Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

The Great Witch Doctor

Ever since white people first came to South Africa there had been wars with the natives, for as the farms of the white people spread themselves out more and more they forced the natives away from the land which had been theirs, and very naturally the natives were angry. As the black people were not strong enough to drive these white strangers out, they stole their cattle and ruined their houses whenever they had a chance. To prevent this, forts were built along the line which divided the land claimed by the white people from the land of the black people. But in spite of that, robbery, plunder, and destruction were frequent.

The Kaffir braves were very swift and silent. In the dead of night they would creep down from their mountains. Stealthily they would surround some farm-house, and in the darkness drive off all the cattle. So noiselessly did they come and go that often the farmer and his family slept peacefully, knowing nothing of their loss until in the morning they would find their cattle-pens empty.

Besides robbing and plundering the farmers, the Kaffirs often fought among themselves, adding thus to the unrest and confusion of the land. The British kept out of these quarrels as much as they could, but at last there came a time when that seemed no longer possible.

There were two great rival chiefs named Gaika and Ndlambe, and between them a bitter feud arose. Ndlambe defeated Gaika, and he fled to the British begging for help. Gaika had been acknowledged by the British as the head of the Kaffir tribes, and he had always seemed friendly, whereas Ndlambe had always been unfriendly. The quarrel between them had nothing whatever to do with the British, yet the governor thought that he must help Gaika.

So a British officer and some soldiers were sent to help the Kaffir chief. Ndlambe's land was overrun and many villages destroyed. Then Gaika's joy at being able so easily to punish his enemies knew no bounds. He and his men revelled in blood, and did such deeds of cruelty that the British officer, feeling that he could no longer fight for savages, marched away leaving Ndlambe only half-subdued.

As soon as Ndlambe saw his enemy deserted by his white friends he once more took courage, and, gathering his braves, utterly defeated Gaika. Then his wild hordes poured like a torrent into the colony, burning houses, plundering farms, and murdering both white men and natives. On and on they came, destroying all in their path until the dark masses swarmed round the town of Grahamstown. It was the first and only time that the Kaffirs ever dared to attack the white man in his town. But Ndlambe's men were full of a wild and boundless courage, for they were led on by a wonderful medicine man or witch doctor called Makana.

Makana had sent messages through all the land, calling on all true Kaffirs to join in sweeping the British into the sea. He promised sure victory to those who fought, and threatened those who held back with the anger and revenge of the Great Spirit. The Kaffirs believed Makana to be a mighty prophet, and so they thronged to fight for him.

The burghers too gathered to defend their town. But within the walls there were scarce three hundred men, and without there swarmed nine thousand savage warriors.

At daybreak Makana gathered his men, and spoke to them in stirring words. "The spirits of the earth, the spirits of the air will fight for us," he cried. "The fire of the white man can avail naught against us. To battle! to battle! Fight till we drive him into the sea from whence he came."

Then with awful war-cries, sure of victory, mad for blood, the dark host poured upon the town.

But the white men were ready. Their guns rang out, their cannon roared, shells ploughed their way through the dark charging masses, and laid hundreds dead upon the ground. But nothing made them pause. Leaping over their dead and dying comrades, the savages came on right up to the British guns. It became a hand-to-hand fight.

The Kaffirs were armed only with assagais, as the native spears were called. They were protected only by skin-covered shields, which against shot and shell were useless. Man after man went down, till at last their savage courage was quelled. Those in front wavered and fell back. The whole army was thrown into wild confusion and fled, leaving a thousand dead upon the field. On the British side only three were killed.

After this daring attack upon the white man a British force marched into Ndlambe's country. Thousands of cattle were seized, villages were destroyed, his followers scattered far and wide, and Ndlambe's power utterly broken.

Then seeing the misery that had come upon his people, Makana did a noble thing. One morning, unknown to his followers, he marched alone into the British camp. "I am told that it was I who caused the war," he said. "I have come to see if by giving myself up I may bring peace to my country."

And thus the war was ended.

Makana was sent a prisoner to Robben Island. In less than a year, however, he grew weary of restraint, and he tried to escape in a fishing-boat. But the boat was upset and Makana was drowned. When the people were told that their prophet was dead, they would not believe it, so great was their faith in him. "He will come again," they said; "he will surely come again to lead us to victory as he promised." So they carefully kept his spears, bracelets, and sleeping mat. But young men grew white-haired, and old men died, and still Makana did not come. Yet a few hoped always. Old men told stories to their children of the great witch doctor who had done such wonderful deeds, and who would one day appear again. But at last even the most hopeful lost hope, and little more than thirty years ago, his spears and all that belonged to him were buried.

Before the war with Makana, the boundary of the colony had been the Great Fish River. After it the Kaffirs were driven farther back beyond the Keiskama River. But an agreement was made that between the two rivers no one, either white or black, should settle. In this way it was hoped to keep a barrier of deserted land between the colony and the natives. But this was soon found to be a very bad arrangement. It became a hiding-place for wild hordes of plundering natives. After a time both natives and white people broke the agreement and settled in the "ceded country" as it was called.

Makana's Gathering

Wake! Amakosa wake!

And arm yourselves for war,

As coming winds the forests shake,

I hear a sound from far:

It is not thunder in the sky,

Nor lion's roar upon the hill,

But the voice of him who sits on high,

And bids me speak his will.

He bids me call you forth,

Bold sons of Kahabee,

To sweep the white man from the earth,

And drive them to the sea:

The sea, that heaved them up at first,

For Amakosa's curse and bane,

Howls for the progeny she nurst,

To swallow them again.

Then come, ye chieftains bold,

With war-plumes waving high;

Come every warrior, young and old,

With club and assagai.

Remember how the spoiler's host

Did through our land like locusts range.

Your herds, your wives, your comrades lost—

Remember—and revenge!

Fling your broad shields away—

Bootless against such foes;

But hand to hand we'll fight to-day

And with their bayonets close.

Grasp each man short his stabbing spear

And, when to battle's edge we come,

Rush on their ranks in full career,

And to their hearts strike home.

Thomas Pringle

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