King Hintsa: The Xhosa Leader Who Was Betrayed, Killed, and Mutilated by the British

King Hintsa, also known as Hintsa kaKhawuta, was the king of the Xhosa Kingdom from 1804-1835. As a formidable leader, Hintsa stood resolutely against the encroachment of British colonial forces who aimed to annex his kingdom.

King Hintsa: The Xhosa Leader Who Was Betrayed, Killed, and Mutilated by the British

Hintsa ka Khawuta, also known as Great or King Hintsa, was a remarkable figure in the history of the Xhosa people. Born in 1780, he ascended to the throne in 1804 and ruled as the king of the Xhosa Kingdom until 1835.

Under Hintsa’s leadership, the Xhosa Kingdom flourished and stood as one of the most formidable kingdoms in Africa, boasting arguably the largest army in Southern Africa at the time. However, his reign was marred by internal struggles, such as civil wars between chiefs, invasions by refugee tribes from neighboring lands, and conflicts with the Cape Colony and the British, which ultimately led to the Sixth Frontier War.

The Sixth Frontier War

The pivotal event that ignited the Sixth Frontier War, also known as the Hintsa War, was the killing of a Xhosa chief of high rank by a commando party from the Cape government. This act of aggression deeply angered the Xhosa people, leading to an army of 10,000 men, led by Rharhabe chief Maqoma, launching an assault on the Cape Colony. They pillaged and burned homesteads, and those who resisted were mercilessly killed. Eventually, the British sent troops to halt their advance. These conflicts were characterized by brutal fighting, resulting in heavy casualties on both sides.

After months of fighting, the British troops, led by Sir Harry Smith and Sir Benjamin d’Urban, realized that their campaign had stretched on for too long and risked damaging their reputation back in Britain. They sought Hintsa’s assistance in attacking the Rharhabe chiefs, hoping to bolster their offensive. Initially, Hintsa offered 1,000 men, but as time passed, it became evident that he was not willing to betray his fellow Xhosa leaders. This became an excuse for d’Urban to declare war on Hintsa.

British governor Sir Benjamin d’Urban confronted King Hintsa with a substantial army, holding him responsible for the attacks on the Cape Colony due to his position as the paramount chief of the entire Xhosa nation and his authority over all Xhosa chiefdoms. However, instead of escalating the conflict, Hintsa chose to engage in peace talks with the British.

In May 1835, Hintsa, accompanied by British soldiers led by Governor Harry Smith, engaged in peace negotiations. Initially promised personal safety, Hintsa met with the governor of the Cape. During the negotiations, the governor demanded that Hintsa order his chiefs to surrender. The British also put forward substantial demands, including the annexation of Xhosa lands and the return of all cattle that had been taken from the Xhosas. Additionally, they requested 50,000 additional cattle as compensation for the war.

King Hintsa’s response to the British demands revealed his deep concern for the well-being of his people. He raised important questions regarding the necessity of depriving his subjects of their cattle and the underlying motives behind such a demand. As the negotiations unfolded, Hintsa gradually realized that the British had deceived him, and their intention was to hold him captive until their terms were fulfilled.

On May 12, 1835, while riding as a prisoner guarded by British soldiers, King Hintsa made a desperate attempt to escape. Tragically, he was shot and killed. The soldiers further desecrated his body by stripping him of his ornaments, beads, and bracelets. They also took his two ears and extracted some of his teeth. There are also persistent rumors suggesting that, as a final act of indignity, the British decapitated King Hintsa and sent his head to Britain as a macabre trophy.

One Captain William Gilfillan expressed in his diary, on the day King Hintsa was killed, his regret that some of his colleagues had allowed “their insatiable thirst for possessing a relic of such a great man to overpower their humanity and sense of compassion, which teaches us not to mistreat a defeated enemy.”

The killing of King Hintsa and the mutilation of his body was seen as a great insult by the Xhosa people. King Hintsa’s death became a rallying cry for the Xhosa people, who after burying him, continued to fight against the British.

Despite their efforts, the Xhosa people were ultimately unable to prevent the British from annexing their territory and establishing colonial rule.

Today, Hintsa’s memory lives on as a reminder of the immense sacrifices made by indigenous leaders who dared to resist the encroachment of foreign powers.

Uzonna Anele
Uzonna Anele
Anele is a web developer and a Pan-Africanist who believes bad leadership is the only thing keeping Africa from taking its rightful place in the modern world.

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