Covid-19GovernmentHealthHealth fascism

John Church: The Story of the Xhosa Cattle Killings

This is an árticle by John Church. John is an oil and gas professional and has spent some 30 years working for one of the biggest oil companies in the world.

This week-end we were all hoping to hear about a lifting of restrictions and a view of a rapid road back to normality.  I know I am not alone in being seriously alarmed by the direction of travel that is the opposite to what was wanted.  We were initially locked-down in March to ensure the ‘NHS wasn’t overwhelmed’.  Then in April it was extended to ‘save lives’ and this has now morphed into a rationale to ‘prevent a second wave’. This weekend we were to hear about reduced restrictions, but instead of release, we hear about how we will all be required to do a lot more walking and cycling, as public transport will effectively be unusable, due to social distancing requirements, for the foreseeable future. We hear about how all air travel arrivals in the UK will now be required to quarantine for two weeks, with no description of how this will ever be ended. That’s the end of the travel and tourism sector. Gone. Just like that. And encompassing everything are the recent words of the Prime Minister that “we need to continue to make sure we don’t squander the efforts we have already made”. Continue to what? To where?

We are told the strategy is the suppression and (through testing, tracking, tracing and isolation) the eradication of a virus that is, to put it bluntly, not eradicable.  As infections and deaths fall and the economic pain of our existing restrictions begin to bite, we aspire to release, but the final success of that strategy will require more isolation and distancing, not less. In a world where the virus is here and here to stay, this is the road to economic ruination, because the only way to attempt this ultimately unachievable goal will be forever increased restrictions and loss of freedoms. It can be very difficult to get out of a ‘throwing good money after bad’  black hole. But that is scary place we are now at.

The description  below is the story of the death of the Xhosa nation between 1856 and 1858. It is not a perfect parallel, but there are some chilling similarities to where we find ourselves in the UK: the ‘vision’ (or model prediction), the personal sacrifices of the leader, unrealistic or unachievable goals, the changing dates, a ruined economy and impoverishment and starvation, the doubling down on efforts, etc. If nothing else it is a piece of history worth knowing and I hope an enjoyable read.

In the early nineteenth century, the British colonized Southeast Africa. The native Xhosa resisted, but suffered repeated and humiliating defeats at the hands of British military forces. The Xhosa lost their independence and their native land became an English colony. The British adopted a policy of westernising the Xhosa. They were to be converted to Christianity, and their native culture and religion was to be wiped out. Under the stress of being confronted by a superior and irresistible technology, the Xhosa developed feelings of inadequacy and inferiority. In this climate, a prophet appeared.

In April of 1856, a fifteen-year-old girl named Nongqawuse heard a voice telling her that the Xhosa must kill all their cattle, stop cultivating their fields, and destroy their stores of grain and food. The voice insisted that the Xhosa must also get rid of their hoes, cooking pots, and every utensil necessary for the maintenance of life. Once these things were accomplished, a new day would magically dawn. Everything necessary for life would spring spontaneously from the earth. The dead would be resurrected. The blind would see and the old would have their youth restored. New food and livestock would appear in abundance, spontaneously sprouting from the earth. The British would be swept into the sea, and the Xhosa would be restored to their former glory. What was promised was nothing less than the establishment of paradise on earth.

 Nongqawuse told this story to her guardian and uncle, Mhlakaza. At first, the uncle was sceptical. But he became a believer after accompanying his niece to the spot where she heard the voices. Although Mhlakaza heard nothing, he became convinced that Nongqawuse was hearing the voice of her dead father, and that the instructions must be obeyed. Mhlakaza became the chief prophet and leader of the cattle-killing movement.

News of the prophecy spread rapidly, and within a few weeks the Xhosa king, Sarhili, became a convert. He ordered the Xhosa to slaughter their cattle and, in a symbolic act, killed his favourite ox. As the hysteria widened, other Xhosa began to have visions. Some saw shadows of the resurrected dead arising from the sea, standing in rushes on the river bank, or even floating in the air. Everywhere that people looked, they found evidence to support what they desperately wanted to be true.

The believers began their work in earnest. Vast amounts of grain were taken out of storage and scattered on the ground to rot. Cattle were killed so quickly and on such an immense scale that vultures could not entirely devour the rotting flesh. The ultimate number of cattle that the Xhosa slaughtered was 400,000. After killing their livestock, the Xhosa built new, larger kraals to hold the marvellous new beasts that they anticipated would rise out of the earth. The impetus of the movement became irresistible.

The resurrection of the dead was predicted to occur on the full moon of June, 1856. Nothing happened. The chief prophet of the cattle-killing movement, Mhlakaza, moved the date to the full moon of August. But again the prophecy was not fulfilled.

The cattle-killing movement now began to enter a final, deadly phase, which its own internal logic dictated as inevitable. The failure of the prophecies was blamed on the fact that the cattle-killing had not been completed. Most believers had retained a few cattle, chiefly consisting of milk cows that provided an immediate and continuous food supply. Worse yet, there was a minority community of sceptical non-believers who refused to kill their livestock.

The fall planting season came and went. Believers threw their spades into the rivers and did not sow a single seed in the ground. By December of 1856, the Xhosa began to feel the pangs of hunger. They scoured the fields and woods for berries and roots, and attempted to eat bark stripped from trees. Mhlakaza set a new date of December 11 for the fulfilment of the prophecy. When the anticipated event did not occur, unbelievers were blamed.

The resurrection was rescheduled yet again for February 16, 1857, but the believers were again disappointed. Even this late, the average believer still had three or four head of livestock alive. The repeated failure of the prophecies could only mean that the Xhosa had failed to fulfil the necessary requirement of killing every last head of cattle. Now, they finally began to complete the killing process. Not only cattle were slaughtered, but also chickens and goats. Any viable means of sustenance had to be destroyed. Any cattle that might have escaped earlier killing were now slaughtered for food.

