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Discovering the Spirit of Makana

“Discovering the Spirit of Makana: Dreamer or Hero?”

Talk given at the 2002 National Arts Festival Winter School 2 July 2002 by Dr Julia Wells, Senior Lecturer in History at Rhodes University, Grahamstown.

My talk today will explore some of the ideas that have existed about Makana in the past and also share some of the developments that have arisen in recent years from the work of a project with which I am involved.
I would like to start the story on 15 June 2000. On that day the people of Grahamstown reached for their newspapers and saw that the world had changed. How many of you from Grahamstown remember this banner headline ‘MAKANA’?

It is a rather unsubtle way of making a point. I think it was a coded warning to whites that there was a new battle on, about more than a new name for the new municipality, which was going to come into existence at the end of that year. At that time the name Makana, for many white residents, evoked their long-term fear of the wrath of the Xhosa people. Most know that Makana was the leader of the attack on Grahamstown in 1819, in which 10,000 angry Xhosa warriors tried to drive the British garrison into the sea, once and for all. Every day they look up at the bunch of trees on what they call Makana’s Kop and they see a reminder of the warriors perched up there, ready for the attack once again. And now this! Now they were to live in Makana.


For the white citizens of Grahamstown and surrounding areas the choice of the name, I think, had very specific connotations and meanings. They may not have been aware that it was not a choice taken lightly by the local black population. It had worked its way through numerous ANC branch meetings and two general caucuses before it was accepted and embraced.


For most, black and white, the name Makana invoked a rather generalised feeling of a brave and fearless leader, but few on either side really knew very much about the man, Makana. Both had been subjected to history books written entirely from the colonial point of view. These books were based only on the written records of a few white men, who enjoyed positions of power and privilege in colonial society. Like all such writings, these records were saturated with racially-based stereotypes and assumptions about African people. These predictable assumptions included notions that all African people are inherently bloodthirsty and this makes them very prone to violence. Also, Africans cling to superstitions, often taking bizarre forms through witchcraft. Indeed, Makana had not been spared these labels. The older white man’s history books portrayed him as something of a crazed and superstitious prophet, who whipped his people into a frenzy, leading them into a ridiculous attack and their own slaughter.


This raises the question – how can the power and the domination of the biases in the written word be broken? How can an alternative sense of what happened, now nearly two hundred years ago, be retrieved and salvaged?


I was very fortunate to be invited to take part in a creative exercise designed to do just that. In the year 2000, prior to Makana’s debut as a municipality, I was invited by Giselle Baillie and Dominic Thorburn of the Rhodes University Fine Arts Department to join in a project bringing together a wide variety of artists from throughout the Grahamstown community. These artists were black and white, rich and poor, professional and amateur. Some were just learning art for the first time; some could not read and write, and many of them did not speak English. The youngest was 15 and the oldest 72.


The idea was to build an art project around the historic Battle of Grahamstown in 1819. The organisers invited the artists to produce their own images and interpretations of that event for a Festival exhibition. Fortunately, they had the very good sense to bring a historian in to help, and that was me. From the beginning the idea was to produce a new historical understanding. Encouraging the Xhosa voice to come through was one of the most important objectives of that initiative. We also included young people from the townships, who were defined as ‘project historians’ and given the task to fully participate in this process, to allow their interpretation to evolve, not just once off, but continuously over a period of time.


It all came together on a sunny weekend in May, when the project led the participants through a series of lectures, discussions, reflections and a physical tour of the relevant places in Grahamstown where the battle had taken place. Then the artists settled down and went to work. The results became an exhibition for the 2000 National Arts Festival. It was quite well received and seen as something refreshingly new and different. It indeed gave another look at a very complex and troubled past.


For several who took part in this pilot project, the results were so exciting that they resolved to continue, trying to learn more and to find further ways of putting history to work for the good of the community. That was the birth of the Egazini Outreach Project. It started with a dual goal of taking the story to the people, trying to popularise what had been learnt from this initial project, and then to turn the history into income-generating activities for the artists and the young historians who had taken part.


Since then the Project has continued to pursue the story through research, both into written records, archival and published, and also through the collection of oral traditions from the descendants of the people who lost their homes in this area so long ago, the amaNdlambe people, who still live across the Fish River. Part of the process includes an ongoing dialogue within the group, between the artists and historians, who continuously talk about the subtle, hidden meanings in the story.


