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SOUTH AFRICA – Eastern Cape / XHOSA WARS: [Untitled Manuscript Sketch Map of the ‘Eastern Frontier’ of the Cape Colony / Grahamstown-Great Fish River Area].



An original manuscript sketch map of the Grahamstown-Great Fish River region of South Africa, the strategically critical ‘Eastern Frontier’ of the Cape Colony, made immediately in the wake of the Sixth European-Xhosa War (1834-6).

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This intriguing manuscript sketch map was made by an English settler, in 1837, and depicts the ‘Eastern Frontier’ region of the British Cape Colony, in the immediate wake of the Sixth European-Xhosa War (1834-6).  Importantly, and as will be explained further, the map features the locations of several of the conflict’s key battles. 


The map’s scope embraces the “Sea” (Indian Ocean) coast roughly between the mouths of the Kareeg and Great Fish Rivers, and extends inland to include Grahamstown, a good stretch of the Great Fish River, a tract of the Keiskamma River, and further inland to a point just beyond Beaufort.  Most of the territory depicted, being the lands west of the lower Great Fish and the Kat Rivers (known as the Albany and Beaufort Districts), is implicitly assumed to the part of the Cape Colony, inhabited largely by recently arrived English settlers.  The territory beyond the lower Great Fish and Kat Rivers is labeled ‘Kafir Territory’, also known as Kaffreria, being the lands of the Xhosa, a nation of skilled warriors who had long resisted European encroachment.  It is important to note that ‘Kafir’ is today considered a derogatory term for Black Africans, although curiously the word originally comes from an Arabic term for “infidel”.


The English settlements along the Eastern Frontier of the Cape Colony were anchored by the centres of Grahamstown, Bathurst and Beaufort, as shown here.  However, the map features a wealth of other information, revealing the region to be a military frontier, including the locations of current and former British army outposts, such as “Fort Brown” and “Fort Willshire (abandoned)” (a forward position located in Xhosa territory); numerous trading posts; “kraals” (an Afrikaner term for cattle enclosures); as well as the locations of “drifts”, or fords, which provided routes across rivers.


While the map is a ‘sketch’, as opposed to a polished survey map, it is nevertheless valuable as a rare surviving example of the kind of cartography made by frontiersmen during a period when large-scale printed topographical maps of South Africa were either non-existent or not practically available.  Importantly, the present map features a greater level of detail with respect to the locations of trading posts, drafts and kraals (vitally important practical information for frontiersmen) than was present on any printed map of which we are aware.  Thus, the map was most likely based upon the original observations of frontiersmen, as opposed to having been copied from another work.  While not scientific in in nature, the map is sufficiently accurate to be of reliable practical use, bearing a scale of 4 miles to 1 Inch.


While the mapmaker remains anonymous, annotations in pen on the verso read: “From my Richard 1837” and “Fish River from Richard July 1837”.  The map was likely made by a recent English immigrant to the region, perhaps sent home with a letter to his mother.


The Cape’s ‘Eastern Frontier’ & the Xhosa Wars


During the latter period of the Dutch rule over the Cape Colony, which ended with the British invasion of January 1806, the region shown was known as the ‘Zuurveld’, part of the large territory that was fiercely contested between the Netherlands and the Xhosa nation.  The Dutch fought three wares against the Xhosa between 1779 and 1803, and while they managed to push the area of Xhosa control to the east of the Zuurveld, the region was considered far too dangerous for permanent European settlment.  For some years it remained an ill-defined buffer zone, or “no man’s land”.


Upon the British conquest of the Cape, the new regime was determined to further push back the Xhosa presence and to settle the Zuurlveld, which was contained prime ranchland with easy access to the sea.

The anchor of the British presence along the so-called ‘Eastern Frontier’ was Grahamstown, founded in 1812 as a military outpost by Lieutenant-Colonel John Graham.  In 1819, the garrison of only 300 men survived an assault mounted by a Xhosa army of 10,000 warriors under Chief Nxele.  The British high command in Cape Town knew that they had narrowly dodged a bullet, and that going forward a chain of isolated military outposts would be insufficient to contain the Xhosa threat.  The Eastern Frontier had to be comprehensibly and quickly settled by loyal British subjects, who could provide sufficient manpower and resources for its defense.  If this was not realized, it was accepted that the region would be lost to the Xhosa.

Turning to the big picture, upon the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Britain experienced high unemployment, with no realistic hope of domestically engaging many hundreds of thousands of its people.  The crown encouraged British emigration to ‘settler colonies’, overseas domains with climates suitable for European agrarian practices, such as Canada, Australia and South Africa.  The Cape’s Eastern Frontier was home to excellent ranch land, supposedly ideal for English emigrants.  Thus the settlement of the region would simultaneously tackle two problems for the British Empire.


