The Port Elizabeth Yeomanry was formed under Captain William Matthew Harries for service during the Sixth Frontier War.
This blog covers the events when they engaged in some of the fiercest fighting of that year, at Trompetter’s Drift and elsewhere in the Fish River bush. The source of a major portion of the detail is from the memoir of James Edward Alexander.
Main picture: Xhosa warrior
Early in 1835, with Port Elizabeth still a teenager at 15 years of age, it experienced its first real emergency. With the Xhosa tribes restive once again and attacks imminent during what was to become known as the Sixth Frontier War, Port Elizabeth was compelled to prepare against a possible attack. In order to obtain a clearer understanding of the unfolding events, the deeply troubled governor, Sir Benjamin D’Urban, elected to make an in loco inspection. En route to the frontier, D’Urban landed at Port Elizabeth. Embarking from his ship onto a surf boat, the Mfengu boatmen hauled them ashore using [rope] warps.
William Matthew Harries was appointed as Captain of the recently formed Port Elizabeth Yeomanry for service in the war. As a Captain in command of the P.E. Yeomanry, he escorted a diplomatic mission to the “friendly” chiefs early in 1835. Within Port Elizabeth, two lines of defence were established, the outer one was a wagon line and the inner line would allow the women and children to be evacuated, Dunkirk style, if the need arose, onto ships in the roadstead. Subsequently, they were engaged in some of the fiercest fighting that year, at Trompetter’s Drift and elsewhere in the Fish River bush, against tribesmen who were not friendly to them at all. Martial Law was in force in Port Elizabeth between 3rd January 1835 and 9th July 1836. Peace was later again restored on the frontier.
In England, the military term Yeomanry applied to any voluntary cavalry force raised from the yeomanry who were men holding and cultivating small estates whereas in Colonial territories it probably applied to any member of the white population. The Port Elizabeth Yeomanry comprised only thirty-six men. In the case of these actions, the PE Yeomanry fell under the 75th Regiment, a Regular British Regiment.
First engagement at Wesleyville
The 75th Regiment, under Lieutenant Moultrie, accompanied by a mounted troop of burghers of the Port Elizabeth Yeomanry under Captain Harries, entered the Xhosa territory and penetrated as far as the Wesleyan missionary station of Wesleyville on the Twecu River in the present East London district. This religious mission had been founded by the Rev. William Shaw and the Rev. William Shepstone. The object of this raid was to rescue some missionaries and traders and to communicate with the “Congoes” which were probably a subtribe of the Xhosas. Attached to each burgher was a “Hottentot” attendant. Alexander does not elaborate whether these Khoikhoi retainers were also mounted, which I would assume was the case, or whether they followed on foot behind the mounted yeomanry.
All of a sudden, they encountered some Xhosa warriors sitting in a camp around a cooking fire. Surrounding them was the plunder from nearby farm houses. The yeomanry immediately fired on them, and the warriors dispersed and fled into the reeds along the banks of the Fish River. Several were killed in the water whereas one or two in the Colonial contingent were wounded. Having achieved their objective, they returned bearing a bundle of assegais.
James Alexander and his accompanying men moved through torrential rain in the Stygian darkness of a moonless night to get to Honey’s Farm under Governor’s Kop. This Kop is a huge mountain located in the current Cacadu District Municipality of the Eastern Cape. The estimated elevation of the terrain above sea level is 686 metres. The farm was occupied by a party of burghers who supplied Alexander’s party with tea and sausages. Having eaten, they slept covered in sheep-skin karosses on the hard, wooden floors of the farmhouse.
The next morning broke with rain still falling under a sullen sky. Alexander’s party was later joined by a part of the Port Elizabeth yeomanry, headed by a dashing looking soldier, a Mr Calvert, who made a grand impression with his plumed hat, carbine in hand, a pistol on his breast and a naked sword in his girdle.
