The National Suicide of the Xhosa PDF Print E-mail

 

"There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death." Proverbs 14:12

One of history's strangest socio-economic disasters was the case of the "cattle killing" in 1856 in the Transkei - now the Eastern Cape of South Africa. In the space of twelve months the population of Xhosaland fell by 80 per cent, mostly through starvation. What was most bizarre was how the Xhosa embraced their fate and even welcomed it. Through a form of mass hysteria the Xhosa convinced themselves of the need to kill all their cattle, destroy all their food and sow no crops for the future. It was a mass national suicide by starvation. 
In April 1856 two young Xhosa girls were sent to chase birds from cornfields near the River Gxara. The elder girl, Nongqawuse, reported later that while they were drinking at the water's edge two mysterious figures materialised alongside them. They told the girls to take a message back to their kraal that a great resurrection was about to take place, and that all the people should kill all their cattle as these would no longer be needed. Once the great day came there would be no shortages of any kind, so they must tell their people that there must be no sowing or cultivation of crops and all stored grain must be thrown away. Once this had been carried out, the strangers told the girls, no further work must be done. And when all the Xhosa cattle had been killed the new people would come, sweeping all the whites into the sea.

The girls duly carried the message back to the kraal. At first everyone simply laughed, ridiculing them for their naivety. But the girls went back to the river the next day and received the same message. Nongqawuse was told to ask her uncle Mhalakaza, who was something of a seer, to come with her to the river in four days' time.

Four days later Mhalakaza went to the river with his niece, but he could not see the figures the girl assured him were there and could hear their words only when Nongqawuse translated them for him. This is what she claimed they said: "We are the people who have come to order you to kill your cattle, to consume your corn and not to cultivate anymore." Mhalakaza was instructed to take this message to the paramount chief of the Xhosa, Sarili, and to all the other chiefs.

With this Mhalakaza appeared to have found his vocation. He had found his own message - the message of the New People and he started to spread it fervently. He began by killing his own cattle, one a day, and soon his neighbours followed suit. There was general excitement at the thought of the new herds of cattle that the strangers had promised would appear on the great day. Even the paramount chief Sarili listened to Mhalakaza's words and was prepared to believe that Nongqawuse had really seen the strangers. He was encouraged in this by his own hopes of seeing the British driven away from the borders of his lands; and of seeing the influence of the white men removed from Xhosa life and society. He particularly objected to European dress, saying that his naked followers, coated in red clay, were clean compared to the white men who wore clothes.

The Russians Are Coming
During 1855, well before Nongqawuse's vision, news had reached South Africa of the Crimean War. The Xhosa hoped against hope that the British would be beaten and that the Russians would come and force the whites to leave Africa as well. The idea soon took root that Nongqawuse's strangers had been Russians, black men in military coats, for in the minds of the Xhosa at the time, the Russians were really the ghosts of past Xhosa warriors and therefore must be black. All along the coastline of Xhosaland people thronged the cliff tops looking out across the sea, waiting for the Russian ships to come to liberate them. But they were assured none of this could happen until all the cattle had been slaughtered.

The slaughter of their own cattle by the Xhosa was one of history's most enormous acts of faith, a ritual suicide. By the summer of 1856 the sayings of Mhalakaza were heard throughout the land and thousands of cattle were dying at the hands of their owners. British officials were aghast at the developments, but felt helpless to stop them. Missionary Charles Brownlee, brought up among the Xhosa and fluent in their language, was prominent in visiting the Xhosa kraals to try to counteract Mhalakaza's influence, but most would not listen to his warnings.

With Sarili admitting that he believed Mhalkaza's message, the whole Xhosa people became divided between 'believers' and 'unbelievers', with the large majority following the paramount chief.

The British representative at Port Elizabeth, John Maclean, failed to comprehend the dreadful significance of what the Xhosa were doing, but sensed a plot against British authority in South Africa. The British High Commissioner, Sir George Grey, was also alerted about the supposed plot and he and Maclean prepared to intervene militarily in the strange affair.

