Wallace G. Mills Hist. 316 20 African Responses
African Responses to European Intrusion
- with white intrusion, Africans were faced with the necessity of choosing
how to respond. The Xhosa and then the other peoples of South Africa faced
these dilemmas first beginning late in the 18th C. Most Africans outside
of South Africa were confronted only late in the 19th C; however, in this
later period because of the frenzy of the Scramble, intrusion was often
sudden, unexpected and overwhelming. In many cases, it must have been difficult for Africans to understand
what was happening. With little knowledge of the outside world or of the
forces with whom they were contending, they were at a severe disadvantage.
As a result, some African responses were undoubtedly naive.
- of course, Africans did not know that before hand and many obviously
had hopes of staving off conquest.
- initially, the Xhosa did not think whites (to their eyes, the skins of Europeans
were pink or reddish) as significantly different from themselves and reacted
that way; they would trade, skirmish and fight, make alliances and so on. It is important to note that internal and local politics often had
a big influence on African reactions. In local disputes and rivalries,
the appearance of whites offered the prospect of allies and the opportunity
to achieve perhaps a decisive advantage in their local rivalries. For example,
Ngqika, the paramount chief of the Rharhabe clans west of the Kei River,
was in sharp conflict with his uncle, Ndlambe, who had been regent during
Ngqikas minority; Ndlambe had refused to give up power when Ngqika came
of age. The society had split and fought a sharp war in which Ngqikas
forces had been defeated. Hoping to recover his authority over Ndlambe
and the other clans, Ngqika allied himself with the British in 1812 in
a war against his uncle and the other clans who were defying his authority.
- for Europeans, these rivalries were useful and provided opportunities for so-called divide and conquer techniques; however, it is well to keep in mind that usually Europeans did not create the divisions, even if they did frequently exploit and use them.
- but this throws light on some of the African responses. If ones traditional rival or enemy did enter some alliance which resulted in whites giving their assistance, an African group might have no choice but to fight the whites; on their own, they might have been just as willing to ally with the whites. Thus, those who resisted and those who cooperated with the whites may have been determined by accident of which side the whites allied with on their arrival.
- never, in the 100 years of wars, were the Xhosa united. However, with the coming of the British, the Xhosa slowly awakened to the danger. They began to be aware that military resistance needed to be more coordinated; in the 5th war (1819-20) the clans west of the Kei River were pretty well united. In the next 3 wars (6th1835-36, 7th1846-48, and 8th1852-54) the Xhosa east of the Kei (the Gcaleka) increasingly joined or were drawn in.
- also, the attempts to get supernatural assistance became more urgent
with successive defeats and as desperation grew.
- he began to claim visions and a relationship (brother) to Christ. Finally, he announced a resurrection on the beach near East London on a specific day; a large crowd gathered and nothing happened. This did not unduly diminish his rising career. He claimed that some people had not done what he had decreed and had failed to believe; that was why nothing had happened. The idea of a resurrection was totally new to Xhosa cosmology and religion; many missionaries reported intense interest from Africans when preaching on this subject. Ever pragmatic, Africans usually wanted to know when this was going to happen because they wanted to see some of their dead relatives. This was an idea to which they returned subsequently.
- after that point, Nxele went into reaction against Christianity and began preaching about the dangers posed by whites and the need to drive them out.
- he called for and became the main military leader in the attack on Grahamstown in 1819, an attack that came very close to succeeding. As a war doctor, he claimed to have supernatural powers to doctor the warriors so that the white mans bullets would turn into water. This was not a big step from claiming to be able to deflect spears, to make warriors hard to see or even invisible etc. as war doctors traditionally did. Nevertheless, in the war, the Xhosa were defeated and Nxele surrendered in hopes that this would lessen the harshness with which the Xhosa were treated by the British.
- the main point is that the Xhosa were beginning to recognise the scope of the threat and to recognise that they would need much more extensive power and magic than ever before. Mlanjeni, another war doctor, in the 1846-48 war claimed to possess similar powers to those of Nxele.
