The Story of Stories: The Siege of Mugombane

ResearchBlogging.orgI think of her now as the Tea Lady, because she was drinking tea when I met her and had an English accent to go along with her English colonial outfit. She was one of the first native white South Africans I had met on my very first trip to that country. And now the Tea Lady, who was in fact a volunteer for the local historical society of a small town a couple hours drive north of Pretoria, was chugging her way up this steep, gravelly mountain path with the rest of us trailing behind gasping for breath.


This is the view looking up the Mwaridzi Valley from the eastern
entrance of Historic Cave. Photograph kindly provided by Dr. Amanda Esterhuysen.

Behind us, back beyond the tea, was The Limeworks, an old fertilizer mine that has yielded a respectable number of australopithecine (early human ancestor) remains. Off to our left, as I followed the tea lady and was, in turn, followed by my flock of tourists (I was leading an ecotourist-educational trip to South Africa), was the Cave of Hearths. Cave of Hearths is said by some to be one of the longest occupied archaeological sites in the world (second longest, to be exact) with artifacts dating from the Oldowan to much more recent times representing a ‘continuous’ (in paleolithic terms) use by humans for perhaps 1.5 million years or so.

All around us were hills defining a set of very pretty semi-arid valleys. These are dolomite hills, made of very ancient limestone formed in a great sea, and subsequently uplifted and eroded. There are caves, dissolved into the rock by groundwater and exposed here and there on the surface, all over the place in these valleys. Cave of Hearths is not a very good example of these caves. It is really more of a ‘rockshelter’ (as we archaeologists call it) but in former times was certainly a much more enclosed feature.

Finally, with a lot of huffing and puffing and after a few breaks, we reached a ridge that led to the cave we were hiking to. This was a cave that, it would turn out, had an archaeological presence resulting from just a few weeks of human occupation. This cave had a story.

This post is about stories, who tells them, what they consist of, and why they are the way the are. I was told a particular story by our gracious guide while visiting what was then called “Makapan’s Cave,” and I was surprised to hear that story at the time. I heard the story again just the other day in the form of a two peer reviewed research articles and a thesis (and a few emails to the author), and again, there were surprises. In both cases, the stories are exactly the same at some levels, yet the context and some very important details had utterly changed.

On this visit to “Makapnsgat” (Makapan is a person’s name, the “gat” at the end makes it “Makapan’s Cave”) I was leading a human origins trip all around South Africa for Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ). The trip had actually been designed by Nils Eldridge at the American Museum of Natural History, but as I recall was removed from the AMNH’s repertoire of educational tourism. So Harvard got the trip and offered it. This stop, Makapan, was on the tour because of the afore mentioned Limeworks, but for some reason that site was off limits to us on this visit, so instead we were being shown the backup site, Makapan’s cave.

So here is the story I heard from the Tea Lady while standing in the cave. In the 19th century, there was a band of Zulu people lead by Chief Makapan who were in revolt against the white government of the region. This group eventually took up residence in this cave, and (with the guide pointing to nearby hills) the white soldiers set up artillery and effected a siege of the cave for several days. Eventually, while a few escaped, all three thousand people in the cave died of starvation. People have argued since if it was thirst or starvation, but a scientist at a South African university proved that it would more likely have been starvation than thirst because there was plenty of water seepage along the walls of the cave.

The bones of the dead were eventually gathered up by local farmers and used as fertilizer.

This trip was a couple of years after the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, the change of government in South Africa, and the departure of the Apartheid government. (I would never have been there before that change, though I had several opportunities). The history of South Africa from the time of the early European colonial activities to the 20th century is as complex a history of any nation that I have ever studied, and this trip was not about that … it was about the Paleolithic and beyond, backwards in time. So, no one was prepared to put this story in context, and it literally floated around in the minds of the tourists as a horrific story unanchored to any other historical or social reference point. We all had a very basic introduction to South African history, but this was the tourist version available in simple references written before the end of the Apartheid era and hastily modified to fit, somewhat, changing political and increasingly critical modes of analysis.

This does not mean that we couldn’t have known more about this time period, we just didn’t because we were busy knowing and learning and investigating other stuff. So we listened to the story, felt the horror, but did not understand much, and then went on to our next visit, which was actually a game park.

