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King Hintsa of the Gcaleka Xhosa

King Hintsa of the Xhosa Nation died on this day (12 May 1835)

King Hintsa of the Gcaleka XhosaKing Hintsa ka Khawuta (1789 – 12 May 1835), also known as Hintsa the Great. He was the 4th paramount Chief of the Gcaleka, sub-group of the united Xhosa nation from 1820 until his death in 1835. He was born just 10 years after the beginning of 100 years of resistance by the Xhosa Nation against the imperial British settlers, also known as the Cape Frontier wars or “Africa’s 100 years War”. The Xhosa 100 years of resistance (Frontier wars) were to be series nine wars or flair-ups from 1779 to 1879 between the Xhosa nation and European settlers in what is now the Eastern Cape Province. These wars were the longest running military action in African Colonialism history. The Xhosa people were defending their territory and land from the European settlers and King Hintsa played a crucial role during his rule in defending Xhosa land.

Hintsa was the second eldest son of Khawuta ka Gcaleka, the second chief of the Gcaleka people. His father was in turn the eldest son Gcaleka ka Phalo. His mother was Nobutho, the daughter of Tshatshu ka Xhoba ka Tukwa of the Thembu nation. Hintsa had 4 known sons, Sarhili (also known as Kreli) ka Hintsa (1810) from his first wife Nomsa ka Gambushe Tshezi, and Ncaphayi ka Hintsa , Manxiwa ka Hintsa (died in 1911) and Lindinyura ka Hintsa from another wife.

Xhosa Land in 1810King Hintsa is one of the most respected of all Xhosa Kings. He is a hero to the Xhosa people and his name lives on to this day. These days the Xhosa people know about him through poems and bedtime stories and he is often compared to King Shaka ka Senzangakhona of the Zulu nation because of his bravery and military strategies and brilliance.

Fifth Frontier war (1818-1819)

Background to the 5th Frontier war

The fifth frontier war was known as the “War of Nxele”. Cape Governor Lord Charles Somerset concluded a treaty with the Xhosa chief, Ngqika. The treaty was concluded after Somerset visited the eastern frontier and asked chief Ngqika to stop stealing cattle. Ngqika ka Mlawu ka RharhabeNgqika thus received British help when his uncle, Ndlambe (brother of Mlawu, Ngqika’s father), attacked him at Grahamstown in 1819. Ndlambe, who was defeated, had opposed Ngqika’s claim to the chieftainship of the Rharhabe clans of the Xhosa. After Ndlambe and Nxele Makana slaughtered hundreds of Ngqika’s men at Amalinde, Ntsikana told Somerset that he had been attacked for trying to stop cattle stealing. Boers volunteered, and Ndlambe, who was retreating, abandoned about 23,000 cattle to the pursuing commandos. Ngqika, who was reinstated, was given 9,000 cattle.

Makana urged the Xhosa to unite and he and Ndlambe led about 6,000 men in an attack on Grahamstown in 1819, but the bullets did not melt like water as he had predicted. Col. Willshire commanded a force, using 270 muskets. On the British side only three men lost
their lives, while about a thousand spear-carrying warriors were killed. Makana Cape Frontier wares 1820ssurrendered the next day and was sent to Robben Island, where he was drowned later while trying to escape. Ndlambe eluded capture, but he had lost his power and died a few years later. Ngqika now was the main chief over the Xhosa west of the Kei River. He promised to keep them out of the neutral territory and ceded 10,000 square kilometers of good pastureland to Lord Charles Somerset.

Sixth Frontier War (1834-1835)

Background to the 6th frontier war

Chief Maqoma (1798 – 1873) ka Ngqika ka Mlawu ka Rharhabe ka Phalo was amongst the greatest of Xhosa military commanders. He played a major role in the 6th and 8th frontier war in the 100 years’ wars of resistance. He was born in the right-hand house of Xhosa Chief Maqoma of the Rharhabe, XhosaChief Ngqika of the Rharhabe division of the Xhosa people. Throughout his life, he was opposed to his father’s strategy of ceding land to the Cape Colony; as a result, in 1822, he went back into the ‘Neutral Zone’ of the frontier in order to establish his own chiefdom. He was the primary leader of the Xhosa forces that were fighting for their land that had been annexed by the British government’s Cape Colony with the full support of King Hintsa.

