Strange stories

The great Xhosa cattle slaughter

Crises and mass hysteria, as examples of the dangers of uncontrolled "lateral thinking"?

In “In short, in a nutshell, curious” on page 262 “The legendary cargo cult” and on page 323 “A renaissance prophet in the fickle of the masses” we dealt with mass situations in which people can lose their ability to criticize.
In the past centuries, easily excitable crowds that could no longer be reached through arguments have experienced surprising, sometimes catastrophic outbreaks in various forms.
The term “mass situation” refers to the book “Psychology of the Masses” by Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931), whose observations also found their way into the well-known work “Mass and Power” by Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti with further shocking examples.

A special form of this mass situation is the "crisis cult" (Weston La Barre, 1971), which is supposed to bring new hope in a time of hopelessness. Examples would be the Scourge parades of the Middle Ages, the ghost dances of the Indians between 1870 and 1890 (cf. “That was the Wild Estonian " Part 6 “The Ghost Dance”) and the following story from southern Africa.
Such inexplicable outbursts, born of fear or hatred or both at the same time, have occurred not only among underdeveloped peoples but also in Christian, Islamic and other advanced civilizations.
Today, in the Corona Crisis, vaccine refusers are exposing themselves to the suspicion of being victims of mass hysteria.
So it cannot be ruled out that mass situations of various kinds can break out again at any time.

The Xhosa in the 19th century
Before the colonization of South Africa, the Xhosa were a Bantu people of pastoralists who migrated from the north in southeastern South Africa (in present-day Natal), south of Durban (Port Natal). They lived in traditional tribal structures with a chief. Ancestor worship played an important role in their traditions; for example, they sought contact with ancestors living in the transcendent and hoped for important advice from them. (6)

The immigration of the "whites" - initially Dutch (Boers), then mainly English - resulted in conflicts between the local population and the interests of the European settlers. From 1779 onwards, a series of bloody border wars broke out between the Cape Colony and the Xhosa.
The indigenous people from the San ("Bushmen") and Khoikhoi ("Hottentots") were culturally, politically and socially pushed into an outsider position, and the tribal structures of the other indigenous peoples were also shaken.
After a good half century of grueling small-scale wars against the spreading immigrants from Europe, the Xhosa had lost much of their territory and suffered heavy losses of people and livestock.
Then, in 1854, when a lung disease spread among the cattle, the desperate Xhosa were ripe for a "crisis cult" of a very special kind to bring them hope.

Strange visions and the consequences
In May 1856, while fetching water, the girl Nongqwuse had seen three spirits in a strange vision. These ancestral spirits instructed her to spread a message in the village from the late Chief Napakade that the dead would rise if the Xhosa killed all their cattle, which were bewitched. The grain crop, which had also been bewitched, would also have to be destroyed. On the day following the complete destruction of the food supply "Vast numbers of much more beautiful cattle would emerge from the earth, while great fields of grain, ripe and ready for harvest, would suddenly appear. The dead of the Xhosa would rise, problems and diseases would disappear ... and the hated whites would perish..." (8)
No one in the village believed her.
The next day Nongqwuse was again at the river and the spirits told her to tell her uncle Mhlakaza - a seer - to go to the place of the apparition. The uncle could not see the spirits there, but heard their voices and began to believe.
The uncle told this message to the chiefs and all the Xhosa.

"The simultaneous spread of lung disease among the cattle caused the Xhosa to begin to believe the message...The death of the governor of the Cape Colony, George Cathcart, who had been killed in the Crimean War in 1854, was seen as further proof of the prophecy." (8).
In addition, it had been said that enemies of the English - the Russians, who had won a losing battle in the Crimean War at Balaklava on October 25, 1854 - would land and help drive out the English. (2)
"The Xhosa slaughtered about 400,000 of their livestock." (8).

These mass slaughters and destruction of grain caught the attention of the neighboring whites. They could hardly believe what they had to see and tried to stop the Xhosa from this madness. Unfortunately without success.

"But the dead did not appear, and with them no healthy animals. Tens of thousands of Xhosa starved to death. In 1857 alone, the Xhosa population dropped from 105,000 to 37,500, reaching its lowest point a year later with 25,916 people. The Xhosa lost not only a large part of their cattle and people, but also about 600,000 acres (2,000 km) of land.2) land. The depopulated land was subsequently filled with European settlers." (8).

Many Xhosa had only the choice of starving or looking for food elsewhere, so that today Xhosa can be found in almost all of South Africa.

The guilt of the Xhosa catastrophe is still debated today.
From a European perspective, the Xhosa alone are responsible.
This in turn blames the British because they are said to have manipulated the girl Nongqawuse and then refused to provide the help they needed during the famine.

(1) Achille Mbembe: “The Nongqawuse Syndrome” in “The Overview” 03/2006 p. 58, Hamburg.
(2) James A. Michener: "Verheißene Erde", Knaur, 1980.
(3) JB Peires: "The dead will rise: Nongqawuse and the incident of the great cattle slaughter of 1856/57" (quoted in (1).
(4) Wikipedia: "Ancestor cult - The Xhosa umkhapho ritual".
(5) Wikipedia: “Ghost dance movement”.
(6) wikipedia: "Xhosa Cattle Killing".