Now, the more recent story emerges. Dr Amanda Esterhuysen, a senior lecturer at Wittswaterstrand University, is just now coming out with this paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Human skeletal and mummified remains from the AD1854 siege of Mugombane, Limpopo South Africa. The first thing you may notice is the name of the place and the person. The chief is called Mugombane. He was a chief of the Kekana chiefdom, a subset of the Ndebele people. The Ndebele culture is akin, historically, to the Zulu, and many of the people who live in the Pretoria region and northward identify as such and consider this region to be their homeland.

Here is the story, in abstract form, as related by Dr. Esterhuysen:

In 1854 Chief Mugombane and members of his Kekana Ndebele chiefdom took refuge in what is now known as Historic Cave, in the Makapan Valley, South Africa. The chiefdom retreated into the cave following an attack on a party of Trekboers. The subsequent siege of the cave, which lasted just under a month, ended in the death and surrender of its occupants and their dispersal among the Trekboers and their African auxiliaries. However, the number of people and the composition of the group that hid in the cave, as well as factors that led to the demise of the Kekana became blurred in the various renderings of the historical event. During the 1980s researchers began to cast doubt on the original Trekboer documents and the magnitude of the event when it became apparent that the Kekana oral histories remained silent on the matter. Between 2001 and 2007 the material remains of the siege were excavated to provide new data from which to judge the scale and impact of the siege event. Human remains, the primary focus of this paper, afford this perspective. This paper provides the result of the analysis of the human remains excavated from the cave, as well as an account of those remains that have been recorded or are housed in collections. The study of two naturally mummified individuals removed from the caves and stored in collections is also presented.

Let me give you a little context. By the 1850s, white settlers from what is now the Cape, southwest of Makapan on the other edge of the African Continent, had spread out across what is now known as South Africa in a fairly complex pattern. At the frontier of these white settlements there was always an indigenous black culture group, and the relationship between this group and the whites was different every time. But there was a general pattern: The whites intended to take the black’s land, and in so doing sometimes carried out simple acts of warfare, other times took advantage of epidemics or other semi-natural disasters, and enlisted where possible the help, as auxiliaries (mercenaries or allies) various black groups. The non-black indigenous people (“bushmen” or “khoi” as they have been called, but his varies through time and space) were also caught up in this.

Now, my impression is that in modern post Apartheid South Africa there is some attempt to acknowledge some of the horrific realities of this period while at the same time avoiding the vilification of the actors, a kind of truth and reconciliation view of history. Personally, I have a hard time doing this. I have a hard time viewing the activities of most of these whites as they progressed in their takeover … which, by the way, came with a kind of manifest destiny in which these people of European ancestry intended to take over the entire continent … as anything other than oppressive and outrageous. Indeed, this was a view held by many at the time.

Anyway, by the time we get to the 1850s, the political landscape of South Africa is very complex. For the previous decades, Afrikaner (Dutch descendants) known as Trekboers, or traveling farmers, had spread out across vast areas of what is now South Africa, and the English backed government in Cape town had been struggling with defining what parts of the subcontinent would be under their control, slowly following the Trekboers with occasional annexations of large areas, and at other times, drawing this or that line to indicate and often limit the range of their involvement. A lot of this was being played out south of the Vaal River and West of or in the vicinity of modern day Kimberly. But to the east and north, Trekboers were spreading and farming and dividing up the landscape among themselves, and in the process fighting with or forming alliances with the local people. In 1851 and 1852 a series of important meetings, decrees, agreements, etc. occurred that gave the Trekboers some degree of autonomy in certain areas including the location of Makapansgat, and limiting them in the sorts of alliances they were allowed to make with black communities, which they largely ignored.

My impression of the bit of reading I have done of this period is this: The English backed Cape Colony government could not fully control the bellicose and geographically spread out Boers, but wanted to, and in part this was to limit the increasing trade in slaves and ivory in which the Boers were involved. This would have been part of a broader British anti-slavery commitment that also played out (a bit later in time) in the Sudan and elsewhere in East Africa, and that would ultimately culminate in the Anglo-Boer Wars which were, up until World War I, the largest, longest, most intense in terms of human resources and war dead overseas commitment ever made by the British Empire.