Sarili, to prove to the unbelievers that Mhalakaza was telling the truth, now went with the prophet to the Gxara riverbank where the strangers had first appeared to Nongqawuse. There he was apparently shown one of his sons who had recently died, and a long-dead favourite horse, as well as acorn and beer that miraculously appeared as presents from the new people. Sarili was impressed and when Mhalakaza told him that all his cattle and goats must immediately die, he readily agreed. Mhalakaza warned everyone present that the Russians would not come nor would any of the other predictions come to pass until all the cattle had been killed and all the grain wasted. He then named the places within the Xhosa lands where the Russians would appear and where the dead would return to life. Sarili at once returned to his kraal and began to kill his cattle, as did all the other "believers".

Sarili had wanted the story of his meeting with the strangers to be kept secret, but this was too much to expect and soon pilgrims from throughout his land were hurrying towards the River Gxara in the hope of witnessing a miracle.

Self Imposed Starvation
With the hysteria mounting and the cattle killing increasing to a frenzy, Mhalakza announced a date for the fulfilment of everyone's expectations. At the end of 1856 Mhalakaza declared that the resurrection would occur at the time of the full moon. Excitement reached fever pitch as the day of the full moon approached. But, in spite of the fact that hundreds of thousands of Xhosa people were willing it, nothing out the ordinary occurred. The Russians never appeared, nor did any cattle rise from the ground.

Sarili began to have doubts. Already the young children were going short of food and soon the famine would be affecting everyone. He decided that Mhalakaza had better produce some of his New People in order to convince the Xhosa that their sacrifice was justified. Mhlalakaza now was afraid and left his own kraal, fearing that Sarili might have him killed. He sent a message to the chief saying that the New People had moved to "a stronghold" to wait the day. Clearly they had not been impressed with the numbers of cattle that had been killed. All cattle must die if the Russians were to come. And Mhalakaza made a fresh prediction: the Russians like the new moon would appear around 16 August. Visitors to the riverbank found that the now frequent appearance of New People was stage-managed by Mhalakaza and his team of marshalls. Nobody was allowed to get close enough to speak to the distant shapes or hear what they said. They seemed to speak only to Mhalakaza or through him. Sometimes the prophet pointed out to sea and told the pilgrims that there were the heads of Russians "bobbing about in the water". At other times ghostly lowing was heard from unseen cattle, or bleating from invisible goats.

Hysteria now ruled in the land of the Xhosa. An afternoon mist, one day at the beginning of August, was construed as the beginning of the day of resurrection and everyone fled to their homes and waited for something to happen.

The day passed and night fell, and nothing happened. Every sound was interpreted as having a bearing on the coming of the New People. On the great day, Mhalakaza had said, two suns would rise in the heavens and collide, whereupon all the whites would march into the sea, which would divide revealing a road down which they would march to the place of creation, known as Uhlanga. There Satan would take his revenge on both the whites and on those Xhosa who had disobeyed the call to kill their cattle. Then the world would be plunged into darkness until a new sun would rise and herald the new world. This apocalyptic vision drove the Xhosa into an orgy of even more cattle killing.

As the resurrection of the Xhosa dead took place, the Xhosa were told by Mhalakaza, there would be a thundering as of every ox-hide shield ever beaten by Bantu warriors, signifying the approach of herd after herd of the fine, new cattle that had been promised. New corn would cover the land and every human ill would be put right, the lame would walk, the blind would see, the old would become young, the young become younger, nobody would have to work, everything would always be new. Significant by their absence on the day of resurrection would be those evildoers who had died by snakebite or had drowned in river or sea.

Delays And Deception
But 16 August passed without anything happening and Mhalakaza pressed for a postponement of the Great Day. The new people would not appear, he warned, unless those cunning Xhosa who had sold their cattle to avoid killing them carried out the decree properly. At one stage, a rumour spread that hordes of well-armed strangers had emerged from the sea and were lining the shores, but they could only be seen by the righteous, and there were not many of those about at the time.

