Re: Words and memes--Cattle Killing

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Tue Feb 26 2002 - 16:23:45 GMT

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    From: Keith Henson <>
    Subject: Re: Words and memes--Cattle Killing
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    At 11:17 AM 24/02/02 -0800, Ted wrote:


    > > >What the cattle killings demonstrate is that mass suicide is primarily a
    > > >phenomenon of culture, not cult. Of course, cults can also commit
    > > >collective suicide, but it's just an act of idiocy, as the only threat to
    > > >their freedom is themselves. As authentic group-level expressions of
    > > >human consciousness, cultures commit suicide when they face the
    > > >propspect of enslavement. To be human is to be free. Better to die.
    > >
    > > Ah, Ted, did you *read* the URL? Cult or culture, it was clearly a
    > > situation where a mutated meme got loose and did a fair job of wiping out
    > > the population.
    >I readily concede that the cattle killing involved a delusion, as did the
    >Jews at Masada. But the inaccuracy of a belief doesn't necessarily make it

    Christianity could be considered a mutated Judism. Technical term, no
    other implication.

    >Myth is universal among pre-scientific cultures and is extremely
    >important at binding communities. The idea that the Xhosa would regain in
    >paradise all that they had destroyed on earth helped them to resist their
    >absorption into an alien culture.

    Quite the opposite, see below.

    >It enabled them to control their demise,
    >to retain their human dignity to the end, just like Masada. This is a
    >healthy meme. If everyone resisted enslavement to the death, there would be
    >no imperialism, no systematic injustice and inequality. We would indeed be
    >inhabiting paradise.

    I doubt that would be the case, for certain the inhabitants would not be
    human as we know the species. Many of our cultural elements such as armies
    are rooted in capture-bonding. But let us look at the actual events of
    the cattle killing.

    Journal of African History, 28 (1987). PP. 43-63 43
    Printed in Great Britain


    BY J. B. PEIRES*

    THE only reliable and authentic account of the vision of Nongqawuse,
    prophetess of the great Xhosa cattle-killing of 1856-7, reads like a folk
    story or a fantastic tale of the imagination

    It happened in one of the minor chiefdoms among the Gcaleka Xhosa, that of
    Mnzabele, in the year 1856. Two girls went out to guard the fields against
    birds. One was named Nongqawuse, the daughter of Mhlakaza, and the other
    was very young. At the river known as the place of the Strelitzia, they saw
    two men arriving. These men said to the girls - Give our greetings to your
    homes. Tell them we are So-and-so... and they told their names, those of
    people who had died long ago. Tell them that the whole nation will rise
    from the dead if all the living cattle are slaughtered because these have
    been reared with defiled hands, since there are people about who have been
    practising witchcraft.

    There should be no cultivation. Great new corn pits must be dug and new
    houses built. Lay out great big cattle-folds, cut out new milk-sacks, and
    weave doors from buka roots, many of them. So say the chiefs, Napakade, the
    son of Sifuba-sibanzi. The people must abandon their witchcraft, for it
    will soon be revealed by diviners.'

    Unfortunately, the story of Nongqawuse is no folk tale. During the thirteen
    months of cattle-killing (April 1856-May 1857), about 85 per cent of all
    Xhosa adult men killed their cattle and destroyed their corn in obedience
    to Nongqawuse's prophecies. It is estimated that 400,000 cattle were
    slaughtered and 40,000 Xhosa died of starvation.' At least another 40,000
    left their homes in search of food. The dogged resistance to colonial
    expansion which the Xhosa had sustained for nearly eighty bitter years was
    abruptly broken by their own actions, and almost all their remaining lands
    were given away to white settlers or black clients of the Cape government.

    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.

    ' W. W. G[qoba], ' Isizatu sokuxelwa kwe nkomo ngo Nongqause', Parts i and
    2, Isigdimi samaXosa, r March, s April 1888. 1 am indebted to Professor J.
    Opland for first pointing these out to me. The abridged version published
    in W. B. Rubusana, 2emk'iinkomo Magwalandini (London, 1906 has been
    translated in A. C. Jordan, Towards an African Literature (Berkeley, 1973).

