by D Y Saks, Africana Museum
On 9 September 1851, nine months into the Eighth Frontier War, a running battle took place between Siyolo's Ndlambe and Khoikhoi and a British force under Colonel G H McKinnon in the Fish River bush. It was a fiercely-fought battle, involving comparatively large numbers of men on both sides and resulted in one of the most serious defeats suffered by the Cape Colony throughout the frontier campaigns. An oil-painting by Thomas Baines, in the Africana Museum, gives some idea of the savagery and desperation of the struggle. For all that, it remains a surprisingly obscure incident, despite the steady growth of Frontier War historiography in recent years. Historians, such as John Milton, Jeff Peires and most recently, Noel Mostert, mention it in only a few sentences.
Given the otherwise comprehensive nature of Noel Mostert's book in particular, it is safe to assume that this undeniably sketchy treatment of the Fish River battle was due to a lack of source material, rather than a deliberate omission. Evidently neither he nor the other Eastern Cape historians were able to track down a detailed account of the disaster in John Davis' The History of the Second Queen's Royal Regiment Vol 5 (1906), a vivid, blow-by-blow narrative of the operation, that makes use of a lengthy eye-witness account. Davis describes how 150 of the Queen's under Captain Oldham were cut off in the bush and decimated, providing numerous gruesome details of a clash that was to prove as bizarre as it was brutal.
In the first six weeks of the Eighth Frontier War, the Xhosa and their Khoikhoi allies had held the initiative, but at the time of McKinnon's offensive, they had been forced back onto the defensive. One of their most important strongholds was the forest and bush on either side of the Fish River, a dense, almost impassable belt of acacia bushes, pelargonium creepers and euphorbia trees that offered ideal sanctuary for raiders. Minor chiefs, such as Tola and Stokwe, took refuge in it and were later joined by Siyolo, one of the only Ndlambe chiefs not to ally himself with the Colony.
Siyolo proved to be a dangerous and elusive foe, one whose military reputation was second only to that of Maqoma, leader of the Ngqika Xhosa and Khoikhoi rebels in the Waterkloof.(1) His constant raids on white farms and frequent attempts to cut off the 'Government Flying Papers' (as his people dubbed the military express mails) made him a serious menace. Attempts by the colonial troops to burn down the bush failed as the acacia proved to be too succulent to catch fire. Eventually, appeals were made to Sir Harry Smith, then Cape Governor, for aid against Siyolo and his so-called 'banditti'.
Under pressure from white settlers in the region, who complained that not enough was being done for their protection, Smith decided to authorize a major sweep through the bush, clearing it of insurgents.(2) In August, reinforcements, including companies of the 2nd (Queen's) Regiment, began arriving in King William's Town, capital of the British Kaffraria colony. The Fish River operation was meant to have been a preliminary campaign to neutralize the Xhosa in one theatre before moving in greater force on their Amatola strongholds.(3) Colonel G H McKinnon was placed in overall command of a force numbering approximately 1 200 rank and file, which included 398 of the Queen's Regiment. Other regiments included the 6th, with 419 all ranks, and the 73rd, with 152. In addition, there were small detachments of Royal Marines, Cape Mounted Rifles and Mfengu irregulars.
The troops entered the bush on 6 September in two columns, the right under Lieutenant-Colonel Michel and the left, which included the Queen's companies, under McKinnon. Fort Willshire was reached the following day and on 8 September a large body of Xhosa was observed driving cattle into a deep valley on the western side of the Fish River. McKinnon decided to move against them before dawn on 9 September, capturing cattle if possible.
The operation began at 03:30 the next day with a three-pronged offensive. Michel's division was sent to the right of the valley and McKinnon himself moved to the left with two companies of the Queen's, the 73rd and the Cape Mounted Rifles. A further 150 men of the Queen's, under Captain Oldham, together with about fifty African levies and scouts, were directed to follow the traces of the valley itself. This was a major blunder on the part of McKinnon. The Queen's had only been in South Africa for a short while and had no experience of bush warfare.(4) Sending them unsupported into the depths of the bush was a suicidal mission.
