Frontier Wars in South Africa

Three major conflicts occurred when white settlers and indigenous peoples fought over the frontier lands northeast of the South African Cape Colony. Antagonisms had intensified since Dutch farmers first claimed Africans’ territory, and war broke out when aggressive settlers and military commandos attempted to seize more land from the Xhosa and other tribes.

Summary of Event

After Dutch East India Company Dutch East India Company officials established a South African port in 1652, they encouraged some company employees to farm in frontier areas northeast of the Cape Colony. Cape Colony, South Africa
Colonization;Dutch of South Africa Indigenous Africans, however, relied on that territory for agricultural and hunting activities to feed their communities. The Xhosa Xhosa peoples (South Africa) and Khoikhoi Khoikhoi peoples (South Africa) were agriculturists. The San, sometimes called Bushmen, Bushmen (southern Africa were hunters. Soon after Dutch colonists began migrating to the frontier, some settlers clashed with Khoikhoi and San over territory and livestock issues. Seeking more land, the colonists moved north, disregarding Africans’ land claims and extending the colony’s area. The Dutch settled huge farms, measuring six thousand acres. Conflicts Indigenous revolts;South Africa between colonists and Africans resulted in a war from 1673 to 1677, in which European weapons overwhelmed the resisters. Deprived of farmland, many Khoikhoi worked for colonists as herders or left the frontier. [kw]Frontier Wars in South Africa (1779-1803)
[kw]Africa, Frontier Wars in South (1779-1803)
[kw]South Africa, Frontier Wars in (1779-1803)
[kw]Wars in South Africa, Frontier (1779-1803)
Frontier;South African
Indigenous revolts;Kaffir Wars, South Africa
Frontier Wars, South Africa (1779-1803)
[g]Africa;1779-1803: Frontier Wars in South Africa[2380]
[g]South Africa;1779-1803: Frontier Wars in South Africa[2380]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1779-1803: Frontier Wars in South Africa[2380]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;1779-1803: Frontier Wars in South Africa[2380]
[c]Colonization;1779-1803: Frontier Wars in South Africa[2380]
Plettenberg, Joachim van
Jaarsveld, Adriaan van

Because most frontier soils were poor, colonists concentrated on raising livestock for meat, milk, skins, and wool: Instead of growing crops, they accumulated grazing land. The Zuurveld, Zuurveld, South Africa bordered by the Fish River, Fish River, South Africa offered rich soils and grassland. In the mid-eighteenth century, Xhosa had seized the Zuurveld from the Gonaqua Khoikhoi, who had lived there, and integrated them in their communities. These African tribes encountered colonists desiring their Zuurveld land, despite Dutch company officials’ attempts to set borders and their assurances that settlers were not allowed to move east of the Fish River. Those officials, however, were too far away to enforce their rules.

Colonists moved livestock across the river, perceiving most local peoples as hindering expansion. The Xhosa and colonists both valued cattle herds, which represented wealth and prestige, and needed adequate grazing areas. Some Xhosa traded cows and indigenous products to Dutch farmers for European goods, even though the company outlawed colonists bartering directly with Xhosa.

Regarding themselves as superior, many colonists demanded that African laborers perform work with minimal compensation. Colonists sometimes prevented the laborers access to water sources. The workers responded by ruining crops and stealing livestock. Colonists complained that officials several hundred miles away did not understand the frontier situation or provide guards to prevent frontier raids. Arming themselves, groups of commandos guarded crops and herds in frontier districts and also retaliated against Africans. Commandos’ weapons and horses assured them advantages over most Africans.

Upset by colonists hunting for sport on the frontier, San injured or killed the colonists’ livestock and their Khoikhoi herders. They also assaulted vulnerable colonists and their families. Farmers loaded weapons for protection to perform chores. Many fled to safer places in the frontier. Unable to control San marauders, commandos requested government troops, but officials refused, demanding that colonists resolve the issue themselves. As conditions worsened by 1774, leaders appointed Godlieb Rudolph Opperman as commandant in the northern frontier. He attempted to secure a peace resolution, but military action was necessary for colonists to reclaim farms. Colonists and Khoikhoi allied to fight the San.

Relations between colonists and the Xhosa worsened as the amount of available pasture land declined and cultural misunderstandings occurred. Reports of farmers flogging African servants increased the hatred felt by the tribesmen. In 1778, Cape Colony governor Joachim van Plettenberg and several Xhosa chiefs, particularly Rharhabe, agreed that only the Xhosa could settle the Zuurveld. Hoping to prevent war with the Xhosa, van Plettenberg placed beacons to mark the boundary at the Fish River, ordering Dutch farmers to remain west of that river. Despite diplomatic efforts, however, some Xhosa moved west of the Fish River to secure land, and some colonists crossed the river to the east.

By 1779, skirmishes between the colonists and the Xhosa concerning land and water resources escalated into the First Frontier War. Some Khoikhoi fought with Dutch commandos. A 1780 policy council emphasized the river border and approved commandos forcing Xhosa east of the Fish River. Eastern frontier field commandant Adriaan van Jaarsveld focused on that goal. He committed one of the most inflammatory acts in the war, when he threw tobacco toward a group of Xhosa then ordered his men to shoot them when they retrieved it. The First Frontier War lasted until 1781, but distrust and resentment festered afterward.

