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The earliest reports by Portuguese survivors of shipwrecks along the south-east coast during the 16 and 17th centuries, describe the amaXhosa as cattle herders who hunted game and cultivated sorghum. They lived in beehive –shaped huts in scattered homesteads which were ruled by chiefs. According to oral tradition, the ancestors of the amaXhosa lived in the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains before moving slowly to the coast over a period of 300 years, roughly between 1550 and 1850. The boundaries of the territory they occupied varied considerably from time to time, but between the years 1700 and 1850 they seldom extended west of the Sunday’s River  or east of the Mbashe River.
The amaXhosa were pastoralists [people who herded livestock, often as nomadic wanderers without a set farm area], and their slow movement was more of an expansion of territory rather than migration. One of the main reasons for this movement of expansion was simply the splintering off of the sons of chiefs to found new chiefdoms of their own. Over centuries various chiefdoms formed as a result of inner turmoils and division, through unions with the Khoisan groups whose territories were overrun and conquered by the amaXhosa and through the arrival of refugees from wars in Natal, fleeing this area and King uShaka.
The four major ethnic divisions among Black South Africans are the Nguni, Sotho, Shangaan-Tsonga and Venda. The Nguni represent nearly two thirds of South Africas Black population and can be divided into four distinct groups; the Northern and Central Nguni (the Zulu-speaking peoples), the Southern Nguni (the Xhosa-speaking peoples), the Swazi people from Swaziland and adjacent areas and the Ndebele people of the Northern Province and Mpumalanga. Archaeological evidence shows that the Bantu-speaking groups that were the ancestors of the Nguni migrated down from East Africa as early as the eleventh century.
Language, culture and beliefs:
The amaXhosa are the second largest cultural group in South Africa, after the Zulu-speaking nation. The Xhosa language (isiXhosa), of which there are variations, is part of the Nguni language group. IsiXhosa is one of the 11 official languages recognized by the South African Constitution. Some 8,7 million South Africans speak isiXhosa as a home language. It is a tonal language.
Missionaries introduced the Xhosa to Western choral singing. The South African national anthem, Nkosi Sikele’ iAfrika (God Bless Africa) is a Xhosa hymn written by a school teacher Enoch Sontonga in 1897. IsiXhosa written literature was established in the nineteenth century with the publication of the first isiXhosa newspapers, novels, and plays.
Oral tradition plays a major part in documenting the history of the amaXhosa.  According to one oral tradition, the first person on Earth was a great leader called Xhosa. However S.P. Pinnock states that it is unlikely that such a person ever existed as there are no legends or stories about him and it is more likely that the word ‘Xhosa’ is derived from the Khoi word ‘//kosa’, meaning ‘angry men’.
Another tradition stresses the essential unity of the Xhosa-speaking people by proclaiming that all the Xhosa subgroups are descendants of one ancestor, Tshawe who dethroned his older brother Cirha sometime before 1600. Tshawe in his own right became a distinguished chief who established the amaTshawe as the royal clan of the amaXhosa nation and they remain so today.
His descendants expanded the kingdom by settling in new territory and bringing people living there under the control of the amaTshawe. Generally, the group would take on the name of the chief under whom they had united. There are therefore distinct varieties of isiXhosa, the most distinct being isiMpondo.
Unlike the Zulu and the Ndebele in the north, the position of the king as head of a lineage did not make him an absolute king. The junior chiefs of the various chiefdoms acknowledged and deferred to the paramount chief in matters of ceremony, law, and tribute, but he was not allowed to interfere in their domestic affairs. There was great rivalry among them, and few of these leaders could answer for the actions of even their own councilors. As they could not centralise their power, chiefs were constantly preoccupied with strategies to maintain the loyalties of their followers. As a result, each Tshawe chief was relatively autonomous within his own chiefdom.

As the generations passed, the chiefs dispersed over a wide area, expanding the amaXhosa kingdom by subjecting the Khoisan and other independent clans to their authority, consequently beginning the westward descent of the cattle-owning farmers along the south-eastern coast. This westward movement accelerated rapidly during the 18th century until, in the last part of the century, they found themselves in the path of eastward-expanding white Dutch/Afrikaner colonists from the Cape Town areas. (the Great Trek) This expansion was first at the expense of the Khoi and San, but later Xhosa land was taken as well. The amaXhosa encountered the White pioneers or Trek Boers in the region of the Fish River. According to Pinnock, the ensuing struggle was not so much a contest between Black and White races as a struggle for water, grazing and living space between two groups of farmers. However it can safely be said that the amaXhosa historically, were the first to feel the brunt of violent contact with the outside world during these Frontier Wars.
One of Tshawe’s successors was Phalo, who rules during the 18th century. He had two sons, Rharhabe and Gcaleka, who both laid claim to Tshawe’s position during his lifetime. This succession dispute resulted in a war and a split between the two brothers, resulting in the Tshawe dynasty being divided into two main branches – the Great House of Gcaleka, living east of the Great Kei River and the Right-Hand House of Rharhabe, living west of the Great Kei. In later years many Xhosa chiefdoms in the Transkei descended from Gcaleka and those in the Ciskei, from Rharhabe.
The Amarharhabe bore the brunt of the Frontier Wars and in the process were divided yet again between the followers of Ngqika, who collaborated with the colonial forces and the followers of Ndlambe, who resisted them. Nine Frontier Wars [1779-1878] followed between the Xhosa and European settlers, and these wars dominated 19th century South African History. The first frontier war broke out in
1780 and marked the beginning of the Xhosa struggle to preserve their traditional customs and way of life. It was a struggle that was to increase in intensity when the British arrived on the scene.
The Xhosa fought for one hundred years to preserve their independence, heritage and land, and today this area is still referred to as Frontier Country.

