This article appears in Historical Dictionary of the British Empire.
This term refers to the conflicts between the Xhosa (referred to as Kaffirs in the 19th century) and whites, both Boers and British, over 100 years. The Xhosa had been expanding and migrating slowly westward over a long period. In the 18th century, white settlers from the Dutch colony at Capetown took up pastoral farming (becoming known as 'Trekboers') and began an explosive north-easterIy expansion from Cape Town. While trade and other contacts began even earlier, the competition for land and water holes brought conflict between the leading edges of these two populations in the area of modern Port Elizabeth in 1779. Conventionally, historians have listed nine wars. The first four were given as 1779, 1789, 1799 and 1812, but cattle raid and counter-raid meant that,hostilitiesprotracted skirmisheswere more continuous, Results were indecisive as the sides were evenly matched. While the whites had guns and horses, the Xhosa had the advantage of numbers.
The arrival of the British, initially in 1795 and permanently in 1806, made an important change. Much stronger than the Dutch East India Co., the British could summon large military and economic resources from India or Britain, and they were determined to solve the problem of borders and disorder on the frontier. In 1820 an emigration scheme brought five thousand white British settlers to the frontier districts to increase the competition for land and the frictions of contact between the racial and ethnic groups. The remaining wars in 1818-19, 1834, 1846-47 (see the War of the Ax), 1850-53, and 1877-78 were large and costly for both sides.
For the British and white colonists, there were economic costs. Military operations were several times more expensive than similar operations in Europe. Many in Britain believed that white colonists deliberately provoked war in hopes of booty in cattle, land and the prosperity of military supply contracts. British officials were frustrated at the endemic disorder and failure to achieve stable frontiers. Settlers were frustrated by property losses and by the failure to get the government to confiscate all Xhosa land for distribution to them. Although property losses were high, losses of life were low. For the Xhosa, war was limited to men. At the first sign of hostilities, white men left their wives and children knowing that the Xhosa would not harm them; in fact, they frequently escorted them to the safety of the nearest fort. Moreover, the African allies of the Britishespecially the Mfengu ('Fingoes')did much of the hand-to-hand fighting and took most casualties.
For the Xhosa, the wars were devastating. Losses of life were high among warriors fighting guns with spears and clubs. However, in wooded, rough country, the advantages of guns and horses were greatly reduced. The winning tactic employed by whites ('total war') was to move into Xhosa areas, remove all cattle and stock and destroy all grain and food. When the women and children began to starve, the warriors, who had retreated into the rough areas to hold out, were forced to surrender. Although never satisfying white settlers, much land was seized successively; thus, the economic losses and pressures intensified with each defeat. The Xhosa, who had been divided into a number of chieftaincies and sub-chieftaincies, never provided a united front in the wars. Desperation caused the Xhosa to seek magical solutions. War doctors appeared who promised that the white man's bullets would be turned into water and that other miraculous assistance would be provided. In the wake of the two wars at mid-century, this desperate search for a miraculous solution led to the Xhosa cattle-killing movement in 1857. The disruption and loss of life from that disaster prevented any further military action for a generation; however, the continuing pressure from white society and impoverishment brought one last military response from the Xhosa in 1877-78. Very rapidly after that last war, the Cape Colony annexed the remaining Xhosa lands, including the entire Transkei, completing the process with the annexation of Pondoland in 1894. Thus ended the independence of the Xhosa. (References: C. C. Crais, White Supremacy and Black Resistance in Pre-Industrial South Africa, 1991; J. B. Peires, The House of Phalo, 1982; The Oxford History of South Africa, 1969-72.)