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‘Soft’ Believers and ‘Hard’ Unbelievers in the Xhosa Cattle-Killing

  • J. B. Peires (a1)

A substantial minority, perhaps 15 per cent of all Xhosa, refused to obey the prophetess Nongqawuse's orders to kill their cattle and destory their cornl. This divided Xhosaland into two parties, the amathamba (‘soft’ ones, or believers) and the amagogotya (‘hard’ ones, or unbelievers). The affiliation of individuals was partly determined by a number of factors – lungsickness in cattle, political attitude towards the Cape Colony, religious beliefs, kinship, age and gender – but a systematic analysis of each of these factors in turn suggests that none of them was sufficiently important to constitute the basis of either party.

The key to understanding the division lies in an analysis of the indigenous Xhosa terms ‘soft’ and ‘hard’. ‘Softness’ in Xhosa denotes the submissiveness of the individual to the common will of the community, whereas ‘hardness’ denotes the determination of the individual to pursue his own ends, even at communal expense. Translated into social terms, the ‘soft’ believers were those who remained committed to the mutual aid ethic of the declining precolonial society, whereas the ‘hard’ unbelievers were those who sought to seize advantage of the new opportunities offered by the colonial presence to increase their wealth and social prominence. The conflict between the social and personal imperatives was well expressed by Chief Smith Mhala, the unbelieving son of a believing father, when he said, ‘They say I am killing my father – so I would kill him before I would kill my cattle.’ Certainly, the division between amathamba and amagogotya ran much deeper than the division between belief and unbelief, and the Xhosa, in conferring these names, seem to have recognized the fact.

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1 Yoder J., ‘Fly and Elephant parties: political polarisation in Dahomey, 1840–1870’, J. Afr. Hist. xv (1974); Wilks Ivor, Asante in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, 1975), esp. 479481.

2 For the early history of the Xhosa, see Peires J. B., The House of Phalo (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1981).

3 Rutherford J., Sir George Grey (London, 1961), chs. 2123.

4 See, for example, the list enclosed in Grey G. to Labouchere H., 3 Oct. 1856, Imperial Blue Book 2352 of 1857, 35.

5 For the early prophets, see Cape Archives (all following references are from the Cape Archives, unless otherwise specified): BK 70, C. Brownlee to J. Maclean, 11 May 1857. This paragraph and the next draw on my forthcoming book on Nongqawuse and the Xhosa cattle-killing.

6 See Peires J. B., ‘The central beliefs of the Xhosa cattle-killing’, J. Afr. Hist, xxviii (1987).

7 GH 8/49. Maclean J. to Grey G., 21 July 1856; Grey G. to Labouchere H., 3 Oct. 1856, Imperial Blue Book 2352 of 1857, 34 ff.

8 On the spread of lungsickness, GH 28/70, J. Jackson to G. Grey, 5 Feb. 1856; GH 8/28, C. Brownlee to J. Maclean, 6 Feb. 1856; E. Robertson to J. Maclean, 30 July 1856; Ace. 793, J. Gawlertof. Reeve, 7 July 1856; Grahamstown Journal, 24 March 1855; MS 7639, Cory Library, Grahamstown B. Ross to J. Ross, 8 May 1854; Merriman N. J., The Cape Journals of Archdeacon Merriman (Cape Town, 1957), 215.

9 GH 20/2/1, ‘Information received from a shrewd and trustworthy native’, 14 Oct. 1855; GH 8/28, J. Ayliff to J. Maclean, 26 May 1856.

10 GH 8/27, C. Canham to B. Nicholson, 30 Sept. 1855, enclosed in J. Maclean to J. Jackson, 16 Oct. 1855.

11 Merriman, Journals, 216; Grahamstown Journal, 4 Aug., 8 Sept. 1855; GH 8/49, J. Maclean to G. Grey, 31 July 1856; GH 8/28, C. Brownleeto J. Maclean, 5 April 1856; GH 28/70, J. Jackson to G. Grey, 5 Feb. 1856.

12 BK 70, C. Brownlee to J. Maclean, 18 Aug. 1856.

13 BK 373, J. Maclean to W. Liddle, 4 Aug. 1856.

14 BK 71, C. Brownlee to J. Maclean, 1 May 1857.

16 Grahamstown Journal, 29 Sept. 1856; BK 24, J. Douglas to J. Maclean, 21 Oct. 1856.

16 GH 8/34, J. Ayliff to J. Maclean, 23 Jan. 1858.

17 Ace. 793, J. Gawler to J. Maclean, 28 July 1857; H. Smith to Earl Grey, 10 May 1851, Imperial Blue Book 1380 of 1851, 19; CO 4386, Information received from Toise, 18 March 1852.

18 CO 4386, Statement by Manquidi, 17 Dec. 1851; interview with M. Soga, Kobonqaba Location, Kentani District, 25 Aug. 1983. Sarhili's unbelieving councillor, Gxabagxaba, was also a leading hostile during the war. BK 431, J. Maclean to G. Mackinnon, 21 March 1851.