- by the end of the 8th war in 1850-53, these successive defeats and disasters had greatly increased the desperation and set the stage for another alternative; what the Xhosa turned to was a spectacular supernatural solutionspecifically, the Cattle-killing of 1856-57.
This 'national suicide' was largely a consequence of the Xhosa (Kaffir) wars. The wars in 1846-7 and 1850-53 had been devastating: cattle losses were enormous, substantial amounts of land were taken and starvation had been widespread as a result of British tactics of destroying all food. News of the Crimean War and of the death of former Governor Cathcart led to the rumour that the Russians, who were said to be Black people, were coming to drive out the whites. In 1856, lung sickness in cattle arrived to kill high proportions of remaining Xhosa cattle. It was in this milieu in April 1856 in the territory of the Gcaleka paramount Sarhili ('Kreli') just east of the Kei River that fifteen year old Nongqawuse claimed that she spoke with strangers believed to be messengers from the ancestors. The messages were interpreted and supplemented by her uncle, a famous diviner ('witch doctor') Mhlakaza. Because they were polluted, the strangers ordered that all cattle be killed, that all stored grain should be destroyed, that no grain should be planted and that everyone should purge themselves of all charms and witchcraft. On the other hand, the Xhosa were to build new huts, new grain storage pits and new larger cattle enclosures. If all this were done, then at a specific date in the future, there would be a great resurrection. Not only would the dead arise, but also numberless, fat cattle would appear, the grain pits would be filled, old people and infirm people would become young and well. An entirely new existence of abundancea millenniumwould replace the impoverishment. Whites would disappear or at least the former Xhosa political and social system would be restored.
Similar prophesies had become more common in the despair being experienced by the Xhosa. However, this movement gained importance when Sarhili, who was also paramount chief of all Xhosa, accepted it as genuine. The movement spread rapidly although in the initial stages, some Xhosa sold rather than killed their cattle; however, it divided Xhosa society into believers and unbelievers. Beginning in 1856, a number of dates were set, being postponed when nothing happened. The failures were attributed to selling rather than killing of the cattle or to the lack of participation of the unbelievers. Enormous pressure, even violence to the point of civil war, began to be exerted on the unbelievers (to the believers, non-participation was an act of treason against Xhosa society). In spite of the pressure, many Xhosa never joined. The continued spread of the cattle sickness seemed confirmation of the diagnosis and left many feeling that they had little to lose. Failures drove the frenzy for slaughtering as a necessary prerequisite for the resurrection.
The final date set'the great disappointment'was 16 February 1857 by which time little food was left in Xhosaland. Within days, starvation became widespread. During the next weeks and months, starvation and disease ravaged the population. An estimated 40,000 people (i.e., about 38%) died in British Kaffraria alone and about as many made their way into the Cape Colony, begging for food and willing to work for food only. Losses among the Xhosa and Thembu in the Transkei were probably of a similar magnitude. Some whites, including a few officials, tried to help, but for other whites it was a welcome destruction of an enemy. The governor, Sir George Grey, forced additional people into the migration and seized large amounts of Xhosa land for white settlers. Also, his assimilation policies involved destroying the power of the chiefs; the disaster largely accomplished that and Grey moved ruthlessly to complete the task. In fact, Xhosa social and political institutions as well as faith in traditional religion and society were damaged beyond repair, even though, after some recovery, the Xhosa did fight another war in 1877-78. Another significant effect emerged. Christian mission work had only modest success to that point; in its wake, mass conversion to Christianity began in the 1860s.
Some whites, especially Grey, argued that the movement was a plot of the chiefs who wanted to make their people desperate in order to launch a war to the finish against the whites. Many whites were paranoid, including Grey, but the idea of a great conspiracy was also very useful to Grey in justifying the harsh and drastic measures he was implementing. In fact, no shred of evidence supports the conspiracy theory. The chiefs were as much believers as the people.
The above is my article in James S Olson and Robert Shadle, eds. Historical Dictionary of the British Empire, vol. 2 (1996), pp.1172-3.