On the Cape’s eastern border (now the Keikamma River) insecurity persisted. The Xhosa on the other side of the border were under considerable pressure from forces further east such as the effects of the expanding Zulu Empire, other tribes fleeing the conflicts. Although highly unstable, the frontier region was seeing increasing amounts of cultural diversity, with Europeans, Khoikhoi and Xhosa living and trading throughout the frontier region.

Outbreak of the war

Cape Frontier wars - Xhosa warriors
Xhosa warriors during the Years of Resistance – Cape Frontier wars

In 1829 Maqoma and his tribe were expelled from the Kat River area (where Khoikhoi had been settled by the Cape government) and settled on inferior land farther east, but were allowed to return to the Tyume Valley in 1833, to be expelled again almost immediately. Tyali and Bhotomane, other Ngqika chiefs, were treated in a similar fashion. In 1834 the British government instructed Sir Benjamin D’Urban to institute a civil defense system supplemented by treaties with chiefs paid to keep order and advised by Government agents. Before this could be done, the bitterness aroused by the renewed expulsion of Maqoma and Tyali from their Tyume lands in 1833 was exacerbated by drastic reprisals by colonial patrols as a result of increased cattle theft by Xhosas during a period of drought.

On 31 December 1834 a large force of some 12 000 Western Xhosas (AmaRharhabe) – led by Maqoma, the regent of the Ngqika Xhosa tribe, Tyali, other Ngqika chiefs, as well as some clans belonging to the Ndlambe branch – swept into the Colony. Raiding parties devastated the country between the Winterberg and the sea. Piet Retief managed to defeat them in the Winterberg, and Lt-Col Harry Smith was immediately sent on his historic six-day ride from Cape Town to Grahamstown to take command of the frontier. Reinforcements were sent by sea to Algoa Bay and burgher and Khoi troops were called out.

Xhosa warriors defend a stronghold in the forested Water Kloof during the 8th Xhosa war of 1851. Xhosa, Kat River Khoi-khoi
Xhosa warriors defend a stronghold in the forested Water Kloof during the 8th Xhosa war of 1851. Xhosa, Kat River Khoi-khoi

After a series of engagements, including that of Trompetter’s Drift on the Fish River, the chiefs fighting between the Sundays and Bushmans Rivers were defeated, while the others (Maqoma, Tyali and Umhala) retreated to the fastnesses of the Amathole Mountains (formerly known as Amatola).

The Treaty

British governor Sir Benjamin d’Urban arrived at the frontier on 14 December 1834. He believed King Hintsa, the chief of the Eastern Xhosa (AmaGcaleka) and presumed paramount over the whole Xhosa nation, to be responsible for the attack on the Colony, and held him responsible for the theft of colonial stock captured during the invasion.

Therefore D’Urban led a force of colonial troops across the Kei to Butterworth, Hintsa’s residence, and dictated terms to him. They comprised the annexation of the area between the Keiskamma and Kei Rivers as British territory (to be called Queen Adelaide province) and the expulsion across the Kei of all tribes involved in the war. Queen Adelaide would be settled by loyal tribes, by rebel tribes who disowned their chiefs and by Fingos (AmaMfengu), remnants of tribes who had been destroyed by the rise of the Zulu empire and who had hitherto been living in Hintsa’s territory under Xhosa subjection.

However, expulsion of the undefeated Xhosa from Queen Adelaide proved impossible, so in September 1835 D’Urban made treaties with the ‘rebel’ chiefs, allowing them to remain in locations there on condition of good behaviour as British subjects under the control of magistrates who, it was hoped, would rapidly undermine tribalism with missionary help. But territorial expansion contradicted British desires for economy, and the British government, doubtful of the justice of the war and ignorant of the details of D’Urban’s actions because of his long delays in sending explanations, disannexed Queen Adelaide. New treaties made the chiefs responsible for order beyond the Fish River (December 1836).

The killing of King Hintsa

King Hintsa - The murder of Chief Hintsa was an enduring atrocity in the memory of the Xhosa nation
Statue of King Hintsa – The murder of Chief Hintsa was an enduring atrocity in the memory of the Xhosa nation

Originally assured of his personal safety during the treaty negotiations, Hintsa rapidly found himself held. Invited to peace talks by Governor Harry Smith, the British demanded 50 000 cattle in compensation for the 1834 war, and that Hintsa tell all Xhosa chiefs to stop fighting the British. Hintsa was then held captive until the terms were met. Hintsa sent word to Maqoma, his military commander, telling him to hide the cattle.