Anyway, there were the Trekboers in what would soon be dubbed The South African Republic (North of the Orange Free State and not far from the British Cape Colony) engaged in ivory and slave trading, using local communities as buffers, allies, and agents. If you were not with these whites than you were against them, and as part of this interaction Mugombane’s Kekana Ndebele offered resistance. In 1854 this Kekana community attacked and killed a number of (two or three dozen?) Trekkers within their territory, and knowing that this would not be well received by the Trekboers, retired to the Historic Cave in the Makapan Valley.

Now we come back to the part about stories and how they work. As recounted by Dr. Esterhuysen in her thesis and an article in the Journal of Anthropological Research, the only original source of information about what was to come next … the siege … comes from a member of the white army, and this account is retold over time. During this retelling, various agents increase and decrease the number of black dead. This is done for interesting reasons. At one point one wants the number of Ndebele people to be large so that they are scarier and the attack on them more justified. At other times one wants the number who died in this massacre to be smaller so that it is not such a bad massacre. And so on.

But the strangest thing of all is this: This story, which one would think to be of the same historical and socio-cultural import as, say, 9/11 to Americans, the bombing of London to the British, or Gallipoli to the Australians (to name a few blatantly Western examples) is not part of Kekana Ndebele culture history. They don’t tell the story. They don’t talk about this.

One of Dr. Esterhuysen’s primary objectives in her research (with colleagues) is to understand this apparent enigma.

So there are two main elements to Esterhuysen’s work. First, is to use archaeological, historical, and physical anthropology evidence to calibrate the story itself. Did three thousand people die here, or was it more or less? Or at least, is three thousand a plausible number? There are many details of the original story that could be verified. In the original story, a group of people at one point leave the cave and rush to a nearby stream to drink, and quickly die. This is a sign of death by thirst. But subsequently, it was suggested that the cave had enough water in it. What is the truth? and so on.

The second are of research is to try to use the archeology to understand how such a story can fall out of, or never be incorporated to begin wit, Kekana Ndebele oral history.

This turns out to be pretty complex, and Amanda Esterhuysen actually spent her entire thesis effort when earning her PhD on these question. I would never be able to do justice to this work here. I will tell you that I’ve read quite a bit of her thesis and both of the papers cited below and I am very favorably impressed by the research. In short, with respect to the first question, yes, the story is plausible. The archaeological evidence cannot give anything close to an exact number, but the extrapolation from sampling excavations within the cave indicate a minimum number of 1,700 or so people dying at this location. The story indicates that many, if not most, of the dead ended up outside the cave, shot dead while trying to escape. This tells me that 3,000 is an underestimate but in the ballpark. In the authors’ words:

The analysis of the human remains does however provide support for a number of other elements in [the original] official report:

  • A significant number of men, women and children were trapped inside the cave,
  • the cave was dry, and people probably died of thirst,
  • severely dehydrated individuals who drank too quickly once out of the cave may well have died from heart failure or cerebral odema,
  • the corpses and carcasses were heavily scavenged by a variety of scavengers including dogs,
  • resistance would have dwindled as people became weaker, less coherent and incapable of resisting

We conclude that the evidence of death and suffering conveyed through the human remains cannot and should not be played down. The numbers may have been exaggerated but the tragedy of the siege cannot be denied.

The other question … why this story is not part of Kekana lore or history … is harder to answer, but Esterhuysen manages it. In her paper in the Journal of Anthropological Research, she concludes:

Contrary to prevailing interpretations of this silence,
this paper considers the social and spiritual obligations of the chief towards his subjects and argues that
the impact of the siege was so profound that it rendered the chief of the besieged, Mugombane, socially
and spiritually bankrupt. This situation would have provoked the removal of the chief and the manufacture of a suitable history to give the new chief legitimacy and the chiefdom continuity.

