A Xhosa chief, King Sandile, renowned for eluding the British in the War of the Axe in the 1840s, is still influential over his old domain.
Mgolombane Sandile, a paramount chief of the Rharhabe, lies at rest in the foothills of the Amathole mountain range.
He gained national respect for eluding the British during intensive sweeps of the Amathole forests in the 1840s, despite having a deformed leg.
King Sandile was the focus of an exhumation last year by the royal house of AmaRharhabe, two archaeologists and an anthropologist from the University of Pretoria. Now his grave in the foothills of the Amathole has become part of a R20 million Eastern Cape heritage tourism initiative aimed at tracking the interesting lives of Xhosa kings under colonialism. It will enrich travel experiences in the district and provide tourist-related spin-offs for nearby communities.
The sensitively-handled digging of King Sandile’s remains in the Tyushe Forest last year, put to rest century-old rumours that the chief had been beheaded before burial. A full skeleton, with its skull intact and facing left, was unearthed, verified and left intact in the grave. The skeleton’s legs were not the same shape and size, matching the profile of the king who was known to have had a disabled leg.
Traditional leaders at the scene said the findings corrected distorted stories about the fate of the king and helped restore his dignity. Today, visitors can view King Sandile’s grave as part of the Eastern Cape’s heritage tourism drive. The grave is about 16km from Stutterheim at the foot of Mount Kemp in the Isidenge Forest Estate and can be reached by taking the N6 from East London to Stutterheim and turning left onto a secondary road. The route is signposted.
The grave is a site on the Sandile heritage route, one of four new heritage routes in Amathole named after Xhosa kings and heroes. The others are the Makana, Maqoma and Phalo routes.
According to South African history websites, King Sandile was wounded during the Ninth Frontier War in a skirmish with a detachment of Fingo troops under the command of a British captain in May 1878. He was reportedly cared for by his followers while he lay in a cave in the Isidenge Forest, but died after a few days. The captain of the British Forces ordered that his body be found and he was given a ceremonial burial during which his body was carried on eight rifles by Mfengu pallbearers. He was laid to rest between two British soldiers, A Dicks and F Hillier, who were both killed in the same engagement.
A bronze plaque erected at Sandile’s grave in 1941 by the Historical Monuments Commission identifies his resting place. Now a school in the Amathole district has taken on the king’s namesake. KwaHleke residents on the outskirts of Stutterheim honoured the late king by renaming the only school in the area after him. So 128 years after his death, King Sandile still has the capacity to stir pride and generate tourist initiatives.