museum logo

English French German Italian Portuguese Russian Spanish


Maqoma was the greatest Xhosa warrior, guerilla general and leader of the nineteenth century.

He was the eldest son of Ngqika (c. 1775-1829) by the wife of the Right Hand house, Notonta, of the amaNgqosini. Ngqika was the Great Son and heir of Mlawu, the Great Son of Rharhabe (c.1722-1787) who was the Right Hand Son of the Xhosa king Phalo (1702-1775).

In April 1817 Maqoma was present at the negotiations between Lord Charles Somerset and Ngqika on the Kat River. He 'learnt to tie and milk a kicking cow' and earned distinction as a warrior in October 1818 at the battle of Amalinde, in which Ndlambe defeated his arch rival Ngqika. At the head of his fellow abakhwetha (circumcision initiates) Maqoma stormed the enemy lines time and again, but he was severely wounded. Ndlambe's warriors would probably have been killed him after the battle had not his comrades come to find him and help him from the field. Ngqika gave his Right Hand Son Maqoma his own beast and he consequently became the leader of the amaJingqi with the Xhosa praise name, Aah Jongsombomvu!

Following Ngqika's death, Maqoma became regent during the minority of his younger half-brother, Sandile, Ngqika's Great Son and heir, between 1829 and 1840, when Sandile was circumcised and later assumed the leadership of the amaNgqika. The military forcibly removed Maqoma from the Mancazana River for 'cattle raiding' in May 1829, the very month and year Tiyo Soga was born. In April 1830 he told Dr John Philip and his son-in-law, John Fairbairn, that 'his heart was sore' owing to the loss of his lands. Having returned to the latter area, he was once again removed at gun point in November 1833. The loss of Maqoma's lands was an intense grievance, the burning issue and motivating cause for the outbreak of the 'War of Hintsa' in 1835, in which he played a leading role.

When the 'War of the Axe' broke out in March 1846, Maqoma played only a small part, possibly owing to the involvement of Sandile, with whom he had a rivalrous relationship. In September Maqoma was the first to sue for peace and on the 25 November 1846 he gave himself up. When Sir Harry Smith arrived in Port Elizabeth in December 1847, he not only upbraided Maqoma in his presence for oath-breaking and murder, but also ordered him to prostrate himself and placed his boot on his neck saying, "This is to teach you that I come thither to teach [Xhosaland] that I am chief and master here, and this is the way I shall treat the enemies of the Queen of England." Maqoma's resulting humiliation promised that the governor had not heard the last of him. Nevertheless, in 1848 Maqoma was allowed to return to part of his former territory, where the Kat River Settlement had previously been established on part of his lands. In December 1848 Maqoma's followers numbered only 2066, compared to Sandile's 15 000, out of a total Xhosa population in Ciskei of 62 000. During the 'War of Mlanjeni' (1850-53), it took eighteen months for the British to dislodge Maqoma from his mountain stronghold. As the principal war leader involved in the conflict, he negotiated peace in March 1853. Maqoma participated in the Cattle Killing (1856-57) and inevitably became embroiled in colonial politics. Having been convicted as 'a party to the murder of Fusani', he was exiled to Robben Island in 1857 for twenty-one years. Nevertheless, he was released in 1869. After being convicted for' incitement to violence', he was sent back to Robben Island in November 1871, where he died two years later.

In the annals of frontier military history Maqoma is best remembered for keeping the frustrated governor 'boxed up' in Fort Cox between Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve 1850. He also managed to frustrate Colonel Henry Somerset's several attempts to break the siege of Fort Cox. Particularly memorable in that connection was Maqoma's daringly successful attack on Somerset's patrol on Sunday 29 December 1850 resulting in a desperate hand-to-hand struggle between officers and men of Colonel Yarborough's 91st Regiment and Nguni warriors in a thorny valley at the foot of Mount Sandile, where twenty-three British officers and men were found the following day in the deadly embrace of their foes Later, in 1856, Maqoma, with evident admiration, praised Yarborough's men saying, "They died fighting and cursing to the last". On that occasion Maqoma's contempt for Somerset, who a few days after the fore-mentioned engagement was promoted to Major-General, was apparently "as hearty and sincere".