The Mfengu (plural amaMfengu) are a Bantu people; originally closely related to the Zulu people, but now often considered to have assimilated to the Xhosa people whose language they now speak. Historically they achieved considerable renown for their military ability in the frontier wars.
Formation and early history
The name amaMfengu means “wanderers” and the Fingo nation – like the Bhaca, Bhele, Hlubi and Zizi peoples – was formed from the tribes that were broken up and dispersed by Shaka and his Zulu armies in the Mfecane wars.
Most of them fled westwards and settled amongst the Xhosa. After some years of oppression by the Gcaleka Xhosa (who called the Fengu their “dogs”), they formed an alliance with the Cape government in 1835 and were invited by Sir Benjamin d’Urban to settle on the banks of the Great Fish River in the region that later became known as the Ciskei.
The amaFengu were known across southern Africa as skilled gunmen, were invaluable allies of the Cape Colony in its frontier wars.
Early Frontier Wars (1835-1856)
They subsequently became notable allies of the Cape Colony in the frontier wars against their former oppressors. In this capacity, they won several victories against their Xhosa enemies (particularly the Gcaleka Xhosa), and through shrewd and successful management of regional trade, formed a developed and materially successful nation. In addition, many bought farms and started businesses in the small towns that were springing up in that part of the Cape frontier.
The Cattle-killing movement (1856–1858)
While the Xhosa slaughtered their own cattle and burnt their crops, many Mfengu instead bought the Xhosa cattle at very low prices, only to resell them at a profit during the subsequent famine. They also were recorded as producing large excesses of grain at this time for their starving neighbours. The famine induced by the cattle-killing effectively brought much of the armed resistance in the eastern Cape to an end.
The Ninth Frontier War (1877–1879)
The last major war that the Mfengu fought was the Ninth Frontier War that broke out in 1877 after a bar fight between Fengu and Gcaleka guests, at a Fengu wedding.
The Cape government appointed the Fengu Captain Bikitsha to co-lead the Cape’s forces (composed primarily of Fengu, Thembu and Boer commandos) in the war. They inflicted a string of crushing defeats on the enemy and dispersed their armies in the space of only 3 weeks. The ingratitude of the British governor Sir Henry Bartle Frere, who promptly humiliated the Cape’s Fengu allies by forcibly disarming them, caused the Fengu to begin to identify more with the Xhosa, partly also as a reaction to increasing persecution from the Colonial authorities.
Veldtman Bikitsha (1829-1912)
For much of the 19th and early twentieth century, the Fengu were led by Captain Veldtman Bikitsha. Initially a constable who was of great service to the Cape in the 8th frontier war, he was later promoted and served as a de facto military leader of the Cape’s Fengu commandos.
Prime Minister John Molteno, who had a very high opinion of him, appointed him as a leader of the Cape forces (together with Chief Magistrate Charles Griffith) in the 9th Frontier war in 1877, where he swiftly won a string of brilliant victories against the Gcaleka. Throughout the 9th Frontier war, Bikitsha and his location were a focal point for the Gcaleka armies’ attack and came under immense military pressure.
His military genius in the frontier wars earned him considerable renown and he was an acknowledged leader in the Cape Colony. His courage was also frequently referred to. He famously once jumped onto a wounded and charging lion, holding it by the tail, overpowered it and killed it. He was invited to London in 1889, where Queen Victoria requested to meet him to thank him for his services. He reputedly told her“We have never feared a white man, and we have never lifted our hand against any of your people.”
He founded the Transkei General Council, and served as a juror and commissioner for the Cape Colony in later life.
British Kaffraria had been annexed to the Cape Colony in 1866. Barring the brief revolt in 1877 and 1878, when the amaGcaleka turned upon their amaFengu neighbours, the British annexation of lands east of the Kei River proceeded fitfully, but generally unimpeded. In September 1879 this was followed by Idutywa Reserve and Mfenguland, and Gcalekaland in 1885. It is assumed that the restructuring of these territories into the divisions of Butterworth, Idutywa, Kentani, Nqamakwe, Tsomo and Willowvale dates from these times.
Social change and adaptability
Originally farmers, the Mfengu had quickly built themselves schools, created and edited their own newspapers, and translated international literature into their language. The reason that the Mfengu were able to adapt so effectively to changing circumstances (like the coming of capitalism and urbanisation) was because they lacked a fixed tribal social-structure and hierarchy (having presumably lost it in their earlier flight from the Zulu). This state of social change and flexibility allowed them to quickly adjust to the European expansion, learn and adapt new techniques, and take advantage of the upheavals that followed. Other tribes were often suspicious of outside ideas and consequently resisted any change to meet the colonial threat. The Fengu had no paramount-chief as other tribes did, but the Cape Commander Veldman Bikitsha was a Fengu, and held authority over the Fengu’s military capacity.
Many Fengu have also subsequently intermarried with other ethnic groups, particularly with the Xhosa and Zulu. The great politician and activist, John Tengo Jabavu, was Fengu in origin.
The region that was later known as the Transkei was originally divided into territories known as the Idutywa Reserve, Fingoland (Mfenguland) and Galekaland (Gcalekaland). Fingoland lay the borderlands in the far south of the Transkei, just north of the Kei River.
Following their annexation by the British however, they were restructured into the divisions of Butterworth, Tsomo and Nqamakwe for Fingoland; Kentani and Willowvale for Galekaland; and Idutywa for the Idutywa Reserve.
Present day South Africa
Today virtually all the Fingo people have intermarried with other ethnic groups particularly with the Xhosa and Zulu. Many are now often considered – especially by outsiders – to be ethnically Xhosa and others Zulu, because of their common language and some similar customs. A considerable number have a mixed racial background, especially in and around the cape provinces.