingly scare, Smith turned to a scorched earth policy.
The scorched earth policy was more successful than trying to defeat Maqoma on the battlefield because Maqoma lacked the strength to destroy Harry on the open field. Harry took advantage of this fact to try to destroy all the Xhosa food supplies that he could find. The only flaw in this strategy was that Harry did not distinguish between Xhosa who were helping Maqoma and those who would have been just as happy to see him lose. Harry thus helped to build Maqoma’s prestige among all Xhosa. Even still, Harry’s strategy started to have an affect on Maqoma’s people’s will to resist.
The two men thus became locked into a race to see who could starve the other one out first. The British thought that they had the upper hand, but when a delegation came to talk terms with Maqoma they were surrounded by thousands of healthy Xhosa warriors. Maqoma told the frightened British delegation not to be alarmed. He only wanted to show them that his warriors were not starving. It was quite a demoralizing display for the junior British officers. But it did not affect Harry, whose bravery stemmed in part from refusing to believe that things would turn out other than the way he wanted them to. And above all else, Harry wanted Maqoma’s unconditional surrender.
But the scorched earth policy was not working fast enough for the increasingly hungry colony, and Harry eventually had to make an agreement with Maqoma. Or at least, they supposedly came to an agreement. There is evidence to suggest that Europeans who were doing the translating were desperate for peace and presented things in the best possible light to both parties. Thus Maqoma and Harry might not have had an accurate understanding of what the other party said. In any case, Maqoma understood the agreement to be one in which he could live on the land the he loved and not be attacked by a commando every time somebody thought they had lost a cow. Harry thought that Maqoma had surrendered to the British Crown and he had authority to reshape Xhosa society as he thought fit.
The war almost broke out again, but the British Parliament unexpectedly intervened in Maqoma’s favor. It took a while for news of the war and what Smith was trying to do to travel back to Britain. But when the news got there, it made Parliament very unhappy. Testimony from missionaries and others convinced Parliament that the settlers had provoked the fight. But this was a minor issue in minds of those who ruled British Empire. What really made Parliament mad was how much money the war had cost the national treasury. The thought that all that money had gone towards a war that was not necessary and involved no national interest was bad enough. But the testimony from Harry’s own friends said that he was going to need even more astronomical sums to make his plans to keep the Xhosa under the British thumb work.
That was the last straw. Parliament laid down the law. The Xhosa were to be treated as a sovereign nation. Their territory was not to be impinged upon. No commandos were to be sent against them. And Harry and the Governor of the Cape who had overseen war and its aftermath were sent packing. Maqoma had won just about everything he had set out to achieve.
But it might have been better for the sake of long term peace had Parliament not intervened and the fighting had resumed. Maqoma would have almost certainly proved to the colonist that they were ones who were being beaten. As it was, people in the colony were not happy with Parliament and thought that a hard fought victory had been stolen from them. Since it’s Parliament was far away and quite changeable, it was only a matter of time before things reverted to their old ways. The belief that Maqoma had been beaten would cost the colony dear, and it would later help end Harry’s military career.
The peace held for a little over 10 years. It was during this time that Maqoma saw that his cultural was heading inexorably towards destruction and he tried to abandon it. Why he tried to do this we can only surmise. But it is likely that several factors lead him to this conclusion.
First off, even though Maqoma had won his war with the British, he did so without the help of most of the Xhosa. In fact, some had gone so far as to take advantage of him. In particular, Maqoma had a grudge against the Gcaleka who were the richest and the largest of all sub-tribes that made up the Xhosa. It was from the Gcaleka that the Paramount Chief of all the Xhosa came from. They were the farthest from the Settlers and they always tried to stay out of the fray. They were often quite happy to see the frontier sub tribes weakened for it further enhanced their own power. During the war, Maqoma had tried to take advantage of their neutrality by turning some of his cattle over to keep it safe from Harry. But the Gcaleka would not give it back even after Maqoma won a victory that granted to all Xhosa, including the Gcaleka, a guarantee against settler attacks.