To get the PE Yeomanry accommodated in the houses near at hand, Alexander and his men lent a hand in allocating the provision wagons. E
The rain was still and the wagoners were openly dismissive of any attempt to press on, as they were adamant that they would make little progress. Under duress, they were cajoled into attempting a start. Accordingly, they moved off, ascending Governor’s Kop. Together with Captain Harries and the remainder of the Port Elizabeth Yeomanry, the party comprised fifty men altogether. With them they had four provision wagons and a small flock of sheep for karnonatjes. These comprised pieces of meat roasted on a peeled forked stick, fat alternating with lean meat, and with a sprinkling of salt and pepper for taste. This twig is then handed from one person to the other squatting around a fire. Each person in turn would remove two or three pieces of meat, either with a fork or less elegantly with their hands or their mouth, until it was stripped bare.
This party rode along a ridge for some time. Below on their left were vast plains and beyond them was the rugged and lofty range of the Winterberg. On the right in the far distance, the sea was visible. No smoke of fires smudged the sky indicating that no homesteads were burning on that day. This could indicate the absence of Xhosa warriors over this vast area.
That evening, the party outspanned for the night in a hollow among the hills. Here they ate their supper beneath the bushes and then lay down in their sheep-skins under the lee of the saddles. During the night, they were attacked by a leap of leopards which scattered the horses and the sheep killing several of the latter for their much-delayed nocturnal meal.
In the morning, they proceeded to an open, elevated spot called Frazer’s Camp. Here James Alexander took leave of Captain Harries who was to remain there for some time in order to keep the lines of communication open between headquarters and Colonel Somerset. Together with an escort, Alexander went on for eight miles until he arrived at the Fish River which after the incessant rain, was in flood. Being twenty to thirty feet deep, it was impassable. The white smoke from Southey’s kraal was visible in the distance. This smoke was caused by the manure burning which it had done for several weeks already.
Unable to cross the river, four provision wagons and a guard of ten Boers waited. Alexander remained with the wagons but sent back his escort. This party at the Fish River was exposed and vulnerable but probably relied upon the flooded Fish River for their protection. For two nights, James Alexander lay at Trompetter’s Drift near the remains of traders’ wagons, broken scattered about, and partly burnt by the attacking Xhosas in January 1835. This area exuded an eerie feeling of death and destruction. Bones of the fallen, both Xhosa and white, were scattered about probably by predatory animals such as jackals, hyenas and leopards. Expecting trouble, Alexander doubled the number of sentries on duty.
Today Trumpetter’s Drift, as it now known, is a game lodge with accommodation built around the historical stone fort. The drift along the Great Fish River, as well as the fort, were named after Hans Trompetter, the leader of a group of Khoikhoi who settled near the fort. The history of Trompetter’s Drift began when it was discovered to be a convenient crossing point between Grahamstown and Fort Peddie. In 1817 Lord Charles Somerset, Governor of the Cape Colony, built a rudimentary fort after a group of Xhosas crossed the drift to attack Grahamstown. After many years had passed; the fort was finally reinforced in 1843 and formed part of the Lewis Line of Forts, which consisted of six forts. Around the Fort there are graves of the fallen British soldiers during the 4th to 7th Frontier wars.
As there was no likelihood of getting the wagons across in the near future, the only means of communication with Colonel Somerset, far behind the hills, was by swimming the river. After receiving the answer from Somerset, Alexander returned to town with an attendant.
He instructed Captain Harries’s party to move up from their current location to Trompetter’s Drift where they would construct a raft out of broken wagons with which to send supplies across to the cavalry on the other side. Above all else, due to their precarious position at the Drift, a known attack area, Captain Harries was ordered to surround themselves with a strong abattis. This is a field fortification consisting of an obstacle formed from the branches of trees laid in a row, with the sharpened tops directed outwards, towards the enemy. Abattisses were later used alone or in combination with wire entanglements and other obstacles.
In addition, Alexander advised Captain Harries to be extremely vigilant as the area was exposed and the likelihood of attack extremely probable. On arrival, the Harries party pitched their tents and drew up their wagons on the level plain on the right bank. Lacking military experience, Captain Harries did not proceed with the construction of an abittis comprising a square of bushes with the four wagons in the centre, making an ideal defensible post. By wantonly failing to construct these defensive measures, Captain Harries exposed his party to a surprise attack.