Serious famine began in late spring of 1857. All the food was gone. The starving population broke into stables and ate horse food. They gathered bones that had lay bleaching in the sun for years and tried to make soup. They ate grass. Maddened by hunger, some resorted to cannibalism. Weakened by starvation, family members often had to lay and watch dogs devour the corpses of their spouses and children. Those who did not die directly from hunger fell prey to disease. To the end, true believers never renounced their faith. They simply starved to death, blaming the failure of the prophecy on the doubts of non-believers.

By the end of 1858, the Xhosa population had dropped from 105,000 to 26,000. Forty to fifty-thousand people starved to death, and the rest migrated. With Xhosa civilization destroyed, the land was cleared for white settlement. The British found that those Xhosa who survived proved to be docile and useful servants. What the British Empire had been unable to accomplish in more than fifty years of aggressive colonialism, the Xhosa did to themselves in less than two years.

Original by David Deming, Associate Professor of Arts and Sciences at University of Oklahoma.

Copyright © 2009 by Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.

Share this article on social media:

12 thoughts on “John Church: The Story of the Xhosa Cattle Killings

  1. The Xhosa had the excuse that

    “They were to be converted to Christianity, and their native culture and religion was to be wiped out. Under the stress of being confronted by a superior and irresistible technology, the Xhosa developed feelings of inadequacy and inferiority. In this climate, a prophet appeared”.

    What is our excuse? Have the Americans engendered a sense of effortless superiority such as the British did over the Xhosa?

  2. A thought provoking story indeed… I intend to watch the whole thing unfold with a veg patch, garden pizza oven and a well stocked larder…

  3. Our equivalent of the prophecy is digital computing / computer models: that computer output could contain more knowledge than its input. In our culture the computer model is magically invested with knowledge. But a computer can’t *know* anything that can’t be comprehended mathematically. If a computer beats a man at chess it’s because it’s been programmed to compute every possible move, chess being purely mathematical. The computer *knows* no more about chess as a contest than about viruses / weather.

    A man could still be more effective than the most powerful computer in any number of chess games owing to knowledge about his particular opponent in the moment, perhaps some vulnerability in his play, which is necessarily beyond the scope of a computer. The computer is more powerful than the man only to the extent that it can perform more calculations, which clearly counts for a lot in chess.

    No reason to suppose that a computer can predict the spread of a virus better than a well- informed human being. It’s no different from other “stochastic” phenomena which everyone knows can’t be modelled mathematically, at least not to the extent of reliably predicting the outcome of any particular event, such as horse races or football games. Only there’s no officially sponsored predictive science relating to those endeavours. To that extent the argument about Ferguson’s computer code is a red herring.

    The academic paper Hector posted on here a while ago relating to the foot and mouth model was as much a critique of the efficacy of modelling in the field of public health generally as about that particular debacle.

    Otherwise the self-destructiveness of the Xhosa is no different to ours in principle, ie like most human behaviour, purely mimetic. We imagine ourselves as autonomous self-made individuals yet everything we say and do comes from others. We might choose our own clothes or opinions but they’re pretty much identical to everyone else’s. If I decide to dress like a 17th century nobleman and wear a mullet hairstyle, that would be anti-mimetic. There’s no escaping what Heidegger called ‘the uncanny supremacy of the “they”‘.

    Which isn’t to devalue the precious individual freedom we do have. Only to say that it can’t be understood apart from the culture out of which it developed. I’ve lived in Africa myself where the notion of a housemaid having the same legal rights as her employer is as unfathomable as it would have been here not so long ago.

    We take equality before the law and judicial sanction for granted. But you don’t have to stay long in places without law where vengeance is privatised to realise that it’s far from a given. Ditto modern England where rule of law has been subordinated to multiculturalist political imperatives to accommodate people whose motive for being here in the first place was itself premised on rule of law, without which trust between strangers and the commercial success which depends on it are practically impossible.

  4. You make a good point about computer models. They’ve become a form of 21st century divination for many people. More worryingly is that Ferguson has been repeatedly consulted despite a patchy track record of predictions from his models.

  5. Another episode which may be of relevance to the current situation and its aftermath concerned a “Doomsday cult” made up of a group of members of the Unification Church (“Moonies”) in California. When Doomsday failed to arrive at the appointed hour, the members decided that this was because they’d been praying so fervently in the lead-up that God had spared the Earth from destruction. Then they began to prepare for the revised date…
    There are so many people – not just those who made the decision to lockdown but all those who’ve supported it (>80% of the public, from reports of opinion polls) – who would have to eat humble pie if the LD was unnecessary that they’ll insist that the LD saved the world. After this triumph, it seems quite likely that the next Doomsday for which sacrifices will be offered will be due to global warming.

  6. Future Babble by Dan Gardner discusses this kind of thing whereby people rationalise the failure of their predictions.

  7. Yeah the computer gives the numbers a false legitimacy. The attribution of agency to the computer, as if the computer could determine any matter of fact independently of the predictive assumptions built into its software, is no more rationally grounded than the Xhosa prophecy. Anyone who thinks that’s overstating the case should ask themselves how much credence the figures would be given otherwise, i.e. if they were attributed to their author Neil Ferguson rather than the computer? The modelling priesthood arguing about the merits of Ferguson’s code is Jesuitical.

  8. They needed an antidote (antidolt?) to 15-year-old “wisdom”.
    Luckily today we have Naomi Seibt to negate the moronic guff from St Greta’s minders.

Comments are closed.