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Africa During the Scramble: The Worst Mistake in Human History

Updated: May 17, 2022

By Gary Oswald

Nongqawuse (right) with fellow prophet, Nonkosi

In 1856, the Xhosa people of the Western and Eastern Cape provinces of modern South Africa committed possibly the single largest unforced error in the history of modern geopolitics. It began when a 15 year old Xhosa girl named Nongqawuse was asked to scare birds from her Uncle's farm. There she reported meeting two spirits of the dead, who told her that the Xhosa should destroy all their crops and kill all their cattle and if they did so the spirits would drive the White men into the sea and restore all the food to the Xhosa. She told this story to her uncle Mhlakaza, who repeated it to his King, Sarhili. And almost all of the Xhosa nations believed in this prophecy and set about destroying their own food reserves. Between 300,000 to 400,000 cattle were killed and huge areas of crops were destroyed.

But, despite this piety, the Spirits did not emerge and so instead of the White Men being driven into the sea, it was the starving Xhosa who were destroyed. Around 50,000 of them simply starved to death and the rest migrated to the British Colonies seeking food. The British Governor, George Grey, ordered the European settlers not to help the Xhosa unless they entered labour contracts, resulting in the confiscation of huge amounts of Xhosa land and the reduction to servitude of its owners. In a single incident, the proud African Kingdoms who had resisted British expansion for fifty years of bitter combat were broken, from 105,000 Xhosa inhabiting the area known as Kaffraria in January 1857, by 1858 there was only around 25,000. There would be some later wars of rebellion in 1877-1879 and 1880 but they were foregone conclusions. It was the Cattle Killing of 1856 that ruined any chance of the Xhosa maintaining their resistance. From then on, the white man clearly held the whip hand in the Cape and he had the confidence to soon disarm and disenfranchise his black neighbours.

And the removal of the Xhosa not only changed the way the people of the Cape viewed their black residents but it paved the way for the British to push into the territory of the Sotho, the Griquas, the Zulu, the Pedi, the Boers and the other more northern peoples. A longer lasting Xhosa resistance utterly changes the History of South Africa. So from an Alternate History perspective this is a hugely attractive event to try and change. And well it's so random and so senseless that it seems trivial to do so. Had Nongqawuse not gone to that field at that time, the Cattle Killings wouldn't have happened and the Xhosa would have carried on their resistance to the British. They still would have lost eventually, but it would have been a much slower and bloodier process, which would have hugely influenced the politics of both the Cape, and the nations which would be shielded behind that resistance.

But is it that simple? Nongqawuse's prophecy is only half the story. Plenty of fifteen year old girls have said wild things. The question really is why were the Xhosa people so primed to believe her? After all the Xhosa weren't a centralised Kingdom, they had no standing army or bureaucracy, each family unit was essentially self governing and their leaders could really only advise not order. This had been at the core of the conflict with the Dutch and British, wherein the Europeans found it impossible to find a chief who could speak for everyone and thus treaties were regularly broken by third parties and it had also prevented a united front of the Xhosa against those enemies. The Xhosa Cattle Killing was an astonishing show of unity that could only happen because of widespread buy in from the people, no one King could dictate it.

And in many ways it was entirely in keeping with the history of Xhosa spiritualism, which had long since produced respected prophets who preached gospels of Millennialism.

The British in their wars against the Xhosa had always been notably and shockingly brutal, shooting anything that moved, taking no prisoners, destroying food supplies to starve out the enemy and handing out women and children to their colonial troops as labour. For the Xhosa, this brutality was new and terrifying, it was a shattering experience for a people who had largely won their wars against the Dutch and Khoisan and weren't used to losing, yet alone this merciless destruction. Faced with something that seemed not quite human as an enemy, they increasingly looked for the spirits as succour.

In the 1810s, that desire was answered by the war-doctor Nxele who claimed the spirits would bring back those who had died during the Xhosa's previous war with the British if the Xhosa proved themselves with new victories. Nxele led the Xhosa on an ambitious attack on the British settlement at Grahamstown but was captured and taken to Robben Island where he drowned trying to escape. The dead of the Xhosa did not come back to life and the result of the war, was the British conquering huge areas of land from them.