“Some of the Xhosa chiefs were astute, heroic fighters too — as their most famous descendant, the late former president Nelson Mandela, also proved himself to be — but, because they didn’t reorganise their society on military lines, as Shaka did with the Zulu, and because some Xhosa tribes allied themselves with the British some of the time, the story of their protracted and desperate struggle against colonialism has faded.

But there were remarkable battles, such as the battle of Grahams-town (1819), when the town was very nearly taken; Burns Hill (1846), when a 4.5km-long supply train was ferociously attacked and its contents, including the regimental silver, looted; Boma Pass (1850), when soldiers marched into an ambush without loading their firearms and were horribly picked off; and the battle for Waterkloof in the Amatola Mountains (1851), when the Xhosa and Khoikhoi gave the British a terrible time in hand-to-hand combat in steep, densely forested mountain defiles. More officers were killed during that action than anywhere else on the frontier.

Chief Maqoma is praised as being “the leopard of Fordyce” in Xhosa oral tradition because the highest ranking British officer to die in these wars, Lieutenant Colonel John Fordyce, was killed in the Waterkloof battles.

The battles to try to relieve governor Sir Harry Smith, humiliatingly trapped in Fort Cox by the Xhosa in the Eighth Frontier War (which lasted from 1850 to 1853) from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Eve of 1850, were the biggest in South Africa before Isandlwana. It had the highest death toll and was the most protracted war until the South African War.

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,” reads a comment from a contemporary chief, Island Siqithi Maqoma, on an information board in the area. ”  Mail & Guardian

Wars also happened between Xhosa Chiefs.”Driving from King William’s Town to the small town of Alice, you pass through the area where the Battle of Amalinde, between chiefs Ngqika and Ndlambe, took place, the immediate cause being the abduction of Ndlambe’s wife by Ngqika. No one is sure exactly where it happened, but happen it certainly did, in October 1818, leaving 500 men dead and resulting in the defeat of Ngqika. ” Mail & Guardian

