History is not kind to Nongqawuse.
What we know of her is mainly related to the Cattle-Killing/Millenarian Movement of 1856-7 and her role and relations therein. She enters history either through colonial records or the oral traditions passed down from generations amongst the Xhosa people. There is little evidence to discern who she actually was and why she in particular made the prophecies she did, let alone whether the prophecy was true or not. There are only varying perspectives and speculations based on the evidence available.
Nongqawuse is said to have been an orphan and the niece of Mhlakaza. Mhlakaza’s father was the councillor of Chief Sarhili. After Mhlakaza’s mother died, he went to the Cape Colony and became familiar with Christianity. He returned to Xhosaland in 1853. Nongqawuse’s parents died in the battles of the Waterkloof. As a result she is believed to have been quite conscious and aware of the tensions between the Xhosa and the colonial forces. The Xhosa were experiencing an onslaught of attacks upon their community and institutions by British colonial authorities from as early on as 1779. Lungsickness was widespread amongst the cattle of the people. Growing up with her uncle as her guardian, Nongqawuse was influenced by Mhlakaza – a deeply religious man.
Nongqawuse (False Prophet)
2022, Embroidery, found fabric., pillowcase, fabric from E. Shoshan, twine, thread, fake brown gilded frame, 8 x 12 inches
In April 1856, 15-year old Nongqawuse and her friend Nombanda, who was between the ages of 8-10, went to scare birds from her uncle's crops in the fields by the sea at the mouth of the Gxarha River in the present day Wild Coast region of South Africa.
When she returned, Nongqawuse told Mhlakaza that she had met the spirits of two of her ancestors. She claimed that the spirits had told her that the Xhosa people should destroy their crops and kill their cattle, the source of their wealth as well as food.
Nongqawuse claimed that the ancestors who had appeared to them said;
1)the dead would arise;
2)all living cattle would have to be slaughtered, having been reared by contaminated hands;
3)cultivation would cease;
4)new grain would have to be dug;
5)new houses would have to be built;
6)new cattle enclosures would have to be erected;
7)new milk sacks would have to be made;
8)doors would have to be weaved with buka roots and lastly;
9)that people abandon witchcraft, incest and adultery
In return the spirits would sweep all European settlers into the sea. The Xhosa people would be able to replenish the granaries, and fill the kraals with more beautiful and healthier cattle.
During this time many Xhosa herds were plagued with "lung sickness", possibly introduced by European cattle. Mhlakaza did not believe her at first but when Nongqawuse described one of the men, Mhalakaza, himself a diviner, recognized the description as that of his dead brother, and became convinced she was telling the truth.
Mhlakaza repeated the prophecy to Sarili. The cattle-killing frenzy affected not only the Gcaleka, Sarili's clan, but the whole of the Xhosa nation. Historians estimate that the Gcaleka killed between 300,000 and 400,000 head of cattle. Not all Xhosa people believed Nongqawuse's prophecies. A small minority, known as the amagogotya (stingy ones), refused to slaughter and neglect their crops, and this refusal was used by Nongqawuse to rationalize the failure of the prophecies over a period of fifteen months (April 1856–June 1857).
Nongqawuse predicted that the ancestors' promise would be fulfilled on February 18, 1857, when the sun would turn red. Initially, after the failure of Nongqawuse's prophecy, her followers blamed those who had not obeyed her instructions. They later turned against her. Chief Sarili visited the Gxarha River mouth, and spoke with Nongqawuse and Mhalakaza.
When he returned, he announced that the New World would begin in eight days. On the eighth day the sun would rise, blood-red, and before setting again, there would be a huge thunderstorm, after which "the dead would arise". During the next eight days the cattle-killing rose to a climax. These prophecies also failed to come true leading to the death of many people.
In the aftermath of the crisis, the population of British Kaffraria dropped from 105,000 to fewer than 27,000 due to the resulting famine. The chief of Bomvana handed Nongqawuse over to Major Gawler and she stayed at his home for a period. One day Mrs. Gawler decided to dress her, along with the Mpongo prophetess Nonkosi, and have their portrait taken by a photographer. This is the widely circulated image of Nongqawuse with which most people are familiar. After her release, she lived on a farm in the Alexandria district of the eastern Cape. She died in 1898.
Today, the valley where Nongqawuse alleged to have met the spirits is still called Intlambo kaNongqawuse (Xhosa for "Valley of Nongqawuse"). [cited Wikipedia]
Would you believe?
South African History Online
Written by Gemma Pitcher
October 31, 2018
By Nick All