Mhalakaza next ordered everyone to thatch their huts securely as there would be a great storm and tempest on the Day of Judgment. Again Sarili was becoming suspicious. He was under intense pressure from his councilors, who were aghast at this willingness to continue slaughtering the nation's cattle. So once more he visited Mhalakza at the riverbank, in order to speak to the strangers. He was told by Mhalakaza to look at the ground and, under no circumstances, to look up. He would then see the shadows of the New People passing across the ground in front of him. Sarili accepted all this deception and was duly convinced when the shadows passed by him. But reports of this meeting were so embroidered as they spread, that eventually it was claimed Sarili had seen boatloads of New People arrive at the mouth of the river, informing him they had come to establish the freedom of the black people.
Meanwhile, frustrated at his inability to understand the Xhosa, Sir George Grey threatened Sarili with dire consequences if he encouraged his people to kill any more cattle. Grey could see that starvation in the land of the Xhosa was now unavoidable, but he could not understand why they were blind to their own danger.

As the year drew to a close the skies over Xhosaland were filled with vultures, circling and diving at the bovine and human carcasses lying in almost equal numbers in the uncultivated fields. Already upwards of 20 000 cattle had been slaughtered and in the subsequent famine, at least 100 000 Xhosa had already died of starvation between the Fish and Kei Rivers. Sarili, meanwhile, still showed a blind faith in the word of Mhalakaza. Each time Sarili met him, Mhalakaza had a new excuse to explain why nothing had happened at successive new moons. Sarili was so upset that he had tried to kill himself after one failure, and his servants were forced to remove all knives and sharp objects from near him.

Mhalakaza, reaching the end of everyone's patience, now spread the word that the New People had abandoned the Xhosa "in disgust" because they had not killed all their cattle. But so desperate were the Xhosa by this stage that more bizarre visions were seen. The Xhosa claimed to have seen Russian armies marching on the surface of the sea and people sailing in umbrellas, and to have heard thousands of cattle beneath their feet.

On 31 January 1857, a great assembly of more than 5000 Xhosa met near the town of Butterworth. 'Believers' from all across the land attended, and Sarili himself was present. There they received another message from Mhalakaza that they must all go home and kill the milk cows that had been spared so far to provide milk for the babies and young children. The cows were then to be skinned and the hides used to protect the doors from the furious lightning that would precede the arrival of the new cattle. This time Mhalakaza added a few new touches. Once the new sun had risen in the sky, the sea would dry up and the sky would descend to just above head height.

Disillusionment 
On 18 February 1857, the day was deemed to have arrived. An English settler, Robert Mullins, was with a group of Xhosa when the great moment came. The sun rose…the sunset, as usual…Mullins recorded the day's events in his diary with clinical accuracy. In between, nothing much happened, except a lot of waiting and hoping on the part of the Xhosa. Mrs Brownlee, a more sensitive witness, noted, "One of the saddest sights was that of an old woman wizened with age, and doubly wrinkled by starvation, decked out with brass rings jingling on her withered arms and legs. They had kept on their ornaments hoping against hope, till too weak to remove them. As the sun set there was a silence across the land as of death. No children laughed and played, no cattle lowed, no sheep bleated, and no happy herdsmen laughed and joked with his friends at the end of a day's work."

As if seeing the light for the first time, Sarili pointed at Nongqawuse and said "The reason we are broken today is on account of this girl!" But she was not to blame. Sarili, himself, had succumbed to the fantasies of a charlatan, of Mhalakaza, the dreamer, who wanted to be a "Messenger". Was Mhalakaza a madman, or just an inadequate human being, unable to cope with his life? Perhaps he even believed his own stories. The tragedy was that so too did most of the Xhosa people.

Disaster
British officials who toured round Xhosaland trying to distribute food, found heart-breaking sights. In some places the people had climbed into their grain pits to see if they had been miraculously filled in their absence. But, too weak to climb out again, they had died there. Emaciated women with children clinging to their flattened breasts raked the hard ground for roots. Starvation drove others to boil and eat their ox-hide shields or their leather skirts. 
Those who reached the soup kitchens provided by the British were no more than walking skeletons and many died of exhaustion only yards from safety. A missionary wrote, "Famine has effaced all human likeness. Young men of twenty lost their voices and chirruped like birds. Children were wrinkled and withered and gray. Men and women presented the appearance of baboons, and like baboons searched under stones for insects to devour." And as the vultures and wild dogs devoured the dead and half-dead Xhosa, the survivors turned to cannibalism in their last desperate urge to live, killing and eating their own children. Mhalakaza himself died of starvation along with his niece Nongqawuse.

"He who works his land will have abundant food, but the one who chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty." Proverbs 28:19

 
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