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Nongqawuse and the greatest “self-inflicted” national immolation in history?

Updated on October 11, 2012

Apparitions at the mystic pool

One autumn morning in 1856 two young girls went down to a pool dark with overhanging wild banana trees, called Ikhamanga (scientific name Strelitzia nicolai ) by the amaXhosa people, on the river Gxara in the Eastern Province of South Africa. A light mist hung over the pool which added to its feeling of mystery, and the girls were startled by apparitions which seemed to them to rise out of the water and to speak to them words of terrifying import.

The girls ran back to their umzi , homestead, consisting of a few rondavels and a cattle enclosure, to tell the older girl's guardian, her uncle Mhlakaza, what they had seen and heard. Their words were to change the course of history in South Africa, and have left an indelible imprint on the psyche of the amaXhosa, a deep division in Xhosa society, which still exists now, more than 150 years later.

The older girl's name was Nongqawuse, and her companion was Nombanda, related to Mhlakaza by marriage.

"A modern Nongqawuse looks into the pool on the Gxara River" - from the book "African Elegance"
"A modern Nongqawuse looks into the pool on the Gxara River" - from the book "African Elegance"
A contemporary painting entitled "Witch Doctor" by frontier artist F.T I'Ons. As far as I know there is no contemporary image of Mhlakaza
A contemporary painting entitled "Witch Doctor" by frontier artist F.T I'Ons. As far as I know there is no contemporary image of Mhlakaza
King Sarili in a contemporary portrait
King Sarili in a contemporary portrait
"Watching for the return of the dead warriors" by F.T. I'Ons. This is thought to depict the scene on 18 February 1858
"Watching for the return of the dead warriors" by F.T. I'Ons. This is thought to depict the scene on 18 February 1858

The message from the ancestors

The words that the frightened girls heard came to them from two men who identified themselves by name, two names of men long dead, and so men who were “with the ancestors” whose words were therefore of great importance.

The message they brought were that if the amaXhosa fulfilled certain conditions, “new people” would arise and help the amaXhosa sweep the whites and all unbelievers into the sea, the world would be renewed and right relationships restored.

This message, the girls were told, had to be relayed urgently to Mhlakaza and his homestead. In order for this resurrection to occur the amaXhosa had to kill all their cattle, destroy all their crops, build new cattle enclosures for the new cattle they would get and new storage bins dug for all the corn that would be given them.

When they first told this tale to Mhlakaza and his homestead, they were laughed at and scorned, so they tried to forget the whole thing. But the next day they went again to the pool and were again accosted by the apparitions who asked if the message had been delivered. The men repeated the message and added that Mhlakaza should come also to the pool to see them. First, though, he had to sacrifice a beast and ritually cleanse himself before coming to the pool, which he should do four days later.

Mhlakaza did as he was instructed and four days later was at the pool with a group of other men, and Nongqawuse. The men did not see the apparitions but Nongqawuse did and was the medium through whom Mhlakaza spoke to the apparitions.

Mhlakaza asked the apparitions who they were and where they had come from. They said they were the people who had come to order the amaXhosa to kill all their cattle and not to cultivate any crops. When Mhlakaza asked what they should then eat, the apparitions said they would find food for the amaXhosa to eat until the new cattle and new crops would appear. They also ordered Mhlakaza to take this message to the king, Sarili, and all the other Xhosa chiefs.

King Sarili was duly informed of the apparitions and their message, was impressed and, after a little hesitation, ordered his people to comply with the demands.

There followed a dreadful time of killing and burning, which lasted several months until the fateful day of 18 February 1857 when the “new people” were expected, when the sun would rise in the east and then turn back to set in the east, and all unbelievers and whites would be swept into the sea. Of course the day dawned like any other day, the sun kept its usual course, and the whites and unbelievers continued on their ways as before.

By now those who had killed their cattle and burned their crops were starving, tens of thousands of them dying, their bodies joining the rotting corpses of their cattle. Many thousands more were helped by the whites and the unbelievers who had not killed their cattle and burned their crops.

Although accurate figures are not available, best estimates are that the amaXhosa in January 1857 numbered, in British Kaffraria, about 105000, a number which dropped to about 37500 in December that year. East of the Kei River the number of dead was estimated at about 40000. Whatever the actual figures, the suffering was immense. Frances Brownlee, a missionary wife in the area, wrote some 20 years later: “Oh! The pity, the heart-breaking grief, the sad horror of it all.”

King Sarili's grandson was interviewed in 1910 by historian George Cory and told him “I sat outside my hut and saw the sun rise, so did all the other people. We waited until midday, yet the sun continued on its course. We still watched until the afternoon and yet it did not turn, and then the people began to despair for they saw that this thing was not true.”

Mhlakaza himself, and his whole family, except for Nongqawuse, died of starvation.