    = For the figure of 85 per cent, see my paper "'Soft" believers and "hard"
    unbelievers', Journal of African History, xxvii, iii (1986). For the number
    of cattle slaughtered, GH 8/49 C. Brownlee to J. Maclean 7 Jan. 1857. For
    the number who died see Cape Argus, 3 March 1858, and Bishop R. Gray,
    quoted by C. C. Saunders, 'The annexation of the Transkeian territories',
    Archives Yearbook for South African History (1976), 11 . These figures
    agree with my own estimates. The number who left Xhosaland is estimated
    from the fact that 29,142 Xhosa registered for labour in the Cape Colony by
    the end of 1857. See J. B. Peires, 'Sir George Grey versus the Kaffir
    Relief Committee',

    (missing footnote text)

    (missing) brought forth explanations as fantastic as the movement itself.
    (missing) Grey and colonial historiography blamed the cattle-killing on
    (missing) by the Xhosa chiefs to foment war. Most Xhosa today blame the
    cattle killing on a plot by Grey to fool their simple forefathers.' Very few of
    the insights generated by recent research into millenarian movements have

    ["millenarian movements" memes in Google takes you to

    Fourth paragraph in is this:

    In Primitive Rebels, the Marxist historian E. J. Hobsbawm has some very
    astute observations on the explosive growth of social movements, their
    ``periods of abnormally, often fantastically rapid and easy mobilization of
    hitherto untouched masses. Almost always such expansion takes the form of
    contagion...'' (pp. 105--106, my emphasis). He then goes on to explain why
    millenarianism is highly suited to spreading ideas in this explosive
    manner: in short, why it is a sort of reproductive adaptation for memes,
    including, of course, the millenarian memes themselves. It would be very
    interesting to go back and look at the history of, say, the Anabaptists
    from this point of view.

    Clicking on the word "meme" above takes you to an excellent list of sources
    including this group, Aaron Lynch's works and a fascinating batch of books
    and papers.]

    yet been applied to the cattle-killing. The most perceptive accounts thus far,
    those of Monica Wilson and John Zarwan, have pointed out some of the more
    obvious components of the cattle-killing belief but fall far short of providing
    a satisfactory explanation." Wilson, for example, writes that `the insistence
    on purification, renouncing witchcraft, and sacrifice was all part of the
    traditional pattern', while Zarwan thinks that 'the cattle-killings were
    traditional in form and the leaders were diviners of the traditional pattern'.
    This emphasis on `tradition' is wholly misleading. Although various forms
    of purification, divination, sacrifice and witchcraft were practised in Xhosa-
    land long before the cattle-killing, these practices were far too diverse and
    far too liable to change over time to be fossilized conceptually as
    patterns'. Whatever 'traditional patterns' may have existed in Xhosaland
    before t 8S6, they certainly did not include mass destruction of basic
    subsistence needs or the expectation of an imminent resurrection of the dead.
    In their well-meant attempts to show that the cattle-killing was not entirely
    devoid of logic, Wilson and Zarwan have missed the crucial element of
    innovation in the movement. Despite their sympathetic approach, the
    Wilson-Zarwan view that 'the pagan reaction ...was to seek supernatural
    aid' is not very far removed from the opinion of previous writers that the
    Xhosa relapsed into 'superstition' and 'delusion' when confronted with
    repeated military defeats.

    One reason why such explanations are so inadequate is that they are based
    on inadequate information, Historians and anthropologists have contented
    themselves with the order to kill cattle and with the prediction that the
    dead would rise, and have thus begged a great many questions. Who were the
    spirits who appeared to Nongqawuse? Were the cattle to be sacrificed or
    merely killed ? Where did the idea of the resurrection come from? Which
    dead exactly were going to rise? What was supposed to happen after the
    resurrection? It is necessary to define the practices and the expectations
    of the believers in a great deal more detail before one can begin to
    explain the logic which underlay their actions. In doing so, it is very
    important to re-create as far as possible the Xhosa-language vocabulary
    used by the believers. Many of the most relevant concepts of the
    cattle-killing movement either do not translate directly into English, or
    are. translated by English words which lack the weight and connotations of
    their Xhosa equivalents and thus hide from the English reader associations
    and connextions which would be immediately apparent to a Xhosa.

    [There is plenty to discuss in the relation of memetics and evolutionary
    psychology to the this work on the cattle killing, but I think I will dig
    into some of the papers at the URL on millenarian movements and
    memes. Keith Henson]

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