The Story of Ngangelizwe the abaThembu wife-beater & his father-in-law, Sarhili of the Gcaleka Xhosa, & how he came to cede his territory to the British
Sarhili’s daughter, Novili, was Ngangelizwe’s Great wife and his brutal behaviour towards her caused a war, after she had fled to her father covered in wounds. The incident was viewed as an insult to the Xhosa as a whole and Sarhili (King of the Gcaleka Xhosa) began preparing for war against the abaThembu. Ngangelizwe hurriedly approached the British for help, but they advised him to pay cattle as compensation. Sarhili was not satisfied and invaded Thembuland. Ngangelizwe dressed his soldiers in western clothing, and, not to be outdone, so did Sarhili. (Despite having said previously “I can’t stand the smell of the dressed native’ – as he felt they seldom washed their clothes and became unbearably stinky.) Within 3 weeks every trading store in his territory was sold out! Sarhili’s forces totally routed the Thembu, winning not only the style war but also the military one: ‘Babaleka barazuka imisintsila,’ the Xhosa said of their enemies: ‘They ran so hard they broke their coccyx.’ Ngangelizwe himself reportedly fled in the most undignified manner, tearing off his trousers so that he could run faster. He sought sanctuary at Clarkebury mission, where he hid out in the kitchen, and offered to cede his whole territory unconditionally to the British in exchange for their protection, but, at the vehement objection of his counsellors, settled for a truce instead. It was probably in remembrance of this affair that Sarhili named one of his sons, Bulukwe (‘Trousers’).
Ngangelizwe had married Novili in May 1866, a year after her father, Sarhili’s, return from exile in Bomvanaland, where he had fled following the cattle-killing. Ngangelizwe had been circumcised 3 years before, and had only recently become king. Unusual as it was to take a Great Wife so early, this may have been necessitated by the recent political hot potato of a failed marriage arrangement between Ngangelizwe and Emma, the daughter of Sandile. A Christian schooled in Cape Town, she expected the marriage to be monogamous – which Ngangelizwe’s people wouldn’t let him agree to, despite his protests. On the surface, Ngangelizwe was a very attractive man – 6 feet tall, with a beautiful body, a smooth pleasant countenance, and a sweet, charming voice. Usually mild mannered, he was, however, subject to fits of ungovernable rage, linked to his alcoholism. He is said to have ordered regular killings, and is remembered as a man of ‘savage disposition’ – something his wives appear to have borne the brunt of. In May 1875, he beat one so badly that she was forced to take refuge with her brother, Daliso, where she subsequently died of her wounds. His assault in 1870 on his Great Wife, Novili, had left her with severe injuries; a British official who met her shortly afterwards said ‘pieces of bone were coming away through a wound in her injured leg.” But she was more concerned about her children than herself, ‘her greatest grief was that, according to the law she cannot see her children who are bound to reside with their father.’ Because of this, Novili returned to her despotic and violent husband. She had a total of 5 children with him, including Dalindyebo, who, as the eldest son of the Great Wife, was heir to the throne.
A few years after the assault that precipitated the war, Ngangelizwe caused another crisis by assaulting one of his concubines, Nongxokozela, who suffered serious injuries, and was killed, on his orders, a few days later. Unfortunately for him, she was a niece of Sarhili, and secret information about what had happened to her soon reached the Xhosa king. Another war seemed imminent; but the British came to his assistance again, and deployed a strong colonial police force to maintain the peace. Consequently Ngangelizwe reopened negotiations with them – and despite his counsellors’ objections – ceded his territory to them in Dec 1875.
• Paraphrase of the longer and very recommended version by: Crampton, Hazel. ‘The Sunburnt Queen’. Johannesburg: Jacana. 2004. Print. p251-254 Contact Sharon Doubell