200 years ago – The Battle of Grahamstown and the name change to Makhanda

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Elizabeth Salt memorial in Makhanda, formerly Grahamstown.

Over the past two years, I have explored the Eastern Cape, including Makhanda, formerly Grahamstown; there is little evidence of this landmark change after two centuries, but there soon will be: the road signs and the businesses’ and educational institutions’ letterheads will reflect as much. The rather low-profile announcement by arts and culture minister, Nathi Mthethwa, seven months ago encountered virtual media silence in either acclamation or objection. An internet search ironically turns up only one strong comment of dissent – from Steve Hofmeyr, Afrikaans identity/language activist and troubadour.

Ironic, because Grahamstown once held a special place in Anglo-South African historical identity. Now, it is dustily resplendent with its virtually ignored or vandalised British Settler history, a phenomenon perhaps also connected to a seemingly amorphous local “Anglo” culture – perhaps deceptively so, as critically examined by a number of past historians and writers. Among these, the following count: Alan Paton, Guy Butler, Dennis Worrall and John Lambert. One strident voice was John Bond, whose 1956 book, They were South Africans, wrote of Grahamstown being the “Mother City of English-speaking South Africa (ESSA)”. Bond penned his aggressive defence of white ESSA’s history just after this grouping along with their Bloedsap Afrikaner allies had been swept from political power in 1948 by Afrikaner nationalism, then triumphantly mobilised, asserting its symbolic identity, and bound for the 1961 republic.

Mthethwa’s statement preceded the 200th anniversary of the 22 April 1819 Battle of Grahamstown. Unlike Isandlwana 60 years later – a sole but convincing British defeat by the Zulus – the 1819 engagement draws no affirmation within contemporary historical/political dialogue, especially not from those whose convictions align with the decolonisation assumptions. With it being a British/Settler victory, “decolonists” would excoriate 1819 as representing another blow in the historical Eastern Cape conquest process, directly connected to core-contested issues concerning alleged “stealing” of land.

Thinking back to 1981, when I completed my first year BA courses at Rhodes University in history, politics and sociology, I do not recall any student or lecturer ever referring to 1819 – not among the “fashionably left” “journ” students, or any other “lefty” radicals, or among the then numerous conservative students – not least of all, the “Rhodies”, resident at Kimberley Hall. The Battle of Grahamstown was unknown and unspoken about.

Detail of the Elizabeth Salt memorial, vandalised with red paint.

The memorialisation of 1819, erected during the late 19th century in High Street, encapsulates part of the historical Settler mythology which grew out of the battle – a story disputed, but never emphatically proved fraudulent: the French woman Elizabeth Salt’s purported valour. During a critical point in the battle, she is claimed to have carried a keg of gun power from the village to the besieged barracks a mile away. Relying upon the alleged Xhosa custom of sparing women and children during warfare, the memorial – now vandalised with red paint – depicts Salt, fearless and aloof, gliding past the awestruck, almost worshipful, Xhosa. It is not clear whether the monument’s intention was also indirectly to compliment Xhosa culture, or to depict their superstitions as primitive and foolish, and their behaviour as childlike.

While the paucity of public opposition to the name change among Settler descendants might relate to a white Anglo-South African lack of any deeply felt collective historical identity, the present political climate of instant racial smearing also promotes little inducement towards any opposition regarding public “African assertions”. Or, as the first Anglican dean of Makhanda, Andrew Hunter, of the city’s cathedral, recently related to me: the change is rooted in African (Xhosa?) identity issues, besides positive motives, such as healing and reconciliation – unintentionally the very arguments advanced by Mthethwa. A John Graham memorial remains within the cathedral, but does not directly extol the 1819 victory.

But academic historical study insists upon analysis-based, evidence-driven explanations of events. Historian Hermann Giliomee expounds upon some roots of the clashes between the Dutch colonists, the British Settlers and the Xhosa, dating from the late 18th century, most particularly within the Zuurveld between the Sundays and Fish Rivers. All had livestock farming in common, seeking the winter soetveld within the numerous river valleys. And, as larger population concentrations manifested, so seasonal stock rotations increasingly resulted in territorial disputes within different Xhosa chiefdoms, as well as between whites and blacks.

Racial misunderstandings, Giliomee continues, likely had further genesis in Xhosa assumptions of their being an open society, to a greater or lesser degree. The numerically inferior colonists would, in time, integrate into Xhosa society (not knowing the minds of the colonists) through intermarriage and other interactions, as had long occurred between Xhosa with some Khoi groupings. That the colonist worldview, in virtually every conceivable way, would never have allowed this, is not only entirely comprehensible, but simply recognises one of the historian’s most important responsibilities: viewing people within the context of their times and with empathy.

