Reclaiming Nongqawuse | of prophesy and colonial deceit

Nongqawuse (R) and a young girl thought to be called Nonkosi. The two bore witness to the now discredited ‘vision’ that unleashed the mass Xhosa Cattle Killing of 1857.

More than a century and-a-half after one of the most devastating events in South Africa’s colonial history, the story of the mass Xhosa Cattle Killing –  by the young prophetess Nongqawuse’s vision – is still mired in wanton mythology. MR SIBUSISO MNYANDA argues that a proper reading of information in the public domain exposes the events leading up to the mass slaughter as nothing more than a devastating, well orchestrated, colonial con.

18 February 2017 marked 160 years since the mass holocaust known among the Xhosa as iNgqawule or the Cattle Killing. A ‘vision’ by the teenage girl Nonqgawuse convinced the vast majority of the nation that slaughtering all their livestock and destroying crops would somehow send the British crawling back into the ocean from which they came to enslave and pillage. The famine that ensued led to the death of more than 30, 000 people, with a further 29,000 destitute Xhosa forced to give up their land and seek work in the colony.

Throughout the 1850s, Europe was besieged by war and Britain was facing it on two fronts, with the Crimean and Mutiny (or Indian RebellionWars. This was a considerable threat to the East India Company’s power on the Indian Ocean coastlines. Australian and New Zealand  colonial projects were all-consuming. The frontier wars from 1790s up until the 1850s, however, were their biggest and most economically consuming effort. The resistant and rebellious Xhosa were more than just a puny native control drill for the then local authorities. Sending reinforcements would weaken the already mentioned fronts, and take too long by sea. A different, non-military and hastened strategy was key if the British were to dismantle the resistance.

A ‘vision’ by the teenage girl Nonqgawuse convinced the vast majority of the nation that slaughtering all their livestock and destroying crops would somehow send the British crawling back into the ocean from which they came to enslave and pillage.

I was privileged to have been a student of Prof. Jeff Pieres, the most well-versed descendant of British settlers in the Cape on the historical subject of the mass Xhosa Cattle Killing. Prof. Pieres states that before the mass slaughter, European settlers had only occupied land around the areas of Grahamstown. After the cattle saga, they settled on farms around Stutterheim and Cathcart which were Xhosa/Khoi/San occupied land, before 1820. The settlers’ true agenda – land dispossession and subjugation – was disguised on their arrival, missionaries and humanitarians hiding behind philanthropic work. Mr David Livingstone, and his Missionary Society counterpart Mr Nathaniel J. Merriman were the chief agents in this regard, with their infiltration into the continent between 1849 and 1855 contributing to the so-called ‘Scramble for Africa’.

Both their appointments coincided with the Sand River Convention, which was a convention by which Great Britain formally recognised the independence of the South African Republic (which meant British and Dutch settlers, not natives). Britain contravened the treaty in 1853, with Mr Livingstone storing, repairing and supplying materials of war to the native tribes, gaining their trust as he went along. Upon his return to Britain – where he was now a national hero – Mr Livingstone did many speaking tours and published his best-selling ‘Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa’ (1857), peddling stories of uncivilised natives, exotic culture and belief systems, amazing terrain and an infinite abundance of natural wealth: fertile ground for colonial interests. Significantly, he had maps, knowledge of customs and anthropological traits, loyal local connections with tribal leaders with personal interests. One important piece of information that would turn the course of Xhosa history forever, was the immense agricultural stability created around the maize crop and cattle. They were the source of Xhosa life, religiously and in basic common life practice.

The inscription on Nongqawuse’s grave, in the Alexandria district of the Eastern Cape.

The winter of 1851 was particularly cold and devastating to the crop, and the drought that came with it hit the regions of Rhini (Grahamstown, Albany) and Qhaqhiwa (Uitenhage, Bethersdal) with tremendous effect, such that subsistence farming was a way of living no more. Food was scarce and the colonial situation in the Cape Province meant that the British monopolised most of the pastoral and grazing lands. Food and water were a point of contestation. A native called Mr Mhlakaza (or Mr Wilhem Goliath) found himself in the company of British missionary envoy, Archdeacon Merriman of Grahamstown. He was used as an attendant (guide, translator, porter and fire-builder) on many visitation journeys, but he’d soon realise that his purpose was alternate, as they travelled together frequently reading the bible, discussing Theology and African cultural beliefs, walking from one parish to the next. They were the local divinely motley crew.

