Ibali lalenzwakazi selisaziwa kakulu emzin’ apa, nesiyikili esenzekyo ngokuteta kwayo. Ngenxa yokwaziwa kwebali eli selesuke ati elowo azityutelele eyake indawo ku Nongqause apa, asebenzise eyake ingqondo kweso sicwili, kungeko salelo. Wonke ofuna ukunyembenya into, okanye efuna ukutichita, uya eyitiye igama lokuba ngu Nongqause.
Speaking with the shades
Nongqawuse was addressed by the ‘shades’, who conveyed to her the will of the ancestors. They gave instructions that amaXhosa were to kill their cattle and burn their crops.
The story of Nongqawuse and the Great Xhosa Cattle Killing usually begins in April 1856 at the Gxarha River in what is now the Eastern Cape, South Africa.
According to most retellings, two girls named Nongqawuse and Nombanda arrived at the river after chasing birds from the fields.2William Wellington Gqoba, ‘Isizatu sokuxelwa kwe nkomo ngo Nongqause’, Isigidimi SamaXosa (Lovedale), 1 March and 2 April 1888. For translations of Gqoba’s text, see Helen Bradford and Msokoli Qotole, ‘Ingxoxo enkulu ngoNongqawuse (A Great Debate about Nongqawuse’s Era)’, Kronos Vol. 34, No.1 (November 2008), 66-105. Alternatively, see William Wellington Gqoba, ‘Isizatu sokuxelwa kwe nkomo ngo Nongqause (The motive for the Nongqawuse cattle killing)’, in Jeff Opland, Pamela Maseko and Wandile Kuse (eds.), William Wellington Gqoba, Isizwe Esinembali, Xhosa Histories and Poetry (1873-1888), (Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2015), 460-483 At the river they were approached by two people dressed in traditional Xhosa attire. The older of the two girls – Nongqawuse – recognised them as men who had recently died. While Nombanda could neither hear them speak nor see them, Nongqawuse was addressed by these ‘shades’, who conveyed to her the will of the ancestors.3Nongqawuse attested to Nombanda’s inability to see or hear the two men, shades, or ancestors in her deposition taken by Major John Cox Gawler. ‘Examination of the Kaffir Prophetess Nonqause before Major Gawler’, 27 April, GH 8/35 Schedule 69 of 1858 Enclosure 2, Western Cape Archives and Record Service, Cape Town.
They gave instructions that amaXhosa were to kill their cattle and burn their crops because they had been reared and grown by those who performed ubuthi . The people were to hide in their houses for eight days, waiting for the red sun.4Hence the title of Zakes Mda’s 2003 novel, Heart of Redness, centered on the cattle killing. Zakes Mda, Heart of Redness (New York: Picador, 2000). If they followed these instructions, fallen amaXhosa of previous wars would rise, coming across the ocean to defeat the Europeans who had invaded Xhosaland, and expel them into the sea.
Online from: 31 March 2022
The Scene of the Prophecies
Nongqawuse and Nombanda walked from their residence southward down the Gxarha river where they encountered two deceased amaXhosa who communicated to Nongqawuse the will of the ancestors.
There is no transcription of these instructions directly from Nongqawuse or Nombanda, even though they and various others were interrogated by colonial officials. The knowledge we have of the prophecy was collected by researchers like William Wellington Gqoba primarily from people who endured the cattle killing, and who described the circumstances and instructions of the prophecy afterwards. It is their understanding of the events that we use to look back at the circumstances of the prophecy. Their accounts, along with other kinds of research, allow us also to look at the events that followed the prophecy.
What did Nongqawuse do?
Nongqawuse first went to her uncle, Mhlakaza, to relay the information. Her parents had died some years before, during the preceding wars with European forces.
The historian, Jeff Peires, indicates that Mhlakaza was a Christian-influenced igqirha or itola with whom Nongqawuse served as an apprentice of sorts.5J.B. Peires, The Dead Will Arise: Nongqawuse and the Great Xhosa Cattle-Killing of 1856-7 (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1989), 61-69. Mhlakaza guided Nongqawuse through the events that ensued.
She and Mhlakaza would not accept this. Using his political connections, Mhlakaza got word of the prophecy to Sarhili, paramount of amaGcaleka and highest-ranking leader among amaXhosa of the time.
Sarhili then instructed that a large delegation of amaXhosa notables should visit the prophetic pair to see what was going on.
Nongqawuse and Mhlakaza adopted a different strategy with this delegation. Rather than using only words as they had with the villagers, the pair led the delegation to the Gxarha river.
At the river Nongqawuse instructed them to drink the water from the river to prove that they were not performers of ubuti. At first the men were tentative. Eventually, Dilima, son of Phatho, who was the leader of amaGqunukhwebe, stooped down to drink from the river. AmaGqunukhwebe were a group who fell under the authority of the Gcaleka paramount, although many were of Khoi ancestry.
