Nongqawuse & the Cattle Killings

Nongqawuse (left) and Nonkosi

Nongqawuse (left)
and Nonkosi

Nongqawuse (also spelt Nongqause) is a name that will haunt the Xhosa people forever. In 1856, the Xhosa nation was in despair. A number of Friesland Bulls were imported from Holland in 1850 and with them came lung-sickness. Thousands of their prized cattle, a sign of wealth in Xhosa culture, had succumbed. The British had murdered King Hintsa and they had fought and lost many wars against the European settlers, who had taken large tracts of Xhosa territory and cattle. They were looking for a miracle, something to turn around this spell of misfortune.

Into the spotlight stepped Nongqawuse. She was the young niece of Mhlakaza, a priest/diviner who was held in high regard by the Xhosa King, Sarhili. One day, as she looked into the pools in the Gxara River, Nongqawuse had a vision. She claimed to have spoken to the ancestors who promised that they would rise from the dead and drive the hated white man into the sea and replace their sick cattle with strong, healthy cattle. All the ancestors asked for in return was that, as an act of faith, the people would kill all their cattle and destroy all of their crops.

A great commotion arose at the sound of this news and men from far and wide came to see Nongqawuse and to peer into the pool. Some said they had seen the faces of their ancestors in the water, others claimed to have seen whole armies of spirits waiting to arise, eager to destroy the Europeans.

For the next ten months, the Gcaleka Xhosas set about the destruction of all the cattle and crops. Then, on the appointed day, the 18th of February 1857, they awaited the rising of a blood red sun, the awakening of vast spirit armies and the arrival of fat cattle and ripe crops. The sun arose that morning just the same as it always had, there were no armies, no crops and no cattle, only ruin and the grim prospect of starvation. An estimated 25000 people died of starvation and Nongqawuse fled for her life. She was housed for her own safety on Robben Island and ended her days in obscurity on a farm near King Williams Town in the Eastern Cape.