Nongqawuse (National Liberation)


Xhosa (South Africa) prophetess who precipitated a millenarian movement among her people known as the Great Cattle Killing. The years preceding Nongqawuse’s prophecies had been difficult ones for the Xhosa. They had fought and lost two wars against the Cape Colony, the so-called Seventh (1846-1847) and Eighth (1850-1852) Frontier Wars, and colonial troops had destroyed Xhosa crops, seized their cattle, and annexed large tracts of Xhosa land. Then a lung sickness, contagious bovine pleuropneu-monia (CBPP), brought in from Europe in 1853, began to decimate Xhosa livestock herds. Blight was also destroying maize fields, damaging the stalks before the corn had ripened. The Xhosa were experiencing a period of psychological trauma, continual loss of their land to the British, and food shortages due to the combination of military defeat and natural disaster. The circumstances turned the Xhosa to indigenous belief systems for relief. Several prophets arose, including an adolescent orphan girl, Nongqawuse. She lived with her uncle, Mhla-kaza, a disillusioned Christian convert who preached a new gospel containing both Xhosa animist and Christian religious elements.

In April 1856, while playing with a friend at a pool on a river near her home, the fifteen-year-old Nongqawuse reported that two strangers identifying themselves as long-departed ancestors told her that Xhosa cattle were rotten, cursed, and must be slaughtered. Xhosa crops, which were infected with a blight, were also to be destroyed. Xhosa ancestors would then arise from the dead and help the living in a holy war against the British, driving both colonial invaders and Xhosa unbelievers into the sea. The Xhosa could then reclaim their land, restore tradition, and the lung sickness devastating their herds and the blight afflicting their maze would cease. New cattle herds would magically appear, grain bins would overflow, and sickness and death, poverty and witchcraft would cease. In response, the paramount Xhosa chief, Sarhili, slaughtered his herds and ordered subordinate chiefs to do likewise.

Mhlakaza, supposedly interpreting his niece’s visions, then determined a day of resurrection, by which time all cattle must be killed, crops destroyed, new grain bins built, cattle-folds laid out, and witchcraft ended. When nothing occurred on three separate days of resurrection, the entire situation collapsed. The results, however, were catastrophic. Close to 80 percent of the nation’s cattle—more than 400,000 animals—were slaughtered, 40,000 Xhosa died of hunger, and 150,000 were displaced. The Xhosa lost two-thirds of their land, their economic and political independence, and many survivors were forced to seek refuge and ill-paid employment in the colony (Beck 2000, 46).

Debate about the "great cattle killing" continues more than 140 years after the event. One widely accepted interpretation argues that this millenarian movement arose from colonial pressure, Christian and Xhosa resurrection and regeneration beliefs, and the epidemic of CBPP. Some scholars place much of the blame on Nongqawuse’s uncle and the tribal chiefs, while many Xhosa continue to fault the Cape colonial governor, Sir George Grey, for the event and its catastrophic consequences. These latter "androcentric" interpretations have been challenged by some who argue that issues of gender, women’s rights, and Xhosa male sexual misconduct led to Nongqawuse’s prophecies.

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