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Brief History of the Xhosa People

An artist's depiction of the Xhosa Wars in 1851, showing Khoikhoi and Xhosa
An artist’s depiction of the Xhosa Wars in 1851, showing Khoikhoi and Xhosa

The Xhosa are part of the South African Nguni migration which slowly moved south from the region around the Great Lakes, displacing the original Khoisan hunter gatherers of Southern Africa. Xhosa peoples were well established by the time of the Dutch arrival in the mid-17th century, and occupied much of eastern South Africa from the Fish River to land inhabited by Zulu-speakers south of the modern city of Durban.

The Xhosa and white settlers first encountered one another around Somerset East in the early 18th century. In the late 18th century, Afrikaner trekboers migrating outwards from Cape Town came into conflict with Xhosa pastoralists around the Great Fish River region of the Eastern Cape. Following more than 20 years of intermittent conflict, from 1811 to 1812 the Xhosa people were forced east by British colonial forces in the Third Frontier War.

In the years following, many Xhosa-speaking clans were pushed west by expansion of the Zulus, as the northern Nguni put pressure on the southern Nguni as part of the historical process known as the Mfecane, or “scattering”. The Xhosa-speaking southern Nguni people had initially split into the Gcaleka and the Rharhabe (who had moved westwards across the Kei river). Further subdvisions were made more complicated by the arrival of groups like the Mfengu and the Bhaca from the Mfecane wars. These newcomers came to speak the Xhosa language, and are sometimes considered to be Xhosa, though their heritage in still quite distinct.

Xhosa unity and ability to resist colonial expansion was further weakened by the famines and political divisions that followed the cattle-killing movement of 1856. Historians now view this movement as a millennialist response both directly to a lung disease spreading among Xhosa cattle at the time, and less directly to the stress to Xhosa society caused by the continuing loss of their territory and autonomy. Some historians argue that this early absorption into the wage economy is the ultimate origin of the long history of trade union
membership and political leadership among Xhosa people. That history manifests itself today in high degrees of Xhosa representation in the leadership of the African National Congress, South Africa’s ruling political party.

Xhosa women wearing cultural clothes signifying their ageMajor Xhosa-speaking nations or groups

Not all Xhosa speaking people belong to the amaXhosa nation whose rulership descends from amaTshawe (the Gcaleka and Rharhabe rulerships. The amaXhosa nation are the descendants of the line of Tshiwo to Phalo who begot Gcaleka and Rharhabe. Some people make the mistake of saying all Xhosa speakers are Umzi kaPhalo. The House of Phalo split into the amaGcaleka and amaRharhabe and the kingdom is presently being fought over between these two Xhosa houses. The issue of a Xhosa kingdom remains unresolved.

These nations or groups include:

  • AmaBhaca (descended from Madzikane, chief of the amaNgwane, killed during the invasion of Thembuland in 1828)
  • AmaGqunukhwebe
  • AmaMfengu (amaHlubi, amaBhele, amaZizi, amaNgwane, etc.)
  • AmaMpondo (Pondoland; their kingdom is in dispute, like that of the amaXhosa)
  • AmaMpondomise (their kingdom was destroyed by British colonists in revenge for the killing of magistrate Christopher Hope by Mhlontlo’s forces during the Anti-Colonial Revolt of 1880. The revolt was led by Mhlontlo of the amaMpondomise together with Gecelo of the amaGcina, Dalasile and Stokwe of the amaQwathi and Squngathi of the abaThembu).
  • AmaQwathi (Qwathiland)
  • AbaThembu (their kingdom is in dispute between the Matanzima and Dalindyebo descendants).
  • AmaVundle
  • AmaXesibe (Xesibeland
  • AmaXhosa (Xhosaland; the kingdom is in dispute between amaGcaleka and amaRharhabe)

The AmaMpondo have their separate lineage that is traceable from Sibiside to Dlemini to Njanya, to Mpondo and Mpondomise (twins) and Xesibe. The descendants of Mpondo are Santsabe, Sukude, Msiza, Ncindise, Cabe, Gangata, Bhala, Chithwayo, Khonjwayo, Ngcoya, Hlamandana, Tahle, Nyawuza and many others. The descendants of Xesibe are Ntozabantu to Ndzuza to Miyana to Bimbi to Nondzaba who begot Hlabe to Mthetho to Mtshutshumbe who founded the amaQwathi nation. Mtshutshumbe begot Mndwana begot Ncobe begot Nkovane begot Ntswayibana begot Dikela. The amaMpondo, amaMpondomise, amaXesibe and amaQwathi nations are related but the amaQwathi settled in Thembuland more than 350 years ago and as a result Qwathi chiefdom is more Thembu in culture and political association.

One comment

  1. May you please send me some info regarding amaXesibe lineage?

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