Philosopher and war doctor: Samson of the Eastern Cape


Philosopher and war doctor: Samson of the Eastern Cape

He was close to 2m tall, built like a gymnast and had fiery eyes. He was a charismatic, intense man who is honoured as a fighting general but actually deserves to be remembered as a philosopher and pioneer theologian. MAX DU PREEZ researched the enigmatic Makhanda for this article, which originally appeared in Vrye Weekblad in September 2020.


THIS extraordinary man had four names. His father named him Makhanda (also spelt Makanna). He was left-handed, so from childhood some called him Nxele (left-handed in Xhosa). The trekboere translated it to Links, which the British misunderstood and they called him Lynx. (Later in his life, most people just called him Nxele, because they had too much respect for him to let his real name pass their lips.)

The municipality of Grahamstown was named after him and uMkhonto we Sizwe invoked him as inspiration for decades. However, it mostly has to do with the attack on the British garrison in Grahamstown on 19 April 1819. He was the commander of this attack that, ironically, failed miserably.

Makhanda was so much more than just a militarist. He was a spiritual person first and foremost, a mystical figure who led an almost poetic life and for whom symbolism weighed heavily.

His father, Gwala, was a member of the Rharhabe clan of the Xhosa and something of a loser who never owned more than a few head of cattle. Makhanda's mother was a Khoi woman of the Gqunukhwebe clan, believed to be a diviner and a herbalist. Makhanda was born around 1780 in the Uitenhage area. When he was still a baby, the family moved to the mission station at Bethelsdorp, where his father was a labourer.

His father died when he was still very young, and his mother later left him. He was sent to a chief's kraal to be raised, but the environment and structures did not suit him as a teenager. He ran away and lived alone in the bush for a long time, surviving on berries and roots like John the Baptist, occasionally catching a bird or a mouse.

The ponderer

His long seclusion and wandering stimulated his considerable intellect to ponder the great questions of life. He could rely on three sets of philosophies and spiritual practices: those of the traditional Xhosa, the Christianity to which he was exposed at the mission station, and those of the Khoekhoen. Bethelsdorp was a Khoekhoen mission station and it was here where his long intellectual friendship began with the maverick missionary Johannes van der Kemp.

The Khoekhoen worshipped a creator they called Tsui//Guab, with a rival evil called //Guanab. The Xhosa did not have a clear belief in one supreme being, did not believe in something like Satan, and their ancestors played an important role, unlike the Khoekhoen.

Robben Island
Robben Island

In time, Makhanda married the sister of the Khoekhoen leader Hans Trompetter — the same Trompetter who later helped him escape from Robben Island. Apart from a political marriage with the niece of the Rharhabe king Ndlambe, his other wives were also Khoekhoen or San.

It was after returning to his community and undergoing traditional initiation that the young Makhanda launched a kind of crusade with great energy and eloquence. He arranged meetings with chiefs and traditional healers, and his public speeches soon began to draw crowds.

But his message was not popular. He blamed the Xhosas' sinful behaviour, rather than the misgivings of the ancestors, for droughts and diseases, but “sin" was not really a concept that made sense for the traditional Xhosa. He railed against adultery, witchcraft, alcohol, marijuana and the other great Xhosa pastime, ox races, on which bets were made. He even said it was unhealthy to drink milk.

At one of these “services", a group of men decided they had had enough of his weird talk and prepared to burn him to death. He was rescued by Qalanga, a senior adviser of Chief Ndlambe, who was enchanted by Makhanda's physical attractiveness, drive and charisma and took him to Ndlambe's kraal. Makhanda saw this as a divine intervention and it fuelled his ardour, even after Ndlambe made him a chief in his own right with his own Great Kraal.

The preacher

Makhanda's name for the creator was Mdalidipho, whose son Tayi was killed and rose from the dead. Makhanda wove the biblical stories of the creation, the fall of Adam and Eve, the deluge, the crucifixion and the resurrection into his theology. According to Mongameli Mabona in  Diviners and Prophets among the Xhosa (1593-1856), he also referred to an “All-Mother". But his theological teachings eventually changed, as we'll find out later.

He saw himself as a colleague of the white missionaries in the area and liked to have long conversations with them. The chaplain of the British forces in Grahamstown, the Rev Van der Lingen, complained that Makhanda confused him with his “metaphysical subtleties" and “mystical boasting".

Makhanda regarded the white missionaries as his equals but this feeling was not reciprocated, and they were particularly upset that he presented himself as a preacher without ever having had formal theological education. Reverends John Read and Joseph Williams attended one of Makhanda's big “revival services" in 1816. Afterwards, Read was upset and said Makhanda had “concocted a kind of extravagant religious mishmash in his own wild fantasies".

At the beginning of the 1800s this may have been strange, but this kind of “indigenisation" of the Christian faith later happened in many other places. In Cuba, for example, Catholicism was mixed with customs and rituals of the descendants of slaves from Africa, especially the Yoruba, to create a new theology called Santeria. Black churches in South Africa did the same and Makhanda was the earliest pioneer of this.

He lived during a very important time for his people: the first encounters between European colonialists and the Ntu-speaking farmers of Southern Africa. The results were the end of the indigenous people's independence and freedom in the subcontinent, and white domination that would last for about 200 years.

The bridge builder

Looking at Makhanda's actions, it seems he instinctively tried to serve as a bridge between the traditional Xhosa people and the new cultures they encountered with the arrival of the trekboere, missionaries and British officials; trying to bring the two worlds together so his people could make sense of what was happening.