In 1850, their new war-doctor was Mlanjeni who deemed the whites as creatures of evil witchcraft who would be removed if the sources of their power were destroyed. He asked his followers to kill yellow coloured cattle, which he felt were contaminated by the whites and would weaken them with their loss. Having done this he blessed the Xhosa armies with charms which made them invincible to bullets. In War with the British, they were to prove less invincible than hoped and once again the result was lots of Xhosa deaths and a British victory.

But, if you argue that they should have learned the lesson, it's difficult to know what they should have learned. Because the Xhosa also fought a great many battles based on tactics, strategy and effective guerrilla warfare under their brilliant commander Maqoma, and they lost those too.

Losing again and again, no matter what they tried, was just the history of the Xhosa from 1805 to 1856. They lost huge amounts of land from the British and were forced to labour on British farms for little pay. Whereas the British saw fierce and effective resistance which curtailed the colony's expansion, the Xhosa saw years of humiliation and famine, where they'd endured the loss of land and ill treatment, with the reprisal system of cattle raids wherein any missing cattle from the British settlements would be replaced by ones stolen from the Xhosa particularly resented.

By 1856, the culture and economy of the Xhosa society had unravelled, they still existed in large numbers and still held land and weapons, certainly George Grey still viewed them as a formidable obstacle, but their old ways were dying and they were a defeated people, made to kiss the boots of the British governor who claimed the position of their new paramount leader. In the 19th century, a belief in a spiritual reset replacing the current broken order was common among the victims of imperialism, other such forms occurred among the Sioux and in the Congo, and the Xhosa were ripe for that desire.

From their perspective, they had tried War and lost and they had tried peace and lost anyway, as it did not stop British desire for land. All their efforts seemed to do was provoke a genocidally brutal response from the British. So they resorted instead to the third option, religion.

There was also the often missed point that the Xhosa cattle were already dying in 1856. Bovine lungsickness had arrived from Europe on a Dutch Ship in 1855 and around 30% of the Xhosa cattle had already succumbed to that. Killing the remaining Cattle was less of a gamble when there was reason to think they might soon die anyway. This disease gave further credence to the idea that the current world was rotten and impure and a new rebirth and resurrection was needed. Likewise the maize harvest had failed the previous year due to grubs and small pox was running rampant. The feeling was there wasn't a lot to lose.

Nongqawuse was also far from the only prophet to call for cattle killing, it was a relatively common solution in terms of sacrifice. Mlanjeni had called for it only 6 years earlier (albeit limited to yellow cattle), and the year prior to Nongqawuse, there'd been a revolutionary fervour in which prophets argued that poor leadership from the Xhosa chiefs had led them to their current problems and so the chiefly herds should be slaughtered as punishment. The Chiefs owned 87% of the herds, owning your own herd was largely what made you a chief with anyone who could own their own splitting off from the main clan, and simply rented them out to the peasants as patronage. Because they could always get them back if they were displeased, this was one of their main means of control and also their main insurance against droughts, where in the Chiefly class could survive, at the expense of the peasants, by calling in their loaned out cattle. This underlines the extent to which the cattle killing calls was also a call for revolution. You killed the, dying, Cattle you rented from your chief and got in return a resurrected new healthy Cow, that you owned out right.

To fully demonstrate the extent to which Nongqawuse was following a well trod path, it must be noted that Sarhili had executed no fewer than twenty prophets who called for cattle killing in the years before he entertained Nongqawuse. Nongqawuse was merely the most successful and the most extreme of these prophets, in that she called for the destruction of all the herds. She was listened to because what she was saying was the obvious conclusion of what other people had been saying for years. Killing some cattle had never worked, but what if we just weren't doing that hard enough. What if we killed all the cattle? And this doubling down was listened to because by 1856, it had become clear to Sarhili that executing the prophets simply wasn't working at discouraging new ones, and when this new prophet was a 15 year old girl who was niece to one of his advisors, killing her would be politically dangerous. Sarhili seems to have concluded that if killing prophets wasn't stopping this, dangerously revolutionary, demand from his peasants, the only other option was to listen to one and hope to co-opt them.

