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Historical Information

The Eastern Cape Province can boast to be the cradle of human culture. Archeological sites have revealed evidence of cultural activity predating sites found in other parts of the world. Although these sites are not in the Frontier Country area, they are not far, and scores of other ancient sites including dwelling sites and rock art are found in the area. Qualified guides can be arranged to take one to selected sites (Please note that all archeological and paleontological sites are protected by the South African Heritage Resources Act and they may not he damaged or defaced in any way).

Frontier Country is also the meeting ground of the Xhosa, Khoi San, Afrikaner and English-speaking groups. A fascinating, unique cultural history has developed as a result.

Frontier Country is aptly named; nine frontier wars were fought in the area over almost a century between 1779 and 1878. These wars are now referred to as the First to the Ninth Frontier Wars respectively. Some have other appellations, such as the War of the Axe (7th), the War of Nxele or Makana (4th), Hintsa’s War (6th) and the War of Mlanjeni (8th).

Some of the names are a little misleading; while the theft of an axe was the spark which ignited the 7th Frontier War, it was not the cause, but of such incidents and anecdotes are legends made! The real causes were of a more complex nature.

The Frontier Wars were fought in the following order:

  • First Frontier War: 1779-1781
  • Second Frontier War: 1793
  • Third Frontier War: 1799-1802
  • Fourth Frontier War: 1811-1812
  • Fifth Frontier War: 1818-1819 (War of Nxele or Makana)
  • Sixth Frontier War: 1834-l835 (Hintsa’s War)
  • Seventh Frontier War: I846-I847 (War of the Axe)
  • Eighth Frontier War: 185O-1853 (War of Mlanjeni)
  • Ninth Frontier War: 1877-1878


The periods between the wars were only relatively peaceful, witnessing minor skirmishing, murders and stock theft and the building of forts, garrisons, military posts and signal towers. Many of these remain today as ruins and sites in various degrees of restoration. Military villages were established, such as Woburn, Auckland, Ely, Juanasberg, Kempt and Fredericksburg. A number of farmsteads were fortified, notably Septon Manor, Barville Park and Heatherton Towers. For the visitor to Frontier Country, all these sites provoke fascinating thoughts and recollections. One can easily imagine the circumstances that prevailed when they were in full use.


Each of the Frontier Wars and all of the historical sites have stories and legends attached to them. Of particular interest is the disaster of the Great Cattle Killing that followed the Ninth War. The Xhosa people were persuaded by a prophetess to slaughter their livestock. The whereabouts of the head of Hintsa, the Xhosa Chief beheaded during the Sixth Frontier War, is still a matter of heated speculation today – it is believed it was sent to Britain and the Xhosa people are still lobbying for its return. While the causes of the Seventh Frontier War can be attributed to increasing tension and friction caused by murders, cattle raiding, racism, cultural differences, mutual distrust, misunderstanding and the hunger for land, it is called the “War of the Axe”. The theft of an axe by a leader named Tsili from a store in Fort Beaufort sparked the conflict. He was arrested and, together with three other prisoners, sent to Grahamstown under escort. To prevent escape, Tsili was handcuffed to a Khoi-San prisoner. En route, the party was ambushed, the Khoi-San’s hand was lopped off and the prisoner escaped. This incident sparked off another war, one that saw the British and Colonial forces suffer a serious defeat, losing more than 60 heavily laden wagons at the Battle of Boomer Pass.


Amongst the more interesting of the innumerable sites in the area is that of Fort Peddie. It was established at the beginning of the nineteenth century after an agreement was reached between the Governor, Lord Charles Somerset and the Xhosa Chief, Gaika. A neutral zone was established between the Fish and Keiskamma Rivers but it was not strictly enforced and illegal hunting and trading went on virtually unabated.


Quite apart from the Forts and other sites of military and historical intrest, Frontier Country is well represented by several museums. These include the Natural History Museum, the 1820 Settlers’ Museum and the only genuine Victorian camera obscura in the Southern Hemisphere at the Observatory Museum all situated in Grahamstown. In Bathurst one can see old tractors and other agricultural implements at the Agricultural Museum and there is a fascinating collection of old weaponry at the Military Museum in Fort Bedford.


There are many buildings around the area that have been declared Heritage Sites; more than 70 in Grahamstown itself. Shaw Hall is the only place outside Cape Town where Parliament has ever sat and stretches of High Street and Cross Street in Grahamstown boast many National Monument plaques. Church Square has the finest historic facades found in any city in South Africa.