The Journal of African History

Research Article

The Central Beliefs of the Xhosa Cattle-Killing

J. B. Peiresa1*

a1 Rhodes University, Grahamstown

The Xhosa cattle-killing movement of 1856–7 cannot be explained as a superstitious ‘pagan reaction’to the intrusion of colonial rule and Christian civilization. It owes its peculiar form to the lungsickness epidemic of 1854, which carried off over 100,000 Xhosa cattle. The Xhosa theory of disease indicated that the sick cattle had been contaminated by the witchcraft practices of the people, and that these tainted cattle would have to be slaughtered lest they infect the pure new cattle which were about to rise.

The idea of the resurrection of the dead was partly due to the Xhosa belief that the dead do not really die or depart from the world of the living, and partly to the Xhosa myth of creation, which held that all life originated in a certain cavern in the ground which might yet again pour forth its blessings on the earth. Christian doctrines, transmitted through the prophets Nxele and Mhlakaza, supplemented and elaborated these indigenous Xhosa beliefs. The Xhosa and the Christian elements united together in the person of the expected redeemer Sifuba-sibanzi (the broad-chested one). The central beliefs of the Xhosa cattle-killing were neither irrational nor atavistic. Ironically, it was probably because they were so rational and so appropriate that they ultimately proved to be so deadly.


* The author wishes to acknowledge the financial assistance of the Human Sciences Research Council. The opinions expressed in this article are his own, and are not necessarily those of the Council.