Samuel Edward Krune Loliwe Ngxekengxeke Mqhayi (1875–1945) was a South African imbongi (a Xhosa Praise-Poet) and also an early pioneer of Xhosa written literature.
“The Grave of the King” is a poem that Mqhayi published in two parts in the Xhosa newspaper, Izwi Labantu (‘The Voice of the People’), in 1908. The poem concerns the Xhosa Wars, also known as the Cape Frontier Wars, that raged from 1779 to 1879 in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. These were a series of nine wars that grew in increasing brutality between the native populations of South Africa against Dutch settlers and the British colony.
Large numbers of Boer farmers, catering for the Dutch East India Company’s post at the Cape of Good Hope, began arriving in 1652 displacing the Khoikhoi nomadic people from their cattle grazing areas at the foot of Table Mountain and disrupting the hunter-gathering lifestyles of the San. The Dutch settlers, using horse-mounted attacks and firearms, easily ousted the Khoisan from the lands they had previously inhabited.
The Dutch colonies expanded eastwards seeking to gain control of the valuable farming land and lush forested ravines found in abundance on the Eastern Cape. Here, they ran into the expanding Xhosa Kingdom, and as both cultures relied heavily on agriculture and cattle farming in particular, skirmishes and cattle raiding became endemic on both sides.
The arrival of the British, who invaded the Cape in 1795 to prevent the French from taking command of the vital sea route during the Napoleonic Wars, introduced another armed force into this battleground.
The title “The Grave of the King” refers to the Keiskamma River (iXesi in Xhosa) that flows from the Amathole mountains into the Indian Ocean. During the course of the Frontier wars, the Xhosa were pushed back from their former territories by the expansion of the British colony to the region of the Keiskamma River.
In the introduction to his poem, Mqhayi included a short Xhosa praise-poem for Rharhabe kaPhalo (who lived from about 1722 — 1787), the founder of the amaRharhabe and father to a line of Xhosa chiefs who played key roles in the Frontier wars.
He who stirred the world until it shook,
He who pretended to go,
where he had no intention to go,
But went where he never meant to go;
Wearer of the short blanket for it fits him better,
Rejector of the long one, for it hides his knees.
The crow that holds aloft its short stick
Hamham, son of Sitsheketshe,
Whose arms and legs are muscle all through, Sibala-mdaka,
Sharp point of the fighting stick;
Son of the Right Hand House of Phalo,
Whom as “Rharhabe”, all the bards salute
“Rharhabe” a name earned on the battlefield. (1)
The Xhosa had a more advanced agricultural economy than the Khoisan, and their knowledge of iron weapon making gave them a more effective military capability than the nomads and hunter-gatherers that the Dutch had easily overwhelmed. However, divisions within the Xhosa Kingdom between rival chiefs led to rulers aligning at times with colonial powers to conquer territories of their Xhosa kin.
This setting of perpetual war and treacherous alliances forms the backdrop for Mqhayi’s poem. Mqhayi spent much of his adult life weaving together the influences of both Xhosa and British Christian tradition, at a time when these cultures were often deeply hostile towards each others customs. This pluralism is expressed throughout “The Grave of the King”. Mqhayi asserts that it is only when the Xhosa have retrieved their culture and gone back to their roots, will their own Moses bring them into their own promised land.
The Grave of the King Part One
I, the Bard of Gompo (2)
Am starting this song
Of poverty and degradation
Of sorrow and oppression
Of wounds and exploitation
Of humiliation and deprivation
That led to the destruction of our nation
Like the falling of the banks of a river.
I sing it for the future generation
Who will hear it as a story
Of things they had not seen with their eyes
Of things they had not heard with their ears
For they never had to dodge the bullets
They never had to smell gun powder
They never had to cut war shields
They never had to sharpen any weapons
They never had to smelt iron
They never had to sleep in caves.
Sing this song
To true patriots, Sing it!
Embellish it with all the details
As would a Teller of Tales.
Sing it in memory
Of the people of this land
Who fought trying to save it
Who spilled the last drop of their blood,
From this body, so beautiful.
To what end did they do it
You, of the young generation, we ask,
Those, your forebears
Who gave their all?
