Episode 165 - Sandile ambushes a British column, Captain Bambrick’s skull and Somerset’s humiliation

History of South Africa podcast

05-04-2024 • 19 mins

This is episode 165 — and the atmosphere in Xhosaland was ablaze with indignation. A Mr Holliday had complained in Fort Beaufort that an imaDange man called Tsili had stolen his axe, and if you recall last episode, Tsili had been arrested then freed while under military escort by Tola a headman who lived nearby.

Tola had hacked off a prisoners hand to free Tsili from his shackles, the prisoner was thrown into a nearby river and died. The British demanded Tstili and Tola be handed over but imiDange chief Nkosi Bhotomane refused.

Rharhabe chief Sandile was approached but he’d had enough of the English authorities, and refused to hand over the two. This was ostensibly what set off the War of the Axe, or the War of the Bounday as the amaXhosa called it.
Maitland declared war on April 1st 1846 and lieutenant Governor John Hare launched their preemptive strike into Xhosaland. It took almost two weeks to assemble the troops while the Governor issued orders for all missionaries to leave emaXhoseni.

Many white traders had already been killed by this time, the rest scattered from Xhosa territory.
On the 11th April Colonel Somerset led three columns across the Great Fish River, then the Keiskamma. He was heading towards Sandile’s Great Place alongside Burnshill — the abandoned Glasgow missionary society’s station on the slopes of the Amathola mountains. That’s east of where the town of Alice is today.

The British were advancing in classic British style, 125 wagons each drawn by 24 oxen, a five kilometer long column of men. The Dragoons were mounted on their heavy chargers, dressed in red tunics and their blue forage caps, the Cape Mounted Rifles on their smaller Boer ponies, dressed in green tunics and brown breeches, blending into the countryside.

The infantry marched behind, dressed in scarlet jackets with white cross belts and white trousers and their cylindrical hats, called Albert Shakos that tapered to protect against the sun. You can imagine the scene, hundreds of troops on horseback and marching, the dust lifted off the trail, and very soon, the infantry began to discard their thick red coats.

These soldiers began this war dressed like they dressed for a European battle, by the end, they would all look very different. They replaced these Albert Shakos with forage caps, or large Boer hats, they ditched their heavy backpacks for much lighter knapsacks, and they put away their leather collars.

Somerset was pleasantly surprised to find no amaXhosa warrior in his way as his force arrived at Burnshill. After setting up camp there and leaving the wagons under Major John Gibson, he marched off into the Amathole valley on the 16th April, leading 500 men.

Watching him were thousands of amaNGqika warriors, many armed with muskets. They began peppering the British with heavy albeit inaccurate fire.
Maqoma was a highly experienced commander and recognized the British had a major weakness. Their baggage train. It was under his prompting that the other Xhosa commanders agreed to strike the wagons rather than aiming at the infantry. IN the late afternoon of the 16th as Somerset was toiling in the Amathola valley the Xhosa made their move.