The Xhosa tribe in South Africa are a famous tribe filled with so much culture and history, Chief Maqoma is a big part of that history and is roundly known as the most famous and important Xhosa Chief of the 19th century because of his evolutionary war style and resilience against the British colonialists.
Born in 1798, he was the eldest and right hand Son of Ngqika by the wife of the Right Hand house, Notonta, of the amaNgqosini. Ngqika was the Great Son and heir of Mlawu, the Great Son of Rharhabe, who was the Right Hand Son of the Xhosa king Phalo. Ngqika gave his Right Hand Son, Maqoma, his own beast and he consequently became the leader of the amaJingqi with the Xhosa praise name, Aah Jongsombomvu!
Maqoma was strongly opposed to his father’s concession of the land between the Fish and Keiskamma Rivers to the British colony and became committed to regaining his ancestral home. Moving west from Ngqika’s kraals, he slipped back into a region called the Neutral Zone in 1822 to found a new chiefdom on the banks of the Kat River.
Maqoma continued to attempt favorable treaties with the colonizers but they kept refusing and instead tried to hunt him down. He was hounded continually by colonial raids and expelled from his territory in 1829, the year Ngqika died.
Following Ngqika’s death, Maqoma became regent during the reign of his younger half-brother, Sandile, Ngqika’s Great Son and heir, between 1829 and 1840, when Sandile was circumcised and later assumed the leadership of the amaNgqika.
This was possible because Maqoma was chased out of his ancestral land and his brother took over as the heir. The grievance of losing his lands caused much agitation within Maqoma and eventually led to the ‘War of Hintsa’ in 1835.
When the ‘War of the Axe’ broke out in March 1846, Maqoma played only a small part, possibly owing to the involvement of Sandile, with whom he had a rivalrous relationship. He disagreed with Sandile as he felt he overthrew him and was taking his rightful position as the heir. Nonetheless, In September Maqoma was the first to sue for peace and on the 25th of November 1846, he gave himself up.
There ensued an infamous scene When Sir Harry Smith arrived in Port Elizabeth in December 1847, he accused Maqoma for oath-breaking, murder and all other sort of crimes. Maqoma was disgraced publicly but that wasn’t the peak of the embarrassment, Sir Harry Smith then ordered him to prostrate before him and he placed his boot on his neck saying, “This is to teach you that I come thither to teach [Xhosaland] that I am chief and master here, and this is the way I shall treat the enemies of the Queen of England.”
Maqoma after this great humiliation promised that the governor had not heard the last of him and he would get his revenge for the distasteful way he and his people were treated, for the lands and properties lost to their colonial efforts.
In 1848 Maqoma was allowed to return to part of his former territory, where the Kat River Settlement had previously been established on part of his lands. In December 1848 Maqoma’s followers numbered only 2066, compared to Sandile’s 15 000, out of a total Xhosa population in Ciskei of 62 000.
In between this period leading up to when Chief Maqoma was in captivity, Sandile his half brother completed his transition into full manhood and became the Supreme leader of the Rharhabe region. After Maqoma’s release he went under the radar but reemerged when Sandile surrendered to the imposition of colonial rule over the Rharhabe.
When talks and diplomacy failed in retaking the surrendered land back to the natives, the ensuing fracas resulted in the ‘War of Mlanjeni’ (1850-53), Maqoma used his skills as general and tactician to lead a guerrilla campaign in the forested mountains and valleys of the Waterkloof that frustrated the most skilled British officers. This style of warfare was new to the British and outlined Chief Maqoma’s brilliant military mind.
During the ‘War of Mlanjeni’ (1850-53), it took eighteen months for the British to finally be able to dislodge Maqoma from his mountain stronghold due to their superior weapons. The war is best remembered the success of Maqoma in keeping away the colonial governor and trapping his forces in Fort Cox between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve 1850.
Maqoma and his forces also managed to frustrate Colonel Henry Somerset’s efforts and his several attempts to break the siege of Fort Cox. A particular note was a difficult encounter that resulted in hand to hand combat and ended in a victory for Maqoma.
When the tide of the war didn’t bode well for his people, Chief Maqoma began to negotiate peace in March 1853. Maqoma participated in the Cattle Killing (1856-57) and inevitably became embroiled in colonial politics. Having been convicted as ‘a party to the murder of Fusani’, he was exiled to Robben Island in 1857 for twenty-one years. Nevertheless, he was released in 1869.
He didn’t relent again and tried to garner support against the colonials, sadly he was subsequently arrested and convicted for’ incitement to violence’, he was sent back to Robben Island in November 1871, where he died two years later in 1873 under mysterious circumstances.
Despite this sad end and defeat, his name lives on. Oral traditions, colonial and missionary documents reveal a man of considerable intellect and eloquence, striving to maintain traditional social structures and the power of Xhosa aristocracy in the face of colonial intimidation and oppression.
Maqoma is remembered for his extraordinary military mind, diplomatic skills, tenacity, flexibility, political and martial skills. It is only sad that he was a victim of an advancing colonial power bent on conquering Africa.