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A land to die for: Riding the Maqoma Route

A land to die for: Riding the Maqoma Route

We discovered quite by chance that we were on the Maqoma Route, in the car park at Fort Armstrong. Actually, ‘car park’ was a bit of an exaggeration, just like using the word ‘road’ to describe the goat track we’d driven down to get to this remote spot. Once a key outpost defending the Eastern Cape’s old frontier at the foot of the scenic Katberg, it’s now part of the Winterberg range near the settlement of Balfour.

In the ring of rocks indicating where we should park was a sign in a relaxed, prone position. ‘Maqoma Route’ it read, describing the route named after Maqoma, a great warrior chief of the Xhosa, who put up strong resistance to the colonial invaders. Looking around the grand ring of the Winterberg mountains on the northern horizon, I couldn’t blame him for not wanting to give up this Eden.

An amphitheatre of mountains.

Maqoma Route, eastern cape, south africa

I hadn’t known there was a heritage route named after the great chief, and had just tagged along for a fun outing with my friend Dennis Walters. As a civil engineer, his interest in military history centres around checking out what the royal engineers managed to accomplish in the field.

Fort Armstrong is a fine example of military men battling with grassroots reality. A superbly chosen site, atop a high peninsula surrounded on three sides by a loop of the Kat River, it has sweeping views of the surrounding landscape, including the nearby R67 north of Fort Beaufort.

“It’s very strategic. The narrow neck of land we drove down could be defended easily when the Xhosa impis descended from the forests in the Winterberg,” pointed out Dennis. “When Sir George Napier [Governor of the Cape] visited it, he told the commanding officer, ‘Why, Captain Armstrong, you have got a little Gibralter here’.”

The thick stone walls were built in 1837 and replaced the early wattle and daub thatched huts that characterised many of the early British ‘fortifications’. Apart from the lookout tower in the south-east corner of the fort, little remains of this feat of military engineering.

“Rebels from the Kat River settlement took the fort in 1851 and occupied it for a month,” said Dennis, who’d done his research before setting out. “There were quite a few casualties when the British retook it a month later, but their howitzer shells demolished much of the fort.”

We left the settlement of nearby Balfour and continued our adventure down a road we’d been warned not to take. Dennis’ sedan bounced from one pothole to the next as we headed in the direction of Retief’s Post, another of the Brits’ strategic fortifications, and passed a sign announcing ‘Maqoma’s Great Place’ in a lovely setting ringed by a natural amphitheatre of mountains.

100-year struggle

Maqoma Route, Eastern Cape

Ntsiki Dyakopu of Amathole Museum with the printing press on which the first Xhosa bible was printed.

Just north of Mpofu Nature Reserve, we toiled up a steep pass through the Winterberg mountains to reach Retief’s Post, right beside what was once the main route to Queenstown, known as the Queen’s Road.

It’s in a far better state than Fort Armstrong. Buildings such as the stables have walls and a roof and are used to shelter stock during winter snows. The old officers’ quarters still boast doors and windows to keep the draughts away from the large fireplaces in each room of this mountain sanctuary.

Intrigued, I wanted to know more about the Maqoma Route and found some answers in the Fort Beaufort Historical Museum. The route covers dozens of sites in the Eastern Cape’s Amathole region that tell the tale of the 100-year struggle for land on the old Eastern Cape frontier, where the Xhosa fiercely resisted colonial forces, and Christian missionaries preached the word of God.

It’s one of a number of routes named after Xhosa chiefs that were launched with fanfare a number of years ago, but are now neglected due to lack of municipal resources. Littered with the remains of British forts, this route is also a place of graves of defiant warriors and scholars, and the more lasting legacy of the Christian missionaries ‒ educational institutions where the seeds of our modern democracy were planted.

Chief Jongumsobomvu Maqoma was the eldest son of King Ngqika and fought in three of the Frontier Wars, also known as the ‘wars of land dispossession’. The eighth, from 1850 to 1853, was the longest war fought between the British military machine and any indigenous peoples of Africa, including the Zulus on the better-known KwaZulu-Natal Battlefields Route.
Maqoma is regarded by military historians as a bold and a daring leader, a brilliant strategist and a master tactician in the field of war. His guerrilla tactics of ambush and hit-and-run rendered the British cannons ineffective.

“Maqoma and his half-brother Sandile were the last of the warrior chiefs resisting colonialism on the Eastern Cape frontier,” Trevor Webster, a member of the Fort Beaufort Museum board, told me. “After them, it was the mission-educated elite who led the struggle.”

