In April 1856, after almost eighty years of intermittent frontier wars between British colonial powers and the amaXhosa of the Eastern Cape, a young Xhosa girl by the name of Nongqawuse received a message. She told her uncle that spirits came to her near the Gxarha River, saying, "Tell that the whole community will rise from the dead; and that all cattle now living must be slaughtered..." (1). This message became the potent prophecy central to the Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement of 1856-57, one of the "most extraordinary [stories] in human history" (2), a pivotal moment that broke the back of the amaXhosa and ushered in a new era of colonial expansion and domination.
For more than 150 years, this event has fascinated, perplexed, and divided the South African public and academics alike. How could Nongqawuse's prophecy eventually lead to the implosion of the amaXhosa? How responsible was colonial Governor George Grey for exacerbating tensions, leading to the starvation and death of between twenty and forty thousand Xhosa? How should this event's history be told? And, of equal importance, how is it remembered?
These are the kinds of questions that many scholars have tried to answer from the 1800s to today. The great challenges to finding answers are that colonial records are replete with bias, archival evidence is based almost entirely on hearsay, and Xhosa oral traditions convey a vastly different message than surviving documents. Of course, these difficulties also provide fertile ground for a wide array of interpretations. And the storyline has captured the imagination of artists and writers for more than a century.
This website points the (bibliographic) way to the varied interpretations, be they in historical, literary, or other creative works. And it is intended to give researchers of the movement's history a jumpstart in locating relevant documents and sites of importance in the Eastern Cape.
Here, then, are some guidelines to using...
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