The others followed Dilima’s lead. Each drank and the group proceeded to the nearby beach. Some versions of the story assert that the men were thirsty and that it was they who asked to drink the river water.
When Nongqawuse led them to the river mouth in the dwindling light, the party observed what seemed to be figures coming across the ocean, amid the crashing sounds of waves and boulders. It was through these aural and visual experiences that many of the delegation came to believe the prophecy.
Kute kunjalo yati intombazana kanibekise amehlo enu elwandle. Bate bakuqwalasela emazeni olwandle kwanga kuko abantu okunene, kwanga kukonya nenkunzi zenkomo, kwa nenkabi, yasisibiba esimnyama esimane sibuyabuya, sade sabuyasemka sayakutshonela kwase lundini paya emazen olwandle, baqala bakolwa ke bonke abantu.7Gqoba, ‘Isizatu’
Then the girl said, ‘Cast your eyes upon the sea.’ When they gazed intently at the ocean waves, they seemed to see actual people, with bulls bellowing, and oxen, a shadowy concourse constantly moving in and out of sight, then disappearing under the towering ocean waves, and everyone then began to believe.8Gqoba in Opland et al, 462.
Once the sights and sounds had gripped the delegates, Nongqawuse gave her instructions. While there is no record of what she actually said, William Wellington Gqoba, who published the first isiXhosa history of the event, provides a version:
Ziti inkosi godukani niye kuxela zonke inkomo kungabiko nto niyifuyileyo, ukuze uvuko lukauleze. Maze ningalimi, yimbani izisele ezikulu ezitsha, niyakubona sezizele kukudla okutsha. Dimbazani nenninako eziseleni niye kukalahla. Yakani izindlu ezintsha, nenze nengcango ezininzi nizenze ngobuka, nize nizavalele ezindlwini, namhla ngovuko kuba kuyakuti ngosuku lwesibozo xa upumayo umzi omhle usiza nenkosi awo u Napakade into ka Sifubasabanzi, zonke izilo zehlabati nezemilambo, nenyoka, ziyakuba zizibadubadu kulo lonke ilizwe. Ukuze nisinde zenivale ngengcango ezininzi, niqamagele ukubopelela, nilahle bonke ubuti.9Gqoba, ‘Isizatu’.
The chiefs say go home and slaughter all your cattle leaving nothing that you have reared, to hasten the resurrection. Do not cultivate, dig large new storage pits, and you will see them filled with fresh food. Retrieve what is left in your cornpits and throw it away. Build new houses and make many doors from creepers, and shut yourselves up in your houses on the resurrection day, because on the eighth day when the resplendent nation emerges with its king Eternal son of Broadbreast, all the creatures of forest and stream, and snakes will roam the entire land. To protect yourselves, you must shut the many doors and bind them tight and cast aside all enchantments.10Gqoba in Opland et al, 464-5.
After meeting with Nongqawuse and Mhlakaza, Sarhili commanded that all those living under his authority were to follow the instructions of the ancestors. The killing of cattle and burning of crops began in April 1856. While the Nongqawuse stated that the dead would rise eight days after the sacrifices were made, the killings and burnings continued until June 1857.
Who dared defy the king?
While some did as the Nongqawuse instructed, many others did not.
Leaders like Sarhili, as well as Maqoma (amaNgqika second-in-command and older brother of Sandile), Mhala (chief of amaNdlambe) and Fadana (former regent of Thembuland) believed in and enforced the prophecy. Many other leaders did not believe it, like Sandile (chief and later king of amaNgqika) and his brother Anta.11Peires, The Dead Will Arise,17-20.
In some cases, houses were torn in two. For instance, amaGqunukhwebe were led by Phatho, who was a strong believer in the prophecy. However, his second-in-command, Kama, who had converted to Christianity, was an ardent non-believer who refused to conform to the commands of the prophecy.
Similarly, Maqoma’s Great Son (the eldest of his most senior wife), Namba, believed in the prophecy, while two of Maqoma’s younger sons, Kona and Ned, did not believe it. Sandile, who was Maqoma’s brother, did not follow the prophecy at first.
