“Without question Maqoma was the most renowned Xhosa chief in South Africa’s 19th-century frontier wars.
Born in 1798, he was the Right Hand Son of Ngqika, King of the Rharhabe division of the Xhosa nation. Implacably opposed to his father’s ceding of the land between the Fish and Keiskamma Rivers to the Cape Colony, Maqoma became committed to regaining his ancestral home. Moving west from Ngqika’s kraals, he slipped back into the so-called Neutral Zone in 1822 to found a new chiefdom on the banks of the Kat River. Despite taking every effort to placate the Whites from his position, Maqoma was hounded continually by colonial raids and expelled from his territory in 1829, the year Ngqika died.
In 1834, faced with increased military pressure from the colony, Maqoma and Tyali (his half-brother) had no alternative but to take up arms in an attempt to prevent further dispossession. Although conquered by colonial invasion in 1835, Maqoma remained the most powerful Rharhabe chief and by 1837 a cost-conscious colonial office had ordered British troops to withdraw from Xhosaland.
A quiet period follows 1840, when Ngqika’s Great Son Sandile’s transition to manhood is fulfilled, symbolising his installation as the Rharhabe ruler. Maqoma re-emerges in 1847 when Sandile surrendered to the imposition of colonial rule over the Rharhabe. British Kaffraria was born. When accommodation and diplomacy failed, resulting 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. Evidence suggests that Maqoma made covert attempts to undermine the millenarian Cattle-Killing prophecies of 1856-57 – reinterpreted in the light of recent research as a movement of frustrated Xhosa commoners seeking to oust their discredited aristocracy – which finally brought devastation on the nation.
Imprisoned on Robben Island for 12 years, Maqoma was paroled in 1869. When he attempted to resettle on his stolen land, however, he was rebanished to the infamous island prison, where he died under mysterious circumstances in 1873.
And yet his name lives on. Oral traditions and 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 depredations and dispossession. Maqoma is remembered for his extraordinary tenacity, flexibility and political and martial skills, who tragically became the victim of an advancing colonial juggernaut.”