Makhanda (prophet)

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Makhanda (also spelled Makana) who was also known as Nxele ("the left-handed") (died 25 December 1819)[1][a] was a Xhosa warrior, war doctor, philosopher and prophet who, during the Xhosa Wars, instigated an attack against the British garrison at Grahamstown, South Africa.

Personal life[edit]

Makhanda was born near the coast in the Uitenhage area of the Eastern Cape around 1780. His father was a Xhosa man by the name of Gwala from the amaCwerha clan and his mother was a Khoikhoi woman of the Gqunukhwebe clan. Makhanda's father died when he was a young boy and he was brought up by his mother and came under a strong Gqunukhwebe traditional influence. His mother was a spiritual diviner and medicine woman. Makhanda’s persona as one later to be recognised as an ‘inyanga’ was rooted in the early guidance of his mother and in his Gqunukhwebe roots. The Xhosa also particularly held the Khoikhoi and San spiritual guides in high esteem. After Makhanda's father died, his mother took him and his siblings to the Great Fish River Valley where they lived with his foster father Balala. It is unclear when Makhanda came into contact with Christianity. Missionary Dr James van der Kemp had established a mission station in Bethelsdorp in 1799. Makhanda may have come into contact with the Christian through this time. Makhanda advocated peace and denounced the use of magic after converting to Christianity.[3] During his days as a wandering preacher, an incident had occurred where he came under assault from a gang of detractors and was rescued by one of Chief Ndlambe’s councillors, Qalanga.[3] It was this patron who introduced Makhanda to the royal chief of Rharhabe, Ndlambe. He soon became the advisor and military doctor to Chief Ndlambe around 1812. When Makhanda entered the royal office, he spoke at great lengths with the Rev. Vanderlingen, the chaplain at Grahamstown, and with the missionary John Read, about theology and cosmology as he slowly increased his following and influence among the Rarhabe. Up to 1816, he viewed missionaries as coworkers in the same cause. Missionary John Read described Makhanda as “a stout and handsome man, who commands respect.”[3]

In 1816, Makhanda's attitude towards missionaries changed. Having grown up in areas with Afrikaner farmers, he had first hand knowledge of the mistreatment of blacks by white people. To Makhanda, Christianity represented European culture. Makhanda and all of the amaXhosa had an understanding that the British and the Dutch before them were seeking to take their land from them. From the late 1760s when the Boer trek farmers started moving into their lands until the brutal expulsion of the Gqunukwebe and other Xhosa from the Zuurveld in 1812, the Europeans had made it clear that they wanted the Xhosa territory.[3] As a result, he translated the emerging conflict between European and African world views as a contest between Thixo, the god of the whites and Mdalidiphu (creator of the deep), the god of the blacks. To reconcile these views, Makhanda began preaching a fusion of these religions which leaned mostly towards Xhosa beliefs.[4]

Battle of Grahamstown[edit]

In 1818 at the Battle of Amalinde, Makana fought alongside a combined force of the Xhosas against Chief Ngqika, who was seen as selling out his people in return for personal gain as an ally of the British Empire.

When a British-led force commanded by Colonel Brereton seized 23,000 head of cattle from Ndlambe’s people in retaliation, Makana urged all the Xhosa to unite to try to drive the colonizers out of Xhosaland once and for all. Makana advised Ndlambe that the gods would be on their side if they chose to strike back at the British at Grahamstown, and promised that the British "bullets would turn to water".[5]

Ndlambe took Makana’s advice, and on 22 April 1819 Makana led an attack on Grahamstown in broad daylight with a force of about 6,000 men (some sources say 10,000 men), all under the overall command of Ndlambe's warrior son Mdushane. They were accompanied by women and children, prepared to occupy the land which had formerly been theirs. The British garrison of approximately 350 troops was able to repulse the attack only after timely support was received from a Khoikhoi group led by Jan Boesak.[5]

Defeated by superior British firepower and poor tactics by the amaNdlambe leadership, 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. On 25 December 1820, Makana escaped along with 30 other prisoners, mostly Xhosa and Khoisan rebels from the Eastern frontier districts. Although several survived, Makana drowned.[1] 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.


Makana is credited with attempting to unite the Xhosa in their struggle against the British Empire.[1] His dedication to this cause and the sacrifice of his own life in its pursuit led twentieth century prisoners on Robben island, including Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, to call for renaming that island after Makana. The Makana Local Municipality and the city of Makhanda, formerly known as Grahamstown may be named after him, as it is yet to go through due process, and so was Makana F.A., a sporting body formed by political prisoners on Robben Island during the apartheid years.[6] Makhanda is also regarded as one of the first Africans to attempt a cultural synthesis of African and European beliefs.[3]

South African Ship[edit]

  • The SAS Makhanda was named after him.

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Other sources date his death 9 August 1820[2]
  1. ^ a b c " - Makana". Archived from the original on June 2, 2008. Retrieved 2008-10-10.
  2. ^ Wells 2007.
  3. ^ a b c d e "The other Nelson Mandela of 200 Years Ago-Makana". Camissa People. Retrieved 16 August 2017.
  4. ^ "Dictionary of African Christian Biography". Makhanda (Nxele). Retrieved 16 August 2017.
  5. ^ a b 22 April 1819: The fifth Frontier War: Sangoma Makana attacks Grahamstown under the patronage of Xhosa Chief Ndlambe, and is defeated - South African History Online
  6. ^ Origins of Tournament in an Infamous Prison — New York Times, July 5 2010

Irwin Pat Year (2019) The Battle of Graham's Town, 22 April 1819 [SA] Military History Journal 18(3)112-117 December SA ISSN 0026-4016

External links[edit]