While McKinnon was engaging the Xhosa on the heights above, Oldham's detachment proceeded down a kloof, leaving the river some way to their left. Under heavy, but generally inaccurate, fire, they came across a deserted kraal, which they set ablaze before continuing. As the men began climbing up towards the kloof, the Xhosa suddenly appeared, 'springing up in twos and threes out of every bush,' as it was later described by Corporal Ebsworth, one of the NCOs present.(5) One man was shot and dragged into the undergrowth where he was repeatedly stabbed. He died soon after being rescued. Shortly afterwards Oldham himself was wounded, shot through the neck by a Khoikhoi rebel hiding behind a rock. The column's casualties mounted steadily. To make matters worse, the guides and levies became separated from the regulars which meant that the latter, surrounded and subjected to a galling close-range fire, had to find their own way out.
Detail from the oil-painting by Thomas Baines of the incident in the Fish River bush
Assegais rained down from all sides and it was also stated afterwards that the Xhosa had used huge dogs to bring the British down.(7) This detail was included in Thomas Baines' re-creation of the battle, but as Corporal Ebsworth's account made no mention of it, it is possibly apocryphal. In the frantic scramble for safety, a number of men were hurled over a precipice by the pressure of those massing behind them.
It is not unlikely that the entire company would have been wiped out eventually had a detachment of the 6th Regiment not been sighted. They were nearly 4 km away, but once alerted to their comrades plight, they came rapidly to their assistance and the Xhosa melted away. It could have been worse, but the venture had turned into a full-blown fiasco. Including the levies, twenty-seven men had been killed and twenty-eight wounded, many seriously.
This was not the end of the Queen's misfortunes that disastrous day, however. Eight men of McKinnon's division lost their way during the morning and were never seen again. McKinnon himself was privately accused of cowardice for not going to the rescue of the embattled Oldham. However, this criticism never reached the official despatches.(8) It was common practice in the frontier campaigns for British and Colonial officers to cover up the failings of their colleagues in their reports with the result that their despatches cannot always be taken at face value.
McKinnon, in short, failed to dislodge Siyolo from the bush, although he falsely claimed that he had. The operation was abandoned after ten days, having cost 78 casualties. Eventually the colonists took charge, employing guerilla methods of their own rather than the costly and largely ineffective massed attacks of the regular troops. Eventually these tactics were also adopted by the regular troops themselves, Colonel William Eyre becoming a particularly ruthless and effective exponent of them. Gradually, the Xhosa were worn down until their raiding virtually ceased. Siyolo was eventually captured in 1852 after being deceived into presenting himself for what he believed were to be negotiations.(9) Like the other important Xhosa leaders, he was sent to Robben Island.
The Africana Museum has a fine gold locket containing an exquisitely painted portrait of Captain WJ Oldham, the ill-fated commander of the Queen's detachment. Together with Baines' lively painting of the affair, it is on display in the museum's North Gallery.
1. Peires, J B, The Dead will Arise: Nongqawuse and the Great
Xhosa Cattle-killing Movement of 1856-7 (Ravan Press, 1989), p 16.
2. Mostert, N, Frontiers - The Epic of South Africa's Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People (Jonathan Cape, 1992), p 1110.
3. Milton, J, The Edges of War - A History of the Frontier Wars 1702-1878 (Juta & Co, 1983), pp 204-5.
4. Smithers, A J, The Kaffir Wars 1779-1877 (Leo Cooper. 1973), p 245.
5. Eye-witness account by Corporal Ebsworth quoted in Davis. J, History of the Second Queen's Royal Regiment, Vol 5 (1906), p 70.
6. Eye-witness account by Corporal Ebsworth quoted in Davis. J, History of the Second Queen's Royal Regiment, Vol 5 (1906), p 70.
7. King, W R, Campaigning in Kaffirland or Scenes and Adventures in the Kaffir War of 1851-1852 (Saunders and Ottley, 1855), p 96.
8. Mostert, Frontiers, p 1111.
9. Peires, The Dead will Arise, pp 16-17.
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