Nongqawuse was arrested by the colonial authorities and taken, largely for her own protection, to Robben Island for a time, after which she went to stay on a farm near Port Elizabeth, where she died in 1898.

The number of cattle killed in this killing frenzy is estimated to be between 300000 and 400000.

Territorial losses of the amaXhosa People, 1779 to 1848 (From "An Illustrated History of South Africa" by Trewhella Cameron
Territorial losses of the amaXhosa People, 1779 to 1848 (From "An Illustrated History of South Africa" by Trewhella Cameron
Cow infected with lungsickness
Cow infected with lungsickness

The social and political background to the prophecies

To understand the “cattle-killing”, as it has been known by whites, the background scene needs to be set. In the background were two important factors – one political and one veterinary, if you like.

The political factor was the constant encroachment of whites into areas claimed as theirs by the amaXhosa. Apartheid apologists in years gone by (thank God!) used to claim that the white and the amaXhosa arrived at around the same time and found the Eastern Cape to be relatively unoccupied. This was at best a half-truth, as the amaXhosa had in fact been in the area for centuries, though in relatively small numbers. What was true was that they were being pushed in greater numbers further west by the depredations of the expanding amaZulu under their kings Shaka and Cetshwayo. So the amaXhosa were caught between competing expansionist settlers – white to the west and black to the east.

At around the same time the British were involved in the Crimean War in which they lost heavily. The amaXhosa were aware of this and interpreted it as a sign that the British were vulnerable and that the Russians would help them against the British. So messages of people coming to help the amaXhosa had receptive hearers.

The chiefs were divided between collaborationists who wanted to work with the colonialists and the strictly independent chiefs who were determined to maintain their traditional way life at all costs.

King Sarili was in fact the last independent Xhosa king and his rule was shattered by the aftermath of Nongqawuse's prophecies.

The Xhosa resistance to white encroachment was broken by the cattle killing and subsequent starvation of hundreds of thousands of amaXhosa. Those who survived were at the mercy of the colonialists who took full advantage of the situation. There were some instances of resistance after 1858 but they were sporadic and ultimately unsuccessful.

The veterinary factor was introduced to the Cape Colony by the arrival at Mossel Bay of a small herd of Friesian bulls, all carrying the dreaded lung-sickness, or contagious bovine pleuropneumonia, which spread rapidly through the eastern areas of the colony and into the area beyond the Kei River. This deadly disease caused massive stock losses to the amaXhosa, to whom cattle were of great importance. There is a Xhosa saying, “Inkomo luhlanga, zifile luyakufa uhlanga (Cattle are the race, they being dead the race dies)”. This disease which was killing their cattle, and, by extension, themselves, was seen as a supernatural attack on their lives and traditions.

Nongqawuse (left) and Nonkosi in a photo taken by M.H. Durney in Grahamstown in 1858. Published in Mostert's book "Fontiers" for the first time.
Nongqawuse (left) and Nonkosi in a photo taken by M.H. Durney in Grahamstown in 1858. Published in Mostert's book "Fontiers" for the first time.
Nathaniel James Merriman
Nathaniel James Merriman

The personalities involved

Nongqawuse was about 16 at the time she went down to the river and came back utterly changed. She was the daughter of Mhlakaza's younger brother who had died some time before. Did she see visions and hear voices, a la Jeanne D'Arc? Was she suffering from some sort of hallucination or was she responding psychologically to the loss of her father and perhaps the emotional aftermath of puberty? We will most likely never know the truth about these things, all we can know is the disastrous effects of what she told her uncle.

Mhlakaza was himself an interesting person in whose background were some mysterious goings on. His name is often spelt Mhalakaza by white writers, but I believe this to be a result of the difficulty English speakers have with the isiXhosa “hl” sound.

Mhlakaza was, some years before these events, an assistant to Nathaniel James Merriman, at the time Archdeacon of Grahamstown. Merriman, whose son John Xavier was later to become Prime Minister of the self-governing Cape of Good Hope, undertook extensive travels throughout the Eastern Cape, finding out about the people of his rather large parish. In this work he was assisted by an isiXhosa speaking man who called himself Wilhelm Goliat, but was in fact Mhlakaza.

Mhlakaza had been in contact with Methodist and other protestant missionaries, but this was his first contact with the more catholic rituals of the Anglican Church, with which he was very impressed. In fact he became the first umXhosa to be confirmed in the Anglican Church. He only left Merriman when Merriman's wife insulted him in some way.

Mhlakaza seems to have woven a rich tapestry of belief incorporating the tradition world view and religion of the amaXhosa with the rituals and teachings of the Anglican Church. He was in his own right a traditional healer, or, as whites of the time would have called him, a “witch doctor.” So the world of the spirits was a daily reality to him, as it was actually to most of his people.