 The Great Cattle Killing of 1856-1857. Acting on the prophecies of a young girl called Nongqause, the the Xhosa slaughtered their cattle and stopped planting crops. According to Nongqause’s prophecies, these deeds would lead to the resurrection of the ancestors, the retreat of the white colonizers and an era of ‘idyllic prosperity’. On a specific day the sun would rise and set again in the east and a whirlwind would sweep all White people into the sea.  On the day, all awoke and waited with great expectation for the ‘resurrection’ to take place, but nothing happened. Instead approximately 20 000 Xhosa, roughly 80% of their people, starved to death and the amaXhosa were torn apart and approximately another 30 000 were dispersed among the white farmers in the Karoo and Eastern Cape.
The belief system
The Supreme Being among the Xhosa is called uThixo or uQamata. The name *uThixo *was adopted as the name for God [Pinnock.67] by the early missionaries and is used by the Christian churches. It is generally believed that the name was derived from the Khoi people. As in the religions of many other Bantu peoples, God is only rarely involved in everyday life and may be approached through ancestral intermediaries who are honoured through ritual sacrifices. Ancestors commonly make their wishes known to the living in dreams. However, because not everyone is capable of interpreting these dreams, witchdoctors are called in to act as mediums.
Witchdoctors are easily recognised by their exotic regalia and they often wear white-a symbol of purity. Death and burial are associated with many complex beliefs and rituals. The men of the clan (family) always lead the funeral procession and the women follow behind. In the case of the death of the head of the family, cattle will be sacrificed and strict procedures followed as he goes to join his ancestors and prepares himself to watch over the interests of the family that is left behind. Today, many of the amaXhosa are Christians, however their religion is a blend of Christianity and traditional African beliefs.
During the Frontier Wars, hostile chiefs forced the earliest missionaries to abandon their attempts to evangelise them. This situation changed after 1820, when John Brownlee founded a mission on the Tyhume River near Alice, and William Shaw established a chain of Methodist stations throughout the Transkei. Other denominations followed suit. Education and medical work were to become major contributions of the missions, and today Xhosa cultural traditionalists are likely to combine Christianity with traditional beliefs and practices. In addition to land lost to white annexation, legislation reduced Xhosa political autonomy. Over time, the amaXhosa became increasingly impoverished, and had no option but to become migrant workers. In the late 1990s, the amaXhosa made up a large percentage of the workers in South Africa’s gold mines.
The dawn of apartheid in the 1940s marked more changes for all Black South Africans. In 1953 the South African Government introduced homelands or Bantustans, and two regions Transkei and Ciskei were set aside for the amaXhosa. These regions were proclaimed independent countries by the apartheid government. Therefore many amaXhosa were denied South African citizenship, and thousands were forcibly relocated to remote areas in Transkei and Ciskei. Whites were not allowed to own land in these territories. The homelands were abolished with the change to democracy in 1994 and South Africa’s first democratically elected president was Nelson Mandela who was a member of the Thembu people.
Rites of passage traditions
Male and female initiation is practiced among most Xhosa groups. Before a Xhosa male is recognised as an adult with the right to marry, he first has to go through the initiation process and be circumcised. Until such time, he is regarded as a boy and irresponsibility on his part is expected and condoned. Only boys who were considered ready were allowed to undergo initiation.
The ceremony usually takes place when the corn ripens during the month of May. On the agreed day, the married women emerge at dawn and start building a grass hut isolated from villages or towns in which the male abakhwetha (initiates-in-training) will live for several weeks. The boys wait in a secluded spot for the arrival of the *ingcibi (*surgeon) who will perform the operation. The boys are not allowed to utter any sound during the procedure.
Like soldiers inducted into the army, they have their heads shaved. They wear a loincloth and a blanket for warmth, and white clay is smeared on their bodies from head to toe. After the wounds have healed, the boys undertake hunting excursions into the bush, sometimes accompanied by a small boy from the village. Sometimes they are joined by one of the senior, respected men from the village who teaches them to behave like responsible adults. This teaching includes the rules of etiquette, the laws of respect and how to honour the ancestral spirits. Different stages in the initiation process are marked by the sacrifice of a goat.
At one of these stages the traditional dance of the circumcision initiates takes place and is a festive occasion where young boys gather for competitive exhibition dancing. It normally draws a large number of onlookers who enjoy the performance and traditional beer is freely available. The dancers are decorated with patterns of blue spots on the white clay background of their bodies or black, blue and red spots,. They are dressed in a short skirt made of dried palm leaves, headgear and a veil with two slender fronds projecting upwards like horns. The dancing sometimes accompanied by singing, is extremely strenuous and is a true test of endurance, commencing at around midday, continuing uninterruptedly until sunset. The best dancer  is given gifts as a prize.
At the end of the isolation period, the initiates are marched to a river to wash themselves. Upon returning, their guide places a piece of fat on their heads and smears it straight down their bodies and across their shoulders in the shape of a cross. After this ritual, the boys are wrapped in new blankets and turned away from the hut, covering their faces and forbidden to look back.. All their possessions are thrown into the hut which is then set alight to prevent witches from taking possession of these things. The *amakrwala *(new initiates) are then marched back to their parental homes where they are showered with gifts and a feast is prepared in their honour.
The ritual of female circumcision is shorter. The girl to be initiated is secluded for about a week. During this period, there are dances, and ritual sacrifices of animals. The initiate must hide herself from view and observe food restrictions. There is no actual surgical operation.
Lobola and the traditional wedding
Once a young girl has made the choice of her husband-to-be, the wedding process can begin with the lobola agreement.
Lobola is a show of the groom’s commitment to his future bride and “compensation” to the father and his kraal for the loss of the girl. In this way the bridegroom and his family lay claim to any children produced in the marriage. Lobola is usually paid in head of cattle – an amount agreed upon after fierce negotiation between the elders of the two families, but today can also be paid in cash.
Traditionally, after a formal engagement had been made, and the terms of lobola settled, the cattle / money is delivered in ‘instalments’ to the father. This can continue for a year or two until the bridegroom’s family insists on a wedding.
Traditional amaXhosa weddings are characterised by joyous singing and ululating, dancing and mock fighting by warriors in traditional dress. The women wear traditional headdresses, beautiful beaded necklaces and soft leather aprons. No invitations are sent as the whole community joins in. The wedding must be at night when the moon is bright, because a faint moon signifies bad luck, and also makes the celebrations less festive.

The wedding is held in the open at the bridegroom’s kraal. A few days before the wedding, the bride arrives with bridesmaids, all carrying parts of her trousseau and gifts from her father to the bridegroom’s father,  on their heads.
When they get there a hut is assigned to them and an animal is slaughtered. The clans are in this way united through the symbolic exchange of meat. On their return home, they drive the dowry given for the bride, if this has not been done previously.

Adapted from: https://speakeasyxhosa.co.za/history/

Photographs include the rites of passage photos by Angela Buckland which are available as prints and the 2 initial images are from Thomas Baines.