Areas spared of the lung diseases resisted the demand to cull their cattle, but wherever that disease spread, the demand grew as a response and the leaders gave in. They had to, they had little credibility to resist it, being already seen as cowards who let the British walk over them. This was a revolutionary movement and there simply wasn't the top down authority for chiefs to refuse it, even those who privately thought it was madness. Those who refused to burn their own food supplies were attacked by those who believed. In the aftermath of the famine, the lack of the spirits was still blamed on those cattle and crops that were not destroyed.

Seated portrait of Sir George Grey,

George Grey took full opportunity of the Famine to fully break the back of the Chiefs and send the Xhosa into slave labour for the white settlers, who had long suffered from labour shortages. He invaded the starving Xhosa lands, killing hundreds of a people too broken to fight back, and removed anyone of influence who might oppose his plans. The vast majority of Xhosa territory, outside some reserves, was annexed into the Cape. Grey cynically took advantage of this opportunity to destroy a possible obstacle to British expansion. While Nongqawuse was primarily responsible for the famine, his hostility and refusal to allow settlers to provide aid made the famines far worse and led to thousands of extra deaths. And he was successful in his aims, 1856 was the end of Xhosa resistance capable of truly threatening the colony.

But there was still resistance, just on a scale where it couldn't challenge the British. And a later war twenty years later, in 1877-1879, is perhaps worth considering when thinking about the reasons behind the tragedy of 1856 and Nongqawuse's prophecy.

That war came about during one of the terrible El Niño droughts which plagued Africa during the time period and drove desperate peoples to war against each other. The remaining pagan Xhosa resented their position and in particular they hated the Christian Xhosa who had switched sides and fought for the British in previous wars and so had earned their own land and ability to vote. The British, on the other hand, were alarmed that the Xhosa were newly well armed due to buying guns with money earned in the diamond mines and wanted their guns seized. When a fight between Pagan and Christian Xhosa led to a small pagan rebellion, the British Army took advantage to sweep through the Xhosa Kingdom of Gcalekaland (which was a British protectorate but not part of the Cape Colony), killing those who resisted and disarming those who did not. The land conquered was sold to white settlers and the territory was annexed to the Cape. With this successful example at hand, troops from the Cape under the local colonial government extended the war even further by trying to seize land they wanted from previously peaceful natives. Before long all of the pagan Xhosa were at war with the British.

The Xhosa's best warriors, Sandile and Khiva, fought a brutal guerrilla war with gun and horse. They ambushed patrols, attacked farms, retreated to rough caves and bush territory to neutralise artillery and dragged out the war for two years of brutal fighting until the British finally starved them out. Upon surrender they were disarmed and their land stripped from them.

Two other attacks however were launched by the Xhosa with different tactics. Under the influence of Nita, a young female war-doctor, these Xhosa made no attempt to deploy skirmishing tactics at all. They just marched, 7,000 strong, straight at the British on the assurance that Nita would make the bullets bounce off them. She couldn't and the attack was routed, though the Xhosa would try the same trick again a little later.

And in all honesty, I can understand why they tried it. What Sandile was offering had the best result of a long drawn out fight which would force the British to negotiate and the worst result of dying of starvation after 2 years of brutal fighting in caves. Nita was instead offering either a quick total victory or a quick death.

I said at the start of this article that the Xhosa Cattle Killing was possibly the single largest unforced error in the history of modern geopolitics. And it was. The Lungsickness would have killed around 40% of the Xhosa cattle regardless, but there was no reason to make that 100%. But it was also an error that emerged from desperation, from a people who had given up on winning conventionally and saw in front of them, either a way to buy more years and extend a losing fight longer or a way to end it for good.

In the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf says that the prudent thing would be hole up in their strongholds and extend the war as long as they can but the right thing to do is to gamble everything on victory. The latter is what the Xhosa did, and, because life isn't fiction, it cost them dearly but expecting them to choose Sandile's war of attrition instead is asking them to choose what makes sense from the perspective of the Zulu or the Sotho rather than the Xhosa. It would be non Xhosa who'd benefit the most for prolonged resistance in a doomed cause. By 1856, the Xhosa were entirely right to come to the conclusion that they needed divine intervention to regain their independence and prosperity.

What the Xhosa learned from the Cattle Killing was that even if you think you don't have anything to lose, you still often do. It could still get worse. In the aftermath of the awful famines, bitter Xhosa joked that it was certainly Spirits that Nongqawuse had talked to. Just they must have been British Spirits.


Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' Anthology.


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