The Xhosa belief about their origins is described by Noel Mostert in his excellent book Frontiers (Pimlico, 1993) thusly: “It was from still waters, a place of reeds, wind-stirred grasses and wild fruits and flowers that the human ancestors first emerged...” Certainly that mystic pool on the Gxara River was such a place.

The longer-term results of the slaughter

At the time of Nongqawuse's prophecies the people tended to either believe fully or disbelieve fully. The prophecies therefore drove a deep divide into Xhosa society, between the believers, called the amakholwa , and the unbelievers, called the amaqaba (literally the “smeared ones). These divisions persist today, overlayed by Christian / non-Christian overtones. The unbelievers are also called by whites “red” people because they continue to smear red ochre on their bodies and wore red-dyed blankets, while the amakholwa are known as “white” because they wore white blankets. The divide is also expressed in isiXhosa as abantu ababomvu (the red people) or abantu basesikolweni (the school people).

These events destroyed any hopes the amaXhosa might have had of retaining their independence. The resulting divide continues to haunt the amaXhosa, to most of whom these events are still the cause of deep shame.

Who was really to blame?

There is an old question much used by the Roman orator Cicero, “cui bono?” I think it is applicable here. To whose advantage was the slaughter? And there can be absolutely no doubt about the answer to that question.

The white settlers were immeasurable helped by the slaughter, they benefited in many, many ways.

The need for farm labour, since slavery had been stopped some 40 years before, was dire. The need for more land to grace their stock and to cultivate their crops was urgent.

The British Government needed land to settle people who could no longer make their livings in Britain, or to reward soldiers who had fought on their side in many different wars.

The colonial authorities needed to stamp their authority on the eastern boundaries of the colony in the most cost effective ways.

In my mind there is little room for doubt that the whole thing was engineered by whites. The question that is left is how did they do it? Who were the people who spoke to Nongqawuse at the pool? Who told them to say what they said?

These are all imponderables and there can likely be no certain answers. There is no doubt however that large sections of settler society welcomed the tragedy. Settler opinion was firmly against assisting the survivors, who were to be allowed to die. Some among the missionary societies were appalled and deeply moved by the tragedy, but I also have some niggling questions about the roles of the missionaries themselves. To what extent did Merriman, for instance, influence Mhlakaza? What ideas did he put into the mind of the traditional healer?

Whatever the answers to these questions, the reality remains that the cattle slaughter of 1856 and 1857 still casts a shadow over the Eastern Cape and the people living there. As W.B. Yeats would write some 60 years later, “All changed, changed utterly” but the next line of his poem does not apply, for there was no “terrible beauty” born out of the suffering of those people, no beauty at all.

Further reading

For further reading on these fascinating and terrible times the best overall understanding of the challenges facing Xhosa society and the history of the contact between whites and blacks in the Cape Colony comes from Noel Mostert's magisterial Frontiers , but a more novelistic insight can be had from Zakes Mda's superb novel The Heart of Redness (OUP 2000), in which these events play an important role.

An excellent general introduction to South African history is the book edited by Trewhella Cameron: An Illustrated History of South Africa (Jonathon Ball Publishers, 1986).

The immediate inspiration for this Hub came about from a re-reading of the beautiful book African Elegance written by Joan Broster with photographs by Alice Mertens (Purnell, 1973). In particular the gorgeous photo reproduced above of the “modern Nongqawuse” got me thinking about these events again.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2009


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    • Mariefg profile image

      Marie Greyvenstein 

      5 years ago from Alexandria , Eastern Cape , South Africa

      Great history . Her gravesite is about 4km from my home and we visited a few times with tourists . Awesome feeling standing next to the headstone and realising that she actually was actually a kind of mass murderer , feeling sorry for her nontheless . Love the history .

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Hi Tony

      I recently went looking for Nongquawuse's pool. I was told that if you went north from the logging camp it was the set of pools up there. I also went down to the water fall below the logging camp. I have recently being told it is the pools above the water fall. It has even being suggested that this happened at the Gates. I would appreciate it if you could give me the location if you know where it is. Thank you and nice work we love the Transkei and its beautiful people.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      10 years ago from South Africa

      Lizo - appreciate your comment very much indeed, thank you!

      Love and peace


    • profile image


      10 years ago

      written better than the wikipedia on Nongqawuse.Nor did you label this a millenialist movement those academics and historians whose impartiality is questionable on this subject.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      10 years ago from South Africa

      Story - I am with you in hoping that the settlers were not to blame. And there were certainly some among them who did what they could to prevent the catastrophe and then to ameliorate the effects after it had happened. But the truth is that it all played so very neatly into the colonialists' strategy. And perhaps looking for blame as such is not so helpful - what I am sure of is that Nongqause herself was sincere. She really did believe. Perhaps what others did with her vision is less noble.