They were fighting to save their kings
They were fighting to save their country,
In the hope that you, their future generation
Would build those fallen walls
And out of their strength
Reap not the seeds of weakness
That country is coming back
Hold that dear in your hearts
It is not lost, but kept
By the “Father of Orphans”;
It is well protected
In the “Fortress of Truth”; (3)
Misfortune has passed it by
So, when you are ready
They’ll say:- “Here is it; Take it”
And when you are grown and mature,
When you understand and are united,
When you are tired of all the quarrels,
When your minds and hearts at peace,
When you have retrieved your culture,
And gone back to your roots,
When you speak with one voice,
Whose truth will cleave the skies,
Then, your Moses will come,
And in joy, you will come out.
Sing then this song
The Gompo Bard exhorts you
Bless these waters
That this king has chosen;
They are the only waters we will love,
Love even above gold,
Great are the things
We are going to do with them.
Our work is done,
Sandile has been offered as sacrifice. (4)
The poem in Xhosa:
Mna ke Mbongi yakwa Gompo,
Yo buhlwempu nobupantsi,
Yezivu beko nengozi,
Zingavanga nto ngendlebe,
Yivumeni ke longoma,
Babesenza ntonina ke,
Magora ndin’ atikayo!
Babelwel’ inkosi zabo,
Bekusel’ ilizwe labo,
Kuze ke nina zizamva,
Wak’ indong’ eziwileyo,
Ngulo “Yise we Nkeilama.”
Kulo “Nqaba Yenyaniso,”
Kulo “Kaka benyaniso,”
Koze kuti nakukula,
Ati: “Nalo litateni.”
Koze kuti nakqkula,
Nakwenz’ izwi lingumqum bi,
’De licande emalini,
Atunye! wo u Mosisi,
Yivumeni ke longoma,
Itsh’ Imbongi yakwa Gompo,
Ngewalisani lawo manzi,
Acishwe ngulo Kumkani,
Sisaya kutanda wona.
Nangapezu kwe Gohile,
Esiza kuzenza ngawo,
U Saudil’ ubingelelwe.
from The Collected Poems of S.E.K. Mqhayi,
Edited by Ntongela Masilela,
Translation by Phyllis Ntantala,
- This is the poem in Xhosa:
Ngu Zamazam’ ilizswe lizamazame,
U Singa siya kona,
mhla singayi kona,
Ze singo asiyi kona mhla siya kona,
U Sambata zimfutshane kanti zomlingana,
‘Kub’ ezinkulu zimfihl’ amadolo,
U Sablungulu lapat’ isiqwayi,
U Hamham ka Sitsheketshe,
U Ntsinga ka Nomagwayi, U Sibala-mdaka
U Butsolo bentonga,
Into yase kuneno kuka Palo,
U Rarabe elibizwa zimbongi,
U Rarabe elezikhali zake.
- Bard of Gompo: Walter Rubusana, co-founder the newspaper Izwi Labantu, gave Mqhayi the name Imbongi yakwaGompo (the poet of Gompo — referring to the small suburb of East London in South Africa where Mqhayi lived). In later years the editor of Abantu-Batho newspaper gave him the title of Imbongi Yesizwe Jikelele (the poet of the whole nation).
- Father of Orphans, Fortress of Truth are both Christian terms, but here appear to be weaved together with the Xhosa worldview of the realm of the ancestors which interacts with the world of the living.
- Sandile: Mgolombane Sandile (1820–1878) was the great grandson of Rharhabe kaPhalo. Sandile led several successful forays against the British army, inflicting losses and capturing guns and ammunition that enabled the Xhosa to become proficient in the use of firearms. Sandile’s adoption of bush warfare and disruption of colonial supply lines prolonged Xhosa resistance in the mid-nineteenth century. On 29 May 1878, Sandile was killed in a shoot-out with a detachment of amaFengu troops (the Fengu, meaning “wanderers”, were a Xhosa-speaking nation that allied themselves with the British Cape Colony and gained a reputation as skilled sharpshooters). He died a few days later and his body was brought to a nearby British military camp. Widely admired by this time, he was given a full military funeral at which his body was carried on eight rifles by Fengu pall-bearers. Sandile was buried alongside the graves of British soldiers A. Dicks and F. Hillier, who were killed in the same war. It is said that he was buried with a British soldier on either side to convince his followers that his spirit would not roam.