The Keiskamma Tapestry, Cattle-Killing Panel, Detail 3. Copyright Robert Hofmeyr.

The Keiskamma Tapestry, Cattle-Killing Panel, Detail 3. Copyright Robert Hofmeyr.

The following information and images represent a small portion of the materials I collected while conducting research on the Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement of 1856-57. This page has not been updated to reflect scholarship published after 2010, and this is an abbreviated version of the previous version of this site. For additional information, please contact me.

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, exhorting her to instruct her people that all cattle must be slaughtered so that a new nation would rise from the dead. This message--or a version of it--became the potent prophecy central to the Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement of 1856-57, 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 are some suggestions to begin researching the Cattle-Killing:

  • For an overview of published historical and literary works from the Cattle-Killing era to the present, read my article, "The Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement in History and Literature," History Compass 7, no. 6 (2009).

  • Read William Gqoba's account of the movement as published in Isigidimi SamaXosa in 1888. This is available on microfilm from many research libraries. Gqoba's account is the oldest, most significant description of the Cattle-Killing by a Xhosa historian. If you have not studied isiXhosa (or isiZulu), you may also read the translation of Gqoba's text, which was published in A.C. Jordan's Towards an African Literature: The Emergence of Literary Form in Xhosa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973). See also Helen Bradford and Msokoli Qotole, "Ingxoxo enkulu ngoNongqawuse (A Great Debate about Nongqawuse’s Era)," Kronos 34, no .1, pp. 66-105 (2008).

  • Read The Dead Will Arise, by Jeff Peires. It is still the only academic history of the movement written to date. And while its interpretations are continually critiqued, it remains the most important analysis of the history.

  • Check the list of "Key Texts" on this site for other important articles and books (some with primary source material). Helen Bradford's critiques of Peires' interpretations are particularly thought-provoking.
       >> Key Texts

  • Visit archival repositories in South Africa to read primary source documents from the 1850s. The three most important locations for work on the Cattle-Killing are the Cape Archives, the National Library of South Africa, and the Cory Library at Rhodes University in Grahamstown.

  • Go through this site's "Photos" section to see the site of the prophecy and other locations.
       >> Photos

  • Read the special issue of African Studies on the Cattle-Killing to get up-to-date on the latest discussions about the movement.
       >> Special Issue of African Studies