This was symptomatic of a general reluctance among the Xhosa to fight for their brothers. It was a reluctance that was particularly strong among the Gcaleka. The Gcaleka on occasion suffered outrages at the hands of Europeans. But their losses were marginal compared to what the other Xhosa suffered. This was not only because of geography. The Gcaleka always tried to make sure that the frontier Xhosa bore the brunt of all the fighting. Even when they knew the victory for frontier Xhosa was critical to their own interests, they would only give covert help for fear that the fighting should seriously affect their wealth. Their wealth and securit
y were so important to them that they held fast to their neutrality even after Harry killed their Chief.
The Gcaleka also provided Harry and the British with one of their most loyal allies. The Gcaleka kept the Mfengu in bondage to them. Harry liberated them from that bondage only to exchange it for bondage to British Empire. But the Gcaleka must have treated the Mfengu very badly, for Mfengu were always willing to kill Xhosa for the British. Thus the Gcaleka greatly increased the amount of manpower that the British had available to them.
But this was old hat. It was the same old story that Xhosa culture had been playing over and over again since the beginning. Even the defection of the Mfengu to the British was simply replaying the story of Khoikhoi all over again, albeit the Mfengu would prove to be even more loyal to British than the Khoikhoi. What was also old hat was the way that the other Xhosa chiefs treated Maqoma after the war was over.
Maqoma had always known that he was only a regent for his brother Sandile. But he was still deeply embittered by how his half brother Sandile and the other Ngqika chiefs marginalized him after Sandile came of age. In spite of being one of the most successful generals the Xhosa ever had, Maqoma was shut out of the decision making process after Sandile came to power. It was the same old story of jealousy and the desire of the minor chiefs that no one should get too strong. The relationship between Maqoma and his Sandile was also damaged by the fact that Maqoma despised Sandile and considered him a coward.
As Sandile and his advisors were consolidating power and marginalizing Maqoma, a severe drought hit South Africa. One of the principle effects of the drought was to make Xhosa cattle rustling a major issue in the colony again. This in turn led to a return to the commando system (the colony could get away with this because Parliament had changed hands). Maqoma argued for restraint and tried to stop the rush to war. Sandile wanted war and he seems to have done little to stop Xhosa cattle rustling. He may have even encouraged it. Many people in the colony wanted war as well, as they were still angry over how the last one had ended.
Maqoma could see history repeating itself all over again. It was shaping up to be a war between a small part of the Xhosa tribe and the entire might of the Colony, with the Xhosa being lead by leader who was put into power because he was weak and easily manipulated by those under him. It is no wonder that Maqoma decided he wanted out.
Even before the war started, Maqoma made inquires about settling in the colony as a farmer. Maqoma had not been able to get back all the land that his father had ceded, and he may have wanted to farm there. In any case, he was willing to become a subject of the British Empire for the privilege of having a farm that would be defended by British power. He must have decided that this was preferable to trying to farm in Xhosa controlled territory, where none of his kinsmen would come to his defense when he was attacked. But Maqoma was rebuffed by colonel officials.
Why they rebuffed him is a mystery to me. It may be that the feared that Maqoma would cause trouble inside the borders of the colony. During the last war, Maqoma had done his best to sow divisions within the colony by making it seem like he had secret Khoikhoi and Boor support. Maqoma had just been trying to beat the British at their own game by encouraging mistrust amongst their people in the same way the British had encouraged division amongst the Xhosa. But even though it had only been smoke and mirrors on Maqoma’s part, the very idea that someone might try unite all various groups scared the British. They knew all too well how successful a strategy of divide and conquer could be.
If that was the reason that the Maqoma was denied the right to acquire a farm in the colony, it was an extremely stupid reason. Maqoma could slip into and out of the colony at will. And in few short years Maqoma would prove that he could deprive the British of Dutch and Khoikhoi support from the brush just as easily as he could have from a farm. In fact, it would have been far harder for Maqoma to cause trouble on a farm in the colony, because on a farm in the colony he could have been watched by the British. By forcing him to stay out of the colony, the British were insuring that he would be beyond their control.
What makes the British refusal to let Maqoma become a British citizen all the more surprising is that it cannot be blamed on one official who was having a bad day. Maqoma was no dummy and he had a pretty shrewd idea of how the colony’s political system worked. In any case, he was not the type to take no for answer the first time around or even the second. He set out trying to convince anyone who would listen that he should be allowed to settle in the colony. After the war broke out, Maqoma quickly surrendered to the British and, while on a kind of parole in the colony, he continued to try to convince various officials to let him settle in the colony permanently.