After the capture and brutal slaughter of King Hintsa the Great in 1835 , by Colonel Harry-Smith, Wesleyan christian convert Mr Mhlakaza was taken prisoner by the British. He was high advisor to the kings’ counsel, diviner and also a friend of the paramount lion of the Gcaleka clan. Little did he know that this would make him a prime candidate to serve as the “Achilles Heel” of his own nation in years to come. Mr Mhlakaza headed back to Gcaleka land when Merriman claimed he could no longer support having him as servant or guest. The famine was the dictator, and Mr Merriman had concluded his apprenticeship exercise and commanded his porter with conviction that was beyond his inquisition.

The year 1853 marks the entry of Governor-General Sir George Grey into the picture. He was principal in the contravening of treaty in 1853 of the Sand River Convention. Having been the chief colonial master of the earlier mentioned Indian, Australian and New Zealand missions, he was fit and appropriate to fulfil the new call to put an end to the chronic instability on the frontier among the Xhosa, by encouraging crop farming and ploughing. It is at this time that a foreign maize crop that corrupted grain found its way to our shores – resulting in diminished yields of harvest – and a shipload of diseased European cattle also docked. Having assimilated earlier studies made available by Mr Livingstone, Mr Grey was also well on his way to becoming a national hero.

Upon his return to Britain – where he was now a national hero – Mr Livingstone published ‘Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa’, peddling stories of uncivilized natives, exotic culture and belief systems, amazing terrain and an infinite abundance of natural wealth: fertile ground for colonial interests.

Land annexation began by 1856 when an expedition was sent out to subjugate leader of the Gcaleka clan and King of all Xhosa Sarhili, who fled across the Mbashe River. British troops were a common sight in Gcaleka land river mouths, camping and watching posts. It is in this time that in the frontier wars that Grey would launch Britains’ most lethal weapon against the natives. Socio-cultural psychological warfare. It is said that whilst in New Zealand, his principal informant, Mr Wiremu Maihi Te Rangikāheke, taught Grey to speak Māori. He induced leading chiefs to write down their accounts of Maori traditions, legends and customs. It is this tool that would lure Nongqawuse to her peril.

Mr George Grey disguised himself by covering his body with river bed clay. He then appeared to Nongqawuse, and a girl named Nonkosi, at the now famous Gxarha River pool. By now, Mr Grey had learned isiXhosa and its customs, thanks to Mr Livingstone, amongst others. He enticed them with orature that only a Xhosa warrior would know; calling on the name of Nongqawuses’ descendants who had fought alongside past monarchs against colonialists, to destroy all crops and cattle, for they were to be replaced by the wrath of the ancestors towards the British. The British would be driven to sea by Russians (Crimean War reference, only Mr Mhlakaza would have known at that time), where they came from. Nongqawuse relayed the vision to her uncle, who was none other than Mr Wilhem-Goliath or Mhlakaza, one time guide, translator, porter and fire-builder to Mr Merriman. The tale struck a chord. All those long expeditions, all those tales told, all the cultural exchanges that happened between him and his master were now coming into play. The king was compelled to heed the call. Mr Mhlakaza was a man to be listened to after all, having being counsel, diviner and also a friend to former monarch Hintsa. An African Holocaust was let loose, with the majority of Nongqawuse’s nation obliging, leading to famine, displacement and thousands of deaths.

The central government had established effective authority by 1858. Once the Xhosa chiefs lost their power, Mr Grey was able to settle the depopulated areas with white colonists. German legionaries – who had fought in the Crimean War – and their families were offered free passages to the Cape. The hamlet towns of Hamburg and Berlin in today’s Eastern Cape Province bearing witness to this settlement. These Europeans may not have lived there for long – many getting coopted into the aftermath of the Mutiny War in India just a year later – but the Xhosa have never really recovered from the British sleight, and far too many remain landless in a free and democratic South Africa.

References and additional Reading 

Sinclair, Keith (7 April 2006). Grey, George 1812–1898″Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.

The Penguin History of New Zealand, p. 203

Howcroft, P. (undated). South Africa Encyclopaedia: Prehistory to the year 2000, unpublished papers with by SA History Online.

Joyce, P. (1999). A Concise Dictionary of South African Biography, Cape Town: Francolin, pp.105 – 6 Rosenthal, E, pp.149-150.


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