Sandile exemplifies the changing nature of attitudes towards the prophecy. He was younger than Maqoma but was his superior, serving as the leader of amaNgqika branch of the royal house. While he led amaNgqika in three wars during his leadership, at the time of the cattle killing he had a close relationship with Charles Brownlee, who was serving as the ‘Gaika’ (Ngqika) Commissioner at the time.12Sandile is a central and sympathetic figure throughout both Charles Brownlee, Reminiscences of Kaffir Life and History and other papers by the late Hon. Charles Brownlee, Gaika Commissioner, with a Brief Memoir by Mrs. Brownlee (Lovedale: Lovedale Mission Press, 1896) and John Aitkins Chalmers, Tiyo Soga: A Page of South African Mission Work (Edinburgh: Andrew Elliot, 1878)
The nation loves and is ready to die for me. The nation’s love leaves me lonely. The nation’s willingness to perish haunts me. To be loved by a nation – by crowds, means that no one enters your heart, rules, sympathises with, and understands it. I want to be loved by and to love one man. That is love, happiness and life. The love of crowds acts on one’s heart as water acts on an over-oiled body – leaving you dry and cold.Nongqawuse speaking to an ‘Old Woman’ just after meeting with Kreli (Sarhili) and several other chiefs in the first scene of H.I.E. Dhlomo’s play, The Girl Who Killed to Save.13Tim Couzens and Nick Visser (eds.), The Collected Works of H.I.E. Dhlomo (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1985), 9.
During the early stages of the cattle killing, Sandile did not believe in the prophecy, refusing to follow the instructions.14Peires, The Dead Will Arise, 234. He only grudgingly followed the instructions of the prophecy very late into the event after some coaxing from Maqoma. But this was not the first time a close family member had tried to convince Sandile to comply with the prophecy. Prior to Maqoma’s intervention, Sandile’s mother, Sutu, had pleaded with him to follow the prophetic instructions in the hopes that she might be reunited with her deceased husband, King Ngqika.15Peires, The Dead Will Arise, 234.
Kuko nenye inkosi, ikwela kwihashe elingwevu, igama layo ngu Ngwevu, elinye ke ngu Satana. Wonk eke umntu ongazixelanga inkomo zake uyakuba ngoka Satana, akayi kububona ubungcwalisa beyetu inkosi u Napakade into ka Sifuba-sibanzi.16Gqoba, ‘Isizatu’.
There is another chief who rides a grey horse, whose name is Grey, otherwise known as Satan. All who have not slaughtered their cattle will belong to Satan, and will not see our sanctifying king Eternal son of Broadbreast.17Gqoba in Opland et al, 466-7.Gqoba referring to Governor George Grey in his 1888 article. Translated by Jeff Opland (2015).
At this time, amaXhosa society was divided in two: amagogotya (non-believers of the prophecy) and amathamba (believers of the prophecy). Of those who believed the prophecy, many only executed some of the instructions. Peires describes these partial followers as ‘soft believers’, while those who strictly followed the prophecy were categorised as ‘hard believers’.18J.B. Peires, ‘‘Soft’ Believers and ‘Hard’ Unbelievers in the Xhosa Cattle-Killing’, The Journal of African History, Vol. 27, No. 3 (1986), 443-461.
When antagonisms broke out between the groups of amagogotya and amathamba, it was sometimes argued by amathamba that the troubles faced by amaXhosa were because of those who did not follow the prophecy, or those who only partially followed the instructions.
Each blamed the other for the predicament amaXhosa found themselves in. This included the enormous loss of land and subsistence, particularly crops which were burned. There was also the loss of symbols of status and wealth, especially in the form of cattle, which provided meat and hide, but also performed a critical social role as bridewealth.
By June 1857, around 400 000 cattle had been slaughtered and 40 000 people had lost their lives in the direct aftermath of the cattle killing.
Because of the food shortages that followed the cattle killing, raiding and theft became more commonplace. Many non-believers, like Soga (often referred to as ‘Old Soga’, who had converted to Christianity but served as a high-ranking councillor to Sandile), his son Tiyo (who at the time was in Britain but would return to the aftermath of the cattle killing), and Sandile, retreated further behind colonial lines, finding relative safety near prominent colonials like Brownlee.
Aid (particularly food) from colonials and missionaries alike were generally only afforded to those who were willing to submit to the political authority emanating from the Cape Colony capital at Cape Town. This meant that amaXhosa leaders had to give up much of their autonomy in order to ensure the survival of their people.
Hunting for ‘witches’
Let them kill me. Death is better than the pangs of uncertainty, than the misery of indecision. I help them because I honestly believe we shall get new cattle and grain, and that the dead shall arise. If somehow my doubts could be proved true, I would run now and tell the people that the whole prophecy is a lie, you hear – a lie. If only I knew the truth.Nongqawuse speaking to an ‘Old Woman’ in H.I.E. Dhlomo’s play The Girl Who Killed to Save.19Couzens and Visser (eds.), H.I.E. Dhlomo, 10.
In 1857, during these desperate times, Nongqawuse was apprehended by colonial forces and held by Major John Cox Gawler. It was at Fort Murray (in what is now the Buffalo City Municipality in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa) that the famous photograph of Nongqawuse and Nonkosi was taken.
