Podcast: W.W. Gqoba’s ‘Isizatu sokuxelwa kwe nkomo ngo Nongqause’ (1888)

Image provided by Amathole Museum, Qonce.

The Great Xhosa Cattle Killing of 1856-7 is perhaps one of the most important events in southern African history.

If you would like to learn more about the history, click here.

Two decades after the Great Xhosa Cattle Killing, William Wellington Gqoba (1840-1888) – the editor of the isiXhosa newspaper Isigidimi SamaXosa – published a two-part history of the event.

William Wellington Gqoba

William Wellington Gqoba was a son of Gqoba, a grandchild of Peyi of the Cirha clan. Peyi was a loyal disciple Ntsikana, who was famously known as the first Xhosa convert to Christianity.

W.W. Gqoba began his mission education at Tyhume mission station north of Alice in what is now the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. Reverend John Aitkins Chalmers was the principal of the mission school.

Gqoba went on to complete his education at Lovedale, near Alice. Prior to this, he had been trained as a wagonmaker. He eventually became the editor of Isigidimi SamaXosa, which served as the isiXhosa branch of the Christian Express newspaper, both of which were published from Lovedale.

Among his notable writings were ‘Ingxoxo enkulu nge mfundo: umzelekiso,’ A great debate on education: a parable (1885); ‘Ingxoxo enkulu yomGinwa nom-Kristu’, A great debate between a heathen and a Christian (1887-8); ‘Imbali yama Xosa’, The history of the Xhosa people (1887); and ‘Imbali yase Mbo’, The history of the eastern territory (1887)1 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), 300.

Like many western-educated Africans at the time, Gqoba showed a great interest in navigating the interactions between isiXhosa and English Christian worlds. He was also not afraid to enter into arguments with his colonial overseers during his time at Isigidimi.2Gqoba’s letter to James Stewart (1881) in Opland et al. Gqoba, 487-491.

You can listen to podcasts of the two articles:

The first article, 1 March 1888

The first article was published in Isigidimi SamaXosa on 1 March 1888. In the article, Gqoba offered a history of the first eight days after the prophecy.

The second article, 2 April 1888

The second article begins with the failure of the prophecy. In it, Gqoba offers important critiques of colonial ideas of the prophecy being a ‘Chiefs’ plot’ designed to stoke up resistance to colonialism.

‘Isizatu sokuxelwa kwe nkomo ngo Nongqause’

Prior to Gqoba’s intervention in Isigidimi, the most popular written theory of why the cattle killing occurred was that amaXhosa chiefs, led by King Sarhili, had concocted the prophecy in the hopes of spurring their people to war against colonials. This theory has become known as the “Chief’s War Plot” theory.

One of the proponents of this theory was Chalmers, Gqoba’s erstwhile mission school principal. In 1877, Chalmers published a biography of the famed black missionary Reverend Tiyo Soga, which included a chapter entitled ‘The Cattle Killing Delusion’.3John Aitkins Chalmers, ‘The Cattle Killing Delusion’, Tiyo Soga: A Page of South African Mission Work (Edinburgh: Elioit, 1878). The first edition was published in 1877, and the second edition in 1878. It was this historicisation which was critiqued by Gqoba.

Gqoba rejected this and proposed his own take on the event, which he titled, ‘Isizatu sokuxelwa kwe nkomo ngo Nongqause’. His historical argument was presented in two articles, published in March and April 1888.

In the first of the two articles, Gqoba relates his own version of the story, which was formed from his own knowledge, as well as information collected from various interlocutors. Gqoba had been told the names of the two men encountered by Nongqawuse at the Gxarha river, but he had forgotten them by the time he was drafting his articles.

Inspiring ingxoxo 

Nevertheless, his work was supported immediately in a contribution to the newspaper by William Mbali Philip, a prominent Mfengu intellectual based in Grahamstown4William Mbali Philip, Isigidimi samaXosa 1 May 1888, 40; 2 July 1888, 53.

However, while Philip and many amaXhosa intellectuals agreed with Gqoba’s take, Charles Brownlee (who had served as the Gaika (Ngqika) Commissioner during the time of the cattle killing)  wrote to Isigidimi (on 1 June and again on 1 August) to critique Gqoba’s historicisation5Charles Brownlee, Isigidimi SamaXosa, 1 June 1888, 46; 1 August 1888, 64.