Not long after the Battle of Grahamstown, the British regime sponsored the arrival of the ‘1820 Settlers’ in the Eastern Frontier.  A total of 4,000 settlers arrived in 60 separate parties between April and June 1820.  They initially attempted agricultural endeavours, as the Crown had intended; however, as many of settlers had been tradesmen back home, they soon quit their rural homesteads, populating communities such as Grahamstown, Bathurst and Beaufort, developing a service and light manufacturing economy.  Agriculture was relegated to a supporting role in the local economy, largely left in the hands of the Afrikaners.  The districts of Albany and Beaufort were founded, and in spite of the continued presence of the Afrikaner ranchers, the area was overwhelmingly Anglophone, considered an ‘English Island’ in an Afrikaner-Xhosa sea.

By the early 1830s, the region’s English settlements were thriving, with Grahamstown being one of the largest settlements in the Cape, with over 6,000 residents.  That being said, in 1833 a commentator amusingly described the city as having “two or three English merchants of considerable wealth, but scarcely any society in the ordinary sense of the word. The Public Library is a wretched affair.”

However, all was not well.  The British had begun to push into the lands between the Great Fish and Keiskamma Rivers, an area labeled on the present map in pencil as “Neutral Territory”.  The Xhosas were largely evicted from this area, causing great hardship, due to the loss of cattle grazing land.  Xhosa parties took to raiding European kraals and homesteads, often in an effort to stave off starvation. 

In response to the raids, on December 11, 1834, a British colonial commando party killed a high-ranking Xhosa chief.  In reprise, the slain chief’s brother, Maqoma, at the head of 10,000 men, invaded the ‘Eastern Frontier’.  They annihilated a settlement of the British-allied Khoikhoi people in the Kat Valley and raided European homesteads throughout the Albany and Beaufort districts.  Maqoma then besieged Grahamstown, causing the city’s women and children to barricade themselves in the main church, while the town’s men fought to prevent the city from falling.

While Grahamstown narrowly managed to keep the Xhosa at bay, the response from Cape Town was swift and brutal.  Within a few days of news reaching the capital, the Cape Governor Sir Benjamin D’Urban arrived in the region, while an army under Colonel Sir Harry Smith relieved Grahamstown, on January 6, 1835.  Meanwhile, a detachment of Boer commandos under Piet Retief was dispatched to defeat a Xhosa force in the Winterberg Mountains, the location of which is labeled on the present map (upper-right corner) as being “30 miles N.W.”, beyond the “Kat Berg Post”.

From Grahamstown, Colonel Smith coordinated a series of lightning strikes upon Xhosa positions, soon forcing them out of the Albany District.  The decisive battle of the war occurred at “Trumpetter’s Drift”, labeled on the map, during which Smith defeated the main Xhosa army.

Governor D’Urban then enforced a harsh peace treaty upon the Xhosa (April 29, 1835), who were led by their paramount chief Hintsa kaKhawutu.  The treaty moved the Cape Colony-Xhosa border eastward to the Great Kei River, giving Britain control over what would be called the ‘Queen Adelaide Province’.  Britain also required the Xhosa to pay astoundingly large reparations in cattle, at a quantity so great that compliance would result in mass starvation.  

While Hintsa, under both British and local African custom, should have been assured of safe passage to and from the treaty signing, this convention was not honoured.  While details remain sketchy, it seems that the British, in violation of their own laws, tried to hold Hintsa hostage until the cattle reparations were paid.  However, Hintsa tried to make his escape, but in the process was killed by British troops.  Making matters even worse, a British soldier cut off the chief’s ears, as grotesque war prize.  Hintsa’s murder, and the barbaric manner in which he was killed and his body treated, horrified the Xhosa (and even many of British officials).  Thus, in spite of the treaty, the war continued until September 1836, when the last Xhosa resistance was extinguished.

While the area depicted on the present map would once again become a theatre of conflict, during the Seventh European-Xhosa War (1846-7), popularly know a the War of the Arrow, the British settlements in the region would generally enjoy a secure and prosperous future.  By 1860, Grahamstown had risen to become the second largest city in the Cape Colony.

Over the coming decades, the British and the Zulu people would press the Xhosa further and further, until their once large domains were confined to much smaller areas along the Cape-Natal borderlands.  Formal Xhosa resistance to the British regime ceased by 1878.

In closing, the present map is one of only a few surviving early manuscript sketch maps of the Cape’s Eastern Frontier.  It is a valuable artifact illustrating the role and nature of cartography in rural South Africa during the first half of the 19th Century, an era when printed large-scale topographical maps were either non extant or unavailable.


References: N/A – Unique.

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