How dangerous can a prophecy be? And what happens to a prophet who turns out to be wrong? The story of Nongqawuse and the prophecy that led to the deaths of thousands of her fellow Xhosa in the mid-19th century is an important morality despite being so little known outside of South Africa.
Even in the early days of British colonialism in southern Africa, the various tribes that made up the Xhosa nation were one of the largest ethnic groups in what would eventually become the Eastern Cape Province of the Republic of South Africa. Though apartheid policies still lay in the future, the Xhosa were largely shut out of most businesses and depended on their cattle herds and crops for food and trade. Despite a major outbreak of cattle lung sickness that had struck the Xhosa cattle herds between 1855 and 1856, the economic disaster that would devastate Xhosa society came from another direction entirely.
According to historical records, the Xhosa girl at the centre of the crisis that would follow is believed to have been born in 1840. After losing both of her parents at an early age, Nongqawuse was raised by her uncle, Mhlakaza, a prominent spiritualist. There is very little information about Nongqawuse except that her childhood appeared otherwise normal.
Everything changed in the spring of 1856 when Nongqawuse and her friend Nombada went to fetch water from a nearby river. After returning, the fifteen-year old girl Nongqawuse told her uncle that she had met the spirits of two of her ancestors who were using her to relay an important prophecy to her people. The prophecy instructed them to destroy their crops and kill their cattle as a sacrifice to the ancestors who would rise up and drive all the white settlers into the sea. After the settlers were gone, the sun would turn red and a new golden age would come for the Xhosa.
There was already racial tension brewing among the Xhosa, who blamed the British for the lung infections that kept decimating their herds. At the same time, their crops had been hit by a new infection that killed the corn before it ripened. Believing the infections were caused by witchcraft, the Xhosa turned to traditional remedies. Prophets and healers offering miraculous cures became commonplace although none of them would have the impact of Nongqawuse and her prophecies.
Whatever her reason for making the prophecy (and who might have influenced her), Nongqawuse prophecy likely would not have gone much further without her uncle’s endorsement. While the two girls were ridiculed at first, they went back a few days later and claimed to have received the same message. When Mhlakaza went with them, he saw nothing though his niece relayed the message from the spirits to him. Convinced that his niece’s message was genuine, Mhlakaza dedicated himself to the prophecy and even began killing his own cattle.
Eventually he managed to persuade the local chief, Sarili ka Hintsa, about the coming golden age. The prospect of eliminating the white settlers who were already taking all the best land was definitely appealing and Mhlakaza’s reputation helped as well. There was also considerable anger about the recent defeat that the Xhosa had experienced during a frontier war that had ended just three years earlier. Along with that humiliating defeat, the growing culture clash between the European settlers and the Xhosa contributed to a tense situation. Sarili decided to set an example for his people by killing his own cattle and destroying his crops. Though likely horrified at the potential for disaster, his subjects had little choice but to follow that example.
And so began the Great Cattle Killing that began in 1856. During the thirteen months that followed, hundreds of thousands of cattle were killed and all the crops were burnt. Though approximately 15% of the 70,000 Xhosa living in the Eastern Cape at the time refused to take part, they were largely condemned by the ones who did. A common nickname attached to them was amagogotoya (stingy ones). Nongqawuse continued hearing the “voices” of the ancestors telling her that all of the cattle needed to be destroyed since they were tainted by the Europeans. As for the British settlers themselves, they were helpless in watching the cattle killing (and some historians suggest that they quietly encouraged it). Though one prominent missionary, Charles Brownlee, tried to counter Nongqawuse’s prophecy, he was largely ignored.
Acting as his niece’s spokesman, Mhlakaza took the bold step of providing a specific date for when the prophecy would be fulfilled (Nongqawuse had been carefully vague up to that time). According to Mhlakaza, the ancestors’ promise would be fulfilled on the first day of the full moon. He assured them that the sun would turn red and the believers would be rewarded for their faith. Not only would all the cattle be replaced by new cattle, more beautiful than ever, but new fields of crops ready to harvest would appear as well. The dead warriors would all come back to life and a new era of youth and beauty would begin.
When the full moon came and went with the sun being the same colour as ever, Mhlakaza managed to provide a new date for the prophecy, this time on the first day of the new moon. To ensure that people believed in the prophecy, Mhlakaza even organized demonstrations where he would point out to the sea and show them the heads of the New People bobbing out of the water (he was the only one who could hear their message). Some believers even claimed to hear the invisible cattle and goats.
As each date failed, he and Nongqawuse tried to place the blame on the nonbelievers who had refused to destroy their cattle and crops. Finally, after repeated failures, Mhlakaza set a final date of February 18, 1857 when the ancestors would definitely appear.
After that date came and went, Sarili and his subjects had completely run out of patience. Still, the Xhosa who had destroyed their cattle and crops had much bigger problems. With the loss of their main source of food, they had no way of avoiding mass starvation. For all that Sarili and Mhlakaza shared most of the blame for the coming catastrophe, Sarili insisted on laying all the blame on Nongqawuse.
Knowing that she would likely be killed if she remained, Nongqawuse fled to the British for safety and they placed her in protective custody on Robben Island. She would stay there for years before being quietly released. In the meantime, mass starvation set in among the Xhosa with over 40,000 deaths and thousands more being forced to leave their ancestral lands to find work in the nearby Cape Colony. According to some accounts, thousands of vultures could be seen overhead as they were drawn to the countless human and animal corpses. There were also documented cases of some Xhosa turning to cannibalism.
The British colony governor, Sir George Grey, took full advantage of the mass starvation. Though he had warned Sarili against the cattle killing and also provided food to the starving Xhosa afterward, it was hardly enough to avoid the mass starvation that would last for years. As the refugees began flooding into the Colony, Grey ordered the colonists not to offer any help to the starving Xhosa unless they agreed to sign binding labour contracts. He also imprisoned many of the Xhosa chiefs on the pretext that they were planning war against the colonists. The total population of Xhosa living in the Eastern Cape dropped and the Governor eventually seized much of their land to be used by European settlers. More than 600,000 acres of land fell into British hands as a result of Grey’s actions.
While Nongqawuse survived, her uncle was one of the casualties and much of the blame for what happened fell on her. No reliable details of her later life are available but she was believed to have changed her name after her release from custody and moved far away from the village where she had lived to avoid being killed. She is believed to have died in 1898 though details about her later life are scarce.
The Xhosa prophecy and the resulting famine is one of the best examples of mass hysteria in the past two centuries. It is also a graphic example of the devastating power of belief when it is allowed to override common sense.
Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada. He is an active blogger and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and Psychology Today. Check out his blog, Providentia.