Charles V. Reed
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Chief Sandile encounters the British Empire


In the winter of 1860, Queen Victoria’s second son Prince Alfred embarked on a grand tour of British South Africa. When Sir George Grey, the Governor of the Cape Colony, invited Alfred to the Cape earlier in the year, his parents Victoria and Albert saw an opportunity to combine ‘his professional studies as an Officer in H.M. Fleet’ with the ‘acquirement of such knowledge of Foreign Countries as he may have opportunities of obtaining’.1 George Grey had his own objectives in mind for the tour, which he used to push through funding of a Table Bay breakwater against the opposition of Eastern Cape legislators and to campaign for the extension of British sovereignty in southern Africa. One of the most celebrated encounters of the visit, between Alfred and the Xhosa chief Sandile, was planned by Grey to display the wondrous effects of British civilisation on a humbled foe and to demonstrate British paramount in South Africa.

The figure of Sandile was used to symbolise the success of colonial native policy and African docility even before Alfred encountered him. In Graham’s Town, Alfred was presented with a transparency of Sandile, ‘in his kaross, holding forth a branch, emblematic of peace, and trampling an assegai under his foot’ at the residence of the missionary W. R. Thompson.2 Sandile and some of his people, accompanied by the Resident Commissioner Charles Brownlee, joined Alfred’s entourage on its way to Queen’s Town. Sandile greeted Alfred, who spent some time interviewing him, although no account of their conversation exists.

When asked by Alfred to go to Cape Town by sea, Sandile’s followers apparently begged him not to go. While this was dismissed by settlers and the press as the childish fears of uneducated people, their concerns were well justified, given the history between the British and the Xhosa chiefs, including Sandile himself.3 King William’s Town Gazette, a settler newspaper, saw the invitation as an opportunity ‘to extend [Sandile’s] knowledge by visiting various parts of the colony ... [and to] witness the [ceremonial] demonstrations made at Cape Town’ ‘where he will behold many thousands assembled to welcome [the prince]’.4 Grey proposed the idea to the Colonial Office by arguing that ‘the good feeling and confidence thus created between the two Races [by Alfred’s visit] should be fully matured’ by having ‘some of the leading Kaffirs’ travel to Cape Town so that they might have ‘an opportunity of becoming tolerably well acquainted with our power, and modes of thought and action’.5 Both Grey and the Gazette understood that exposing Sandile to royal ritual and the modern splendour of Cape Town and London was a means of securing his loyalty and obedience. For them, Sandile was a symbol, representative of British progress and expansion in South Africa.

At the opening of the South African Library and Museum in Cape Town, with the Xhosa chief present, Grey gave a long speech not about the violence and destruction that had characterised Britain’s relationship with men like Sandile but about the glorious possibilities of civilisation and Christianity that awaited southern Africa. According to Grey, Alfred came from an island that represented, when Egyptian civilisation prospered, ‘almost the confines of the habitable earth, and was only peopled by hordes of painted and lawless savages’ ‘slumber[ing] in savage barbarism’.6 Great Britain had risen over the centuries to become ‘the centre of Christianity and civilisation – from that great heart, the ceaseless pulsations of which scatter truth, swarms of industrious emigrants [sic], crowds of traders, and streams of commerce throughout the world’.7 The Britain of the past represented the Africa of the present in the hierarchy of civilisations. In this vein, Grey focused, in particular, on the issue of Western education, of civilising Africans and making them useful to Europeans.

This was the rhetoric of liberal imperialism, of an empire of liberty and free trade rather than one of violence and conquest. The vision of empire also reflects Grey’s ‘native policy’ of cultural assimilation, which he pursued during his tenures as governor in both New Zealand and the Cape Colony. In his own words, the policy of cultural assimilation was designed to ‘induce [indigenous people] to adopt our customs and laws in place of their own, which the system I propose to introduce will gradually undermine and destroy’.8 The processes of converting indigenous people to Christianity and civilisation, through institutions such as Grey’s ‘Kaffir College’ called Zonnebloem, did not so simply represent a civilising mission, whereby well-intentioned British men and women could raise African civilisation as they had their own. It was part and parcel of the broader processes of destruction and neutralisation brought on by decades of frontier wars and millennial movements, such as the Xhosa cattle killing of 1856–57, which helped make such cultural imperialism possible.

