The most renowned Xhosa chief and arguably one of Africa’s greatest military leaders of the 19th Century. He was the Right Hand Son of Ngqika, ruler of the Rharhabe Kingdom of the Xhosa nation (what is broadly the former Ciskei region).
He was a man of considerable intellect and eloquence, striving to maintain traditional social structures and sovereignty. According to the Reverend John Henderson Soga, “Maqoma stood in a rank alone for courage and as an orator”. He has been described as a short but impressive warrior who reminded some of his legendary great-grandfather Rharabe. Faced with an escalating level of military pressure from the Cape, Maqoma and his half-brother Tyali took up arms in a series of Frontier Wars. Maqoma is remembered for using his skills as a general to lead a guerrilla campaign in the forested Amatola mountains and valleys Waterkloof. His unconventional tactics frustrated even the most skilled of soldiers.
Battle Ready: Statue of Maqoma
Source: National Heritage Monument
Maqoma led Xhosa forces in three separate Frontier Wars, fought mostly on Rharhabeland, until he was captured and imprisoned on Robben Island, where served two prison terms. The first time serving with his wife Katyi for 12 years until 1869. However, only two years later he was sent back to Robben Island being found guilty of encouraging a rebellion. This time imprisoned without his wife, only to pass away a mere two years into his second term in 1873. More than a century later he was reburied in 1978 in Ntabaka Ndoda, the Dimbaza District in the Eastern Cape; commissioned by his descendant, his great-great grandson, Chief Lent Maqoma. As Maqoma was buried in an unmarked grave, a seer Nomantombi Charity Sonandi was called upon to help trace his remains. To many Xhosa, especially those who had attended Steve Biko’s funeral the previous year, it represented the return of an exceptional leader who had ultimately sacrificed his life for the cause of his people. This remains Maqoma’s legacy.
From an early age he was opposed to his father’s ceding of the land between the Fish and Keiskamma Rivers to the Cape Colony. This would give birth to Maqoma’s committed effort to defend his tribal land which could be traced back to his great-grandfather, Rharabe who had battled over it with the Khoekhoe before finally reaching an amicable agreement with them (after the split with the Gcaleka Royal House). This territory included land between the Keiskamma and Buffalo rivers, the Amathole Forests and Hoho Hills between Middle Drift and King William’s Town.
Maqoma leading the way: Combatants of the 8th Frontier War in the Amatola mountains. Depicted in this painting is Maqoma leading the Rharabe, Kat River Khoekhoen and some army deserters
Source: Unknown Painter (although Thomas Baines was the official portrait painter for the 8th Frontier War, this painting does not appear to be in his style)
Jongumsobomvu’s ‘finest hour’ is perhaps the battle for Waterkloof in the Amatola Mountains (1851), when the Xhosa allied with the Khoekhoe were to give the British a terrible time in hand-to-hand combat in the steep, densely forested mountains. More officers lost their lives during that action than any other of the Frontier Wars. He is praised as being “the leopard of Fordyce” in Xhosa oral tradition, because the highest-ranking British officer to die in any of the Frontier Wars, Lieutenant Colonel John Fordyce, was killed in the Waterkloof battles. The South African Navy ship, SAS AMATOLA, was named in honour of these battles fought on the Amatola mountain range. According to historian Rob Speirs who specialises in battle tours along the Eastern Cape, the battles to relieve Governor Sir Harry Smith, humiliatingly trapped in Fort Cox by the Xhosa in the Eighth Frontier War (1850-1853) from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Eve of 1850, were the biggest battles ever seen in SA before the Battle of Isandlwana. These battles had the highest death toll and were the most protracted war until the South African War. Contemporary chief and descendent, Island Siqithi Maqoma, puts things in perspective when he commented:
Small wonder that the Eastern Cape has more forts than any other place in Africa — because it was here that the British fought longest and hardest to conquer a people.
Learnings from a Warrior-Leader
The story of Nkosi Maqoma (Ah! Jongumsobomvu) of amaJingqi of the Rharhabe section of the Xhosa nation teaches two valuable lessons. Firstly, that of history. It is clear that the Frontier Wars were not merely British versus the Xhosa (a “White vs Black” narrative which prevails). Indeed, even within the Xhosa speaking region there were those who formed pacts with the Cape, requiring one to take more time to read up on history to understand the complex interdependence.
Secondly, we learn that despite his background as that of a ‘junior’ prince, he did not let this define him, nor limit his potential or willpower. This lesson is embodied in the belief that we possess the power to step into our light no matter what our background. Although a son of a king, Maqoma did not qualify to be heir to the kingdom, as the succession went to his brother Sandile (Ah! Mgolombane) – who was 22 years younger – due to seniority of maternal lineage. Notwithstanding being the oldest brother and highly respected, he was ‘junior’ due to his ‘junior’ bloodline (Sandile’s mother was from a more powerful lineage).
European witnesses tended to take special interest in recording Maqoma’s statements and conversations and even which clothes he wore, in fact there is more written evidence on him than any other Xhosa ruler. It was not only the Europeans who were impressed with Maqoma, even among the Xhosa, he was often entrusted to serve as a spokesman for all the Xhosa leaders.
Signs of Maqoma’s ‘warrior spirit’ present in his descendant, Chief Lent Maqoma
On a personal level, my awakening of this incredible bit of history took place back in 1991 whilst I was a child after a visit to the then Ciskei with my late grandmother, Selma Sadien-Raad, at the invitation of her close friend, the late Chief Lent Maqoma, Chief of the amaJingqi (serving as Acting Paramount Chief of the amaRharhabe Royal house after the death of Inkosi Enkhulu Mxolisi)After a period in exile, where he was in a secret hideout in the safety of my grandmother’s family home, he returned to his homeland. For the safety of Chief Lent Maqoma’s loved ones, the hideout was kept a secret even from his loved ones. This was a particularly challenging period for his family, even having to endure torture to divulge the whereabouts of Maqoma, of which they knew not. This visit was to play an inspirational role, as it was during this visit, we were invited by a local to a boxing match in nearby Mdantsane, where over 23 world champions and 50 national champions hail from, amongst them Nkosana “Happy Boy” Mgxagi, Vuyani “The Beast” Vungu, Welcome “The Hawk” Ncita, Nkosinathi “Mabhere” Joyi, Simpiwe Vetyeka, Zolani Tete (if we include the neighbouring Duncan Village, the list would also contain names such as Mbulelo Botile, Xolisani Ndongni and Gabula “Slashing Tiger” Vabuza). Even though many did not have monetary wealth, there was no shortage of positive energy with the atmosphere was electric, with the community in full spirit behind the two sportsmen in the ring. The Khoekhoen and Sotho may be pleased to learn that Maqoma had both these running through his blood, as his mother Nothonto, was the daughter of Nxiya, who was both of Sotho and Khoekhoen ancestry. Claudio’s dad, Diego, being a former Italian welterweight title contender, reinforced the affinity with the sport.
Chief Maqoma embodies the fighting spirit… which in some form or other can serve to inspire us to unleash the Warrior Within.
Reunited: Claudio with Maqoma descendent Vuyiswa Nomoyi, who he reunited with for the first time since his visit to the Ciskei – when they were both children.