While Maqoma was in the colony trying to get permission to become a British subject, Sandile was destroying Xhosa people through his stupidity. The war started out well enough for Sandile. Because of the successes of Maqoma in the last war and the fact that Sandile was a true Chief and not regent, Sandile was able to get other Xhosa sub-tribes to join him in his war. Most notably he was able to get the chief Pato to lead his people out to war, though that was primarily because Pato had his own reasons to want war rather than any respect for Sandile. Even this sudden surge of Xhosa unity did not represent the majority of the Xhosa for the numerous Gcaleka remained true to form and refused to get involved. Other tribes stayed neutral as well.
Nonetheless, Sandile started the war with far more military might than Maqoma had available to him in the last war. But rather than victory, Sandile led his people to unmitigated defeat. The reason for this defeat was not British military success, for the British hardly won a single battle. But Xhosa made so many mistakes that they practically defeated themselves. In fact, at the beginning of the war, the British suffered numerous defeats. But Sandile made all the mistakes that the Xhosa, as a culture, kept making over and over again.
Sandile attacked the Kat River settlement and undid all Maqoma’s hard work at trying to build a rapprochement between Khoikhoi and the Xhosa, even as the Khoik
hoi were thinking of helping the Xhosa. Sandile chose to fight some battles on ground that favored the British, giving them a totally unnecessary victory. Sandile chose to send his army home to plant crops even as the British were unsure of how they were ever going to win victory. Thus he gave the British a major victory with out them even having to fight for it. But Sandile’s most serious mistake was to betray Pato, leave him to fight on alone, and then to steal Pato’s cattle while he was fighting the British. That last act was to pay the British big dividends long after the war was over.
Meanwhile, parliament was getting the bill again and they were remembering why they hated it so much when the Xhosa and the Settlers fought. But the solution that they settled on was exactly the one that previous parliaments had rejected. Harry Smith promised that he could take care of the South African frontier problem once and for all and on the cheap, too. The British government liked the sound of cheap, so they sent Harry back to South Africa. Unfortunately for the British government, he was to prove anything but cheap.
When Harry Smith got to the Cape and had settled into his hotel, he was met by adoring crowds. The people of the Cape still remembered how he had saved the frontier from Maqoma. While Harry was playing to the crowd, Maqoma himself came to greet his former foe. He probably thought that this was just common courtesy, but he also probably intended to try to convince Harry to let him settle in the colony. But we will never know because Harry decided to do what even his admirers conceded was the most stupid thing he ever did.
As Maqoma came forward to shake Harry hand he was refused this common courtesy. Instead he had Maqoma forced to prostate himself. Harry than put his foot on Maqoma’s neck and said ‘This is to teach you that I have come to teach Kaffirland that I am chief and Master here, and this is the way I shall treat the enemies of the Queen of England’. Of course, Maqoma was not any enemy and he had left his people just avoid fighting the British. But none of this mattered to the crowd that surrounded Harry. They thought that this was great stuff and it raised Harry popularly with the settlers even further.
Harry himself is said to have regretted what he did. And well he should, because Maqoma was going to end his career. As Maqoma would tell anyone who would listen his later years, the British could have saved a lot of their own blood if they would have only been willing grant Maqoma a farm.
Maqoma is said to have said to have told Harry as he rose ‘I always thought you were a great man till this day.’ Maqoma could have just as easily have said the same thing about the British Empire as a whole. Harry’s foot on his neck had educated him as to the future he could expect from the British. Maqoma must have felt that he had no choice but to share the fate of his people.
Only four years separated the defeat of Sandile and the start of new war. The period of peace was so short because of Harry. He tried hard during that period to destroy the power of the frontier Xhosa chiefs. He built forts and fortified towns on lands that had belong to the Xhosa. He told them that they could not enforce their customary laws. The judgment had to come from him. He tried to arrest Sandile and other chiefs that he thought were insufficiently submissive.
All of this forced Sandile and the Chiefs who had been jealous of Maqoma to now turn to him to save them from Harry. Moreover, Harry had treated the Khoikhoi so badly that many of them began to look to Maqoma for salvation as well. The Boor were also feed up with Harry, and though they did not help Maqoma directly, they did not provide much help to Harry either. The Xhosa further exacerbated the distrust between the Dutch settlers and the English by warning the Boor of what was to come. It seemed to the English that everyone was in cahoots against them.
