Gompo Rock, situated 11km west of East London between Hickman's River and Winterstrand, is a magical corner of the Metro occupying a special place in the history of the region.
As Kevin Cole of the East London Museum aptly puts it, Gompo Rock is "the nexus of things historical, cultural and natural".
Also known as Cove Rock, it is a spectacular natural phenomenon consisting of two huge aeolianite coastal sandstone rocks projecting out of the sea, standing up to 14m high with a natural channel between them.
Decalcification of a large portion of the sandstone outcrop had led to pieces breaking away, with part of the ‘rock’ presenting as a great natural amphitheatre, Cole notes.
Makhanda and the Great Conversion
Xhosa prophet Makhanda Nxele attempted a mass conversion to Christianity on the Rock in 1817, Cole writes.
"Paternal spirits, ABANTU BOMLAMBO, are said to reside in the water beneath the Rock. These ancestral beings rule over the spirit world of the water. They are believed to be immune to sharks and live on fish, water and sand.
"When stormy seas chase through the cavernous openings in the rock, the water reverberates and the local people comment that the chiefs are talking on their drums. Apparently they are served by a great water monitor (lizard) which transports fresh cow dung from the hills. This is collected by the People at the water’s edge before taking it to their caves to smear on the floor and walls."
Mike Burgess, in an article, History of Rural South Africa, says Gompo Rock is perhaps best known as the site where Xhosa prophet Makhanda Nxele promised that he would jump over the chasm between the two parts of the rock to summon the ancestors from the sea.
Makhanda rose to prominence as a millenarian prophet who fused traditional and Christian principles into an anticolonial narrative.
As a young man, he preached to the Xhosa whenever he could, and rose in prominence despite being a commoner. He was eventually elevated to royalty by the celebrated chief Ndlambe, the uncle to Ngqika, paramount of the Rharhabe Xhosa.
Makhanda would go on to play a key role in the Battle of Amalinde, where Ndlambe’s army defeated Ngqika’s in late 1818, a victory that further elevated his political stature.
By April 1819, Makhanda had gained such support that he was able to attack Grahamstown with 10,000 warriors, who almost overwhelmed the small garrison town before the unexpected return of a commando swung the advantage back to the settlers in the nick of time.
The Xhosa withdrew, leaving about 1,000 dead warriors. The brutal battle elicited an immediate reprisal by British colonial forces in what would become known as the Fifth Frontier War.
After the defeat at Grahamstown, Makhanda retreated to Gompo Rock, where he embarked on a new strategy: summoning the ancestors to rise from the sea to wipe the colonial presence from the Eastern Frontier.
After collecting a fee of one cow from each of the participants who chose to partake in the ceremony, Makhanda gathered them at Gompo Rock on the premise that he would raise their ancestors to life and that all who were guilty of witchcraft would fall into the sea.
It was not to be.
Makhanda sat all day contemplating the impossible feat. The crowd became restless, urging him to jump, but to no avail.
As night fell, the Xhosa began lighting bonfires and feasting on their cattle before eventually retreating into the interior, leaving the prophet to contemplate his next move.
Though Makhanda's reputation appears not have been adversely affected by the Gompo Rock incident, he had no choice but to surrender to the British forces. He was duly arrested, and later shipped off to Robben island.
He died in 1820 in the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean while attempting to escape from the island.