Less than a year before the arrival of the 1820 Settlers from Britain, the frontier settlement of Grahamstown was attacked by a great Xhosa army – and if it had not been for superior British firepower and last-minute interventions by a squad of buffalo hunters, the Xhosa might well have won the day.

Did you know?

A hill overlooking Grahamstown was named after Makana, the Xhosa chief who attacked the settlement.

The Battle of Grahamstown was one of the most bizarre and significant military clashes to emerge from the nine bitter Frontier Wars that wracked the Eastern Cape between 1779 and 1878.

In essence, the Frontier Wars were all about territory, dispossession, ownership of cattle, and treaties and alliances made and broken between the Boer settlers, the Xhosa and the British colonial authorities.

A great force of between 6 000 and 10 000 Xhosa warriors and a small number of British Army deserters gathered during the daylight hours of 22 April 1819 on the north-eastern hills facing Grahamstown. They were led by a man said to have mystic powers, variously known as Makana, Nxele or, simply, Links – which means 'left-handed' in Afrikaans.

By 1819, the frontier settlement of Grahamstown had been in existence for seven years. It consisted of about 30 buildings, including a military barracks. Apart from a few hundred civilians, there were about 350 soldiers from various regiments stationed in Grahamstown under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Willshire.

Makana had sent a polite notice of war to Willshire the day before, saying he would ‘breakfast’ with him on the 22nd.

‘Everything will be ready for you on your arrival,’ was Willshire’s jaunty reply. Makana, in the meantime, had told his warriors that the British bullets would simply ‘turn to water’ when fired.

Because of their vast numbers, the Xhosa seemed assured of victory.

As the battle began and three divisions of Xhosa warriors attacked various points around Grahamstown, it became clear that the ordered fusillades of the British and the devastation caused by their artillery pieces would win the day over spears that were generally hurled far short of their mark. The garrison forces were also buoyed by the arrival of a Khoi buffalo hunter called Jan Boezak and his 130 sharpshooters.

One of the enduring legends of the Battle of Grahamstown is the story of Elizabeth Salt, one of the soldiers’ wives living in the settlement. The Xhosa, loath to harm women in battle, apparently allowed her to walk through their ranks carrying a keg of gunpowder to the troops besieged in the barracks.

The main battle lasted no more than an hour, leaving at least 1 000 Xhosa and three British soldiers dead. Makana later surrendered to the British and was imprisoned on Robben Island.

On Christmas Day of that year (1819), he tried to escape but drowned when his boat capsized.

Within a year of the Battle of Grahamstown, the 1820 Settlers arrived from Britain in a massive bid to shore up the colonial presence in the Eastern Cape. But the Frontier Wars would continue for another 60 years before relative peace reigned in the Eastern Cape.

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