If true – and such is entirely plausible – the possibility of intermarriage and syncretism of European and Xhosa cultures was a crass assumption for the Xhosa to make. Barring a few individuals, the colonist Christian and European cultural and material norms of the period ensured that such could never happen. Exceptions included whites either stranded without recourse – sailors wrecked in previous centuries along the Transkei coast – or desperados fleeing colonial justice.

1819, like the Nine Frontier Wars from 1779 to 1878, possessed a complex intraracial tapestry. British troops and Afrikaner burgers almost always sided with one another, but significant regular antipathies between burgers and British colonial governance existed, leading to occasional brush-fire insurrections. The Xhosa groupings were markedly fissured by multiple alliances and motives, but most particularly via competing chiefdoms. During the 1819 battle at the British barracks site near today’s Fort England Hospital, it was purportedly Khoi hunters and Khoi/coloured recruits of the Cape Regiment, fighting alongside British troops, who delivered the fatal blow to the Xhosa.


The historical mythology surrounding Makhanda, or Nxele, relates to him being considered by the Xhosa as capable of divining events. He had had prior contact with whites, and was particularly impressed by missionary Dr Van der Kemp, a champion of the Khoi and, to a lesser extent, the Xhosa. Makhanda’s attention was caught by Christian teachings regarding the resurrection of the dead. The Xhosa of the period acknowledged a Supreme Being, but even those influenced by the missionaries hardly necessarily embraced or comprehended central Christian teachings. It was Makhanda who apparently initially influenced the Xhosa to bury their dead, rather than abandon the dead or the dying in secluded places. Like Nongqawuse 37 years later, Makhanda communicated prophecies of Xhosa dead arising and whites being swept away.

The leadership paramountcy disputes among the Xhosa had long baffled British colonial leadership, determined to enforce an end to the perennial cattle-raiding and retributions from both sides. No less so than on 2 April 1817, when – at the Kat River, near what is Fort Beaufort today – Governor Somerset met the prominent chief, Gaika, accompanied by his rival, Ndlambe, with both Xhosa men being reluctant to confer so. Gaika protested his incapacity to curb the cattle-stealing by chiefdoms over which he had neither power nor obligation to control. But Somerset insisted he would negotiate with no other chief.

Either because of the pressure to desist from being duplicitous, or exasperated and defeated by Somerset’s attitude – or actually confident of asserting his authority – Gaika promised to suppress cattle raids and very severely punish offenders. Within this fractious situation, open to much historical speculation, Makhanda, who was also present, gave his loyalty to Ndlambe, further influencing other disputing chiefdoms to do likewise.

Just like many contemporary, well-publicised leaders in traditionally rooted African Christian churches, Makhanda was gifted with an ability to convince others that he was in touch with God/the Spirit World. Colonial historian George McCall Theal, writing far closer to the time, asserted that Makhanda had been proven unreliable in predictions of spectacular millenarian-type events, but more successful with less dramatic occurrences. Makhanda gained a large following, and, by 1816, was considered so influential that the London Missionary Society weighed up establishing their station at his kraal, rather than at Gaika’s.

Makhanda’s supernatural claims were instrumental in 1819, regarding drawing ten thousand warriors across the competing chiefdoms to storm the Grahamstown garrison unsuccessfully – a mass attack tactic in the open, which the Xhosa seldom employed. Follow-up British victories ensured Makhanda’s capture and imprisonment on Robben Island, till his death by drowning in 1820 during an attempted escape. This, literally months before large parties of British Settlers arrived to populate the Zuurveld as farmers.

Sandstone monument marking the spot where the Grahamstown site was selected.

A few years prior to the battle, Lieutenant Colonel John Graham’s name was given to the military post / future settlement, still commemorated by a sandstone monument on a traffic island in High Street, close to the cathedral. The spot apparently marks where, in June 1812, Graham hung his sword on a mimosa tree and selected the Grahamstown site – or so reads the inscription. Initially, it was just a military post – a role still retained. From the mid-1960s to the early 1990s, generations of white SANDF conscripts went through their training at 6 SA Infantry Battalion, on the Fort Beaufort road. The base remains active with the battalion, a component of the SANDF’s now overwhelmingly black infantry corps.

