Monday, August 21, 2006



On 23 December 1847, the British Governor of Cape Colony, Sir Harry Smith, summoned together the chiefs of the Amaxosa tribes on the Eastern Frontier. He told them that their territory - the most fertile in South Africa - was to be annexed and made a crown dependency : British Kaffraria. After a while it became clear that the Gaika tribe and their chief Sandila were determined to offer the most stubborn resistance. Sir Harry Smith re-summoned the chiefs. Sandila refused to come. Whereupon Sir Harry deposed him of his chiefship, and in his place, as chief of the Gaikas, appointed an English magistrate called Mr Brownlee. Convinced that they had now dealt with the matter masterfully, the two Englishmen ordered the arrest of Sandila. On 24 December 1850 the force sent out to arrest him was ambushed and the Gaika tribe rose in revolt. White settlers in the military villages along the frontier were attacked and killed whilst celebrating Christmas. Thus began the Fourth Kaffir War : the penultimate stage in the Amaxosas' long defence of their independence, which had continued for sixty years.

By 1853 the British, with their prodigious military advantages (the war cost the Colonial Office nearly a million pounds), were able to impose a military defeat on the tribes. In 1856 there followed what the British were later to call 'The Great Amaxosa Delusion'. This 'delusion' constituted the ultimate stage of the A,axosa nation's defence of its independence.

A girl named Nongkwase told her father that when going to draw water from a stream she had met strangers of commanding aspect. The father went to see them. They told him that they were spirits of the dead who had come to help their people drive the white men into the sea. The father reported to Sarili, an Amaxosa chief, who announced that the people must do what the spirits instructed. The spirits instructed the people to kill all their cattle and to destroy every grain of corn they possessed. Their cattle had become thin and their crops poor as a result of the land already stolen from their by the white man. When every head of cattle was killed and every seed of corn destroyed, myriads of fat beautiful cattle would issue from the earth, great fields of heavy ripe corn would instantly appear, trouble and sickness would vanish, everybody would be young and beautiful, and the white man, on that day, would perish utterly.

The people obeyed. Cattle were central to their culture. In the villages heads of cattle were the measuring units of wealth. When a daughter was married, her father, if rich enough, gave her a cow, an ubulungu - 'a doer of good': this cow must never be killed and a hair from its must always be tied round the neck of each of the daughter's children at birth. Nevertheless the people obeyed. They slaughtered their cattle and their sacred cows and they burnt their grain.

They built large new kraals for the new fat cattle that would come. They prepared skin sacks to hold the milk that was soon to be more plentiful than water. They held themselves in patience and waited their vengeance.

The appointed day of the prophecy arrived. The sun rose and sank with the hopes of hundreds of thousands. By nightfall nothing had changed.

An estimated fifty thousand died of starvation. Many thousands more left their land to search for work in Cape Colony. Those who remained did so as a propertyless labour force. (A little later many were to work as wage slaves in the diamond and gold mines further north.) On the rich, now depopulated, land of the Amaxosa, European farmers settled and prospered.

From John Berger, G. 1972

More on this story during the week...


Blogger chumly said...

Great historical post. I was enthralled and wait for more.

11:15 PM  
Blogger paddington said...

Thanks Chumly, though John Berger has to take all of the credit. I copied the story verbatim from his novel, G., which I am currently reading. But it intrigued me because of its implausibility.

I typed "amaxosa delusion" and "amaxhosa delusion" into Google, and the first fifteen searches all relayed the story unquestioningly, as Berger does (though I suspect he tells it ironically). Whichever way I come at the story, I can't help thinking that the story is entirely fictitious, invented by British colonialists as a cover-up for something. And don't worry, I am not a conspiracy nut...

Anyway, I will post my thoughts on this later in the week.

6:05 PM  

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