Nongqawuse and Nonkosi
This photograph was taken by amateur photographer Michael Durney at the request of Major Gawler whose wife dressed the girls for the photograph. This photograph is housed at the National Library of South Africa in Cape Town in the Iconographic Collections in the Special Collections department.
During this time Gawler took a deposition from Nongqawuse. Depositions were also taken from several others, including ‘Umgula’ (or, rather, Mgula), the brother of Nombanda. None of the depositions sought the true substance of the prophecy. Rather, questions were asked in the hopes of locating and arresting several prominent amaXhosa chiefs. Gawler asked Nongqawuse only three questions in the deposition:
Gawler: Do you know who the three men were, or where they came from, and how often did you see them?
Nongqawuse: I never saw the men before, nor do I know where they came from – I saw them often, but at intervals sometimes of several days.
Gawler: Did you really talk to them yourself or were you told to say you had?
Nongqawuse: I spoke to them myself.
Gawler: Do you know ‘Nombanda’ who lived near your kraal, and if so state all you know about her?
Nongqawuse: ‘Nombanda’ was sent for by the chiefs to bear witness to what I saw saying. Afterwards when I got ill she used to conduct the talking. She talked a great deal more than I did. The first day she went with me she could neither see the people nor hear them talk. I don’t know what the chiefs said to ‘Nombanda’ but she was told to be my witness.20‘Examination of the Kaffir Prophetess Nonqause before Major Gawler’, 27 April, GH 8/35 Schedule 69 of 1858 Enclosure 2, Western Cape Archives and Record Service, Cape Town
At the same time, the colonial authorities went on a hunt for certain chiefs who they believed to have propelled and popularised the prophecy among those under their authority. This included significant leaders like Maqoma, Anta, Kama, Mhala and Phatho. Some of these leaders, like Kama, were not actually followers of the prophecy, but were held accountable for the actions of their people.
Yayilishoba kwaloo nto,
Ukuqalekiswa kwesizwe sikaXhosa,
Kusuk’ umntw’ ebhinqile
Ath’ uthethile namanyange,
Uthethe naw’ ewabonile.
Azi babeye phi n’ abantu balo mhlaba?
Zaziye phi n’ izigwakumbesha?
Zaziye phi n’ izidwangube?
Bapephi n’ oogxalaba libanzi,
Bejonge kumaxhag’ eenkomo zabo?
The whole thing stank from the start,
a blight on this land of Xhosa,
for a woman to claim that the shades had addressed her,
that she’d met and conversed with them face to face!
Where were the thinkers in this land?
Where were the men of distinction?
Where were the nobles?
Where were the veterans?
Dancing to rhythmical clapping, besotted on cattle they mimed
Extract from D.L.P. Yali-Manisi’s isibongo entitled ‘Ingxaki eyasenzakalisayo’, which was orated in the car of Jeff Opland in December 1970.21D.L.P. Yali-Manisi, ‘Ingxaki eyasenzakalisayo (The problem that wrought our destruction)’, in Jeff Opland and Pamela Maseko (eds.), Iimbali Zamanyange (Historical Poems), (Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2015), 204-213.
Many of the charges which they faced were trumped up. Phatho, for instance, was arrested for livestock theft. However, while he was in court, his brother apprehended the actual thieves, which caused the trial to fall through.22H Vigne-J Maclean, 3 October 1857, Letter, BK 83, National Library of South Africa, Cape Town. Peires, The Dead Will Arise, 252-4. Despite this, the colonial magistrate retried Phatho, which suggests that ‘justice’ and ‘truth’ were less important in the trials than the objective of removing high-ranking political figures from amaXhosa society.
The chiefs, along with Nongqawuse, were imprisoned on Robben Island by late 1858. The chiefs were only released in 1869. Many took up arms against the colonials once they were released. It is uncertain when Nongqawuse was released.
This Bibliography provides a list of resources on the cattle killing divided into six categories:
- colonial documents, mostly located in archives
- the works of the first published isiXhosa commentator on the cattle killing, W.W. Gqoba, and the debate which emanated from his contributions
- academic studies
- creative production including theatrical plays, novels and izibongo
- political rhetoric. Certain authors have works listed under multiple categories
This is an incomplete list. Public engagement would be much appreciated so that we can expand the list. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with your contributions.
Presentation prepared by Himal Ramji for FHYA in 2021. Produced by Vanessa Chen. Bibliographic support by Henry Fagan. ixiXhosa version by Lucia Gcingca. Editorial assistance from Carolyn Hamilton. Page designs by Studio de Greef. The image of Chief Maqoma was supplied by Robben Island Museum. The image for the end banner was provided by Amathole Museum, Qonce. Our presentations are archived here. If you wish to make a contribution, use this link.