What I share with you about Makana reflects a collective understanding that has come out of that ongoing dialogue. Today our artists work in their own centre in the Joza Township. It is fully equipped to make art prints and to receive visitors, in addition to our offering for sale high quality art prints, T-shirt, calendars, postcards, greeting cards, table cloths, aprons, handbags, banners and posters to order. The young historians have taken hundreds of visitors on tours and continue to carry out further research.
We say repeatedly that the point of the project is to combine history and art to generate income for the unemployed. But as a historian, I feel, that it is achieving much more. It has discovered a very free and effective way to allow people who never had a chance before, to participate in constructing their own historical meaning, definitions and interpretations. Through the eyes, the hands and the hearts of the artists an entire new perception of the Battle of Grahamstown and Makana has emerged. Without having the benefits of photographs or a written document, they have come up with an entirely new visionary sense of their own history.
I have here a few examples of the art reproduced on banners. We have developed these banners as teaching tools so that we can take the story to places that do not have the benefit of electricity or overhead projectors or any high-tech technology.


The first image depicts the fear and terror that people, who were living in this area (between the Sundays River and the Fish River of the Eastern Cape Zuurveld) felt when they were driven out of their homes. At the end of 1811 and beginning of 1812, Col John Graham, on the instructions of the British colonial government, cleared the entire area between those two rivers of all the African people living in it. According to his records, he evicted 20,000 people from their homes. This image of people running captures their panic at the loss of their homes. The written records simply tell us rather clinically – Col John Graham cleared the bush of 20,000 people – and it ends there. The artists tell us of the pain, of what it felt like to experience that loss. The artist who did this particular image, is a former farm worker, who has lost her home many, many, many times. So as soon as she heard the history, she said – I know exactly how they felt. This was the same trauma and the terror that she could not very easily forget. In fact, I have often thought that Col John Graham made Mugabe look like an amateur at land-grabbing. Just think about it. He physically drove 20,000 people from their homes, then he destroyed their dwellings, burning them all to the ground and then destroyed their crops. Mugabe didn’t go to any supermarkets to take the food off the shelves. The amaNdlambe people were killed and slaughtered, some of them were taken prisoners, some of the women were raped, some of the children were taken as orphans and put into service of the British military. So land grabbing, unfortunately, isn’t a very new thing. It has now become less violent.


The second image was done by an artist who was 15 years old at the time, Akhona Mlisana. This is called ‘Makana’s Dual Character’, which will bring us now to the centre of our story. As we looked at the earliest written records about Makana, we found there was quite alot known about him, which was very interesting. What this image shows us, is the idea that Makana made a very studied, careful effort to learn about the white society around him. He came to understand the dynamics of both societies, African and European. Many of our artists represent him as a person who had a very special intercultural sensitivity. What do we know of Makana? The records suggest that he was born in the Uitenhage area, implying he was among the people expelled in 1812. It is believed that in his youth he attended some of the sermons and the preachings of the first missionaries, who settled at Bethelsdorp near Port Elizabeth, where he picked up the principles of Christianity and its message. After being forced with his people across the Fish River, he then started preaching. Some of our earliest records claim that by 1816 he drew crowds of thousands of people. He acted as a preacher and a prophet. In a very interesting conversation he had with a missionary, James Read, who was from Bethelsdorp and who travelled out to meet him in 1816, Makana explained his preaching style; from one preacher to another. He said something along the lines of, “You know, I try not to talk too long, because people’s attention spans aren’t very good. So every time I talk, its just for a little bit and I let them rest and I talk some more.”


With this he shared his ideas about how to hold a crowd.


It was clear that he was searching for spiritual answers to what had gone wrong. Why had people lost their homes, why had they lost their lifestyle? Basically, his solution for them, was a spiritual regeneration, something like today’s moral regeneration movement, saying – you must straighten out your hearts, you must straighten out your souls, you must get yourselves in order before the world is going to be right again.


Also this image picks up on the part of Makana’s story of the years before the battle in 1819, when he frequently came into Grahamstown, a military garrison. There are claims that he sat with the military officers and discussed military strategy, and politics. Then he sat with the army chaplain and discussed spiritual matters. The records say that he confounded them all with his intelligence, wisdom and complexity of questions that he asked. So that is why we have this kind of an image.


The third image here is also done by an artist, who was a former farm worker who cannot read and write, but she does know her history very well.


Nomathemba Tana depicts the Battle of Grahamstown itself, bringing out several important themes. The top image shows the warriors as they went into battle. The raised arms show an attitude of great hope, a great expectation. They really believed that they were coming to regain their homes and to get their land back. There is a lot of emotion in that. She says in her own comments that the image at the bottom has a dual meaning. Part of it comes from reports that in the Battle of Grahamstown, women and children came along in the hopes of re-occupying their former homes. One of the messages in the hands reaching out at the bottom, is the idea that the women were clapping hands to cheer the men on. Again this is the women’s view of how the battle took place, capturing the support and the hope that went into the planning. But the bottom half of the image is also hands of despair. There were reports that the slaughter during the Battle was so great that the little river that runs through the middle of town, ran with blood and that some of the warriors actually drowned there. The image of reaching out, also captures the hope for something better to come after the terrible defeat during the battle.


