History & Culture
Makana (also spelt Makanda by his descendants) is most noted as the Xhosa warrior and prophet who led a massive attack against the British garrison at Grahamstown in 1819. Born near the coast in the Uitenhage area, in his youth he heard the gospel message preached by the first missionary in the area, Dr Johannes van der Kemp.
Although probably part of the forced expulsion of 20 000 amaXhosa from the area in 1812, he maintained an interest in Christianity and the ways of the colonizers. He visited Grahamstown on several occasions to quiz both the army chaplain and officers about their beliefs and practices. They remembered him as posing difficult and challenging questions.
Among his people, Makana gained a reputation as a spiritual leader who combined elements of Christianity with ancient Xhosa beliefs. He called for a moral regeneration of society to cope with the stresses and strains they suffered. His powerful oratory style attracted people in their thousands and earned him the status of chief and military adviser to Chief Ndlambe.
Makana was also a man of action. He led a combined force of amaXhosa from throughout the region in armed resistance against Chief Ngqika, who was seen as selling out his people in return for personal gain as an ally of the British. When the British seized 23 000 head of cattle from Ndlambe’s people in retaliation, Makana urged all the amaXhosa to unite to try to drive the colonizers out once and for all. On April 22, 1819, he led a force of 10 000 warriors in a daring daylight attack on Grahamstown. They were accompanied by women and children, prepared to occupy the land which had formerly been theirs.
Defeated by superior British fire power, Makana eventually surrendered himself in the interests of promoting peace. The British imprisoned him on Robben Island, but treated him with great respect, giving him private accommodation, food and furniture. Within a year of his arrival, Makana escaped, along with 30 other prisoners, mostly Xhosa and Khoisan rebels from the Eastern frontier districts. Although several survived, Makana drowned. Since he had promised his people he would never abandon them, they continued to hope for his return for another 50 years before funeral rites were observed.
Today Makana is remembered as a great leader who longed for peace, understanding and cooperation between White and Black, but who was also willing to fight to the end to achieve justice for his people. His dedication to this cause and the sacrifice of his own life in its pusuit have led 20th century prisoners on Robben island, including Nelson Mandela, to call for renaming that island after Makana.