I’m not going to even being to justify to you this conclusion, because it is quite complex and beyond the scope of this humble blog post, but I find it, having read the study, convincing. This is a sad irony. Under externally imposed conditions of holocaust, in a society in which death itself, and the dead and the trappings of death, interfere with corporate spiritual power normally imbued in and foundational to the power of Chief, the power of a Chief and the chiefly lineage itself evaporates as the social group itself dies wholesale. Here, Esterhuysen has revealed a fascinating and important part of Ndebele belief systems, but to be honest, I don’t think this is the first time this sort of thing has been realized. I believe the white Apartheid South African government had at least a vague handle on this sort of thinking, this sort of method to controlling ‘tribal people’ indicated by a propensity to attack the cultural and spiritual core of groups such as the Venda (not far from Makapan) by adulteration of sacred locations or ceremonies. But that’s another story.

A ESTERHUYSEN (2008). Divining the siege of Mugombane Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 27 (4), 461-474 DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2008.08.001

A ESTERHUYSEN, V SANDERS, J SMITH (2008). Human skeletal and mummified remains from the AD1854 siege of Mugombane, Limpopo South Africa Journal of Archaeological Science DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2008.12.006

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0 thoughts on “The Story of Stories: The Siege of Mugombane

  1. Fantastic & fascinating post, thanks…

    A couple of things: “gat” literally means “hole” in Afrikaans so -gat doesn’t necessarily make something a cave (but it often does). Much more importantly, while you acknowledge South Africa’s history is exceedingly complex, I suspect some of your analysis is a bit simplistic. While you’ll get no argument from me that the Voortrekkers behaved oppressively and outrageously, I’m dubious that the British motives were as pure as you paint them to be. One contributing factor to the Boers leaving the Cape in the first place, after all, is discrimination from the British. Also, saying the Anglo-Boer War was about Britain’s anti-slavery commitment seems a touch over done. Britain’s own colonial ambitions (‘Cape-to-Cairo’), the discovery of the world’s largest gold mines and some daft strategic moves by the Boer leaders (Paul Kruger in particular) were far more important in my view.

    (I should emphasize, though, that as an Afrikaner I’m potentially biased and 19th century South African history is certainly not my strong suit).

  2. I suspect some of your analysis is a bit simplistic.


    I’m dubious that the British motives were as pure as you paint them to be.

    Most of the time the British motives were explicitly more pure. Indeed, a comparison between the written documents of the time of the various political entitles shows a huge difference between the Afrikaner and British overt policy. But, that was the overt part, and there is no doubt that British individuals as well as various British leaders and institutions were, as you say, not particularly pure. I’m not sure I’m painting them as especially pure in my post, but I’m not really not doing that either.

    There is an often stated argument (by apartheid apologists) that racism in the united states today is exactly like apartheid. Well, there are a million reasons why that is a statement wrought in ignorance, but the most obvious one that could be pointed out to the apartheid apologist is that 1980s US law has nothing whatsoever restricting land ownership, etc. etc, by skin color but S.A. law did. There is a difference between the overt explicitly codification of racism and not doing that.

    The other difference is the intellectual framework for British vs. Afrikaner policy making (and among Afrikaner polities). That difference floored me when I first found out about it, made me want to learn to read Afrikans fluently. (Paul Kruger is indeed a great example of this as well. I mean, the guy really was a flat earther.)

    My mention of the similarity between 19th century British (as in England, really) involvement in S.A. and elsewhere regarding the slave trade is spot on, but what i did not mention is that the same exact combination of motives (Cape to Cairo, various mining interests, trade routes,etc.) are part of this policy everywhere.

  3. I would like to refer you to a book written by by Manfred Nathan published in 1937 called “The Voortrekkers of South Africa”. The clash at Makapan’s gat is described from page 352 onwards.

    Nathan was not a historian or anthropologist, but a lawyer. He practised law and he was a KC. I am sure he applied the usual standards of evidence as required in a court of law before including anything in his book as fact.

    According to him a trekker known as Hermanus Potgieter quarrel with 2 of Mobopane’s sons and during the altercation Potgieter killed 1 of the sons. Nathan’s evaluation of Potgieter as a person is not complimentary and his conduct completely unjustified.

    Potgieter’s family and some other people camped in the vicinity of Mobopane’s homestead. The party consisted of 2 adult males and 21 women and children. During Potgieter’s absence Mobopane took revenge and slaughtered the lot.

