History of Xhosa chiefs on Robben Island
More than 900 Xhosa leaders were sentenced to the island and others served their sentences in British Kaffraria
Throughout the 19th century Xhosa, Khoi, Gcaleka, Korana and Hlubi chiefs and leaders were banished to Robben Island. With much history to reflect on in South Africa, the Cape Times and the Robben Island Museum (Rim) share this important story
IT ALL started in the 1800s following conflicts over land and cattle between indigenous leaders and British colonialists.
A series of brutal and violent clashes involving Xhosa clans lasted about 100 years.
In her book Robben Island: Symbol of Resistance, published in 1997, author Barbara Hutton said: “The British Army forced the Xhosa across the Fish River into what is now Ciskei and Transkei, in a conflict known as the Hundred Years’ War. Some Xhosa did not give up their land easily. They fought back in a series of battles known as the Frontier Wars.
“Many of the Xhosa leaders captured by the British were sent to Robben Island. The Korana people in the north fought similar battles and many of their leaders also became political leaders on Robben Island.”
Early clashes between the British and the Khoi resulted in the isolation of David Stuurman to the island. Ten years later, Makhanda, a warrior-prophet and leader in the First Frontier War, was sentenced to the island.
Under Governor Sir George Grey, Xhosa chiefs and leaders were targeted.
In his book Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People, published in 1993, Noel Mostert said: “Grey imposed severe penalties for robbery, especially if any arms were involved, for which the penalty was death. Large numbers of Xhosa were arrested… sentences were harsh. All the guilty were to be transported, which meant by sea to the Cape, and for most, to Robben Island.
“For ‘lurking’ in the forbidden
Amatolas without permission, the sentence was transportation for three years, and the same for stealing corn from a Wesleyan mission.”
Grey and his lieutenant-governor John Maclean moved swiftly to diminish the power of Xhosa chiefs commencing with the feared chief Jongumsobomvu Maqoma.
The reason for Maqoma’s arrest and sentencing to Robben Island was multiple. First was for his involvement in the killing of Fusani, an informer. The second was for violating pass laws.
One year’s imprisonment with hard labour was the punishment for pass offensives. However, the authorities
“Maqoma and six others were sentenced to death, which was reduced to 20 years with hard labour on Robben Island
wanted to confine Maqoma for longer and sought evidence for his role in the death of Fusani.
Maqoma and six others were sentenced to death, which was reduced to 20 years with hard labour on Robben Island. After Maqoma, another chief called Mhala of the Ndlambe branch of the Xhosa people was tried by court martial in King William’s Town for conspiring to levy war.
His arrest was followed by Pato of the Gqunukhwebe 9, Xoxo, Tola, Stokwe and Pato’s son Delima.
It is estimated that by the end of 1957, more than 900 Xhosa landed at the Cape and others served their sentences in British Kaffraria.
Mostert describes the chief’s ordeal: “Chiefs sat disconsolately through the passing years, bereft of liquor and most of them their wives. Only Maqoma and Siyolo were allowed their wives. They occupied traditional Xhosa-like huts, which were at the abandoned whaling station. Hard labour, complete isolation from family and in most cases wives and banishment to ‘one of the bleakest and most wretched spots on the face of the Earth’.”
Xhosa chiefs were slowly released in the 1860s however in 1869, Maqomo, Siyolo and Xoxo were still on the Island. Sir George Grey’s successor, Sir Philip Wodehouse, intervened calling for their release.
This took place in 1869. Maqoma was re-arrested shortly thereafter and transported to Robben Island. There he remained without human company, until his death on September 9, 1873. He was buried in an unmarked grave. His remains have since been removed from the island at the request of his great-grandson chief Lent Maqoma.
Information and pictures courtesy of the Robben Island Museum.