By 1819, Graham was no longer present at the volatile Eastern Frontier. But long before he had even arrived, black-white relations, at their worst, were violent and bitter. The fighting had a long legacy, and would have an even lengthier future. One snapshot is the 1793 2nd Frontier War. The ignition thereof derived partly from drought, alongside other simmering tensions, ensuring increased pressure coming upon pasture. Ndlambe, then east of the Fish, first assisted the colonists in attacking those Zuurveld Xhosa accused of cattle theft – the Gqunukhwebe chiefdom supposedly the most prominent culprits.

This colonist-Ndlambe alliance was short-lived. Boer war losses included 40 dead Khoi servants, 20 destroyed farmhouses, and 50 000 – 60 000 cattle, 11 000 sheep and 200 horses lost. Swellendam and Graaff-Reinet commandos counter-attacked, but could neither subdue Ndlambe’s warriors, nor clear the Zuurveld of Xhosa. Guns and horses could be neutralised by Xhosa fighting bands attacking from concealed positions within the thick bush. The Boer colonists retreated, and, by 1798, only a third returned to the Zuurveld – a depressingly repetitive pattern, which was presented to the British occupation rulers in 1795–1803, and from 1806.

John Graham

In 1801–1802, another wave of violence broke out: Xhosa and Khoi groupings attacked the Swellendam and Graaff-Reinet districts, destroying 450 farms, with stock captures markedly higher than in 1793. The authorities were only able to restore a grudging peace, because of a collapse in the Khoi-Xhosa alliance over the spoils’ distribution, further hastened by the Xhosa murder of the Khoi leader, Boezak.

By 1809, Ndlambe had defeated Gaika in battle, but was still not paramount over all Zuurveld chiefdoms. Xhosa groupings proliferated even further westwards, as far as to present-day Cradock. By 1811, colonists were even abandoning the Graaff-Reinet and Uitenhage districts, as roving Xhosa were condemned as “begging” – according to colonist reports – a cover for stealing. This will nudge a few school memories among white school history class attendees from decades ago, who studied only the condensed Afrikaner nationalist interpretations of the Eastern Frontier – including the hot coals heaped upon the heads of the missionaries for accepting the Xhosa as human beings made in the image of God, and encouraging British liberalisation of laws, with the Rule of Law being applied to white, slave and Khoi without fear or favour. Ben Maclennan’s 1986 publication, A proper degree of terror­ (see below), emphatically refutes the “begging” accusation, insisting that it was Xhosa custom, a hospitality expectation reciprocated to any travelling stranger – black or white – an interpretation only the most naïve would accept.

Graham has long had few friends among contemporary historians: Giliomee, who strongly emphasises the imperativeness of historical context consideration when assessing past controversies, and consistently applying such to the Boers, condemns Graham unequivocally, repeating the attributed remark that the Xhosa were simply “horrid savages”. Giliomee stresses that the Xhosa had also been labourers and trading partners, besides periodic enemies, and that Graham was unjust and unrealistic in ordering the pursuit of Xhosa cattle-plundering parties to their settlements, where every man would be “destroyed” to inspire within them Cradock’s instructions, namely, a “proper degree of terror and respect”. Cradock viewed the Xhosa as a threat to both British subjects and the colony’s meat supply.

British Eastern Cape

But, undeniably and not emphasised enough by Giliomee, it was the fierce colonist – mainly Boer – criticism of the British that spurred Cradock to commission Graham, the new Khoi Cape Regiment commanding officer, to compel all of the Xhosa across the Fish River permanently, first by persuasion, and, if necessary, by armed force.

The “proper degree” statement has been seized upon by generations of historians, not least Maclennan, who used it as the title of damming Graham biography concerning the latter’s actions on the Eastern Cape frontier. This “demonised Graham version”, devoid of any historical consideration even vaguely empathetic to the British or colonist perspectives, was taught and repeated often enough to ensure that the town’s name was irrevocably unacceptable to the ANC and/or any other entity/individual immersed purely within Afrocentric historical interpretations.

Maclennan confirmed his historical distortions by sourly concluding his book: “a four-and-a-quarter-million rand monument to the 1820 Settlers looms oppressively from a hill overlooking the city”. He perfidiously ignored the structure’s non-sectional intentions, all clearly recorded within the speeches given during the Monument’s 1974 opening, besides its long-stated and acted-upon educational/artistic/performing arts role promoting English in Africa within an explicitly non-racial spirit. Maclennan’s work is an emphatic example regarding the power possibilities located within crudely biased history being permeated successfully into historical writing and teaching.   

