"There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death."
The “cattle killing” national suicide of the Xhosa in 1856 in Transkei, now the Eastern Cape of South Africa, was one of history's strangest socio-economic disasters. Within twelve months the population of Xhosaland plummeted by 80%, mostly through starvation. This bizarre episode was initiated by the niece of a witchdoctor. Through 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 economic suicide and it led to mass starvation.
In April 1856, two young Xhosa girls, 15 year-old Nongqawuse and 10 year-old Nombanda, were sent to chase birds from cornfields near the River Gxara. The elder girl, Nongqawuse, reported 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 event was about to take place. 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 that no further work must be done. When all the cattle had been killed the Russians would come, sweeping all the whites into the sea. (It was known that the British were fighting the Russians in the Crimean War “up North”, so it was generally assumed that the Russianswere black people).
Witchdoctor Confirms the Prophecy
The girls duly carried the message back to their 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 supported by her uncle Mhalakaza, who was a witchdoctor. Four days later when Mhalakaza went to the river with his niece, he could not see the figures the girl assured him were there and could hear their words only when Nongqawuse translated them for him. Nongqawuse 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.
Mhalakaza adopted the vision and message of the “New People” as his life-calling and he advanced it fervently. Mhalakaza began by killing his own cattle. Soon, his neighbours followed suit. There was general excitement at the thought of the new herds of cattle that the strange spirits had promised would appear on the great day. Over 400,000 cattle were slaughtered in Transkei.
“Clothes Contaminate – Nakedness is Pure”
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. Sarili particularly objected to European clothes, saying that his naked people, coated in red clay, were “clean” compared to the whites, who wore clothes.
“The Russians are Coming!”
During 1855, before Nongqawuse's vision, news had reached the Xhosa of the Crimean War. The Xhosa hoped that the British would be beaten and that the “Russians” would come and force the whites to leave their farms so that they could be looted and their herds of cattle expropriated. The idea soon took root that Nongqawuse's strange spirits had been “Russian” black men. The Xhosa believed that the Russians were actually the ghosts of Xhosa warriors who had died and therefore they must be black. The Xhosa expected the Russians to come to liberate them. But, they were assured that none of this could happen until all their cattle had been slaughtered and their grain stores destroyed.
Missionary Warnings Ignored
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 supporting Mhalakaza's message, the Xhosa people became divided between 'believers' and 'unbelievers', with the large majority believing the vision and following the paramount chief.
The Word of God vs. Witchcraft
“Thus says the Lord of Hosts: ‘Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you. They make you worthless; they speak a vision of their own heart, not from the mouth of the Lord. They continually say to those who despise Me’, the Lord has said, ‘You shall have peace’; and to everyone who walks according to the dictates of his own heart, they say, ‘No evil shall come upon you.’ For who has stood in the counsel of the Lord and has perceived and heard His Word? Who has marked His Word and heard it?” Jeremiah 23:16-18
A Possible Plot to Provoke War
The British representative at Port Elizabeth, John Maclean, failed to fully comprehend the dreadful significance of what the Xhosa were doing, but sensed a plot to provoke war against British authority in South Africa. The British High Commissioner, Sir George Grey, was alerted about the disastrous development.
Destruction is to Precede Liberation
To prove to the unbelievers that Mhalakaza was telling the truth, Sarili 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. When Mhalakaza told him that all his cattle and goats must immediately die, Sarili readily agreed. Mhalakaza warned everyone present that the Russianswould not come nor would any of the other predictions come to pass until all the Xhosa cattle had been killed and all their grain destroyed. He then named places within Transkei where Russians would appear and where the dead would return to life. Sarili returned to his kraal to begin to kill his cattle. As did all the other "believers". Soon Xhosa from throughout Transkei were hurrying towards the River Gxara in the hope of witnessing a miracle.
With the mass-hysteria mounting and the frenzied cattle killing escalating, Mhalakaza announced a date for the fulfilment of everyone's eager expectations. At the end of 1856 Mhalakaza declared that the resurrection would occur at the time of the next 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 earnestly anticipating it, nothing out the ordinary occurred. No Russians appeared. Nor did any cattle rise from the ground.
Chief 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 spectacular sacrifice was justified. Mhalakaza now was afraid and fled from 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. The “Russians” were not impressed with the amount of cattle killed. All cattle in Transkei must die if the “Russians” were to come. Mhalakaza made a fresh prediction: The“Russians” and the new moon would appear, 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.
