Imvubu Newsletter

Sarhili's Grave at Tsholorha

© Hirst, M. 2003 Imvubu 15: 1.

On Friday 8 November 2002, I visited the village of Tsholorha in Transkei, together with Mr Donald Davies and Dr Patrick Hutchison of the Border Historical Society, to see the grave of King Sarhili of the amaGcaleka on the Mbashe River. Although preparations for a funeral were in progress in the village, we were warmly received and greeted by the Ward Councillor, the local headman and his son and senior men from the locality who made speeches welcoming us to Tsholorha, once the Great Place of Sarhili during the latter part of the nineteenth century.

We were honoured to be invited to visit the king’s grave in the company of these senior Xhosa men of the amaGcaleka where we were proudly shown wild olive (umnquma) saplings, which had been presented by Madiba (Nelson Mandela) on a formal visit to Tsholorha in February 2000 for planting at the grave site. Round that time, there were torrential rains making it difficult for Madiba to visit the graves of the amaGcaleka kings, let alone to plant the saplings and that was only done later by the headman and the senior men. The grave of Ngqika, the eponymous ancestor of the amaNgqika, in the Amathole Basin near Keiskammahoek, certainly up to the early 1980s, lay in the shade of an old wild olive tree, which sadly was later destroyed by members of the Ciskei army, ostensibly for use as firewood. To anyone unfamiliar with Xhosa traditional religion, the wild olive tree has a special significance in the context of sacrificial rites addressed to the ancestral spirits (iminyanya). At a feast held in Alexandria district in 1976, I was gravely informed by the officiating household head, an aged herbalist (ixhwele) of the amaJwarha clan (isiduko), that umnquma is the “dish (isitya) of the Xhosa”. Elaborating, he pointed out that the flesh of the beast or white goat slaughtered to commemorate the ancestors is placed on the branches of wild olive in the sacred, or entla, back portion of the hut to stand overnight before it is roasted and cooked for relatives and guests attending the feast on the following day. Notably, at such feasts, the important leaders and chiefs of the past are sometimes called (ukunqula) by name in the cattle-fold (ubuhlanti) before the slaughtering takes place.

Before we were allowed to enter the sacred area of Sarhili’s grave site at Tsholorha, the old headman and his son instructed all the men present to gather up a few small stones to lay around the grave after entering. This was solemnly done and, in a ritual manner, recalled the cairns of stones (izivivane) once erected over the graves of Khoi and Xhosa chiefs in former times and which were periodically added to by people embarking on long and dangerous journeys. The trade, economic, socio-political and cultural connections between Xhosa and Khoisan is a topic of some standing and historical interest. Next to Sarhili’s grave is the grave of his successor, Sigcawu, who died in 1902. Apparently, the present headstones were erected on the graves by the latter’s successor, Xolilizwe Sigcawu, during the early 1980s. Later, the headman informed us that the site of the graves was originally Sarhili’s cattle-fold, which lies within a stone’s throw of the Mbashe River. After the due formalities had been observed, there was a lively discussion among all the men present as to the interesting association between the graves of Xhosa kings and river banks. Mention was made of Phalo, who was buried on the banks of the Thongwana stream near present-day Butterworth, of Hintsa, who was buried near the Nqabarha close to where he met his untimely end in May 1835 at the hands of Colonel Harry Smith’s colonials, and of Gcaleka, the eponymous ancestor of the amaGcaleka, who, as an initiated traditional diviner (igqirha), disappeared in the pool of the Nxgingxolo sometime towards the end of the eighteenth century. It was with some alarm that we noted that the date of Sarhili’s death given on his headstone was also 1902, and clearly this is incorrect, resulting in a flurry of research after I returned to the museum. We were unable to discover from the Xhosa men present how this, perhaps inadvertent, error had arisen. Later, Dr Hutchison correctly pointed out that J. H. Soga bears all the responsibility. In The South-Eastern Bantu (1930), he gave the date of Sarhili’s death as 1902, which later, in The Ama-Xosa: Life and Customs (1931), he corrected to 1892. This clearly shows, as Peires and others have pointed out, the extent to which Xhosa tradition has come to be informed by published, sometimes erroneous, sources.

It was a fiercely hot day and after returning to the village, beakers of chilled home-brewed fermented sorghum beer (utywala), which is a mildly alcoholic but nutritious beverage, made in a manner that only rural traditionalists know how, were circulated among us and all the adults present. We were also entertained by local traditional dancers, including adolescent boys, nubile bare-breasted maidens and a traditional female diviner and her initiates. Clearly, rural Xhosa people have exciting cultural resources, not to mention warm hospitality, to provide the weary and footsore tourist. One wonders why more is not made of these homemade Xhosa cultural resources explicitly for the tourist market.

It is no great sin, it would appear, to get an important date in Xhosa history wrong. After all, published historians, such as, for example, Peires, Mostert and Milton, – to mention but three – including the editors of the Dictionary of South African Biography who are apparently professional historians, have all managed to get the date of Sarhili’s death wrong. A rare exception is anthropologist Monica Wilson, who not only gives the correct year as 1893, but a reference to the Cape Times of 7 February 1893. In fact, the date of Sarhili’s death happens to be a documented historical fact we actually can be precise about. Dr Hutchison was in possession of a reference to archival documents, an exchange of notes between Dr W. A. Soga, of Miller Mission, and the magistrate of Elliotdale, Mr Morris, which he had previously managed to obtain from University of Cape Town historian, Professor Christopher Saunders. A copy of this correspondence was duly obtained from the Cape Archives in which it was learned that King Sarhili died at about 10 pm on 2 February 1893 and was buried the following day. Undoubtedly, the reticence of the amaGcaleka concerning Sarhili’s death was conditioned by the knowledge of what had previously transpired with the military burial of Sandile, of the amaNgqika chiefdom, who was ignominiously placed between the graves of two British troopers, who had died from natural causes, in the Isidenge Forest in 1878. Rumours, which are now difficult to substantiate, have long circulated in Ciskei that Sandile was subsequently re-buried in a secret place. Ironically, J. H. Soga was the successor to his brother at Miller Mission, W. A. Soga, who had penned the letter to Mr Morris concerning Sarhili’s death and burial.