This article appears in Historical Dictionary of the British Empire.


Originally, this term applied to one of the chieftaincies among the southern Nguni peoples living in the present eastern areas of the Cape Province and the Transkei in South Africa. Xhosa was the name of one of their early chiefs to whom they looked back as founder of their people. The southern Nguni (the northern Nguni such as the Zulu lived in the Natal area) were already living in much of the area when the Portuguese ventured into the Indian Ocean at the beginning of the sixteenth century. They were divided into a number of different political entities and had distinct identities. However, they were closely related in social customs and cultural aspects; while they spoke different dialects, they could understand each other. People readily moved back and forth between chiefdoms and intermarried freely.

By the end of the eighteenth century the Xhosa were the largest and most expansive of the southern Nguni chiefdoms. As they expanded, they tended to subdivide into separate chieftaincies and clans which recognized only a very nominal allegiance to the paramount chief. These clans were expanding by slowly moving westward into lands occupied by the Khoikhoi (previously called 'Hottentots'); with stronger political and economic foundations, the Xhosa were able to take over and to incorporate the Khoikhoi into their clans (it was from these people that the Xhosa likely acquired the very distinctive 'clicks' in their language—the only Bantu-speaking people to have them). The Xhosa leading edge in this slow process of incorporation/expansion had reached the area of modern Port Elizabeth by the 1770s when they began to interact with the leading elements of the white Trekboers who were migrating eastward. This marked the beginning of about one hundred years of competition and conflict between whites and Africans; the most violent bouts of this conflict and competition were grouped into the 'Kaffir wars' -the last, or ninth, taking place in 1877-78. Because of their political, and later religious and ideological, divisions, the Xhosa were never able to present a united front even though their resistance was long and determined. During the second half of the nineteenth century, all southern Nguni were brought under white control by conquest and annexation; the annexation of Pondoland in 1894 completed this process.

In the first decade of the nineteenth century, missionaries also arrived and began efforts to convert Africans to Christianity. An early priority of the missionaries was to learn the language and to translate the Bible. As the first group in contact, it was the Xhosa dialect that was learned and used in the Bible translation and subsequently for written language and education. As a result, the Xhosa dialect became dominant as the language of the southern Nguni. The process of developing a common identity has been greatly fostered by experience under white domination. Whether formerly allies or enemies of the white governments, all Africans have tended to be treated the same way and subjected to increasing discrimination and segregation culminating in apartheid. Also, in the ethnic and color categorization developed by South African governments, all southern Nguni have been categorized as Xhosa. As a result, a sense of common identity as Xhosa has grown.

Under apartheid, the Xhosa were allotted two homelands or 'Bantustans'—Transkei and Ciskei. Because of early contact with missionaries and other whites, the Xhosa have been more highly assimilated and have a stronger tradition of political activity than some other African groups. As a result, the Xhosa have been especially prominent in political organizations, including the African National Congress. Nelson Mandela is a Xhosa. According to recent estimates (1991), the Xhosa numbered approximately 7.3 million (or 19%) of the almost 38.5 million population of South Africa. (References: Monica Wilson, "The Nguni People" in Oxford History of South Africa, v. l, 1968; J. B. Peires, The House of Phalo, 1981).