The real historical context of both Cradock’s and Graham’s remarks also contains happenings comprehensible within the stresses of a frontier society – a historical pattern neither exclusively South African nor Western colonial. Just as Afrikaners remain aware that Anglo-Boer scars still run deep through certain portions of South African society, the “Long War” phenomenon indisputably applies to the Xhosa – how disruptive and destructive aspects of war still impact upon collective memory. Generations of Africanist, Liberal, Marxist and Afrocentric historians argued markedly strongly that the Frontier Wars traumatised the Xhosa, besides materially denuding them, and that colonist and Imperial actions represented a land dispossession with even genocidal undertones. Such is the power of historical belief and legacy; but it also blacks out, denies or even justifies the many cases of frontier colonists who endured pillaging, violence, dislocation and ruin – such being emphasised by Theal and those who followed him, not least of all Afrikaner nationalist historians.

Thus the “proper degree of terror and respect” opened the Fourth Frontier War, and, besides his own men, Graham commanded other British troops and burger commandos from the Swellendam, Graaff-Reinet and George districts. With the forces approaching the Zuurveld from different directions, Landdrost Andries Stockenström encountered Xhosa of the Imidange, and, following a parley of attempted persuasion, he was speared to death, along with eight Boers and a Khoi interpreter. Graham’s forces continued the wide sweep; fighting was marked by numerous skirmishes – according to the colonists, Xhosa casualties numbered in the hundreds.

Fort Harry track to the barracks in the Fish River Reserve

The 1811–1812 war had mixed results, but Cradock ordered the establishment of fourteen military posts along the Fish River, and twelve to the rear with smaller garrisons. Hence some town names of the Eastern Cape, not least of all Fort Hare, a name iconic in the African nationalist development of “struggle leaders”. Signal posts were established between the Sundays and Fish Rivers, to observe movement of Xhosa or Boers, and communicate such to the posts. Headquarters were located at each end of the line: Cradock to the west and Grahamstown to the east. British dragoons patrolled from post to post, accompanied by Khoi soldiers, expert in the tracing of cattle footmarks. The garrisons’ role included curbing colonists from breaching the Fish River boundary in search of stolen cattle; Khoi groupings also had cattle stolen, and looked upon the British military for assistance and restitution.

From June 1817, for pecuniary reasons, this garrison was drastically reduced. The resultant weakening allowed an increase in stock theft, with Ndlambe’s followers in the forefront, and military casualties occurring during recovery. Colonists complained that cattle theft was increasingly rife, with branded stock driven far to the east and exchanged for unmarked cattle. Makhanda, via messengers, had supposedly appealed to all western Xhosa, promising victory and threatening the wrath of the spirits against those who held back from attacking both Gaika’s people and the colonists. Some intra-Xhosa paramountcy disputes were temporarily eased; Gaika appealed for and received British and burger support, but not enough to prevent his near annihilation by Ndlambe.

The Grahamstown attack followed at sunrise on 22 April. The Xhosa, numbering 9 000 to 10 000 men, launched a three-column assault against the small cluster of houses and the barracks some distance away. The troops held their positions; the Xhosa retreated, rallied and attacked again. About 500 Xhosa bodies were counted; British casualties were three dead and five wounded (not unlike Blood River in 1838). This all-frontal attack by the Xhosa was unusual, for their fighting style had always been to operate in much smaller marauding bands, concealed and ambushing, using the dense Eastern Cape river valley bush.

From the colony’s perspective, defeat at Grahamstown could have meant the Xhosa sweeping far further afield than had occurred in the past, possibly to the Gamtoos River and beyond. The vital supplies of muskets and ammunition in Grahamstown would have been seized; certainly, the Boers of the Eastern Cape would have suffered further losses. Makhanda’s fate hereafter was sealed; British reinforcements, including additional Khoi troops, arrived, followed by burger commandos. As Theal puts it: they scoured the jungles along the Fish River, drove the hostile clans (chiefdoms) eastward with heavy loss, and followed them to the banks of the Kei. Ndlambe’s power was broken.

Makhanda’s legacy lived on: Xhosa so influenced refused to acknowledge his death, believing him immortal. Only in 1873 were his carefully preserved mats and ornaments finally buried. But later disillusionment over Makhanda’s legend produced a Xhosa proverb: Kukuza kuka Nxele the coming of Nxele: you are looking for someone you will never see.

The past bears down heavily upon the present: Makhanda’s defeat, his Robben Island incarceration and death by drowning, and his 2019 resurrection, juxtaposed against Mandela’s more than a century and a half of imprisonment and liberation, with his triumph of magnanimity, which draws the blessings of even the most conservative whites. For the Xhosa, the renaming of Grahamstown might be balm to the humiliations of historic black military defeat, and the loss of communal land.

