European Contact with the Khoikhoi and Xhosa Peoples

The pastoralist Khoikhoi were the first people to be encountered by Europeans in what is today called South Africa. The Dutch East India Company colonists who first inhabited the Capetown area adjacent to the people’s land were at first in a vicarious position, unable to yet exert dominion over the indigenous Khoikhoi. Accordingly the Dutch interloped into local politics, pitting the various tribes against one another, forming capricious alliances and offering gestures of friendship in order to acquire goods, namely livestock. Cattle, the most prized possession of the Khoikhoi people, would come to be greatly desired by the Dutch for purposes of resupplying passing ships bound to expand a burgeoning colonial empire[i]. Jan van Riebeeck, governor of the Cape colony in 1658, relates the unstable situation in his official log, detailing a gift exchange between the colony and the Cochoquas, a band of Khoikhoi . The situation was such in 1658 that the Dutch were involved in a complex net of tribal hatreds, attempting to seduce a local chieftain capable of trading cattle while likewise attempting to uphold status quo amiability toward other tribes, ancient enemies of the courted, so as to avoid an uprising.

By the 1800s the colonial companies, first piloted by the Dutch, and then the British, had fully infiltrated indigenous society and reduced the chieftains, once autonomous and profiting from mutually beneficial trade, through subjugation and oppression, battered by small pox and the yoke of war, to groveling clients, bound to produce slaves for purpose of powering the company industries and maintaining labor of the white households. Even after slavery had been officially banned within the Commonwealth, a system of endemic indentured servitude[ii] ensured an obedient status quo, as the American slaves were similarly subjected to under the Jim Crow and Black Codes. If a Khoikhoi man were to violate his 25 year contract with his master he would be hunted down as a “vagabond,” and was required to constantly have on his person papers required to certify movement about the country.  The traditional Khoikhoi pastoral practice was replaced with a life of farm work and servitude, the ancestral pastures stolen by the colonists and converted to ranches.

The Xhosa inhabiting the Eastern Cape of what is now South Africa, unlike their Khoikhoi brethren, seldom willingly collaborated with the Europeans. A fiercely territorial society, the Xhosa were determined upon their first significant contact with Dutch settlers in the late 1700s to maintain their pastoral lands, in defiance of colonial encroachment. This militant resistance eventually exploded into a series of nine wars, commonly referred to as the Cape Frontier Wars, in which the highly mobile Xhosa warriors skirmished and raided against the colonial presence intruding onto their land. While the first wars resulted in stalemate, as the Dutch settlers could not bring their superior firepower to bear, restricted in their advance by necessity of protecting their homesteads, the later wars were joined by British regular forces which were favored by having no such restriction, and were successful in uprooting the Xhosa and pushing them eastward into Zulu territory[iii].  The Xhosa subsequently weakened by famine, disease and further border conflict, resorted to delusion. Following a disease amongst the cattle, the chieftains ordered a mass slaughter of the animals, claiming that the Settlers had meddled into their affairs with dooming witchcraft[iv], resulting in widespread deprivation, disease, starvation, social disintegration and finally cannibalism. Devastated first by war and then by their superstitious folly, the Xhosa, once a proud race of pastoral warriors, finally succumbed to their enemies.


[i] Williams 6.

[ii] Lord Caledon Regulates Khoikhoi Status in the Cape

[iii] “Xhosa Wars”. Reader’s Digest Family Encyclopedia of World History. The Reader’s Digest Assoiation. 1996.

[iv] Xhosa Writer William Gqoba Recounts the Great Cattle Killing of 1857