But even still, Maqoma must have known how the fight would turn out. He must have known that Xhosa would betray Xhosa all over again. He must have known that there was no real hope of saving the Xhosa people from themselves. But with the memory of Harry’s boot on his neck and the harassment that Harry had continued to direct at him Maqoma must have felt as if he had no choice but to fight.
In the long war that followed (it lasted three years), Maqoma proved that the Xhosa, when properly led, could defeat the British even on the open field. Numerous times he drove the British from the field. He bottled up the great Harry Smith in one of his forts and almost succeeded in killing him. It was only the Khoikhoi who would save his life. But even some of Khoikhoi who had saved Harry life would later desert the British and go over to Maqoma. In fact, many of the best soldiers among the Cape Mounted Rifleman would eventually desert the British and considerably bolster Maqoma. Maqoma worked hard sow division amongst all the British subjects.
The only thing that saved Harry and his army from complete destruction were the Xhosa. It was the Xhosa under Chief Pato who kept Harry supplies lines open and enabled critical supplies and reinforcements to get through. It was Chief Pato and the other Xhosa Chiefs who hated Sandile that kept many of the frontier Xhosa out of the fight. And it was Sandile’s cowardice that caused the Xhosa to give up a chance to take a critical fort whose loss would have enabled Maqoma to destroy all the British forces on the frontier. And of course, the Gcaleka remained on the sidelines, as always.
Had even one of these things not been true, Maqoma would have driven the British all the way back to the Cape. Had all this not been true, and Xhosa unified, the British defeat would have been so catastrophic that there is no telling what Maqoma would have accomplished.
Even so, Maqoma inflicted more casualties on the British than would the far more famous Zulus. Over 1400 settlers and British solders would eventually fall during the war. Maqoma held out against them for almost three years. But in the end it was all for naught.
By saving Harry’s hide, Chief Pato and the Xhosa that he commanded prevented Maqoma from winning the war. Maqoma could not fight against the strength of the whole colony plus reinforcements from Great Britain with large portions of the Xhosa actively working against him and with even more of the Xhosa sitting on their hands on the sidelines. When the reinforcements started coming from Great Britain and still much of the Xhosa would not help him, Maqoma was compelled into repeating the strategy that he had used earlier against Harry Smith.
Except that this time, the natural fortress that he retreated to was not the Amatolas region, but the Waterkloof
. It was here that Maqoma inflected so many casualties on the British that came to drive him out that the British government felt compelled to relieve Harry of command. When Harry heard the news that he was to be relived, he left on one last campaign against Xhosa. His goal in this Campaign was to defeat Maqoma, and thus redeem his honor before he had to give up his command. With much loss of blood, he managed to drive Maqoma out of the Waterkloof. But when Harry returned to the Cape to await his successor, he was brought word that Maqoma had reoccupied the Waterkloof. Harry would never have another military command again.
The war would go on for another year after Harry lost his command. But Harry’s successor would bring even more reinforcements from Great Britain. Maqoma received no more help from anyone. The steady grind began to wear both sides down and eventually a peace deal was reached. But this time it was not Maqoma who got to make the terms, but Sandile. And Sandile agree to cease fighting in exchange for British recognition of his right to rule. But Sandi;e gave up the Amatolas region, one of the most critical defenses of his people. It probably did not matter. Most of the Xhosa who were willing to fight were now dead. The ones who were living were mostly those who had watched from the sidelines or helped the British.
In the peace that followed, Maqoma took heavily to drink. And that probably explains why his decisions later in life do not show the same brilliance that he had displayed all throughout his earlier life. But maybe it is just as well that he heavily self-medicated, because the whole Xhosa nation was about to go crazy. The cattle killings were soon to begin among the Xhosa.
The Cattle Killings were such a bizarre instance in history that more people know about them than know about all the wars that Xhosa fought. It was if the sprit of Xhosa culture, which had always been bent on self destruction, now revealed itself in full force. A Xhosa girl claimed that the spirits had told her that the British would be driven into the sea if the Xhosa would kill all their cattle and destroy all their grain. This belief gained wide spread acceptance among all the Xhosa. The Paramount Chief of all the Xhosa threw his weight behind the prophecy and commanded everyone to obey it.