On May 12, 1835 Hintsa, who was about 45, was riding as a prisoner in the company of British soldiers led by Governor Harry Smith.

Noel Mostert in his “Frontiers:The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People” tells the story.

Hintsa was being guarded on the ride back over the Kei and the Fish by a corps of guides led by George Southey. Soon after breakfast, Hintsa asked Smith: “What have the cattle done that you want them? Why must I see my subjects deprived of them?” To which Smith replied, “That you know far better than I do.” Soon after that Hintsa spurred his horse forward and galloped away. Smith gave chase and twice tried to fire on the fleeing monarch. Twice his pistols malfunctioned but he caught Hintsa and pushed him off his horse. Hintsa got up and ran, still carrying his assegai. “Shoot, George, and be damned to you,” cried Smith to Southey. Southey fired and hit Hintsa in the leg but still he ran. Southey fired again. Hintsa was again hit but ran into a stream. “Be damned to you,” cried Smith to Southey, “Shoot again.” By this time Hintsa was in deep water and couldn’t stand properly. He threw his spear but it landed harmlessly near Southey, who took aim again. “Mercy,” cried the King. And again. “Mercy.” But there was to be no mercy. Southey, whose Xhosa was fluent, fired, and hit Hintsa in the head, killing him. Southey got to the body first and took off Hintsa’s brass body ornaments for himself. Others grabbed for his beads and bracelets. Southey or his brother William cut off one of Hintsa’s ears as a trophy and someone else cut off the other. A doctor travelling with them was seen trying to pull out some of Hintsa’s teeth. Later, even Smith could no longer bear the barbarity he had caused and ordered Hintsa’s body dropped from his horse and to be left in the bush for his followers to find.

Hintsa was captured by the British during the Cape Frontier Wars 1835 and in extenuating circumstances was shot and killed trying to escape resulting in him becoming a martyr for the Xhosa people. His body was subsequently whose body was dismembered by troops in search of grisly momentoes and that his head had been preserved and taken back to Britain.”

In his reign as king he had 11 sub-chieftaincies and had about 10 (Today known as Eastern Cape area).


By the end of the war 7,000 people of all races were left homeless. The settlement of the Mfengu in the annexed territory had far-reaching consequences. This wandering nation claimed to be escaping oppression at the hands of the Gcaleka and, in return for the land they were given by the Cape, they became the Cape Colony’s formidable allies. They swiftly acquired firearms and formed mounted commandos for the defense of their new land. In the following wars they fought alongside the Cape Colony as invaluable allies, not as subordinates, and won considerable renown and respect for their martial ability.

House of Phalo - Jeff Peires - A History of the Xhosa people in the days of their independenceThe conflict was the catalyst for Piet Retief’s manifesto and the Great Trek. In total 40 farmers (Boers) were killed and 416 farmhouses were burnt down. In addition 5,700 horses, 115,000 head of cattle and 162,000 sheep were plundered by Xhosa tribes people. In retaliation sixty thousand Xhosa cattle were taken or retaken by colonists.

The British minister of colonies, Lord Glenelg, repudiated d’Urban’s actions and accused the Boer retaliation against cattle raiders as being what instigating the conflict. As a result, the Boer community lost faith in the British justice system and often took the law into their own hands when cattle rustlers were caught.

The territorial expansion and creation of “Queen Adelaide Province” was also condemned by London as being uneconomical and unjust. Queen Adelaide was disannexed in December 1836, the Cape’s border was re-established at the Keiskamma river, and new treaties were made with the chiefs responsible for order beyond the Fish River.

King Hintsa was a FREEDOM FIGHTER, A UNIFIER of the Xhosa Kingdom. He played a crucial role in the fight against European settlers and set a solid foundation in the fight against African colonization. He has been an inspiration to many liberation fighters. He was dearly loved by his people, AmaXhosa and will forever be cherished and remembered as a FEARLESS FIGHTER for the Freedom of the African people and the Xhosa in particular.

Further reading:

History of South Africa Since September 1795

By George McCall Theal

The South-Eastern Bantu

By John Henderson Soga

The House of Phalo – Peires



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