Our fourth image here, has to do with what became of Makana after the Battle of Grahamstown. In fact, the fighting continued for several months between the British and the amaNdlambe people, but eventually the British gained the upper hand. The government sent in every available man from the Cape Colony, calling up commandos from as far away as Cape Town. In fact the British realised that the Boer commando’s were much more effective in bush warfare than British soldiers, and so a lot of the actual fighting fell to them.


When it became clear that the British really did have superior fire power and that the amaXhosa were not going to win this war, Makana surrendered himself. It is interesting that it was on the banks of the Fish River, because the British had claimed they had driven his people beyond the Kei River. If they had ever been across the Kei, they had fought back as far as the Fish.
As Makana surrendered himself, he is reported to have said that some people blamed him for causing the war and, therefore, he hoped that if he surrendered, that it would help bring about peace. I have no doubt that he thought that he was surrendering himself as a token or hostage until negotiations could be completed. However, the British did not understand that aspect of African warfare and sent him off as a prisoner to Robben Island.


He stayed there a little less than a year, before he took part in a major escape. I believe it was probably the largest ever from Robben Island, with nearly 30 people getting away, using three boats. The full story of the escape is represented in the exhibition that is at the Albany Museum for Festival this year, so I am not going to go into all of the details. I can highlight just a few interesting things about the escape. When Makana arrived at Robben Island, he found several other political prisoners from the Eastern Frontier already there. These were men of Khoisan descent, who had fought in a previous generation’s war against colonisation, from 1799 to 1803 in the area around Port Elizabeth. On Robben Island two generations of resistance coming from two different ethnic groups found themselves in identical circumstances. It is easy to see their struggle and their losses as one. In fact, it was one of those Khoisan named Hans Trompeter who led the escape attempt and who ensured that Makana was included in that escape.
So this image represents breaking through the prison bars. The large figure of Makana, captures the idea that he could overcome whatever the colonial authorities tried to do to him. We have been very struck in the project to learn that former President Nelson Mandela called for renaming Robben Island after Makana. To those later generations of prisoners at Robben Island, Makana represented an indomitable spirit. He was fiery, he was intelligent and he could not be contained. The fact that he did escape and got away from Robben Island is very important to those who never did. With this image, Makana begins to take on almost superhuman proportions: his spirit of independence was simply not going to be contained by anyone.


The last image is again by Nomathemba Thana. Entitled ‘The Ancestors are looking for Makana’. The records say that Makana drowned, when the boat he was in crashed before it got to shore. As we were doing oral research, we started hearing other traditions from the amaXhosa. One claims that he did not drown, but was shot on land by the British, who threw his body back into the sea to cover up their murder. That is a tradition that cannot be verified, unless we find the body. This image depicts the idea that the ancestors have come to look for Makana, because in Xhosa tradition a spirit cannot be at rest until the ancestors have linked up with it. So there is a very strong sense that Makana must be found. But also, this image suggests a link between the past and the present, that they are all tied together; of the spirit and call of Makana, are not lost. We feel the sense of hope felt by the amaXhosa who believed that Makana never died. He had told them, when he surrendered, that he would return and people believed that for quite a long time. In fact, his family refused to bury his personal possessions until 50 years later. The hope was very strong.


That is the basic story and some of the issues arising from the images. But I want to also touch on some of the other themes that have emerged as we engaged the history. For all of us involved in the project, one of surprises was to recognise how intense the fighting for this area was. It took place over several decades, not just one battle on one sunny afternoon. It is also clear that much of the intensity of that fighting arose from the English colonial government’s plans to settle this area. It is not a coincidence that the Battle of Grahamstown took place in 1819 and the settlers arrived in 1820. Clearly, most of the arriving settlers did not know that they were being used as a buffer against the amaXhosa. When 9 year-old Harry Dugmore landed at Port Elizabeth in 1820, he looked around and asked where all the African people were. He was simply told ‘they have gone away’ an amazing distortion, but useful myth. ‘They had gone away’, a total denial of the fighting and struggle that had taken place less than a year before.


