Episode 164 - British sappers cross Block Drift into Xhosaland setting off a chain of events on the eve of war

History of South Africa podcast

31-03-2024 • 21 mins

This is episode 164. Remember when we left off we’d been hearing about the squad of Royal engineers who’d crossed into amaXhosa territory over the Tyhume River in January 1846.

They were led by Lieutenant J Stokes — this small team of five were surveying land for the site of the new fort.

Little did they know that their crossing of Block Drift into Ngqika country was a small initial skirmish that was going to lead to war. Some say war was coming anyway, however their blatant trespass definitely applied the amaXhosa chief’s minds as you’re going to hear.

They’d crossed over from the Ceded Territory where forts were allowed, into Xhosa territory where forts definitely weren’t and why they did this has been debated.

Conservative preacher Henry Calderwood if you remember had also been shocked by the news and wrote a letter warning the Cape Governor of this umbrage.

Chief Mgolombane Sandile of the Rharhabe was under pressure from other chiefs, and his young warriors. Sandile had been thrown into his role almost a decade earlier and faced crises after crises. His older brother Maqoma despised him, no worse, hated him and mainly for his superior rank. Sandile however, was no fool, his speeches that have been written down prove he was an agile thinker and he determined policy only through consultation with another brother, Anta and a wise counsellor, Thyala. The latter lived near Sandile at the Burns Hill mission.

There was an obvious and steady march to war once more on the Eastern Cape frontier.
Sandile decided to go and visit the engineers himself to see what they were up to. A lot has been made of this visit — that he arrived with a full war party and was aggressive. It so happened that shortly before he set off, he’d received a letter from the English administrator of the Ceded Territory, Charles Lennox Stretch who was based in Fort Beaufort.

It was a letter of complaint about cattle theft and about an incident where Sandile had slapped an trader who’d insulted him, then taken goods from his shop. Sandile sent his reply saying that both the Governor of the Cape Sir Peregrine Maitland and Stretch were rascals, and that the traders were under his feet as chief and he’d do what he liked with them, and those who complained about cattle theft should shut up.

It was in this dark mood that Sandile arrived at Block Drift — at the site of the proposed fort. The five British soldiers in the survey camp were shaken by his attitude, and Lieutenant Stokes sent an urgent message to Fort Beaufort for reinforcements.
A darkness seemed to hang over the region through that February, the traditional month of thunderstorms which cracked open the skies, and mirrored the sentiment of both amaXhosa and settler. This year was dry, despite these flashing storms, little rain had fallen increasing the sense of foreboding.

For the amaXhosa, this constant threat of an invasion of their land appeared to be attached to genocidal intent. The land rooted their ways and the settlers had made it clear that they wanted nothing to do with the Xhosa culture, their ancient way of life was anathema to these new arrivals. As with other areas of the globe, the immigrants were encroaching not only on territory, but on the very idea of autochthonous survival.