19 London Missionary Society Papers, School of Oriental and African Studies, London: F. G. Kayser to L.M.S., Oct. 1856.

20 MS 3236, Cory Library, J. Ross to A. Thomson, 24 Nov. 1856; United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Microfilms, Cory Library, 172/2 Reel I, Journal of H. T. Waters, 1 Jan. 1856, 7 July 1857.

21 Merriman, Journals, 218; BK 14, Statement of Umjuza, 24 Feb. 1857; 1/KWT, Fynn W. – Colonial Secretary, 15 March 1873; Interview with M. Soga (note 18 above).

22 Interview with M. Soga (note 18); Interview with Kantolo M., Kantolo Location, Kentani District, 22 Aug. 1983; Gqoba W. W., ‘Isizatu sokuxelwa kwe nkomo ngo Nongqause’, part 2, Isigidimi samaXosa, 2 April 1888. Gqoba's actual word for ‘relatives’, imisalwana, means ‘people of the same descent’.

23 Brownlee C., Reminiscences of Kafir Life and History, 2nd ed. (Lovedale, 1916), 170171.

24 BK 81, J. Gawler to J. Maclean, 23 Nov. 1856; BK 71, C. Brownlee to J. Maclean, 4 May 1857; GH 8/49, J. Fitzgerald to J. Maclean, n.d. (Dec. 1856); Brownlee, Reminiscences, 134.

25 CO 3122, C. Brownlee to J. Warner, 24 Jan. 1867; U.S.P.G. Microfilm, Cory Library, 172/2 Reel 8, Journal of W. Greenstock, 30 May 1859; Interview with R. Tshisela, Mncotsho Location, Berlin District, 23 Aug. 1982; Interview with A. Nkonki, Ngcizele Location, Kentani District, 7 Jan. 1976.

26 GH8/29, J. Gawler to J. Maclean, 14 Aug. 1856; U.S.P.G. Microfilm, Cory Library, 172/2, Reel 8, Journal of W. Greenstock, 6 Oct. 1858.

27 BK 81, J. Gawler to J. Maclean, 20 June 1857; GH 8/32, C. Brownlee to J. Maclean, 23 May 1857; ‘Nzulu Lwazi’ (S. E. K. Mqhayi), ‘Umfi Wm. C. Mtoba’, Umteteli waBantu, 28 Jan. 1928.

28 See, for example, Lewis I. M., Ecstatic Religion (Harmondsworth, 1971), esp. chs. 3 and 4.

29 Interview with Masiphula Ngovane, Mahlahlane Location, Willowvale District, Oct. 1975.

30 BK 89, Information communicated to the Chief Commissioner, 18 Oct. 1856.

31 Interview with Bomvane Fikile Anta, Teko Location, Kentani District, 8 Jan. 1976.

32 GH 8/49, J. Maclean to J. Jackson, 30 Oct. 1856.

33 BK 71, C. Brownlee to J. Maclean, 1 May 1857; BK 82, H. Vigne to J. Maclean, 1 Feb. 1857; Brownlee, Reminiscences, 134; GH 8/49, F. Reeve to J. Maclean, 9 Nov. 1856; BK 71, C. Brownlee to J. Maclean, 25 Jan. 1857; BK 81, J. Gawler to J. Maclean, 17 Nov. 1856.

34 GH 8/30, C. Brownlee to J. Maclean, 7 Dec. 1856.

35 GH 8/30, C. Brownlee to J. Maclean, 7 Dec. 1856; CO 2949, J. Warner to R. Southey, 7 April 1857; Goldswain J., The Chronicle of Jeremiah Goldswain, ed. Long U. (Cape Town, 1946–9), II, 192193.

36 See Peires, Phalo, ch. 3, where this view of precolonial Xhosa society is argued at length.

37 Kropf A. and Godfrey R., A Kafir-English Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Lovedale, 1915), 230. Gqoba, ‘Isizathu’, part 2, refers to the phrase as having been used by Nongqawuse herself.

38 Dugmore H. H., ‘Rev. H. H. Dugmore's Papers’, in Compendium of Kaffir Laws and Customs, ed. Maclean J. (1858) (Grahamstown: Slater J., 1906), 38.

39 Rutherford, Grey, 330334.

40 GH 8/25, R. Niven to J. Maclean, 17 Jan. 1854.

41 Kropf and Godfrey, Dictionary, 402403.

42 Berglund A.-I., Zulu Thought-Patterns and Symbolism (London, 1976), 162.

43 Mqhayi S. E. K., Ityala lamaWele (Lovedale, n.d.), 113. Another example of ‘softness’ in this sense is supplied by the unbeliever Gxabagxaba, who eventually agreed to kill his cattle saying, ‘that the wealth and cattle which he possessed were obtained from [Sarhili] and his father, Hintsa, but as they were now determined to deprive him of all he had, he could do nothing but yield. He would kill his cattle in compliance with the orders of his chief, and not because he believed in the announcement made by the prophets.’ This ‘softness’ cost Gxabagxaba his reason, and he died insane shortly thereafter. (Brownlee, Reminiscences, 157158.)