      Thanks for dropping by and making such a thoughtful comment. I appreciate it.

      Love and peace


    • Storytellersrus profile image


      10 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      I found the announcement of this hub as I deleted some 1200 unread emails. I am glad I clicked on it as you have written a fascinating and terribly sad story much greater in magnitude than the Salem Witch Trials. Could it have been a young girl's imagination? It is hard to place such a terrible claim on the settlers. Could a people have possibly been this greedy and vile? Evidently we will never know, but I hope the supposition that a group of settlers could be this cruel is some day proven wrong. I have to believe in the heart of man. Thank you, Tony, for this poignant tale.

    • fastfreta profile image

      Alfreta Sailor 

      10 years ago from Southern California

      This was so interesting. We can only hope that superstition such as that is a thing of the past or at least it won't effect such an astronomical amount of people in our day. Thanks tonymac for the research.

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      10 years ago from South Africa

      Makiwa - yes Frontiers is a magnificent book. Most likely the best and most comprehensive on the history of that area. Thanks for stopping by.

      Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting - I do appreciate it.

      Love and peace


    • Makiwa profile image

      Judy Witt 

      10 years ago from Australia

      I know this story and having recently visited my mother at Port Alfred and sisters in Bathurst & Kenton, the Eastern Cape is well known to me. The stories are amazing and I purchased a book at a small book shop at Bathurst called 'FRONTIERS' by Noel Mostert - The epic of South Africa's creation and the tragedy of the Xhosa people.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      10 years ago from London, UK

      Well that was really interest. Thanks for sharing and also for the various different view you had on that episode.

    • Catherine R profile image

      Catherine R 

      10 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

      Thanks Tony for writing that so well. Certainly a tragic historical episode worthy of a hub.

    • heyju profile image


      10 years ago

      Fascinating story. Thank you for sharing.

    • steffsings profile image


      10 years ago from Pacific NorthWest

      Informative yet poetic & lyrical... Loved it.

    • advisor4qb profile image


      10 years ago from On New Footing

      I always enjoy reading about history!

    • maven101 profile image


      10 years ago from Northern Arizona

      Tony...I couldn't help but draw a parallel to when you said the Governor remarked that they could draw a very great advantage from the circumstance... with the recent remarks of Obama's Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel, when he said a crisis is a terrible thing to perhaps your assumptions may very well be correct, in that regard...Peace to you, my friend..Larry

    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      10 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks for all the comments which I really appreciate.

      Cindy - good to know you are a fellow-Transkeian! we should exchange notes sometime!

      Jaspal and Raging Bull - it is an amazing story with so many facets.

      Nancy - thanks for dropping by and commenting.

      Larry - its very difficult at this remove obviously to be certain of anything - people's actions and motives are often murky to say the least. The whole episode, though, just played too neatly into the white government's hands. It was just too close to their wishes. The Governor of the Cape at the time, Sir George Grey, actually said of the massacre "we can draw very great permanent advantages from the circumstances, which may be made a stepping stone for the future settlement of the country," and that "throughout British Kaffraria, the native has no recognised right or interest in the soil," in spite of the fact that they had been there for many years before the British arrived there. Maybe I stated it too strongly in the Hub, but the inference is there to be made. The agenda that I promote is one of justice and human rights and these were both flagrantly trampled on by the colonial government at the time. And there is no record of any government, as opposed to missionary, person trying to dissuade the people from heeding Nongquawuse's call.

      Flightkeeper - thanks for your comment also - and indeed superstition needs to be countered with logic. But it was a superstitious age, and not only among the amaXhosa.

      Love and peace to you all,


    • profile image


      10 years ago

      How many people believe that white people manipulated the visions of the two girls? If true, it is an awful, horrible deed that was done. If not true, did the girls eat something that cause those visions? Carrying out the directive was a hugely self-destructive thing to do and this is why religion should really be balanced with logic. Such a tragic episode in history.

    • maven101 profile image


      10 years ago from Northern Arizona

      Well written and interesting history of an episode in South Africa that is little known to the world at large...I'm not as certain as you seem to be that the " white man " is largely responsible for this senseless self-immolation by an ignorant and superstitious people. The fact that they may have " benefited " from this senseless tragedy does not necessarily make white people culpable, unless its fits an agenda you seem to promote...Peace, as always, Larry

    • profile image

      Nancy's Niche 

      10 years ago

      Great story and beautifully communicated...Thanks for sharing this history with hubbers...

    • Raging Bull profile image

      Raging Bull 

      10 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

      What a fabulous story. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this hub of history.

    • Jaspal profile image


      10 years ago from New Delhi, India

      What an amazing story!

    • cindyvine profile image

      Cindy Vine 

      10 years ago from Cape Town

      Oh so well written, Tony, and I know this story so well, having lived in the Transkei.


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