Bessie, the white queen of the Mpondo of the Eastern Cape

Thabiso Sekhula 

African Queens: Scrolla.Africa is showcasing the stories of seven African Queens from history whose remarkable lives went on to shape the world today.

When I first read the story of Bessie, the white Queen who ruled the Mpondo nation of the Eastern Cape for 40 years, I was both shocked and intrigued. Shocked that I had never heard of her and intrigued by why I had never heard.

The story goes, after a shipwreck between the years 1730 and 1750, a white girl aged about seven years came running down the beach yelling the name Bessie while pointing to herself.

This took place near Lambaso River where some of the Mpondo people were located.

She was taken to the kraal of Gambushe and given the name Gquma, which means the roaring of the sea. Bessie would go on to marry the Mpondo chief Tshomane but had no kids with him as he had died shortly after the marriage. She then married his successor, Chief Sango and had eight children.  

During her reign, more white survivors of shipwrecks joined the clan, their number is said to  have grown to be in the thousands.


They lived amongst the Mpondo, having families and mixed race babies with blue eyes and brown skin called the abeLungu.

Bessie’s eldest son Mdepa would go on to become the first mixed race chief of the Mpondo.

Because only so much is known of Bessie’s story, it became a tantalising tale of how she, the white orphan who survived the harsh oceans, became the Queen of the Mpondo. Not much can be traced factually about her past before she landed on the beach, not even the name of her ship.

This story has not been widely told but just like our history, the facts are never black and white, but shrouded in mist.

Just like her life, her death created many legends, with some accounts saying that on her last day, she asked to be carried to the reef where she gave out her last sigh. And on the evening of her death a storm is said to have ravaged the area. On the final day of storms, the story goes that Bessie was cast into the sea from which she had come many years before.

But this ending is not part of the Mpondo tradition. This account has been widely disputed by historians, most of whom say she was likely buried in her hut.

The story of Bessie was suppressed, as she embodied a form of love and cooperation that the apartheid government feared above anything else.

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