- the idea of sacrificing all cattle and indeed the irremediable pollution of the cattle was unprecedented and a very great expansion of Xhosa religious notions. Thus, while Christianity perhaps reinforced some Xhosa ideas, it was more likely the extreme desperation of the Xhosa that drove them to this length. Moreover, the lung sickness undoubtedly reinforced the idea that the cattle were irrevocably polluted. Districts with the earliest and/or most severe incidence of the disease tended to have higher rates of believers than less affected areas.
- on the other hand, the idea of a resurrection of the dead was completely outside Xhosa religious beliefs, but it was an idea with great appeal. Nxele had tried to appropriate the idea in 1817.
- the belief that the Russians would come to help drive out the British,
which was also current during the time of the cattle-killing, is especially
similar to the Cargo Cults. Also, just after World War 1, there were similar
rumours in parts of the Transkei that African Americans were coming to
liberate the Africans; this seems to have been what filtered to South Africa
about Marcus Garveys Back to Africa movement and its slogan
of Africa for the Africans. (We shall be discussing Garvey and his movement in History 2317.)
- in Southern Rhodesia, Leander Starr Jameson, as Administrator of Rhodes BSA Company
government, in starting a war against the Ndebele in 1893, had claimed
to be freeing the Shona from the domination and harassment of the Ndebele.
Nevertheless, in 1896 there was a concerted uprising by both the Ndebele
and the Shona.
- for the Mfengu, the alliance brought rewards. They were given some
of the land and the cattle taken from the Xhosa. However, the hostilities
between Xhosa and Mfengu which these actions engendered were also long
lived, even to the present.
[However, if the ruling elites were not receptive or there were other
complications, the British did help to overthrow the elite in some cases.]
- if they wanted to avoid being subject to whatever treatment the Boers would mete out or even if they wished to avoid control by the Cape Colony, then coming under direct British control was the only possibility. The British were very reluctant to assume direct control and this status was difficult to achieve, as we saw with Moshoeshoe and the Basotho.
- the advantage was that British governments wanted to avoid spending
money so that they agreed only if there was to be no cost; this meant limiting
the colonial administration to a handful of white officials (initially
in Basutoland in 1884, there were only four). This meant that most of the
administration and governing had to be done by Africans with the handful
of white officials acting as advisors and using the African system of government
and law. This was how things were organised in Bechuanaland as well as
- later, Christian missionaries also appeared; in fact, both Catholic and Protestant missions (quite antagonistic to each other) arrived and began to make converts. What emerged was a very complex domestic political situation with 3 external religious groups making converts, plus the traditional religion, making 4 political groupings, all struggling to dominate Ganda society. There was always a civil war on the death of a kabaka, and the religious differences exacerbated that. (Some of the groups appealed to outsiders for help, but eventually, the British excluded foreign rivals.) However, the various groups managed to reach a power-sharing compromise agreement which gave them a united front. Buganda achieved a good deal of success in directing trade to itself and shutting out Nyoro, its bigger and stronger rival.
- when the British appeared on the scene in the 1890s (see Low and Pratt's evaluation), the Ganda became very important allies and assistants to the British in establishing the Uganda Protectorate and subordinating the other kingdoms in what became the Protectorate. Some historians have labeled the Ganda participation sub-imperialism. With the Ganda assistance, the British conquest of Uganda was much easier and less inexpensive.
- later, after World War 1 when the colonial government of the Protectorate
pursued development policies and rationalised administration, it tried
to whittle this autonomy away. While the Protectorate did have some success,
the Ganda were tenacious in defending their status and rights; Buganda
still had a unique position in Uganda at the time of independence. (This
was a source of conflict after independence and helped to lead to instability.)
- in other cases, even when they tried to acquiesce, Africans might
find that they had violence forced upon them.
- Europeans did not recognise the African expectation that outside control was seen as temporary and something to be opposed and undermined. Also, many of the Europeans who came out to govern were not only absolutely ignorant of Africa and Africans (actually worse than ignorant because many had absorbed distorted, racist stereotypes about Africans) but were also incredibly arrogant. As a result, they often quickly alienated Africans. These last problems were much worse wherever there were white settlers.
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