In the Eastern Cape in 1880, there was an uprising against British rule by the AmaQwati and AmaMpondomise in Sulenkama. In this week’s extract from Our Story, the rich and diverse book series telling the history of our country, we meet Mhlontlo as he becomes king of the amaMpondomise and before he meets his nemesis, Hamilton Hope, the magistrate appointed by the government of the Cape Colony Hope’s War South African Heritage Publishers 48 pages R100
The first people to feel the sting of Mhlontlo’s prickly nature were the amaBhaca. When the young Mhlontlo arrived home in the care of his uncle, Mbali, he found amaBhaca living there. Mhlontlo’s father, Matiwane, had helped the amaBhaca to fight their wars. Matiwane agreed that the amaMpondomise would stay at Shawbury, and that the amaBhaca would move with Reverend Hulley to a new mission station called Osborn. The Tsitsa River was supposed to be the boundary between the two sides, but things did not work out. When Mbali had arrived at Shawbury with Mhlontlo and his mother, there were only about 30 people in their group. But when the scattered amaMpondomise heard of the return of their king, they came to join him, and the amaBhaca felt threatened by their increasing numbers.
Tension reached breaking point while Mhlontlo was becoming a man and was secluded in the circumcision lodge. The amaBhaca arrived with a great army, supported by seven other chiefs. They demanded cattle from the amaMpondomise. Mbali, the regent, was willing to pay the fine. Knowing Mhlontlo’s aggressive nature, Mbali ordered him to be tied up with a rope. But the agemates in the circumcision lodge released Mhlontlo and secretly crossed the river into Bhacaland. Here they set fires, raising smoke and dust. The Bhaca army in Mpondomiseland were still gathering together the cattle that had been surrendered by Mbali. They panicked when they saw their homes on fire and retreated quickly. Mhlontlo saved the cattle of the Mpondomise and added many cattle to their own herds. The regent, Mbali, had no choice but to step down, and Mhlontlo became king.
But Mhlontlo found himself surrounded by enemies, more dangerous even than the amaBhaca. To his south was the territory of Ndamase, the son of King Faku of the amaMpondo. Ndamase was a great warrior. In his youth, he had personally fought against the Zulu invaders, and he had scars on his body from Shaka’s spears to prove it. Ndamase was such a great warrior that even his own father, King Faku, was afraid of him and did not want him close to Qawukeni, the Mpondo capital. King Faku said to his son, Ndamase, “Leave me alone on this side of the Mzimvubu River, and you, Ndamase, cross over to the other side and build yourself a kingdom over there.”
And so, Ndamase crossed over the Mzimvubu on a nyanda or raft, and established his capital at Nyandeni in the district of Libode. By the time Mhlontlo was a king, Ndamase was already an old man. He was so old and sick that he could not walk and had to be carried around in a small ox wagon. Nevertheless, Ndamase was powerful and raised big armies to fight against the amaMpondomise. It is said that the amaMpondomise were so fierce in those days, that one Mpondomise was equal in battle to five amaMpondo. But there were so many amaMpondo – 10 amaMpondo for every one Mpondomise – that they steadily moved onto the Mpondomise territory.
North of Mhlontlo were the Drakensberg mountains, which the amaMpondomise had always regarded as their own territory. They kept it as a place for summer grazing and a refuge in time of war. Suddenly, however, they found this region invaded by people from Herschel, amaHlubi and abeSotho under chiefs Zibi, Lehana and Lebenya. They told Mhlontlo that they had been given these lands by the British governor, something that Mhlontlo could not understand at all. Fortunately for Mhlontlo, the newcomers were divided among themselves. He found an ally in Chief Lehana, who had his own problems with chiefs Lebenya and Zibi. There were good opportunities for capturing cattle in this situation; nevertheless, it stretched Mhlontlo’s limited military resources.
Even more serious was the problematic relationship between Mhlontlo and his cousin, Mditshwa. The forces of Chief Diko, the father of Mditshwa, had killed Mhlontlo’s father, Matiwane. Mditshwa was, like Mhlontlo, a strong-fighting man, and he battled with the abaThembu just as Mhlontlo battled with the amaMpondo. Mditshwa recognised the seniority of the house of Mhlontlo among the branches of the amaMpondomise, but he otherwise regarded himself as an entirely independent chief.
Problems arose when a group of Mhlontlo’s people passed by the homestead of Phakana, a follower of Mditshwa, and were attacked by Phakana’s dogs. They beat off Phakana’s dogs, but Phakana insulted them, hinting that Mhlontlo was only a small chief compared to his own chief, Mditshwa.
When Mhlontlo heard about this, he did not approach Mditshwa for redress, but seized the cattle of Phakana himself. And, because Mditshwa was indeed a strong and powerful chief, he confronted Mhlontlo and a bitter war began.
Mditshwa allied with Ndamase of the amaMpondo, who attacked Mhlontlo from the other side.
It was at this point that he made the biggest mistake of his life.
ANGRY YOUNG MAN Mbali ordered Mhlontlo to be tied up with rope, but his circumcision lodge mates released him
INSULT AND INJURY A group of Mhlontlo’s people were attacked by Phakana’s dogs