Shedding light on the Khoi-Khoi

Homegrown author looks at Kat River rebellion

Dr SUSAN Blackbeard gave a very interesting talk on the history of the Khoi-Khoi at the Lower Albany Historical Society meeting held at Don Powis Hall, Settlers Park, last Thursday.

ORAL HISTORIAN: Dr Susan Blackbeard signed a copy of her book, Kat River Conversations, for Barry Marshall after her talk at Settler’s Park on Thursday, May 17

Blackbeard was born in East London and grew up in the Ciskei and Transkei.

Apart from getting her master’s degree in English Literature from Rhodes and her master’s in Historical Studies from UCT, she has lived in various places, including Australia, and currently lives in Cape Town, where she lectures at UCT and has published books in various genres.

In 2011, she and local resident Des Kopke, who played translator and taxi driver, took his old Mercedes-Benz back to her childhood haunt in the Ciskei to see whether the local people still remembered the Kat River rebellion.

Their oral history jaunt is recorded in her book Kat River Conversations (2017) – the story of an extraordinary valley in the Ciskei circa 1829.

There are people living there who still remember stories of Oom Paul (Kruger) and documents such as the Diary of Sarah Ralph in the Fort Beaufort Museum which recalls the attack on Fort Beaufort, which Ralph observed from her bedroom window in the Barracks where they had taken refuge.

In 1819, the governor of the Cape Colony, Lord Charles Somerset, made the area between the Kat and Keiskamma Rivers a British Protectorate in exchange for brandy and protection.  But the peace was disturbed by Ncqika’s right-hand son, Maqoma, who formed his own clan, the AmaJingi, and occupied the land between the Kat and Koonop Rivers.

But Commissioner General for the Eastern Cape, Andries Stockenström, whose house still stands in Grahamstown, expelled Maqoma for massacring the amaTembu and stealing their cattle.

At this time, the Khoi-Khoi were in danger of extinction as they were completely dispossessed.

An 1848 ordinance permitted them to buy land, but there was none.

In addition, the mission stationers were overgrazed and overpopulated and no longer supportive.

Stockenström consulted Field Commander Christian Groepe whose father was a German settler and whose mother was a Khoi-Khoi regarding the Basters – children of mixed descent – who had settled at Kat River.

Some of the basters lived in European houses, wore European clothes and farmed European crops like wheat, maize and barley.  They were given guns and tasked with defending the British Empire during the eighth Frontier War, aka Sandile’s War.

But the basters of the Kat River settlement rebelled and attacked farms, and stole stock and weapons.

Rebel women made good spies and would sneak into Somerset’s camp and make the call of a jackal to summon the rebels and pass on information to them.

Meanwhile, the Khoi-Khoi were susceptibe to TB and leprosy and woman lepers in particular, were hated and feared and shot by the British even when unarmed.

The settlers, like those on Isaiah Staples’ farm, Cold Valley, formed a lager with other families of the Winterberg area. When the lager became insecure, they travelled through the narrow Koonap River valley to reach the safety of Piet Retief.

In the end, Somerset laid waste to the Kat River settlement and Maqoma was banished to Robben Island with his wife Katje, where he died and, after a hunger strike, she too passed away.

Today the descendants of Christian Groepe, Hymie Groepe and his people, still live in Groepeskloof in the Ciskei.  They have lodged a land claim, but 28 years later nothing has come of it.

PERSONAL COPY: Dr Susan Blackbeard signing a copy of her book Kat River Conversations at the Lower Albany Historical Society meeting at Settlers Park last Thursday

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