Shortly before daybreak, a group of prisoners on Robben Island overpowered their British guards and stole their weapons. After a series of skirmishes that left at least one guard dead and several wounded, the prisoners used a bayonet to punch a hole in the prison walls. Instead of heading directly to the island’s tiny harbor for a quick getaway, the 14 escapees made a perilous detour to release their hero.
Makhanda, the warrior-prophet who had led a force of some 6,000 Xhosa in a disastrous attack on the British frontier settlement of Grahamstown a year earlier, in 1819, was held in a separate building, where he was treated with great respect. The British recognized his importance, says Julia C. Wells, author of The Return of Makhanda: Exploring the Legend. “[They] feared he’d organize a revolt if allowed to mix with the other prisoners.”
When Makhanda was sent to Robben Island, the Xhosa were outraged.
Julia C. Wells, The Return of Makhanda: Exploring the Legend
As it turned out, his mere presence was enough. Like anti-apartheid revolutionaries Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela (also both Xhosa), Makhanda had not initially rejected the White presence in South Africa; instead, he had made a concerted effort to understand and participate in European culture. But his role as a mediator between Black and White was stopped in its tracks by a particularly ruthless British cattle raid — one that created a powerful and determined adversary.
Little is known about the early years of Makhanda (also spelled Makana). He was probably born around 1770, when European settlers first reached the Eastern Cape, and he may have grown up on a White-owned farm. When Makhanda reached adulthood, Wells believes he moved eastward to live among his own people. It was most likely during this time that he became an influential adviser to Chief Ndlambe, who was widely recognized as the most anti-British chief in the region.
Around 1815, says Wells, Makhanda began making regular visits to Grahamstown (officially, a no-Blacks zone) to “spend long hours discussing everything — life, religion, politics — with the local chaplain.” Then came the Brereton Raid, which saw the British-led rustlers steal some 20,000 cattle. It left the Xhosa with an impossible choice: retaliation or starvation. As 19th-century historian George McCall Theal noted, “Makana, who up to that time had exerted himself to cultivate friendly relations with the white man, now spoke of nothing but war.”
His radicalization came during the heart of the Frontier Wars, which consisted of seven conflicts that began in 1779 and ended in 1878. The first two were fought by the Dutch and the rest by the British after they seized control of the Cape in 1795.
In the months that followed Brereton, Makhanda’s messengers were “everywhere in Kaffirland, calling upon all true Xhosas to take part in the strife against the Europeans … in thrilling language promising victory,” writes Theal. Although Makhanda is remembered mostly for the Battle of Grahamstown, the first phase of the Fifth Frontier War was a series of guerrilla raids on Boer farmhouses, which weakened the British rural support base and allowed the Xhosa to stock up on guns.
The attack on Grahamstown remained a surprise until the morning of April 22, 1820, when British commanding officer Lt. Col. Thomas Willshire stumbled upon 5,000 Xhosa warriors across the river from the settlement. After being discovered, the Xhosa waited a couple of hours before attacking — “an error in retrospect,” says Wells, as it gave the British time to ready their latest party trick: six newly acquired cannons.
The main Xhosa offensive took place on open ground and lasted barely an hour: Spears and a smattering of rifles were no match for heavy artillery, and at least 1,000 warriors died (compared with six British casualties). Fighting at the barracks lasted a little longer, but the Xhosa soon retreated.
The British sat tight for the next few months before launching an invasion. After a particularly bitter spell of fighting, Makhanda surrendered himself, assuming he would be held hostage until the conclusion of peace negotiations, which was the custom of his people. Instead, he was sent to Robben Island off Cape Town, which had been used as a lockup for political prisoners since the end of the 17th century, as a POW. (Mandela served 18 years there; Sisulu, 25 years.) “When he was sent to Robben Island, the Xhosa were outraged,” says Wells.
Which brings us back to the morning prison break on Aug. 9, 1820. Once they’d freed Makhanda, the escapees stole three boats from the island’s whaling station and embarked on the 6-mile journey to the mainland. Two boats capsized near shore, but more than half of the men made it onto dry land, where all were eventually recaptured.
The three prisoners who had killed guards during the escape were hanged; the others were returned to Robben Island. According to the British, Makhanda drowned. The Xhosa maintain that he was shot on the beach and his body dumped in the water. Conveniently, no autopsy was performed, and there is no record of his burial.
Over the years, the British account of Makhanda’s life and the Battle of Grahamstown “took on a spiritual nature,” says Wells. Makhanda telling his warriors that bullets would “turn into water” suited the British agenda of “belittling the primitive, superstitious culture.” As the missionary Thomas Pringle noted in 1835, “It is melancholy to reflect how valuable an instrument for promoting the civilization of the Caffer [Kaffir] tribes was apparently lost by the nefarious treatment and indirect destruction of that extraordinary barbarian.”
Finally, the other side of the story is being given credence. Although the widely held belief that the escape took place on Christmas Day has been recognized as poetic license, an Xhosa saying still holds currency: It likens “waiting for the return of Makhanda” to hoping for the impossible.