    An eye witness, Marthinus Wessel Pretorius saw the remains of the victims about 2 months later and he recorded the following: “I saw it all with my own eyes….The bodies were mostly those of women. One body, that of a tall man, was frightfully mutilated. All his fingers, from the tops of the palms of the hands, were cut open; his head was cut off and the trunk was thrown into the water. Every sort of ill-treatment was applied to the poor victims. In one of kraals melted human fat was found, the hands having been roasted on spits. In addition we found indications of unbridled ferocity which decency prevents me from describing. I naturally cannot say whether the victims endured these barbarities before or after death. This frightful spectacle, which filled my soul with horror, induced in me the fixed resolution to punish the barbarians even if I were to lose my life in consequence.”

    According to Nathan, Hermanus Potgieter himself was murdered in the most brutal fashion on his return. He was skinned alive and his skin was made into a karos.

    M W Pretorius thereafter called his men together and they were responsible for what happened at the caves. Pretorius replisal party consisted of 150 whites and 300 blacks.

    Nathan mentions that the trekkers were often accused by the British authorities of engaging in slave trade, but he expressed the view that this was not true.

  4. Sarie, the standards of evidence for a lawyer are “Whatever they’ll let me include that supports the case I’m trying to make.” It’s nice to think that being a lawyer makes one more credible, but outside their fields…well, look at all the creationism books written by lawyers.

  5. Sarie: Yes, I’m familiar with that account, and Amanda, in her study reported here, carefully analyzes it. Please keep in mind the larger picture of what was going on at this time. It is not fair or accurate to pick up the thread in one spot without examining the cloth the thread is being taken from, and it may be inappropriate to take at face value an account such as the one you’ve related here.

  6. Greg,

    Are you a politician or a scientist?

    What reference do you have that the Trekkers were involved in the slave trade?

    From what I have read, these Pioneers were simple but God fearing people. They had to survive the pressures of living in the African bush, pushed by the English in the south and opposed by the black tribes in the north.

    In my view they are being unjustly vilified by you.



  7. Greg,

    Are you a politician or a scientist?

    What reference do you have that the Trekkers were involved in the slave trade?

    From what I have read, these Pioneers were simple but God fearing people. They had to survive the pressures of living in the African bush, pushed by the English in the south and opposed by the black tribes in the north.

    In my view they are being unjustly vilified by you.



  8. Greg,

    Are you a politician or a scientist?

    What reference do you have that the Trekkers were involved in the slave trade?

    From what I have read, these Pioneers were simple but God fearing people. They had to survive the pressures of living in the African bush, pushed by the English in the south and opposed by the black tribes in the north.

    In my view they are being unjustly vilified by you.



  9. Jaco, must scientists stay away from politics? Should we not be allowed to look scientifically at political questions? In other words, think about what you’re saying.

    You might also want to think very hard about any source that calls the Trekboers “pioneers.” Pioneers are the first people to do something. Any source that calls people talking over populated land “pioneers” is displaying a significant bias against treating the natives as people.

    That’s obviously the case here as well. It took very little effort on my part to find out that the Trekboers traveled with slaves. This makes them part of the industry, even if slavery was not a primary industry for them.


  11. Hi everyone, thank you so much for the very interesting blog… It may sound weird but Im currently doing my semester essay for South African history on the seige of Makapans Cave asnd this is one of 3 out of a possible 90+ results that turned up in my search index… I really appreciate the extra information as it has given me a great starting point for information. I will definetly research everything mentioned and then post back and let you know what I found.

  12. Simple fact of the matter is that history is written by the winner… At this time in our worlds history, and before, people took what they could and what they wanted by force, and that made it theirs. Now the Voortrekkers were pioneers, as someone stated, “Pioneers are the first people to do something,” Well they were the first white people to move into the interior of South Africa, ie. doing something first. The fact of the matter is blacks killed whites, whites killed blacks, I’m not saying in that particular order, and then the opposite parties exacted revenge apon them. Innocents were killed on either side too, in a brutal manner. This is just one form of this history that you can draw from, one should not take this as the be all and end all of history as we know it, One must draw from many sources to be able to formulate their own opinion and more often than not their own idea of history is to either side of what the actual truth is. I myself for example have read both of the sources listed here and suggest to all of the readers here further reading in ACADEMIC Journals and published books, preferably academic journals. On a closing note, I would like to thank the author for his writings as I have found them interesting, to the others who have commented, thank you for your input, finally, word for the day, Conquest. By the way Arianne I’m doing the same essay as you.

