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The Massacre at Zuurberg


Following the re-establishment of British authority at the Cape in 1806, the British found themselves increasingly drawn into the conflict between the indigenous peoples and the Boers. By 1810, the major confrontation was with the Xhosa on the Eastern Frontier.

In October, 1811, the new Governor, John Cradock, resolved to clear the Zuurveld of the Xhosa, and to drive them back to east of the Fish River. He appointed Colonel John Graham to this task. By December, Graham had raised three forces. The southernmost was near the mouth of the Sundays River, while a second was in the area of Coerney near Addo. The third was a Commando from Graaff-Reinet, led by the Landdrost, Anders Stockenström. They were stationed north of the Zuurberg (somewhere in the area south of Ann's Villa), to protect Bruintjeshoogte and Graaff-Reinet against Xhosa intrusions from the south and east.

After events around Christmas Day, Graham concluded the major Xhosa force was concentrated near his central unit at Addo. He summoned Stockenström to bring his force across the Zuurberg. Stockenström responded with about forty of his men, who left their camp at sunrise on December 28, 1811 to travel south over the Zuurberg.

Near the peak of the Zuurberg, Stockenström's party encountered a group of Xhosa. A palaver began and continued for a time, but it ended with a surprise attack on the Landdrost and his men. Stockenström and about a dozen others of his force were killed. This was in the first few days of the Fourth Frontier War (1811-12).

Detailed accounts of this incident can be found in Stockenström, Pringle, Cory, and Mostert (see References below). A shorter account is in the Dictionary of South African Biography (DSAB). These accounts differ in some details, as will be discussed.

I became interested in this incident after reading Pringle's description of the place: "On their route they had to pass along the narrow ridge called Slachters-nek, which connects two arms of the great mountain chain … One of the kloofs of the White river, beautifully lined with various sorts of tall forest timber and thick brushwood, joins another kloof, equally picturesque and magnificently wooded, stretching down into the valley of the Courney, thus forming, together with the stupendous cliffs above, over-hanging their deep and sombre recesses, one of the most remarkable landscapes in Southern Africa." (This is not the same place where the Slagtersnek rebellion occurred.)

I was surprised that the precise location of this incident is not known; that the graves of those slain are not marked; and that I could not find a list of those killed.

The Men Involved

Although historians are specific (and disagree) about the number of men killed and wounded, they name only a few. Daniel Jacobs recently found a document in the Cape Archives (CO 2580/4), which is a report from officials in Graaff-Reinet to Governor Cradock. The report is in Dutch, and there is an English translation. The side-by-side transcriptions of the documents are here.

Among those killed, it names the Landdrost, two Veld-Kornets, and seven Burgers. Two unnamed young Hottentots were also killed. Two men (also named) escaped on foot. The report is signed by four officials, and the informant was Lieutenant-Colonel Lyster.

Not listed in the report is Paul du Plessis, who is stated by both Stockenström and Pringle to have been a survivor who escaped on foot.

Who were these men? Have a look at the list of names, and what is known of their genealogy. If you can add to these genealogies, please contact eGGSA.

The letter from Graaff-Reinet has the Landdrost and eleven of his men killed, and three escaped. Is this a complete list? Probably not. Here is what the historians say:

Stockenström lists Paul du Plessis and Christian Roberts (the latter "severely wounded") as survivors, and says that fourteen were then missing. The next day, "Their bodies were found … and we buried them." He is quite precise about the count of men.

Cory: "The landdrost and thirteen of the Boers were killed, two though wounded, managed to escape."

Pringle: "Mr. Stockenström and fourteen of his men fell, pierced by innumerable wounds. … two, who not being able to get on horseback, crept into the thicket, and eluded the search of the Caffers , until darkness enabled them to re-cross the mountains to the spot where they had that morning started. One of these two men was my acquaintance Paul du Plessies of Zwagershoek."

Mostert: "In moments the Graaf Reinet Landdrost and fourteen of his men lay dead, cut to pieces by the assegais. Two of the Boers managed to crawl into the bush, where they hid."

DSAB: "Stockenström, eight burghers and a half-caste interpreter were killed, and four men were wounded, although they managed to escape."

The Date of the Incident.

According to the letter from Graaff-Reinet, the massacre occurred on December 29, 1811. But, there is not agreement:

DSAB: " At sunset on 29.12.1811 he set out …" Clearly, it should be "sunrise".

Pringle: "On the morning of the 28th December .."

Cory: December 29.

Stockenström: Of his father, he says "He went into his tent and slept for the last time till peep of day, the 28th December, 1811."

Mostert: 28 December.

The date of 28 December is likely correct, for it fits in with the chronology of the campaign in British documents. The time was noon, or soon thereafter.

The Place of the Incident

Map of the area of the Zuurberg massacreAlthough I have not been there, I believe the place of the massacre is on the Zuurberg pass, a few km north of the Zuurberg Inn. This is on the R335, which runs from Port Elizabeth north to Addo, Zuurberg, Ann's Villa, and Somerset East. The latitude and longitude are about -33.335 and 25.759

Stockenström: "… the spot where the massacre had taken place. This was on the narrowest part of the Doorn Neck - the watershed between the Wit-Rivier and Kournay. The new Zuurberg Road has cut away the very tree under which my father and his party sat and stood when they met their fate." (The Zuurberg Pass was built in 1848-58.)

Stockenström returned later to the place, and "found there a worthy farmer named Matthews in possession" Stockenström offered to purchase the site of the massacre, but Matthews refused, saying he would be honoured to erect the monument. On another visit, Stockenström found the place in possession of "the brother of this same Matthew". Stockenström on this occasion offered to purchase the spot where the fallen were buried, but says he was "too sick to proceed in the matter". These Matthews were owners of the farm Doornnek, on which the Zuurberg Inn now stands.

So, neither the spot of the massacre nor the location of the graves was marked. The burgers of Graaff-Reinet asked to build a monument, but they were refused with assurances a monument would be built by the Colonial government. That never happened, possibly because the younger Stockenström became a controversial figure and fell out of favour with the authorities.

Pringle visited the spot in 1821, and says: "The precise spot where the bodies were interred could not, when I was there, be discovered. It is little to the credit of the Colonial Government that not even a rude stone has been erected to mark the grave of this meritorious magistrate …".

According to DSAB, the site of Anders Stockenström's grave is unknown.

Eileen Russell, however, has noted that there is a framed document on the wall of a lounge at the Zuurberg Inn. It is undated, and written by Mrs. D E Rivett-Carnac of Grahamstown. It says of Landdrost Stockenström: "His grave was at a spot near the Post Office until removal many years later to the family home near Bedford." This would be Maasström, granted to Andries Stockenström in 1820. Neither Sir Andries nor his wife are buried there.

Copyright Keith Meintjes © 2005


Noel Mostert, "Frontiers: The epic of South Africa's creation and the tragedy of the Xhosa people, Knopf, New York, 1992.

Thomas Pringle, "Narrative of a residence in South Africa", Struik, Cape Town, 1966.

C.W. Hutton (ed.), "The autobiography of the late Sir Andries Stockenström, Baronet.", Juta, Cape Town, 1887. Facsimile reproduction, Struik, Cape Town, 1964.

G.E. Cory, "The Rise of South Africa", Facsimile reprint, Struik, Cape Town, 1965.

Dictionary of South African Biography, Vol. I, pp 773-4, "Stockenström, Anders", Tafelberg, Cape Town, 1968.

Cape Archives, Colonial Office Archives, document CO 2580/4.

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