Frenzied hysteria now prevailed in Transkei. One day at the beginning of August, an afternoon mist was seized upon, as the beginning of the Day of Deliverance. Everyone fled to their homes anticipating their deliverance. 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 said, two suns would rise in the heavens and collide, whereupon all the whites would be swept 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 all 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.
The resurrection of the Xhosa dead would take place, Mhalakaza told the Xhosa. There would be a thundering of every ox-hide shield ever beaten. This would signify the approach of many herds of 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. Absent on the day, would be those who had died by snakebite or had drowned in river or sea. The homes, herds and farms of the whites across the river would be theirs for the taking.
False Prophecy and Folly Brings Disaster
“For the land is full of adulterers; for because of a curse the land mourns. The pleasant places of the wilderness are dried up. Their course of life is evil and their might is not right. ‘For both prophet and priest are profane; yes, in My house I have found their wickedness,’ says the Lord. ‘Therefore their way shall be to them like slippery ways; in the darkness they shall be driven on and fall in them; for I will bring disaster on them, the year of their punishment,’ says the Lord. ‘And I have seen folly in the prophets of Samaria: They prophesied by Baal and caused My people Israel to err. Also I have seen a horrible thing in the prophets of Jerusalem: They commit adultery and walk in lies; they also strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns back from his wickedness. All of them are like Sodom to Me and her inhabitants like Gomorrah.” Jeremiah 23:10-14
More Deception and Delays
When 16 August passed without anything happening, Mhalakaza pressed for a postponement of the Great Day. The “New People” would not appear, unless those cunning Xhosa who had sold their cattle to avoid killing them carried out the decree completely. At one stage, a rumour was spread that armies of well-armed strangers had emerged from the sea and were lining the shores, but they could only be seen by the righteous. Apparently there were not many of those around at the time.
Doubts and Devious Deceptions
Mhalakaza next ordered everyone to thatch their huts securely as there would be a great storm and tempest on the Day of Judgment. Sarili was becoming suspicious. He was under intense pressure from his councillors, who were aghast at this willingness to continue slaughtering the nation's cattle. So once more he visited Mhalakaza 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 self-destructiveness of 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 would have catastrophic consequences. Sir Grey could not understand why the Xhosa were blind to their own danger.
As 1856 drew to a close the skies over Transkei 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 400,000 cattle had been slaughtered and in the subsequent famine, at least 100 000 Xhosa 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. 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 5,000 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.
On 18 February 1857, the revised and delayed day was deemed to have finally arrived. An English settler, Robert Mullins, was with a group of Xhosa when the great moment came. The sun rose and the sunset, as usual, nothing happened. Mullins recorded the day's events in his diary with clinical accuracy. In between, “Nothing much happened, except a lot of waiting and desperate 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."
The Nongqawuse Syndrome
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 the only one to blame. Sarili, himself, had succumbed to the fantasies of the charlatan Mhalakaza, the dreamer and schemer, who had wanted to be the “Messenger.” Was Mhalakaza a madman, demon possessed, or just an inadequate human being, unable to cope with life and reality? Perhaps he even believed his own stories. The tragedy was that so too did the vast majority of the Xhosa who had destroyed their nation.
“‘The prophet who has a dream, let him tell a dream; and he who has My Word, let him speak My Word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat?’ says the Lord. ‘Is not My Word like a fire?’ says the Lord ‘and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?’”
Prophets of Deceit Invite Disaster
“Behold, a whirlwind of the Lord has gone forth in fury - a violent whirlwind! It will fall violently on the head of the wicked. The anger of the Lord will not turn back until He has executed and performed the thoughts of His heart. In the latter days you will understand it perfectly. ‘I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran. I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied. But, if they had stood in My counsel and had caused My people to hear My Words, then they would have turned them from their evil way and from the evil of their doings.’ ‘Am I a God near at hand,’ says the Lord, ‘And not a God afar off? Can anyone hide himself in secret places, so I shall not see him?’ says the Lord; ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ says the Lord. ‘I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in My Name, saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed!’ How long will this be in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies? Indeed they are prophets of the deceit of their own heart.” Jeremiah 23:19-16
Disaster and Death
British officials who toured Transkei 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 a short distance 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 grey. Men and women presented the appearance of baboons and like baboons searched under stones for insects to devour.” 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 tills his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows frivolity will have poverty enough!”
Dr. Peter Hammond
Gospel Defence League
P.O. Box 36129
Cape Town South Africa
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Louis E de Broize
Do you have anymore articles about this Xhosa experience. I would also like to visit and talk baout this story ……if you are willing to talk. Thank you
Hi Louis E de Broize,
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