Or, is it just the contrived ANC political triumphalism of a historically failed mystic? Or, is it a bitter sop to the reality of the all-powerful English language and the foundations of Grahamstown’s university and elite schools, its historic churches and much more, rooted in the culture of the British Settlers and their descendants – not to mention the roadside name boards identifying ownership of the numerous prosperous farms in the region once known as the Albany – the Zuurveld?

For many whites, no doubt, the Eastern Frontier history prompts a fearful and angry resonance of farm attacks and urban crime. For some, it is even, perhaps, coupled to the loss of a familiar place name associated with school or university nostalgia – the disappearance of an identity point within a heritage seldom reflected upon by most of them, despite its ubiquitous and rather obvious resilience, or even sustained cultural triumph. This view appears to remain all vivid and still deeply felt in black political groupings; and, with demographics overwhelmingly on their side, is it this which imposed the name change? But, in all honesty, does the name of Makhanda for Grahamstown make any historical sense?

I do not judge Makhanda regarding his early 19th-century beliefs about himself or his actions, but, besides contributing to the Xhosa defeat in 1819, he has little to do with what Grahamstown came to represent, at least as explained above. Grahamstown’s planning, purposes, development and governance (indeed, towns overall in the 19th-century Cape Colony) were British, not Xhosa; European, not African.

Graham was a product of a continent/nation that had fortified and urbanised over centuries. By 1819, this had continued amidst the scientific and technological developments of the Industrial Revolution. Makhanda’s cultural identity was light years removed from such processes; he came out of a herder/subsistence, agrarian/hunter society – who could dispute this? This is not a philosophical judgement on value, but there were historical consequences – for example, colonial towns received British names.

Time will tell whether, within everyday discussions, references and popular culture, the name Makhanda will ever completely take root in Grahamstown – two names and histories representing so much – some intertwined, but also so inextricably different.

Photos supplied by the author


  • Rodney Warwick, PhD, MA (historical studies), HDE (Cape Town)
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  • Die skrywer beweer dat hy die streek oor die afgelope twee jaar verken het, maar skyn onbewus te wees van die feit dat die naamsverandering in ‘n hofgeding betwis word. Sy aanvaarding van die naam “Makhanda”, wat sy oorsprong het in die skrywe van ‘n Kanadese geskiedkundige wat Oos-Kaapse partypolitiek betree het, en 200 jaar van aanvaarding deur almal in die streek dat die profeet se naam inderdaad Makana was (die plaaslike munisipaliteit is die Makana-munisipaliteit, deur ANC-owerhede na dieselfde man vernoem) dui daarop dat sy benadering ietwat oppervlakkig is. Wat jammer is, want hy maak ‘n paar relevante opmerkings.

  • Rodney Warwick
    Rodney Warwick

    Fair point Izak Smuts; but is it too relevant considering the name is Xhosa and its pronunciation and spelling have been recorded and adapted (over a long period) for literacy which the early 19th century Xhosa never possessed? Just in itself using Makhanda in the article does not invalidate the points I make about the Grahamstown battle or Eastern Frontier history circa 1793-1819. I live in Cape Town and have not read/heard in any media about the name change being contested legally - glad to hear it now. Calling the article superficial is a superficial remark itself - it is an article not a thesis; three historians writings are drawn upon - one colonial: Theal made his home in SA for decades and died here - buried in Wynberg; he wrote closer to the time; his agenda was to write a history drawing British SA’s and Afrikaners closer together - he set the foundation for a history of SA for his time and intentions, and although ideologically much maligned by later SA historians, one cannot dismiss his work - historiographically Theal is important; he also had a strong interest and experience in the black African groupings too, obviously also framed within his time - this interest comes through clearly in his writings. Hermann Giliomee's work on the Eastern Frontier would/should be well known to any SA history student; and Maclennan's book, although an easy read is heavily biased (written as in was during the political polarization of the SA in the 1980s), I maintain that Maclennan has had more influence that his book deserves. This is one of my central points; the other being that Makhanda or Makana does not fit as a name for Grahamstown - "Grahamstown" remains appropriate according to the points made in the article.

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    Helen Holleman

    The author is mistaken in thinking that there was no attempt to stop the name change - the arguments went on for (it seems) years! I think it's natural that names will change over time, and that each event will be fraught with argument back and forth, but I do wish the powers that be had chosen something less confusing - iRhini, for instance - which is less confusing to the ear than Makhanda, in Makana Municipal area, and is the name by which local Xhosa speakers have called it for ever and a day. And incidentally, according to the Post Office, the name of the city is still Grahamstown. Mail addressed to Makhanda might not get here.

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