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Conceptualizing the Xhosa cattle-killing episode of 1856/7

Historical context

Contagious bovine pleuropneumonia (CBPP) is an insidious transboundary animal disease that was first diagnosed in Hesse, Germany in 1693. The presence of CBPP was also recorded in the United States, in Brooklyn in 1843, where it probably arrived through a vessel carrying cattle from the UK. The history of the disease spread tells of its presence in Melbourne, Australia (1859) and Tasmania and New Zealand in 1864. Both countries were declared free of the disease by 1923.

CBPP was detected in southern Africa in September 1853, at Mossel Bay, where it probably arrived through a Friesian bull imported from the Netherlands. In January 1856, the disease had spread into Transkei, located in the Eastern Cape of the `'New'' South Africa. In April of the same year, the Xhosa peoples of the present-day Kentani district of Transkei started a voluntary slaughter of their cattle. It is this event, at the time unprecedented, that is commonly referred to as the `'Xhosa cattle killing'' and is believed to be linked to the presence of an epizootic disease (possible CBPP). The reasons for this unique voluntary action have remained a matter of debate among many experts from a wide and varied field, such as anthropologists, agriculturists, historians and veterinarians.

In the article entitled "The first appearance of bovine pleuropneumonia in southern Africa and some of its consequences" by Robert G. Mares, which appeared in the Journal of the World Veterinary Association, a description of the events of 1856/7 is provided. The article reported on the high mortality rate and rapid spread of the disease in southern Africa, from its first appearance at Mossel Bay in 1853. The disease was reported at Uitenhage in March 1854, and spread to Fort Beaufort (April 1854), King William's Town (March 1855) and Butterworth across the Kei River in January 1856. The principal reason that was advanced for the high mortality rate and rapid spread was the fact that the CBPP infection occurred on a `'virgin soil''; i.e. it was the first time the local cattle were in contact with such a disease.

In 1855, The Veterinarian, a British veterinary journal, reported on disease outbreaks in the West Indies and at the Cape of Good Hope. In 1856, the journal reported further that the people were said to be `'suffering dreadfully'' from the `'new and unknown disease'', which they were treating with `'bleeding, purging and separation of the diseased flock''.

The young Xhosa girl, Nonggawuse

The tale, as documented by various authors such as J.B. Peires, Mostert and Aubrey Elliot, is told of the young Xhosa girl, by name Nonggawuse, who, in April 1856, reported seeing her ancestors in a dream. She recounted that the ancestors had ordered the Xhosa to kill all their cattle and that, in so doing, they would be sure of freedom from the English. After the cattle killing, new people would arrive in the country and bring cattle along with them. In her prophecy, Nonggawuse revealed that these new people would help them to be victorious over the English people.

These prophecies led to a division in the ranks of the Xhosa, between believers and non-believers. Ultimately, the believers in Nonggawuse's vision carried the day and so they proceeded to kill their cattle. Many African cattle were killed; however, not without some resistance from the non-believers. This action obviously led to much suffering and privation among the people.

Herd of cattle returning from pasture (Rwanda)

Finding an answer to the episode

The question of the Xhosa cattle killing of 1856/7 remains without a definite answer. It nevertheless suggests an example of the conflict between traditional/religious beliefs and modern ideas. While the episode received frequent mention in historical and anthropological papers and journals at that time, little is observed in the veterinary literature concerning the 1850s period in South Africa.

The importance of the disease was emphasized by the conference on animal diseases in South Africa held in Cape Town in May 1904. Delegates reported both on the presence of the disease in their areas and the difficulty in getting the inhabitants to kill their cattle compulsorily, or voluntarily for the purpose of obtaining material to prepare vaccine. One of the recommendations of the Cape Town conference was that, `'where slaughter was impossible, infected animals should be branded and held in isolation until the disease died out''.

The South African historian J. B. Peires reasoned in his study that `'the form which the movement took, the killing of cattle, was suggested and determined by the lung-sickness epidemic of 1854. The epidemic spread all over Africa without producing the same effect, i.e. there was no mass slaughter of cattle anywhere else."

Source: Gates, E.C. Draft Report of the Conference on Animal Diseases in South Africa. Cape of Good Hope.

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