The Municipality takes its name from Chief Ndlambe, the highest-ranking chief of the amaXhosa who historically inhabited the municipal area. As European travelers, explorers and farmers of Dutch descent (Boers) began to move into this region in the late 1700's, he was the chief they had to deal with. By 1796, his Great Place was on the banks of the Bushman's River, where many of the incoming visitors met with him.
For the first several decades of Dutch settlement in Ndlambe's territory, his sovereignty remained unquestioned. However, as Boer settlement increased, their desire for political domination grew. In 1811, the Dutch-speaking farmers persuaded the British colonial government to use military force to clear the entire area between the Sundays and Fish Rivers of its African inhabitants. At that time, this area was known as the Zuurveld, after the sour grasses that dominate the terrain.
Ndlambe and his sub-chiefs tried to negotiate with the British military and civil officials. In one famous encounter between Ndlambe and Col John Graham, the commander of the British forces, Ndlambe shouted at him, shook his spear and shield, stamped his foot on the ground and said, "This land is mine!" The negotiations failed, because Ndlambe refused to agree to the voluntary removal of his people from their homes. War started and when it became evident that the British guns and horses gave them a huge advantage in the fighting, Ndlambe moved his people safely across the Fish River. Outsmarting his British adversaries, he led his people in a night-time evacuation. They used the horns of their cattle to carry bundles of household goods. Although the British tried to pursue them, they could not catch up.
After the evacuation, the British tried to clear the Zuurveld area of any remaining African inhabitants. They scoured the dense bush along all the river beds, under instructions to shoot anything that moved. To prevent people from returning to their homes, all villages were burnt, grain pits destroyed and ripened crops were trampled under foot by teams of oxen brought in especially for this task. Many stragglers lost their lives through this campaign and a few women and children were taken prisoner and forced to work as servants for the English.
Sporadic raiding and unrest continued in the Zuurveld area from 1812 to 1819, as Ndlambe's followers attempted to regain control. The conflicts intensified, resulting in what is known as the "Brereton raid" in which Col Thomas Brereton led British forces in attacks on Ndlambe's people in their new homes beyond the Fish River. When he took 20 000 head of cattle from them, they retaliated with intensified guerrilla warfare consisting of raids against Boer farms. By March of 1819, virtually all the Boer farmers had left the Zuurveld and the Governor declared a state of emergency. Ndlambe, under the advisement of his influential military and spiritual advisor, Makanda, persuaded the King of the amaXhosa, Hintsa, to call on warriors from as far away as beyond the Kei River to combine in a major attack on the British garrison at Grahamstown.
An estimated 10 000 Xhosa soldiers took part in the Battle of Grahamstown on 22 April 1819, under the leadership of Makanda and Dushani, Ndlambe's eldest son. However, 2000 of them died in the face of British artillery fire and the British won the battle. Over the next six months, the British made an all-out effort to defeat Chief Ndlambe. They called up commondos from throughout the Western Cape and brought additional forces and technicians into the frontier zone. Ndlambe and Dushani escaped beyond the Kei River, while several of the sub-chiefs negotiated peace treaties. When Makanda surrendered himself, the British placed him on Robben Island. He died escaping one year later.
When the war concluded in October, 1820, Ndlambe's followers agreed to settle beyond the Keiskamma River, leaving the territory up to the Fish River vacant. It became known as the "ceded territory". However, within a few years, individual sub-chiefs got permission from the British to re-occupy the area, first for grazing and then for settlement.
When missionaries began moving into the areas between the Fish and Kei Rivers they found chief Ndlambe living in the area of Mount Coke, near King Williams Town today. In 1824, Ndlambe agreed to allow the missionaries to build a station near his Great Place, asking them to help in communications with the British government. In fact, they played a crucial role in building peaceful co-existence between the amaNdlambe and the Colony, mediating in agreements about land, cattle and trade, while offering Christianity and education.
Chief Ndlambe died in 1828, alleged to be over 90 years old. At the time he had 10 wives and the whole nation shaved its head in mourning. He has been called the "Father of African Nationalism" for this staunch insistence on the sovereignty of his people, despite the overwhelming power of British military forces.
His life spans a major transition period in South African history. He was born in the era before any Europeans had settled in the South Eastern part of South Africa, son of Rharabe, the first Xhosa chief to consolidate control over all the Xhosa and Khoisan people living west of the Fish River. Eurocentric historical interpretations often claim that the Zuurveld area was settled simultaneously by Europeans arriving from the west and Xhosa arriving from the east. However, archeological evidence shows that the area was occupied by iron-age people similar in culture to the amaXhosa, from the 12th century onwards. The confusion arises from the fact that Rharabe established himself as the highest royal authority in 1760, originating from areas east of the Kei River. Prior to that time, various clans of amaXhosa, Gonaqua and Gqunukwebe occupied the Zuurveld.
When his father died, Ndlambe served as regent of the kingdom from 1782 - 1796, after which his nephew, Ngqika, took over the reigns of power. Ndlambe's area of control remained the Zuurveld region. He fought in wars alongside the Boers in 1796, but then in collaboration with rebelling Khoisan servants against the Boers from 1799 - 1803. His two wars against the British in 1811 and 1819 resulted in the expulsion of his people from their homes and their resettlement in areas beyond the Keiskamma River.