44 South African Library, Cape Town, Uncatalogued Manuscripts, Rough Notes on Kafir habits, customs, etc., presented to Sir George Grey by J. C. Warner, 1859.

45 GH 20/2/1, C. Brownlee to J. Maclean, 25 Aug. 1856; GH 8/49, J. Maclean to G. Grey, 10 July 1856; MS 7666, Cory Library, B. Ross to J. Ross, 9 Aug. 1856.

46 BK 83, H. Vigne to J. Maclean, 27 Feb. 1857; BK 86, F. Reeve to J. Maclean, 27 Nov. 1856; GH 8/31, R. Hawkes to J. Maclean, 17 March 1857; CO 2949, J. Warner to R. Southey, 2 June 1857.

47 This figure is calculated from the ‘Population Returns for British Kaffraria’, enclosed in Maclean, Compendium. It is derived from the difference in male population between January 1857 (the height of the cattle-killing) and December 1857 (by which time most of the believers had left their homes in search of food). The seven chiefdoms in question are those of Sandile, Mhala, Phatho, Maqoma, Botomane, Xhoxho and Feni. Figures from the other chiefdoms, which experienced an influx of refugees from the core believer districts, were not considered. The precise figure for those who remained is 16–6 per cent, but this would include the believing chiefs and their close associates, as well as believers who found refuge on mission stations.

48 Kropf and Godfrey, Dictionary, 122123.

49 Gqoba, ‘Isizatu’, Part 2, 2 April 1888.

50 Backhouse J., Narrative of a Visit to the Mauritius and South Africa (London, 1844), 211. For more on Soga, see Peires, Phalo, 108.

51 Lewis J., ‘The rise and fall of the South African peasantry: a critique and reassessment’, Journal of Southern African Studies, xi (Oct. 1984), 4.

52 Merriman, Journals, 9899. The praises are printed in Rubusana W. B., Zemk'ünkomo Magwalandini (London, 1906), 270271. Translated with the help of D. L. P. Yali-Manisi.

53 Van Der Kemp J. T., Transactions of the London Missionary Society, I (1804), 438.

54 Kropf and Godfrey, Dictionary, 377506.

55 Rubusana, Zemk'ünkomo, 275. Translated with the help of D. L. P. Yali-Manisi.

56 ‘Nzulu Lwazi’, 'Utyala Nteyi, Umteteli waBantu, 22 Nov. 1930; GH 8/31, C. Brownlee to J. Maclean, 4 Jan. 1857. The ‘indigent adherents’ mentioned by Brownlee had possessed four head of cattle, and were not therefore as indigent as all that.

57 Interview with M. Torha, Ngede Location, Kentani District, 24 Aug. 1983; Interview with M. Soga (note 18 above).

58 There is a list of Sandile's headmen ranked according to status in BK 70, C. Brownlee to J. Maclean, 4 Sept. 1856. Of the 28 second-class headmen, six can be firmly identified as unbelievers, and only three as believers. The figure of 5–10 per cent is calculated as follows: According to the 1857 returns, there were 14,000 adults in Sandile's chiefdom in January 1857. If we assume that 47–7 per cent of these were males (this figure is calculated from the eleven chiefdoms in which male:female ratios are known), this would give us a figure of 6,681 adult males. There were only 798 males left by December 1857 (11.95 per cent of the January total), including Chiefs Sandile and Dondashe and other believers. Elsewhere (BK 71, C. Brownlee to J. Maclean, 11 Aug. 1857), Brownlee refers to 250 (3.7 per cent of 6,681) unbelievers in his district.

59 GH 8/29, J. Gawler to J. Maclean, 14 Aug. 1856; GH 18/6, J. Gawler to J. Maclean, 15 Aug. 1856; Ace. 793, J. Gawler to J. Maclean, 14 July, 29 Oct. 1856.

60 Soga T., The Journal and Selected Writings, ed. Williams D. (Cape Town, 1983), 4849; GH 8/41, J. C. Kayser to J. Maclean, 20 June 1860; GH 8/49, R. Tainton to J. Maclean, 29 Dec. 1856; Brownlee, Reminiscences, 158; Personal communication from Mr M. V. S. Balfour of Idutywa, a descendant of Makaphela.

61 This was the usual argument of the unbelievers according to oral tradition. Interviews with Tshisela (note 25) and Anta (note 31).

62 BK 81, J. Gawler to J. Maclean, 4 Dec. 1856.

* The author wishes to acknowledge the financial assistance of the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa. The opinions expressed in this article are his own, and are not necessarily those of the Council.

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