In his speech at the museum opening, Grey went on to describe the methods of this enlightenment, through the spatial expansion of European people and culture:

Those who have preceded us here as colonists [presumably the Boers] have done much to lay the foundation for such an attempt; they have already spread over a great extent of territory, large numbers of the coloured races have accepted the doctrines of Christianity and have adopted some of the arts of civilised life, and many others are daily following their example in some respects. But still we are a small and scattered people, with many dangers and enemies around us and in our front.9

The rugged frontier settlers, ‘patient of fatigues and want, self-reliant, and many of them good and pious men’ stood at the vanguard of this mission.10 Grey had his eye on the ‘high plateau [that] exists in the interior of the continent, healthy and habitable for Europeans’.11 The progress represented by the opening of the museum, the spread of civilisation and the presence of Sandile was embodied in the person of Alfred.12 The language of the civilising mission was not always so directly tied to the more violent and expansionist tendencies of colonialism, but in Grey’s case, it clearly was. He equated progress with cultural destruction and physical expansion.

Yet Sandile was not a passive symbol or prop of British propaganda, but someone with a long history of experiences with British rule in southern Africa. The idea that Sandile would experience the spectacle of imperial order and thus become a more docile subject ignored the long history of violence and British duplicity on the Eastern Cape. Yet in a letter Grey claimed was written by Sandile to the captain of Alfred’s ship Euryalus, John Tarleton, the Xhosa chief celebrated and honoured British rule in South Africa while describing his encounter with Prince Alfred:

The invitation [to travel to Cape Town] was accepted with fear. With dread we came on board, and in trouble have we witnesses the dangers of the great waters; but through your skill have we passed through this tribulation .... We have seen what our ancestors heard not of. How have we grown old and learn’t wisdom. The might of England has been fully illustrated to us; and now we behold our madness in taking up arms to resist the authority of our mighty and gracious Sovereign. Up to this time have we not ceased to be amazed at the wonderful things we have witnessed, and which are beyond our comprehension. But one thing we understand, the reason of England’s greatness, when the Son of her great Queen becomes subject to a subject, that he may learn wisdom, when the sons of England’s chiefs and nobles leave the homes and wealth of their fathers and with the young Prince endure hardships and sufferings in order that they may be wise, and become a defence to their country, when we behold these things we see why the English are a great and mighty nation.... And now great chief we end by expressing our gratitude that we have had this opportunity of seeing so much. From our hearts we thank you for your kindness and attention to us. We have been cared for in every way and all our wants supplied. The chiefs under you have shown us every kindness, and the people under them have acted to us as countrymen and brothers; this we more highly esteem as it was unlooked for and unexpected. We feared we had come among a strange people who would look upon us as their enemies, but it has been otherwise.... What we have here seen, and all the kindness received shall never be forgotten.13

A forgery or not, these sentiments conveniently reflect Grey’s vision of the royal tour rather than Sandile’s lived experiences under British rule.14

Sandile was well versed in British deception. The War of the Axe concluded in 1847 when the chief was invited by the British to negotiate a settlement, only to be locked up and threatened with deadly consequences if he tried to escape.15 He was the half-brother of Maqoma, a chief who had been publicly threatened and embarrassed by Sir Harry Smith, the Governor of the Cape Colony, in the aftermath of the war.16 Smith had annexed their father Ngqika’s territory as Queen Adelaide Province in 1835. When Smith called Sandile to a meeting in 1850, the chief wisely refused to go and was subsequently deposed. Over the next decade, warfare with the British and a millennial movement that climaxed in the Xhosa cattle killing of 1856–57 ripped the fabric of the Xhosa societies apart. The South African historian Jeff Peires describes the Sandile Alfred met as a broken man who ‘existed as a mere cipher, drinking heavily and clinging ever harder to traditional customs’, not a likely candidate for the conversion imagined by George Grey.17 To add insult to injury, Sandile was required to tour ‘what were once his own dominions’ with Grey and Alfred.18 Royal rituals and imperial splendour could not so easily excise the past.