Also, one of the things that we have developed through the work of this project, is a sense of the depth and magnitude of the Xhosa longing to recover their lost land. If you look at the current art exhibition, you will see that there is still a lot of pain coming out in the work of the artists about the loss of something that they now can understand, was once theirs. Perhaps the most vivid insight of the project, is the sense we have gained of the place that’s referred to as Makanaskop. People living in Grahamstown west look across, see the trees and assume that is where the battle took place. But when we went up there as a group, a glance around quickly confirmed that this was impossible. You can hardly get ten people up there, let alone ten thousand. It might have a good view, but could never had accommodated all those warriors.


While we stood there as a group, we all looked around and said – ‘well, where did this battle take place then?’ Then we readily saw the entire ridge extending to the side of that little knoll of trees was ideally suited for an attacking army of ten thousand people. With one glance, we felt that the anger was many times bigger than we first imagined. That moved us all quite a lot.


We have also learnt a great deal about the role of chief Ndlambe who was the chief that Makana served. We see him now as a very important example of African leadership in those days. Some of our Xhosa colleagues have dubbed him ‘the father of African nationalism’, because he stood for the interest of his people and, unlike his nephew, Ngqika, could not be bribed. He understood very well the danger of being drawn into the colonial economy. One of the exciting parts of our continuing historical work, is to work with the amaNdlambe Traditional Council, a collection of chiefs who live across the Fish River. They are very proud of their ancestor and their culture, and have rich old traditions to share.


Another interesting aspect of the story is the impact that Makana had on the important white people around him. Because they had the capacity to read and write, when they noticed that Makana was so unusual, they wrote down their impressions. James Read, the first missionary, who met Makana in 1816, wrote a very detailed account of their discussions. They had many, many long conversations about the theology of creation, among other things.


The second person that Makana made a big impact on, was Col. Charles Lennox Stretch, who has left a diary on his experiences with the frontier. Stretch was a foot soldier during the Battle of Grahamstown on the British side and he describes Makana’s role during the battle. But then later he was also part of the detachment of soldiers to whom Makana surrendered and he describes how he went one night to the place where Makana was held and just talked to him about how he felt. He was sufficiently impressed by his personality to record that conversation.


The third is Andries Stockenstrom, who was at that time the landdrost or magistrate of Graaff-Reinet, but who was also involved in the military campaign against Makana. Those of you who know the East Cape history know that Stockenstrom’s father was murdered by the Xhosa in a previous frontier war. But he also leaves us with very vivid descriptions of what happened when Makana surrendered to him. He said he could not bear to put such a man in chains and so he gave him his own wagon to hold him until he knew what his fate would be. Stockenstrom also wrote very movingly about his own sense of the injustice of the alienation of land from the amaXhosa and I would like to think that he also learnt a great deal from Makana about what that meant.


A fourth Englishman is Thomas Pringle, the Scottish poet, who came to the frontier as an 1820 settler. He really did not like the farm that he was settled on and he spent a long time just wandering around, seeking the history of this place. He heard the stories of Makana over and over again from both black and white, and he has also recorded a great deal. In addition, he wrote a good many poems about Makana and the Battle of Grahamstown, which are very interesting indeed.


And then a final person, an individual who we can see was very influenced by Makana, was Rev. John Philips, the head of the London Missionary Society, who came here in 1819, shortly after the battle, and later was to become the ultimate champion of the abolition of slavery in the Cape Colony. He got most of his information from Pringle, but also took a very keen interest in making sure that the story of this person, Makana, was shared.


When Makana was sent to Robben Island, the Governor did not know what to do with him. Since he was considered to be a high-ranking chief, the acting Governor gave instructions to hold him in a separate house on his own, away from the other prisoners. There is very interesting correspondence about ‘what do you think the chief likes to eat? and what furniture shall we provide for him?’ So Makana received very special treatment for someone caught up in the frontier conflicts.


The final point that we get from the story, is an African sense of holding the moral high ground during these conflicts. In our tours the Project gives its visitors a little brochure which includes a quote that was written down by Andries Stockenstrom at the time of Makana’s surrender. These words are not alleged to have come from Makana, but from his immediate councillors, ‘when our fathers and your fathers first settled in the Zuurveld, we grew up together in peace, their flocks grazed on the same hills, their herdsmen smoked together out of the same pipes, they were brothers.’ They go on to describe how hostilities between the two increased over time and then they finally said – ‘you took our last cow, you left only a few cows, which died of want, along with our children. We saw our wives and children perish, we saw that we ourselves must perish. We followed, therefore, the tracks of our cattle into the colony.’


This is a theme that comes out many times in the story of this battle. It is the sense that the African people tried to accommodate the visitors who came, that they had their own ways of accommodating new people coming in, but that these ways were not understood or accepted.


