Monday, June 21, 2010

The Xhosa Cattle Killings

Previously on this blog, we explored the willful, excessive, near-total destruction of cattle in the Soviet Union's Riazan oblast in 1959.

South Africa underwent something similar. But while the Soviet destruction was undertaken for political reasons, the South African destruction came due to simple faith and desperation.

Dateline, April 1856. The Xhosa people have been spending the last 80 years fighting the odd skirmish with British colonials. On this day, along the banks of the Gxara River, is a young girl named Nongqawuse, along with her friend Nombanda (who will play no further part in this story). She sees spirits, thought to be ancestors, come to her and give her a message. A message she relays to her uncle, Mhalakaza.

The message: all Xhosa cattle are to be destroyed. All Xhosa grain is to be destroyed as well. No new cattle or grain is to be produced. Once it was all gone, nothing else was to be done except to prepare for a new beginning in which food would issue forth from the earth- new, better food, including new cattle- and the English would be driven out. The Crimean War was fresh in their minds, and the Russian soldiers who fought in it were thought to be Xhosa ancestors reborn there.

(NOTE: Save that link for later. We'll be coming back to it at the end.)

When the message was originally received, naturally, it didn't go over very well. But then Nongqawuse returned to the Gxara soon afterward, with Mhalakaza, and the spirits gave her the same message. Mhalakaza could not see the spirits, but Nongqawuse assured him they were only visible to her. Mhalakaza couldn't hear them either, but could after Nongqawuse translated their speech.

Contemporary theories speculate that there may have been something wrong with the cattle, perhaps a lung disease that was in the area at the time. But whatever the cause, eventually, Mhalakaza was not only convinced, but proceeded to lead the charge.

And eventually, tribal chief Sarili went along with it, ordering a slaughter. The British in the area, according to some theories, may have been complicit at some point, but more likely they were merely spectators to something which to them was nothing less than horrifying, and if it was started as an effort to drive out the British, there wasn't much the British could do to stop it.

Not all of the cattle would die, as some Xhosa thought the kill-the-cattle idea to be pretty obviously crazy. They were facing a losing battle, as Mhalakaza and Nongqawuse would later bring Sarili to the Gxara. Sarili, as the Guinness Book of Historical Blunders noted, bore witness to corn and beer, a recently-dead son, and a favorite horse. His faith affirmed, the slaughter continued.

Until people started pressing for details as to just when exactly the salvation would happen once the task was carried out. This is where Mhalakaza began to unravel: he began giving specific dates. The prophecy had gone from a vague 'whenever the ancestors are satisfied' to a much more verifiable 'on this day'.

It was only a matter of time. First it was the end of July- a full moon. Nothing. Then it was August 16- a new moon. Nothing still. The Xhosa were frantic, thinking any odd noise could be the one heralding the resurrection and the exile of the British. Mhalakaza did his part to keep them that way, continually adding new wrinkles to the events that would occur once all the cattle and grain were destroyed. Above all, he used the fact that cattle still remained alive to explain away any delay in the resurrection as new moons continued to come and go. He increased the pressure by making dire predictions of doom on anyone who failed to slaughter their cattle.

Finally, on January 31, 1857, Mhalakaza made his final prophecy: February 18. The sun would rise, the sea would dry up, the sky would fall to head height.

On the morning of February 18, the Xhosa watched the sun rise. They watched the sea just as wet as ever. They watched the sun set. They saw no cattle. They saw no grain.

Game over. Sarili was out of patience. But Mhalakaza was not his chief target for blame.

"The reason we are broken today," Sarili exclaimed, "is on account of this girl."

Nongqawuse. The girl that had seen the visions in the first place.

It may not have been her in the driver's seat for most of the ordeal, but it was impossible to argue her role. She, along with many of those able, fled into the arms of the British, who would temporarily place her in protective custody on Robben Island. Mhalakaza would, fittingly, become a victim of the self-imposed famine.

The British, finally with an opening to act, would relieve the famine as best they could, but by now there was little they or anyone else could do. The damage was done. Many by this time were simply too far gone to save, if they were not already dead. By the end, 300,000-400,000 cattle were killed, and the Xhosas were reduced from 105,000 people to under 27,000.

Sarili would die in a later frontier war with the British in 1879. Nongqawuse, upon her release from Robben Island, would settle on a farm in the Eastern Cape until her death in 1898. The day of judgment Nongqawuse, Mhalakaza, Sarili, and the rest of the Xhosa hoped against hope would arrive was a day they would not live to see.

At least they wouldn't. Years later- many, many years later- the Xhosa would stage a miraculous comeback. Perhaps you've heard of a few modern-day Xhosa.

Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela.


POSTSCRIPT: If you'll scroll back up, the link reading 'Xhosa ancestors' goes to an article by South Africa's 'Christian Action' magazine, 2004, Vol. 2, entitled 'The National Suicide of the Xhosa'.

This article, it was noticed over the course of my research, is a top-to-bottom plagiarization of another one of my sources, The Guinness Book of Historical Blunders by Geoffrey Regan, copyright 1994. Specifically, the unnamed "author", with only the feeblest of alterations- substituting a period with an exclamation point and similar cosmetic adds and subtractions of words like "the", adding Bible verses at the beginning and end of the "article", deleting the last paragraph of the original piece, inserting subheadings between sections of the piece- copied nearly word-for-word the entry entitled 'Dies Irae' seen on pages 155-160 of the Guinness Book.

Guinness and Christian Action have both been notified of the infraction.

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