In addition to attending the dedication of the new library and museum, Sandile was present at the most elaborate and celebrated ritual of the visit: the ceremonial tipping of the first truck of stone into the bay, beginning the construction of the Table Bay breakwater. He was an object of attention for the crowd, with whom he briefly interacted before the festivities began. It is unclear what exactly Sandile was supposed to get out of this ceremony. In his visit to the home of the Rev. William Thompson of the London Missionary Society, Sandile told the missionary, ‘Now I see how foolish I have been, in trying to resist such a mighty power, but I will do so no longer.’19 While perhaps no more reliable than the letter from Grey, since it passed through Brownlee’s translation and was recorded by the missionary’s daughter, this remark better reflects Sandile’s experiences with British rule. He had been battered and bruised by it, and no level of pomp and circumstance would convert him to the progress of British rule.

Sandile had no reason to trust the British, even with the royal son present. In his performance of loyalty to the Queen, Sandile knew that he had to speak and act carefully. He interpreted the royal tour through his own life experiences and acted in a way that demonstrates the instabilities of metropolitan-produced narratives of benevolent monarchy and loyal subjects. It is also worth noting that, when Alfred and Sandile visited Zonnebloem College, George Grey’s ‘Kaffir College’ aimed at inoculating chiefs’ sons with a dose of British civilisation, the students were more excited to meet Sandile, as a symbol of resistance to colonial domination, than to meet the son of the Great White Queen.20 This abused and broken chief could produce spectacles of his own making.

In the end, Sandile would indelibly corrupt his place in colonial propaganda. Nearly twenty years later, in 1877, the Ngqika Xhosa chief rose up against the British in support of the Gcaleka Xhosa king Sarhili in a conflict known as the War of Ngcayecibi (1877–78, also called the Ninth Frontier War). Besieged in the Isidenge forests, Sandile was killed in battle by loyalist Mfengu volunteers. As David Bunn has demonstrated, Sandile participated in another kind of imperial ritual in death.21 His body was left to decompose in the bush for two days before British authorities collected it. As Sandile’s grave was about to be filled in, Commandant Schermbrucker gave a eulogy, a warning against disloyalty to the Queen:

[Sandile] has been denied the honours which are usually accorded even by the enemy. Had he fallen on the side of his Queen ... he would have been buried in a manner befitting his rank. This is the last chief of the Gaikas; let his life and death be a warning to you.... Instead of being lords and masters in the country they once owned, [Sandile’s followers] will now be servants.22

His was buried between the bodies of two British troopers in order to ‘keep the blackguard quiet’.23 In life, his symbol was used to exhibit the effectiveness of liberal imperial rule in southern Africa, a powerful chief humbled by the power of the British and the generosity of the Great Queen. His encounter with Prince Alfred was interpreted in vastly different ways by his followers, Sir George Grey, and the settler press of South Africa. In revolt and death, he represented the consequences of challenging this imperial order. Sandile’s rebellion may have failed, but he repossessed the meaning of his life, revealing the dissonance between the symbols and practices of rule in southern Africa.