The heart of Healdtown

Maqoma Route, Eastrn Cape

Trevor Webster, member of the Fort Beaufort Museum board, grew up at Healdtown where his parents were teachers.

We were standing on the campus of Healdtown, the mission station outside Fort Beaufort renowned for educating generations of African leaders. “My mother taught Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe Latin and English in that classroom over there, and my father taught science in the block opposite,” said Trevor, who grew up at the Methodist mission.

Sadly, the dining room is now just a shell, the foundation stone half-buried in rubble and leaves. This is where, in his Long Walk to Freedom autobiography, our first democratically elected president recalls the lasting impression made when a visiting imbongi (praise singer) urged the students to not forget their indigenous values and traditions. “The students received a liberal education here,” said Trevor.

However, a government project to renovate the campus is underway and the Eagle building now stands proud. “On a Sunday, the band used to march up the pepper-tree avenue to fetch the girls for assembly on the parade ground,” explained Trevor. “They walked so proudly, all dressed in white. The principals would stand in front of the Eagle Tower with the chaplain and sing the old national anthem as well as Nkosi Sikelele iAfrika. This is the heart of Healdtown.”

Footsteps of our leaders

Maqoma Route, eastern cape

Lovedale College was its counterpart in Alice. Opened in 1841, the historic Presbyterian mission school is now a bustling TVET college campus. In 1905, it donated land for the formation of Fort Hare University, the first university open to students of all colours, transforming the site of the old British military fort, built in 1846, into an institution of higher learning that was to produce generations of African leaders ‒ Prof ZK Matthews, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Mangosuthu Buthelezi and, more recently, Chris Hani and Barney Pityana.

“These institutions were the cradle of learning, where students imbibed the democratic values that our country’s modern constitution is based on,” said Trevor, before sending me off to visit the campus and walk in the footsteps of our leaders.
At the De Beers Centenary Gallery, an excellent display on the history of Fort Hare University and its famous alumni absorbed me. I was impressed that it admitted women right from the start, whereas Oxford University in the UK only started admitting women in 1920. During the apartheid years, getting expelled from Fort Hare became a rite of passage for political activists, and many of the 156 treason trialists in 1956 were Fort Hare graduates.

In King William’s Town, I visited another significant site on the Maqoma Route. The Missionary Museum, in a beautiful, old, stone church, is a tribute to the various missionary societies who preached love in the middle of war, and houses the press that the first complete isiXhosa Bible was printed on in 1859. Curator Stephanie Victor says it’s still in working order.
In King William’s Town I met Zanda Madikiza of Joyride Adventures and Tours, to visit Ntaba kaNdoda, off the R352 to Keiskammahoek. A mountain sacred to the Xhosa, it was one of their strongholds during the frontier wars.

A tourist hub

Maqoma Route, statue

The striking statue of warrior Chief Jongumsobomvu Maqoma is the creation of sculptor Mzi Makhalima.

As we approached the top, a towering edifice loomed. “It’s a monument built by Chief Lennox Sebe in 1981, when the Ciskei was still an apartheid homeland. He used to hold big indabas here,” explained Zanda. The neglected monument is now missing its domed roof and is carpeted with dung left by local cattle.

But in January this year, it was once again the scene of festivities when a statue of Chief Maqoma was unveiled here, the first step in a heritage programme to recognise chiefs who fell in the struggle against colonisation. “The Deputy Minister of Arts and Culture, Maggie Sotyu, unveiled the statue and said they intended declaring Ntaba kaNdoda a national heritage site. It will become a tourist hub,” said Zanda.

Chief Maqoma’s grave is in a secluded spot nearby but may only be visited by men. After the Eighth Frontier War, he was imprisoned twice on Robben Island, died there in 1873 and was buried in an unmarked grave. “A seer from Ugie, Nomantombi Charity Sonandi, helped identify his remains on the island, and Chief Maqoma was reburied here with full military honours by Sebe’s government in 1978,” said Zanda. “When you talk about land, there’s no way you cannot talk about Maqoma. This is the area he defended against the British, right through to Fort Beaufort.”

Leading me along a path to the edge of the cliff, Zanda showed me the site where Chief Maqoma had his camp. The outlines of huts were still visible, but my eyes were drawn to the magnificent view of the green Keiskamma River valley framed by purple mountains on the horizon. It’s a view that makes you fall in love with this land all over again, a view that inspired Chief Maqoma to keep fighting for all he held dear. Literally, a view to die for.

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