When Brownlee’s Reminiscences of Kafir Life and History was published in 1896 – eight years after the Isigidimi debate – the history provided by Gqoba was completely ignored, with the chapter from Chalmers’ biography of Tiyo Soga being republished. The debate between Philip and Brownlee continued with monthly rebuttals from May until August 18886Charles 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).

Igogo

One of the key points of debate was the professional status of Nongqawuse. In contemporary times, she is often simply accepted as a ‘prophet’. In the times of Gqoba and Brownlee, the issue was more contentious.

In responding to Philip’s support for Gqoba’s argument, Brownlee positioned Nongqawuse as igqirha eliligogo, which is a specific type of igqirha who possesses the ability to see the future. Igogo literally refers to the klipspringer buck, although the term also refers to ‘the seer’. Many amaXhosa of the present understand Nongqawuse to have been igogo or imboni .

But this position was rejected by Gqoba and Philip, both of whom argued that Nongqawuse could not be igogo for two main reasons. The first was that she was a teenager, and so she was too young to have achieved the status of igogo. The second reason was that she was a woman. To the knowledge of Gqoba and Philip, a woman had never held the position of igogo before. The two men could not believe that a young girl could possibly hold such an important and revered position in society.

But Brownlee’s ascription of the profession of igogo to Nongqawuse had less to do with anthropology and more to do with politics. That is to say, it allowed him to draw a link between Nongqawuse and famed amatola of earlier wars, Makanda and Mlanjeni.

The problem with Brownlee’s interpretation is that it conflates many different professions within amaXhosa society. That is, it collapses igqirha, igogo, and itola.

Both Makanda and Mlanjeni had been recognised as amatola. Their skills were directly related to war, like the ability to turn bullets into water. Nongqawuse did not profess any such abilities. Rather, she posed as someone who could communicate with the ancestors, and someone who could prophesy the future.

This debate, emerging in an isiXhosa-language newspaper in 1888, continues today.

War preparations

A second point of debate emerged with Gqoba’s critique of the ‘Chiefs War Plot’. Both he and Philip rejected this idea. Gqoba’s main point of argument was that if amaXhosa were going to war, then adequate preparations would have been made. They would be arming themselves, sharpening their spears, fortifying their shields, and preparing under the supervision of amatola.

But none of this was done. For Gqoba, this indicated that amaXhosa could not have possibly been moving to war, since they were making no effort to prepare for it.

Endurance

Gqoba’s text endured. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Walter Benson Rubusana took to abridging Gqoba’s contributions. Rubusana would become a prominent figure in South African politics as a leader in the South African Natives National Congress (SANNC) and member of the Cape Colony Parliament. The abridgement was published in Rubusana’s famous collection Zemk’ Inkomo Magwalandini (first published in 1906 and republished in 1911).

More than a century later, this abridgement was taken up by Archibald Campbell Jordan, the highly respected South African academic. He translated Rubusana’s piece in the periodical Africa South during the 1960s. In 1973, after Jordan’s death, his contributions to Africa South were compiled into a book entitled Towards an African Literature, which included the piece on the cattle killing. We can see just how much effort African intellectuals have put in to make sure that Gqoba’s contribution to the historicisation of the cattle killing endured.

In more recent times, Gqoba’s text has been translated at least twice. The first comes from Helen Bradford and Msokoli Qotole and was published in the academic journal Kronos 2008.  The second was done by Jeff Opland, Wandile Kuse and Pamela Maseko in 2015 in the first volume of the Opland Collection, Isizwe Esinembali: Xhosa Histories and Poetry (1873-1888), which focuses on the works of W.W. Gqoba.

Credits:

Scripted by Himal Ramji in July 2021. Edited and translated into isiXhosa by Sanele kaNtshingana in July 2021. Recorded, edited, and produced Eric Mulder between August 2021 and February 2022 with directional assistance from Mandla Mbothwe and voice work from Sanele KaNtshingana and Lulamile Nikani. Thokozani Mhlambi contributed the original composition. This page was produced by Vanessa Chen with bibliographic support from Henry Fagan. Our presentations are archived here. If you wish to make a contribution, use this link.

Online from: 16 Sep 2021

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