Received: by alpheratz.cpm.aca.mmu.ac.uk id QAA02391 (8.6.9/5.3[ref firstname.lastname@example.org] for cpm.aca.mmu.ac.uk from email@example.com); Tue, 26 Feb 2002 16:26:29 GMT Message-Id: <firstname.lastname@example.org> X-Sender: email@example.com (Unverified) X-Mailer: QUALCOMM Windows Eudora Version 5.1 Date: Tue, 26 Feb 2002 11:23:45 -0500 To: firstname.lastname@example.org From: Keith Henson <email@example.com> Subject: Re: Words and memes--Cattle Killing In-Reply-To: <003b01c1bd68$0539b140$5124f4d8@teddace> References: <firstname.lastname@example.org> <84E1E92A-26F4-11D6-980D-003065B9A95A@harvard.edu> <84E1E92A-26F4-11D6-980D-003065B9A95A@harvard.edu> <email@example.com> <firstname.lastname@example.org> <email@example.com> <firstname.lastname@example.org> Content-Type: text/plain; charset="iso-8859-1"; format=flowed Content-Transfer-Encoding: quoted-printable Sender: email@example.com Precedence: bulk Reply-To: firstname.lastname@example.org
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
>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
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
THE CENTRAL BELIEFS OF THE XHOSA
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
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
(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
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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