Imvubu Newsletter

A Forgotten Xhosa Chief

© Hirst, M. 2007 Imvubu 19: 1, 6.

The published genealogical tables of chiefs are an apparently indispensable historical source for most students of the chieftainship among the Xhosa-speaking people. So important are genealogies deemed to be that, nowadays, it is even fashionable for historians to publish relevant versions in their books. To what extent such genealogies actually reflect fact or simply what can be remembered of history is, of course, a moot point. If indeed it is more a question of what can be remembered, then already our research materials are permeated with ideological issues pertinent to the inheritance of the chieftainship, rather than the actual historical details of its inheritance. An instructive example comes to hand in the little known biography of a forgotten minor Xhosa chief.

If not for the letters of Rev. John Brownlee and Rev. F. G. Kayser, Chief Soko of the amaNtinde would be a relatively unknown historical figure today. Both missionaries describe Soko as a chief, the son of old Tshatshu and the senior brother of Dyani (Jan) Tshatshu. By the time of his death in July 1833, Chief Soko had three wives, although little is mentioned about his offspring or heir. Soko was apparently one of the early converts of Rev. Joseph Williams, who founded a mission station on the Kat River in 1816 and, shortly afterwards, died. Dyani Tshatshu, who was a convert of Dr J. T. van der Kemp at Bethelsdorp, helped Rev. Williams establish the Kat River Mission and worked as his assistant and interpreter.

Although most extant genealogies of Xhosa chiefs mention old Tshatshu and his heir Dyani, there is no mention of Chief Soko. Whether Soko was old Tshatshu’s heir or merely his ‘Right-hand Son’ is unclear. From Rev. Brownlee’s correspondence, it appears that Dyani’s responsibilities as an emerging chief of the amaNtinde only started to take shape following Soko’s death in 1833. Such circumstantial evidence seems to suggest that Soko was probably old Tshatshu’s heir and that Dyani probably only became involved in the chieftainship of the amaNtinde following his brother’s death.

Rev. Kayser describes Soko as an ‘unruly’ chief. The missionary was twice called upon, on different occasions, to administer to one of the chief’s wives after he had injured her in a violent altercation. In June 1829 Chief Soko became involved in a dispute with the amaNgqika over cattle, which he and his followers were alleged to have stolen. Fearing reprisals from the amaNgqika, Chief Soko and his followers moved off northwards for a while before the Rev. Kayser could persuade him and his followers to return to the safety of the Buffalo Mission Station. Yet, ironically, Soko was a devout Christian, who, despite the witch-hunts associated with the illness which characterised the last five years of his life, encouraged Kayser to preach in Xhosa unaided by an interpreter and himself attended devotions at the Buffalo Mission with his wives.

After Soko became ill, possibly with tuberculosis, in December 1827, at least four witch-finders (izanuse) were employed by his father to ‘smell out’ (ukunuka) the witches (amagqwirha) apparently responsible for making him ill. Brownlee mentions an elderly woman and man who were ‘smelt out’ and terribly tortured with fire and stinging ants before being strangled. Although Brownlee and Kayser interceded to try and put an end to such excesses, they were apparently unsuccessful. Still, Soko’s health failed to improve and he eventually died in July 1833.

According to Kayser, who gives a full account of the burial, Chief Soko was ‘buried across the river’ from the Buffalo Mission Station, which suggests the vicinity of the present day West Bank. Kayser describes how, on the day of the burial, his old father and brothers arrived with their heads shorn. The chief was apparently buried with all his belongings and accoutrements including a shield and sixteen spears. “Stones and earth were put on top of that and the grave was filled up to the top. Surrounding the grave was built a fence inside which during a specified time some of the cattle that had belonged to him were herded for the night. Once the fencing had been done and the cattle were separated out, the men and women took their own separate way to the river in order to wash themselves and take sustenance.” Here Kayser mentions a rather interesting fact about the burial of a Xhosa chief not hitherto mentioned by any historian including J. H. Soga. After the burial, the missionary’s colleague, probably Dyani Tshatshu himself, accompanied the people down to the river and heard wailing while washing himself. The wailing apparently came from Soko’s wives, who were in mourning for their dead husband. As they were in seclusion for seven days at the river, they did not attend the chief’s burial. Kayser adds that, following the death of their husband, their apparel had to be destroyed and it took seven days to prepare new hide clothing for them. An ox was later slaughtered for the sustenance of the family and the people attending the burial. Kayser points out that old Tshatshu and his relatives “had been fasting from the hour of death up to this time. Only [Soko’s] three wives were not yet relieved of their heavy burden” (Hummel, 1990: 94).


Brownlee, J. Unpublished correspondence.

Hummel, H. C. (Ed.) 1990. Rev. F. G. Kayser: Journal and Letters. Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman.

Photo Caption: Old Tshatshu’s most famous son, Dyani, dressed in the finery in which he, accompanied by Dr John Philip, gave evidence to the House of Commons’ Committee on Aborigines in London in 1836.