The Journal of African History

Research Article

Nxele, Ntsikana and the Origins of the Xhosa Religious Reaction

J. B. Peiresa1

a1 Rhodes University

The sudden expulsion of the Xhosa across the Fish River in 1811–12 created a practical and conceptual crisis which the traditional political authorities were unable to resolve. Two commoners, Nxele and Ntsikana, emerged in this vacuum, each proposing his own solution to the problems posed by the white irruption. Although these responses were religious responses, they were neither irrational nor incomprehensible. Xhosa religion had long functioned as an instrument for the control of the material world. By incorporating selected Christian concepts with the Xhosa world-view, Nxele and Ntsikana were able to provide the Xhosa with acceptable explanations of past events and prescriptions for future action.

Nxele urged resistance and Ntsikana preached submission, but an examination of their personal histories shows that these final conclusions were more the product of exterior pressure than interior revelation. It may be suggested that the future reputations of the two men, like their past actions, will be determined more by the popular mood than by anything they themselves did or said.