1800-1859 | Burning crops | Burning villages | Livestock targeted | Media propaganda | South Africa | Starvation campaigns

Starvation used as a weapon of war against the Xhosa

Original caption  - 'Cape Mounted Rifles attacking kaffirs,' The Illustrated London News, 27 September 1851, p. 389.
Original caption – ‘Cape Mounted Rifles attacking kaffirs,’ The Illustrated London News, 27 September 1851, p. 389.

26 January 1852

On 26 January 1852, seven columns of British colonial troops were advancing into the Amatola mountains on the eastern fringes of Cape Colony in what is today South Africa, systematically burning all the crops and settlements belonging to the Xhosa people, and seizing their goats, cattle and horses.  Colonial newspapers covered the campaign, which had been carefully calculated to inflict misery and starvation on the Xhosa, with unequivocal enthusiasm. The Cape Monitor reported that ‘Colonel Michel was proceeding most industriously throughout the valley of Lenya, whilst Lieutenant Colonel Eyre with his accustomed energy, desolated the Keiskamna Hoek,’ adding that ‘an immense number of kraals (villages) were burned.’1

Similarly, the London Evening Standard noted that ‘the kaffirs ( a derogatory term used to describe black people ) had shown but little resistance’ and that Major Kyle is ‘carrying out very effectually his instructions in the country of Seyolo, Stock, Tola and Zazini, where the crops are very extensive,’  and that elsewhere ‘upwards of 700 head of fine cattle have been captured… and a great quantity of cultivation, part of it in the midst of dense bush, destroyed.’2 The article did not, however, mention the hanging of Xhosa men from trees or the boiling down of their skulls as souvenirs or for the collections of phrenologists.3

As early as February, the Cape Monitor was enthusing that ‘we find that the enemy is already much dispirited.’ However, it warned against any premature pause in the killing and destruction, insisting that the Xhosa’s ‘apparent penitence and plaintive measures cannot be entertained; his expulsion from the Amatola (which had been their homeland for hundreds of years ), and complete submission to all terms that may be imposed upon him, must now be accomplished, or fifteen months of war, the expenditure of £2,000,000 in treasure, and the sacrifice of much valuable life will all proven to have been in vain.’4

In December, the London Daily News carried an interview with a prisoner which hints at the appalling suffering inflicted. He seems to have been part of a group of Khoikoi aboriginal rebels fighting alongside the Xhosa. He explained that ‘a great many rebel Hottentots (a term then used by the British to describe the Khoikhoi) have been killed, many died from hunger, and others from the heavy snow in the mountains,’ adding that he had ‘lately heard the Hottentots talk of giving themselves up, but they say they are afraid government will kill them.’5


  1. The Cape Monitor cited in ‘The Kaffir War,’ The Cork Advertiser, 10 April 1852 p. 3.
  2. The London Evening Standard, 6 April 1852, p. 4.
  3. Richard Gott, Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt, Verso, London, 2011, p. 407.
  4. The Cape Monitor cited in ‘The Kaffir War,’ The Cork Advertiser, 10 April 1852 p. 3.
  5. Statement made by ‘Kobus Mattross, at King William’s Town, 3 November 1852 and cited in The London Daily News, 27 December 1852, p. 5.

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