At first, his goal was to keep the peace between the indigenous people and the newcomers. He went out of his way to forge friendships with missionaries, colonial officials and British officers — he could speak their language and in most cases was their intellectual superior. It was as if he sensed his people would benefit from borrowing some of the customs, technologies and beliefs of the newcomers, and would gain no benefit from conflict.

Unfortunately, the colonialists and most missionaries saw his people as primitive, inferior creatures and regarded him as an insolent parvenu who did not know his place. Chiefs and clans were pitted against each other in a divide-and-rule strategy, and Makhanda was one of its victims.

The war doctor

As he began to realise that his peace mission was futile, Makhanda started to turn against the settlers and colonialists and increasingly regarded conflict as a solution. He now became a “war doctor", Chief Ndlambe's leading fighting general who, among other things, helped to soundly beat the forces of his opponent and a British ally, Chief Ngcika, during the bloody Battle of Amalinde in 1818.

Makhanda adapted his theological teachings to his new insights. There was not one god but two, he proclaimed. Thixo, as the god of Christianity was called in Xhosa, was the white people's god, and Mdalidipho was the black people's god. White people killed Thixo's son and he then chased them into the sea, from where they had come to occupy the Xhosas' land.

But Mdalidipho was more powerful than the white man's god, he told his followers, and would help the Xhosa to drive out the white invaders and those who fought with them. It is perhaps not far-fetched to see this as an early root of the liberation theology of the 1900s.

On 1 December 1818, the British punished Ndlambe and Makhanda for Ngcika's defeat with an attack with heavy artillery and looted 20,000 head of cattle which were given to Ngcika and some of the trekboere. This left Ndlambe's clan without milk, meat and prestige, leading to great bitterness.

For Makhanda, this was the last straw. In the words of Ensign Charles Stretch, a young British soldier who was deployed in the area (in his memoirs The Journal of Charles Lennox Stretch), “The whole being of the warrior-prophet was focused on meeting the aggression of the Christians, taking revenge and freeing his country from their arrogant control.”

The attacker of Grahamstown

Now Makhanda planned the impossible: to capture the main base of the British army on the border at Grahamstown. He assembled a force of 10,000 Xhosa warriors and on 21 April 1819 set up on a hill near Grahamstown.

By this time he had shown himself to be a fine military strategist, but now his actions were strange and inexplicable. First he sent a message as a warning to the commander of the garrison, Colonel Thomas Willshire, which read: “We are going to have breakfast with you tomorrow." He didn't even try to keep his soldiers' deployment on the hill a secret. And then he attacked Grahamstown in broad daylight rather than at dusk.

The British soldiers awaited the charging  warriors. At the same time, their artillery fired over their own soldiers' heads at the attacking force and many warriors were killed with each volley. And yet the Xhosa outnumbered the British to such an extent and the warriors were so brave that by lunchtime it looked as if victory was possible after all. However, then a force of some 130 Khoekhoen snipers arrived in the town to assist the British, and by early afternoon Makhanda told his men to flee. He had lost more than 1,000 men, the British only three.

Was it delusions of grandeur that made Makhanda act like this? Did he really believe Mdalidipho would let him prevail anyway? Or did he perhaps instinctively know that the British with their modern weapon technology would eventually subdue the Xhosa, and that the Battle of Grahamstown was more about symbolism than war?

Makhanda and a group of his followers fled to the coast. Perhaps his last act as a free man reveals something of his secret.

Sitting on a rock

He sat on the giant rock formation on a beach called Gompo (also known as Cove Rock, near today's East London). Here he told his followers that he was going to summon the ancestors from the sea to help them chase away the colonialists. But, he said, the ancestors would not come until he had jumped over the wide gap in the rock.

I have been to Gompo. I guess it would have been a jump of about 50 metres, clearly not something any mortal could manage.

A large group of people gathered around the rock to await the greatest day in the history of the Xhosas. But Makhanda just sat there. His followers loudly urged him to jump but he didn't move an inch. In the early evening the people started to go home, but Makhanda sat there staring until late at night. Was it once again an act that was supposed to express the symbolism of futility?

On 5 August 1819, four months after the attack on Grahamstown, Makhanda surrendered to Andries Stockenström's forces at Trompettersdrift. He was taken to Robben Island, where he was isolated from other prisoners in his own little house as a kind of prisoner of war with special treatment. (Almost exactly as Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan Africanist Congress, was treated on the island 140 years later.)

On 9 August 1820, an interesting group of prisoners helped him escape: two white men, William Holmes and Johan Smidt; three slaves, Absalon of the Cape, Salomon of the Cape and Jan of Mozambique; and two Khoekhoen, Dawid Stuurman and Hans Trompetter, Makhanda's brother-in-law.

Is it far-fetched to label this escape the first act of non-racial resistance to oppression in South Africa?


The mysterious end

The men stole four boats from the whaling station on the island and began rowing furiously to Bloubergstrand. The boat carrying Makhanda, Stuurman and Trompetter capsized in the waves at the beach. Makhanda apparently clung to the rocks and encouraged the others to flee. Trompetter, Smidt and Stuurman got away but were soon caught. Trompetter and Smidt were later beheaded, and their heads were displayed on poles on Robben Island as a warning to others. Stuurman was pardoned and exiled to Australia.

And Makhanda? A missionary later said he heard his body had washed up on the beach. Xhosa sources believe he made it to the beach but that he was shot dead by a British soldier and his body was thrown back into the sea. It was never found and his death was never officially announced.

The people on the Eastern frontier believed  he had survived and would return. Only 53 years later did his family bury his personal property and ornaments at his kraal.

Perhaps it is fitting that a man who was such an enigma met his end so mysteriously.

♦ VWB ♦

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