  13. “This would have been part of a broader British anti-slavery commitment that also played out (a bit later in time) in the Sudan and elsewhere in East Africa, and that would ultimately culminate in the Anglo-Boer Wars which were, up until World War I, the largest, longest, most intense in terms of human resources and war dead overseas commitment ever made by the British Empire.”

    Yes, one might call sending out an army armed with gatlings, to mow down the locals or avenge the death of an English general as an “anti-slavery commitment”, however Newbolt certainly made no mention Her empire’s noble cause in Vitaï Lampada and neither should we.

    Too suggest the Anglo-Boer wars were about slavery is naive — you only have to look at the crown jewels. The only reason the British made such a commitment was that they got such a hiding. They got taught lessons in fieldcraft and marksmanship, lessons which they failed to learn going into WWI & II, if we are to believe the likes of Field-Marshall Wavell. Eventually it took Kitchener, fresh from Afghanistan, to implement his system of concentration camps — for which the Afghan’s still hate him, however Afrikaners remain alot more ambivalent and philosophical.

    For the closest correlation to an apartheid system in a western democracy you need look no further than Northern Ireland. The Catholic Human Rights demonstrators of ’69, were treated to internment – detention without trial, an oppressive minority occupying force, curfews, state sanctioned executions against citizens. This continued into the eighties, at a time when Apartheid was being denounced by the UK. There has still been no TRC or even regret on the part of the UK government.

    It is clear from Chief B. Mokhonoana’s comments that an oral history for this event does exist, and has in this instance been overlooked in Esterhuysen’s paper, sadly. As to the veracity of that history well …

    Stephanie Z writes “The standards of evidence for a lawyer are “Whatever they’ll let me include that supports the case I’m trying to make.” I can think of many open minded lawyers who are more interested in truth and the facts, and would use there powers for this pursuit. These may in fact be of the ilk who might write, dare I say it those “creationism books”.

    Far be it from this commentator to cast aspersions on ones fore fathers both black, white and in between, even in the last 15 years our world has changed radically particularly in how we view it, to judge those who lived 200 years ago both black and white is very much to throw stones at glass houses.

  14. i am from south africa. some of my lineage stems from the Kekana people. i recall that when i was fifteen i asked my grandmother about the history of the Ndebele. where they came from and the like. even when she was telling me she was very secretive and withheld some of the history and i understand why. the african people are very secretive in their tradition n cultures, to parade ourselves and our origins by giving it away to other nations is seen as taboo. we seldom do it. i know the full history of what happened at the caves of Mokopane, but like my grandma i cannot tell, i would be betraying her and my people, dat is how i see it. it is the history of my people and we will keep it in our circles. the westerners have their version, let us keep ours. whichever one is true. i like and agree with what one of the comments said. history does belong to the winner.

  15. In 1841 the Voortrekkers in Natal complained about the “scandalous and inhuman acts of slavery” by Andries Hendrik Potgieter and his followers in the Transvaal. He captured black children and sold them as slaves in Lourenco Margues. The governor of Mozambique, d’Abreu de Lima wrote on 31 August 1844:”Potgieter arrived with 300 slaves and ivory.” Field-cornet AJ de Lange complaned on 25 August 1847 that Potgieter attacked the peaceful chief Mapela and he killed as many blacks as he could.

    Hermanus Potgieter was extremely cruel to wards blacks. He captured their cattle and kidnapped their children as “inboekelinge”. He also murdered the brother of Makapan. The wagon track from Zoutpansberg was the main route for ivory as well as “black Ivory” or child slaves. The amaNdebele chiefs took revenge and murdered 23 Boers near the track in 1854. The Boers took revenge and starved some 900 amaNedebele to death in Makapans Cave in October-November 1854. THIS IS THE TRUTH.

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