Original Research

Resistance and survival: Demolishing myths of disappearing people, minor chiefs and non-existent boundaries in the early 19th century Zuurveld of the Cape Colony

Julia C. Wells
New Contree | Vol 84 | a38 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/nc.v84i0.38 | © 2023 Julia C. Wells | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 26 January 2023 | Published: 30 July 2020

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Julia C. Wells, Rhodes University, South Africa

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Starting with fragments of information from the archives about a rebellious young man designated a “Ghona [Xhosa]” in 1820, the study constructed a plausible biography to be used in a dance performance. This uncovered several myths and omissions in historical writings about the western part of the historic “Zuurveld” area of today’s Eastern Cape. While many writers pronounced the Gonaqua to have disappeared from about 1750, they remained visible as a special category of versatile and innovative people at least through the 1850s. The imiDange Xhosa chiefs of this era were in the forefront of defending African interests against colonial encroachment, as occupants over a fifty-year period of the land north, south and west of the Fish River. The geographical location of the imiDange meant their fate was intimately linked to the colonial designation of the Fish River as a boundary between white and black. Their consistent role as resisters has been marginalised in historical writing, especially the strong defence they made in the Zuurberg mountains in the war of 1812. They challenged colonial practices not only militarily but also by trying to define the terms and conditions of labour relations. The disregard of boundaries reveals the complex dynamics of the contested frontier zone of encounter between Europeans and Africans prior to the defeat of the amaXhosa in late 1819. The study demonstrates the gains made by asking personal questions about marginal historic figures.


Zuurveld; Colonial boundaries; Gonaqua; imiDange; amaXhosa; Fish River; Women captives; Robben Island


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