Surprise attack by the Xhosas
On the morning of the 7th March 1835, an alarm was given to this unprepared party that a large body of Xhosas had attacked the wagon oxen grazing on the opposite bank of the river which had by now subsided. After killing the Hottentots, they drove off the oxen. Some of the burghers who had been out buck-shooting in the vicinity, immediately hurried towards the wagons. Captain Harries ordered twenty men to catch their horses, saddle up and pursue them but failed to recover the cattle.
Meanwhile, a large body of Xhosas on the hills opposite the encampment was watching the successful attack on the cattle. In total it was estimated that they numbered perhaps a thousand. They noted the pandemonium with men scurrying to and fro in the camp below them. In the confusion, it was an ideal time to launch an assault on their unprepared foes. Accordingly, they stealthily and swiftly swept down from the commanding heights in several lines and in Indian file, crossing the river at several points.
In the confused melee, the burghers galloped from one side to the other, firing as they did so, killing some of their attackers in the process. Seeing the enemy closing in upon them, instead of rallying at the wagons and endeavouring to save the lives of the hapless wagon drivers and leaders, who had no horses, the main body of the burghers made good their escape and retreated rapidly onto the road to Frazer’s Camp. In their haste, they left behind the tents, wagons and baggage in the enemy’s hands. Only three of the party, stood their ground – Bance, Bilson and the Dutchman, Van Der Kemp – refused to turn tail and follow their comrades. Bance endeavoured to cover the retreat of two men – Titterton and Clark. The saddle of Titterton had turned with him and he was running about with an assegai through his back, trying in vain to catch his horse. Clark had taken a heavy fall and was completely paralysed with fear. So much so that even after firing several rounds to keep the enemy at bay, Bilson could not induce the catatonic man to mount his horse behind him.
Bilson – formerly of the Blues and wounded at Waterloo – was a man of great size and strength and treated the Xhosa forces with contempt. He was determined to make a stand at a bush but as he was a single person, he was swiftly surrounded and assegaied. In the same manner, Shaw, a wagon owner and driver also lost his life. Ironically his brother had lost his life several weeks before in almost the same location.
Van der Kemp saved the life of another wagon-driver, Randall, who was being pursued by three tribesmen. After coolly bringing down the first one, the other two retired, no doubt deciding that discretion was the better part of valour. Van der Kemp then carried off Randall on his horse. A Khoisan servant had a narrow escape. Being hotly pursued through the bushes, he jumped into a porcupine hole and lay there, without daring to breathe, for several hours. What most probably saved his life was that he obliterated his spoor around the hole with a branch, and then used it for concealment purposes by pulling it over him. This cunning move fooled the enemy warriors who passed so close to him that he claimed that the dust from their feet covered him as he lay trembling in his hole.
Of Captain Harries party, eight were killed and some men and horses wounded and injured. On the other hand, the enemy lost nine killed but succeeded handsomely in their spirited coup-de-main type attack. A detachment of PE Yeomanry was sent to survey the scene of this disaster. They reported that the huts and the wagons were burning and that the enemy, having completed their mission, had retired from the field of battle.
This battle resulted in a significant defeat of the colonial forces, including the Port Elizabeth Yeomanry under Captain Harries, and would not be the last, as this war wended its way through the rest of 1835 and into 1836.
The most significant factor to which this ignominious defeat can be attributed, was the colonials’ lack of military training. Apart from the fact that a proper defensive position was not established at Trompetter’s Drift as the first order of business – instead pitching of tents and other housekeeping functions were performed – their lack of an Operational Procedures Manual meant that when disaster struck, it was a case of every man for himself. Instead of acting as a coherent whole to address the threat posed most just fled the field of battle. Apart from some selfless individuals who attempted to rescue their stricken comrades, the rest slunk away like cowards. Amongst them, and possibly leading the pack, was Captain Harries.
It had been a dismal display of military acumen, fortitude and bravery.
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1994, E.H. Walton Packaging (Pty) Ltd, Port Elizabeth)
Excursions in Western Africa & Narrative of a Campaign in Kaffir-Land by Sir James Alexander (1840, Henry Colburn, London)