The amazing thing is just about all the Xhosa did kill their cattle and destroy their gain. There is some pretty heavy irony in the fact that the Xhosa would never unite to fight the British, but now united to destroy themselves. Particularly ironic is fact that it was the Gcaleka and the Paramount Chief who that were leading the charge into oblivion. If they had led the charge against the British, there would have been no need for a phantom Russian army (which is what the sprits promised the Xhosa).
Maqoma was never among those who believed in the prophecies. But neither was he amongst those brave few among the Xhosa who tried to stop the madness. In fact, he seems to have actively killed his cattle and destroyed his own grain to the horror of his sons. His reasons for doing so seemed to be that he was tried of trying save his own people from themselves only to have them turn on him.
Maqoma had good reason to feel this way even apart from his own history. The few chiefs among the Xhosa who did not kill their cattle became marked men. The Xhosa laid the blamed for the failure of the prophecies to come true on those Xhosa who did not kill their cattle. So fierce was this anger that they had to flee for their lives. This was true even of Maqoma’s own sons (who had tried to stop the madness), who begged the British for permission to flee the land where their father was living. Their own father could not protect them from the anger of the Xhosa people.
The British authorities could not believe their luck. The starvation that followed the cattle killings enabled them to impose complete control on all of the Xhosa. They went out of their way to avoid helping any of the Xhosa chiefs who had tried to stop the cattle killings, including denying them sanctuary when they were trying to save their necks. But the self implosion of Xhosa power made the British think that they could get way with settling their score with Maqoma.
Maqoma made it easy for them. He does not seem to have cared much for life in the years that followed his last war. Mostly, he tried to lose himself in woman and in wine and they seemed to have lead to deterioration in the character of the man. He went looking for a woman in a settler town that he was warned not to go. It was then that the British seized him.
Taking advantage of Xhosa weakness that was brought about by the famine, the Colonel authorities had him arrested on trumped up charges, and sent to Robin Island with one of his wives. When they saw that they had gotten away with that with out much trouble, the British soon arrested a large number of Xhosa chiefs and shipped them to Robin Island as well. In one of the many ironies of Xhosa history, one of those chiefs was Pato. The man who had saved the British’s bacon during Maqoma last attempt to beat fate of his culture and Maqoma would share the prison.
When he was released from Robbin Island, Maqoma was given a farm far from the land that he loved. He farmed quietly there for two years until he had gathered up the wherewithal to buy a farm in the land that he loved. He then took his household and walked there. But as soon as he got there he was arrested on no charge (for there was no law or ordinance to prevent him from being there) and sent back to his old farm. Two months later, he made another attempt to take possession of the farm that he had legally purchased. Again he was arrested, but this time they sent him to Robin Island. It was there that he died alone.
From the beginning of his life until the end, Maqoma ruling desire was to live on the land that he loved. Why even in his old age the British should deny him his wish is a mystery. He broke no laws in trying to get to his land and the British did not bring any charge against him. They simply did with him what they pleased.
The story of Maqoma always sticks in my mind not because he was smart and won many military victories. Many men throughout history have done that. Nor does he stick in my mind because he tired to save his culture from itself. I know of many men who have tried harder save their own cultures than Maqoma did (though they all failed).
No, what makes Maqoma story stick in my mind is it tragic nature. A man who was almost superhuman in his intelligence and charisma could not even exercise enough control over his fate to archive his goal of becoming a simple farmer. And what he could not overcome with his great gifts was not his enemies, whom he swept from
the field again and again. But it was his own culture that he could not over come. If he could not do it, what hope do we have?
Such is the powerlessness of men.
I should note that even though I have linked to a number of sources on the Xhosa and the wars that Maqoma took part, there is no good information about Xhosa on the web. That includes this post as I had to simplfy things almost to point of falsity to keep the post as short as it is–though I would like to think that I am different from the other web sites in that at I acknowledge my deficiencies. But if you want to learn about the Xhosa you should read a book.
I recommend Frontiers by Noel Mostert, as I think it is one of the best. I should note that all un-attributed quotes were lifted from that book (primarily because it was the only book I on the Xhosa that I had on hand).