Frontier tensions simmered for the next decade, as less land was available for everyone who wanted to live on the frontier. Xhosa chiefs, including Langa and Tshaka, brought their people and cattle into the Zuurveld, because droughts in the mid-1780’s reduced available grazing areas. Also, after Rharhabe died, his successor, Ndlambe, forced many enemy Xhosa, including the Gqunukhwebe, to flee west into the Zuurveld. Colonists encountered hostile Xhosa, especially those following Langa, and they lost cattle and supplies to raiders. In 1793, militia officer Barend Lindeque and Ndlambe started the Second Frontier War when their troops ambushed a group of Xhosa who refused to abandon lands in the Zuurveld. The ambushed Xhosa fought back. Colonists fled, and Xhosa seized horses, cattle, and sheep. Commandos chased the disruptive Xhosa across the river, where Ndlambe’s troops slew Tshaka and apprehended Langa.

The commandos were unable to remove targeted Xhosa, and more Africans moved into the Zuurveld. Local Dutch East India Company representatives stated that the Xhosa could retain disputed lands. Feeling betrayed that their officials had not helped them and had sided with Xhosa instead, colonists in the Graaff-Reinet Graaff-Reinet, South Africa[Graaff Reinet] frontier district revolted in 1795. They expelled the local magistrate and declared Graaff-Reinet an autonomous republic. British British Empire;in South Africa[South Africa] forces occupied the Cape Colony that year, protecting from Napoleon the port and shipping routes to India. Uninterested in acquiring additional frontier land, the British attempted to prevent wars between Europeans and Africans and dispatched forces to control colonists on the frontier.

In 1799, the Third Frontier War began after the Van Jaarsveld Rebellion in Graaff-Reinet. When van Jaarsveld was arrested for fraud, rebels rescued him. British and Khoikhoi soldiers caught the rebels, instigating chaos. Natives raided farms, and terrorized colonists fled. Sensing an opportunity, the Xhosa and the Khoikhoi allied in an attempt to recover and secure desired frontier territory, end settler interference, and become autonomous. Colonists in the Zuurveld rebelled against the British government. During this revolt, many Khoikhoi servants stole farmers’ guns and horses to use to attack and destroy colonists’ property. The natives seized an estimated fifty thousand Dutch cows and fifty thousand sheep. They razed approximately 470 farms, forcing colonists to abandon property. Reduced agricultural supplies resulted in high market prices.

Political changes affected war strategies, especially when the 1802 Treaty of Amiens Amiens, Treaty of (1802) returned the Cape to Dutch leadership under the Batavian administration. Realizing the frontier was crucial to the Cape’s economy, Cape officials agreed to a peace treaty in 1803 that permitted both Xhosa and colonists to keep their property.


After the Third Frontier War ended in 1803, the Xhosa stayed on disputed lands for almost a decade before British troops and commandos forced them east of the Fish River in 1812. The British government had resumed control of the Cape Colony from the Dutch in 1806 and pursued efforts to dominate the Xhosa. During the nineteenth century, frontier hostilities continued, with Xhosa and whites attempting to secure permanent authority. The British wanted political power to enhance their international strength. The Xhosa wanted independence to protect their homeland from foreign destruction.

Hostilities ended with the Xhosa’s defeat in 1878. Conflict between white settlers and Xhosa in the frontier regions had endured with minimal interruption for more than a century, affecting trade, the economy, and culture. A total of nine Frontier Wars resulted in the Cape Colony annexing Xhosa land and peoples. Historians emphasize the significance of long-term African resistance to European interference and domination in the eighteenth and nineteenth century Frontier Wars. Sometimes referred to by Europeans as the Kaffir Wars, emphasizing their view of Africans as infidels, the Frontier Wars represented how foreign colonialism altered indigenous populations and politics, reshaping South Africa’s geographical and socioeconomic boundaries. Exclusionary and racist tactics in eighteenth century Zuurveld lingered in divisive social and ethnic restrictions, which the indigenous, like their ancestors, challenged.

Further Reading

  • Giliomee, Hermann B. The Afrikaners: Biography of a People. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003. Discusses warfare between Xhosa and colonists, providing details regarding how those groups interacted and became enemies and their strategies to gain control of territory.
  • Maclennan, Ben. A Proper Degree of Terror: John Graham and the Cape’s Eastern Frontier. Johannesburg, South Africa: Ravan Press, 1986. Discusses the eighteenth and nineteenth century Frontier Wars, particularly the Fourth Frontier War, and explains how the three prior conflicts led to continued hostilities. Includes Xhosa perspectives.
  • Omer-Cooper, J. D. History of Southern Africa. 2d ed. London: James Curry, 1994. Two chapters focus on events relevant to the Frontier Wars and their impact on the Cape Colony, the indigenous, and Europeans. Well illustrated with contemporary images and maps indicating territorial changes.
  • Thompson, Leonard. A History of South Africa. Rev. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995. One chapter analyzes how wars erupted between Africans and white settlers in the eighteenth century and the military aftermath continuing into the next century. Maps show lost Xhosa territories and the dates of those losses.
  • Van der Merwe, P. J. The Migrant Farmer in the History of the Cape Colony, 1657-1842. Translated by Roger B. Beck. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1995. An Afrikaner scholar describes the agricultural aspects of eighteenth century South African life and practices and ideas that intensified cultural antagonisms.

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