Saturday, August 26, 2006


Only in Africa could a story like the AmaXhosa Delusion be plausible. I posted John Berger’s account of it the other day, and have been turning it over in my mind for a couple of days. For objectivity’s sake, here is an abridged account of the Delusion from wikipedia (see here for the full story):

The incident is one of the most remarkable instances of misplaced faith recorded in history. The Xhosa tribe had not accepted their defeat in 1853 [by the British] as decisive and were preparing to renew their struggle with the Europeans.

In 1854, a disease spread through the cattle of the Xhosa. It was believed to have spread from cattle owned by the Settlers. Widespread cattle deaths resulted, and the Xhosa believed that the deaths were caused by ubuthi, or witchcraft.

In May 1856, a girl named Nongqawuse went to fetch water from a pool near the mouth of the Gxarha River. When she returned, she told her uncle Mhlakaza that she had met three spirits at the pool, and that they had told her that all cattle should be slaughtered, and their crops destroyed. On the day following the destruction, the dead Xhosa would return and help expel the whites. The ancestors would bring cattle with them to replace those that had been killed. Mhlakaza believed the prophecy, and repeated it to the chief Sarhili.

Sarhili ordered the commands of the spirits to be obeyed. At length the spirits commanded that not an animal of all their herds was to remain alive, and every grain of corn was to be destroyed. If that were done, on a given date, myriads of cattle more beautiful than those destroyed would issue from the earth, while great fields of corn, ripe and ready for harvest, would instantly appear. The dead would rise, trouble and sickness vanish, and youth and beauty come to all alike. Unbelievers and the hated white man would on that day perish.

The people heard and obeyed. Either in faith that reached the sublime, or in obedience equally great, vast numbers of the people acted. At length the day dawned which, according to the prophecies, was to usher in the terrestrial paradise. The sun rose and sank, but the expected miracle did not come to pass. The chiefs who had planned to hurl the famished warrior upon the colony had committed an incredible blunder in neglecting to call the nation together under pretext of witnessing the resurrection. They realised their error too late, and attempted to fix the situation by changing the resurrection to another day, but blank despair had taken the place of hope and faith, and it was only as starving supplicants that the Xhosa sought the British.

This account is quite representative of the first 15 sites I found after typing “amaxhosa delusion” into Google. It questions neither the credulity of the Xhosas, nor the conduct of the British. Yet, if we applied a similar story to nineteenth century Europe, or even Asia, there would be major doubts regarding its plausibility. We do not think of human beings as being irrational enough, en masse, to believe the apparently deleterious claims of their gods. We would not readily accept that a human being would believe a message if it appeared to have fatal consequences for them. At the very least, we would ask ourselves why a human being would believe such a message. But of course, we are not talking about human beings here. We are talking about Africans.

It is said that history is always written by the victors, so on that basis alone it might not seem fanciful to suggest that this story was fabricated by the Europeans. But let’s look a little closer at the story.

(1) No account of the story that I have read explains why Nongkawuse might have heard such a message, nor why her uncle might have been so ready to believe her. From an agnostic point of view, we might see religious visions or messages as arising out of the unconscious; and yet, the Xhosa had been more successful than many other tribes at quelling the imperialists. In 1856, after the replacement of their chief Sarhili by a British official, the Xhosa were in no mood for defeatism. So why would a message ordering the destruction of crops and livestock be given?

(2) Following on from (1), why would an entire tribe buy the dubious claims of a young girl and her uncle?

Firstly, neither Wikipedia’s entry nor Berger’s account explain that Nongkawuse was no ordinary young girl; she was in fact a prophetess, a figure in the vein of Joanna Southcott fifty years before. Southcott had her followers of course, but it would be difficult to imagine her prophecies causing a famine on the scale of the Irish Potato Famine, not even in Devon.

To imagine that things might be different in Africa chimes perfectly with the prejudices of the nineteenth century, and perhaps with those of the twenty-first. But it has no basis in truth. Religious beliefs contain a potent mixture of rationalism and superstition by whomever they are held. Religion does not suddenly become more volatile when possessed by an African. On this basis, the claim that Nongkawuse’s prophecy would cause tens or hundreds of thousands of people to destroy their crops and livestock seems tenuous. Christopher Heywood suggests that Nongkawuse may have suffered from some kind of Electra complex, torn between a domineering prophet father and a desire to be the ultimate mother. But even if we see her prophecy as a primordial maternal act, this still does not explain why the tribe might have swallowed her story, unless the tribe suffered from a collective maternal absence. Perhaps this was so, but I cannot find any reference to it. This part of the story therefore strikes me as literally incredible. I do not believe a word of it.

So, if Nongkawuse’s prophecy did not directly cause the destruction, how come 50,000 people died?

(3) Was there some other reason for the tribe committing such a suicidal act? In believing that they could no longer subdue the British, did they decide to commit a kind of (agri)cultural hari-kiri? One could see how this might be so. Faced with a European civilisation which the tribe could not comprehend and which had been imposed upon it, perhaps the Xhosa realised that it could not place itself within this new frame of reference.

(4) Alternatively, were the Xhosa defeated once and for all by the British, who wished to provide a cover in the form of the delusion? Clearly the story as told exonerates the European imperialists for any wrongdoing they may have committed in this particular episode, and those which they certainly did commit during the long colonisation of South Africa. By emphasising the dementia of the native people, it corroborates the party-line of empire as an influence which eradicates primitive fundamentalism and instills democracy. Such justifications arose from prejudice and distortion just as they do today.


Blogger darling vicarage said...

I can't believe that the Great Amaxosa Delusion is anything other than a perfect example of some careful, and highly creative editorial on the part of the imperialists - something they appear to be very good at. Luckily for them people still seem rather eager to swallow this nonsense - such bedtime stories always help us sleep a little easier at night.
Personally. I've always found James Fenimoore Cooper to be particularly good at manufacturing these tall tales - there's nothing like a good scalping to sweeten the American dream.

p.s. happy for you that the ticket is booked, but of course, personally, devastated

6:10 PM  
Blogger paddington said...

I'm sure there is room in my suitcase for a little one, though it might mean leaving my floral beach shorts at home.

The only question I would raise about your claim that the Delusion was a colonialist invention, is why has it remained covered up? Apparently, members of the Xhosa tribe were in the first post-apartheid government 150 years after the Delusion. You would have thought they might have wished to expose the myth that their tribe are gullible animists.

6:09 PM  
Blogger darling vicarage said...

hmmn, yeah you're right *shrug* dunno
i'll think about it. and who needs floral beach shorts anyway?

7:02 PM  
Blogger paddington said...

They are extremely tasteful floral beach shorts, and show my legs in their best possible aspect.

But you're right - speedos are probably the thing to wear these days anyway.

Of course, I would take you as hand luggage, but you might, you know, blow up or something. So suitcase it is.

8:26 PM  
Blogger darling vicarage said...

i suppose i could mail myself like Waldo. just don't pull a Sheila Klein and stab me with a sheet metal cutter, ok?

9:26 PM  
Blogger paddington said...

I don't have a sheet metal cutter, though I do have a little sewing scissor...

3:14 PM  

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