Another similar thread comes out in the story of a woman named Elizabeth Salt. She is alleged to have, during the height of the Battle, gone out of her place of security and fetched a keg of gunpowder. She brought it back through the middle of the battle, having to walk through masses of Xhosa warriors. The story says that they allowed her to pass through, because of the Xhosa tradition that prohibits harming a woman, especially in battle and especially another man’s wife. It is interesting to note that some of the Xhosa oral traditions choose this as the central reason for having lost the Battle of Grahamstown. As an oral historian, I have to ask why they chose that memory over all of the others? This choice affirms the sense that – ‘we have lost our land, because we were more moral than they were.’


We also have come across the idea that Makana believed in the concept of a fair war. He sent a warning to Grahamstown advising that he was intending to attack. Of course, the British ignored him and did not take it seriously. Nevertheless, this sense of allowing your enemy to prepare for a battle is echoed many times throughout African history.


When we study the history of past wars and conflicts, it can be for two purposes. One can be either to celebrate one side’s defeat over the other, or it can be to teach the futility of violence and, in so doing, inspire a search for better alternatives. It is clearly this latter function that we see ourselves undertaking within the Egazini Outreach Project, and what we feel a closer look at Makana achieves.


We have very often seen our many guests and visitors go away with a fresh commitment to reject entering into spirals of violence and dehumanising power struggles. Rather, the story serves as a call to positive action. The Project uses the story by making it relevant for our community today.


We believe that the spirit of Makana is about far more than simply reclaiming a particular piece of land. That is not the central issue here. It is rather about reclaiming a spirit of pride and dignity. What the amaXhosa longed for, when they listened to him in 1819, was a vision of themselves as a free people in charge of their own destiny. They really believed it could happen, that it was not too late to turn the tables. So it is this hope for a leader to take the people to a place of comfort and reassurance that people still feel, when they hear the story of Makana. I think it is also that longing for the leader to take them back to a better time and place that lies behind the long wait for his return, the refusal to believe that he was actually dead.


In South Africa the elections of 1994 gave political control of South Africa back to the African people. So in a sense we can say that the physical battle has ended. But now the battle is to consolidate all those gains into a full restoration of humanity and dignity. President Mbeki and others today are stressing what they call the spirit of vukuzenzele, which means crushing the attitude of passivity and dependency and replacing it with one of pride and positive action. And we have come to feel that this is exactly what the spirit of Makana represents. Today the spirit that comes out of this story is still about battle, but now it is a battle against other negative things. For example, it is a battle against greedy leadership. The story of the Battle of Grahamstown has a lot to do with the African people rejecting their chief Ngqika who accepted bribes from the British and acted against the interests of his people. Makana, with chief Ndlambe, felt this was not acceptable and that a real leader should not seek more privileges than the people they were leading.


A second thing that the battle is against is poverty and hunger. The Battle of Grahamstown took place, because the British had raided the amaNdlambe people and taken twenty thousand head of cattle from them, hence the descriptions of hunger and starvation. So the fighting back is against that kind of degradation. Also it is fighting against a depression of the soul. It is a call to return to wholeness, as Makana himself was offering a spiritual explanation for what was wrong. He called for moral regeneration, being in touch with higher powers. We also see it as a battle against passivity, because it is a story of action, that when it was clear that action was needed, it was taken. People did not sit back in despair about their destiny, but rather tried to take it into their own hands.


We see that Makana, as a leader, fought first against chief Ngqika in the civil war, called the Battle of Amanlinde. Makana led that battle, we are told. He also, as we know, fought against the British and then he refused to remain a prisoner at Robben Island. So that spirit of not giving up, of just trying, no matter how bad the odds are, forms part of the lessons from the story.


Ultimately, the story is about the rejection of dependency. Had the amaXhosa maintained their land and their cattle, they would have been self-sufficient, and would not have been required to become farm workers and servants, to work under very harsh conditions and for minimal wages. Also in the Makana story we find a fight against ignorance and this comes out in the stories and the images of his seeking out intelligent answers. He asked the right questions; he tried to pursue a dialogue, before he had to resort to dire measures. He visited missionaries and he visited military officers. And then, finally, we have the image that comes through so much of our art work, that he was trying to end racial and cultural isolation through his blending of the two cultures.


So we take it today that Makana’s spirit is a call to action. That it is to say that in the 21st century this area, and South Africa as a whole, can return to wholeness. We see this not just as the healing of the pain of the amaXhosa at having lost their livelihood two hundred years ago, but a challenge to everyone to see, hear and understand what happened in the past and to commit themselves to find a better way. Makana promised that he would return and I believe that he has, in his own way.