1 John Russell to W. D. Christie, 30 April 1860, Royal Archives, Windsor (henceforth RA), VIC ADD A20/49.
2 Saul Solomon, The Progress of His Royal Highness Prince Alfred Ernest Albert through the Cape Colony, British Kaffraria, the Orange Free State, and Port Natal, in the year 1860 (Cape Town, 1861), 40.
3 King William’s Town Gazette, 24 August 1860.
4 King William’s Town Gazette, 24 August 1860; Major John Cowell to Albert, 14 August 1860, RA VIC ADD/20/69.
5 George Grey to Colonial Office, 20 September 1860, National Archives, Kew (henceforth NA), CO 48/404/48–52. Grey articulated his motivations for establishing Zonnebloem, the ‘Kaffir College’, in very similar language: ‘that England might exercise, through means of an institution which conferred great benefits upon them, her due influence over the native chiefs around us’. Janet Hodgson, ‘History of Zonnebloem College, 1858–1870: A Study of Church and Society’, MA thesis (University of Cape Town, 1975), 178.
6 Enclosure to George Grey to Colonial Office, 20 September 1860, NA CO 48/404/57–60.
7 Enclosure to George Grey to Colonial Office, 20 September 1860, NA.
8 Letters Dispatched by High Commissioner, Cape Archives, Cape Town, South Africa, Grey to Maclean, 17 September 1855, CH 30/4, cited in James Gump, ‘Sir George Grey’s Encounter with the Maori and the Xhosa, 1845–1868’, Journal of World History 9 (March 1998), 90.
9 Enclosure to George Grey to Colonial Office, 20 September 1860, NA CO 48/404/57–60.
10 Enclosure to George Grey to Colonial Office, 20 September 1860, NA.
11 Enclosure to George Grey to Colonial Office, 20 September 1860, NA.
12 Enclosure to George Grey to Colonial Office, 20 September 1860, NA.
13 Enclosure to George Grey to Duke of Newcastle, 20 September 1860, Sandile to Chief [Captain] Tarleton, NA CO 48/404/50–6.
14 Richard Price, Making Empire: Colonial Encounters and the Creation of Imperial Rule in Nineteenth-Century Africa (Cambridge, 2008), 473.
15 Jeff Peires, The Dead Will Arise: Nongqawuse and the Great Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement of 1856–7 (Bloomington, IN, 1989), 4. A British settler named George Southey had murdered the Gcaleka Xhosa chief, Hintsa, in 1835 after Smith had lured him to his camp with the promise of negotiations. Colonists or soldiers had kept Hintsa’s ears, and possibly his genitals, as souvenirs. See Alan Lester, Imperial Networks: Creating Identities in Nineteenth-Century South Africa and Britain (New York, 2001), 124–5.
16 Peires, The Dead Will Arise, 6. Also see Richard Price, ‘Violence, Humiliation and Paternalism in Imperial Culture: Sir Harry Smith and the Xhosa Chiefs 1835–1850’, North American Conference on British Studies, Denver, CO, 7–9 October 2005.
17 Jeff Peires, ‘Sandile’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 22 vols (Oxford, 2004) (henceforth Oxford DNB).
18 Major John Cowell to Albert, 15 August 1860, RA VIC ADD/20/69.
19 ‘An Evening Visit from Sandili, the Kaffir Chief, to the Rev. W. Thompson, of Cape Town’, Juvenile Missionary Magazine 18 (January 1861), 19.
20 Janet Hodgson, ‘Xhosa Chiefs in Cape Town in the Mid-19th century’, Studies in the History of Cape Town 2 (1980), 59. Cited in Vivian Bickford-Smith, ‘Revisiting Anglicisation in the Nineteenth Century Cape Colony’, in The British World: Diaspora, Culture and Identity, ed. Carl Bridge and Kent Fedorowich (Portland, OR, 2003), 91.
21 David Bunn, ‘The Sleep of the Brave: Graves as Sites and Sins in the Colonial Eastern Cape’, in Images and Empires: Visuality in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa, ed. Paul Landau and Deborah Kaspin (Berkeley, 2002), 78–89.
22 Quoted in Bunn, ‘Sleep of the Brave’, 78. Bunn reports that the London newspapers instead focused on the ‘decency of funeral rites’.
23 Bunn, ‘Sleep of the Brave’, 79. In 1862, the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, who was symbolically restored as the sovereign of India during the 1857 war, was buried in an anonymous grave filled with lime, to ensure rapid decomposition, in Rangoon. William Dalrymple, The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857 (New York, 2006), 1.
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