Friday, March 13, 2009

Dancing and Xhosa Resistance

The revolt of the Xhosa against the British colonial forces in early 19th century South Africa was marked by dancing. Like the Native American Ghost Dancers, and similarly faced with overwhelming military force, some hoped that dancing would summon the ancestors to aid them in their struggle. The Xhosa did not rely on dancing alone though, and waged a long campaign of armed resistance. Today an area of the Eastern Cape is named after Makana (sometimes splet Makanda or Makanna) the leader of this campaign.

A close association of millennialist prophecy and warfare against intruders occurred in South Africa during the unsettled period of European conquest in the first half of the nineteenth century. European misconceptions of the tribal system of the Bantu and, even more, the misapprehension of the missionaries concerning native religion, were important factors in the wars between the Xhosa and the British forces in the Cape in the carly nineteenth century.

... Ndlambe [leader of many of the Xhosa groups], who had been a persistent enemy of the British... was pushed over the Fish River by British forces in the Fourth Kaffir War in 1812. A prophet, Makanna, arose as Ndlambe's adviser, and he persuaded Ndlambe's following, and the warriors of the Gcaleka, that with his aid the bullets of the English would turn to water, and the English themselves would be pushed into the sea. The numbers involved on the two sides were so utterly disproportionate that, once bullets were neutralized, such a result appeared a certainty. He would release lightning against them, and ensure victory for Ndlambe's warriors...

He taught that he was the emissary of Thlanga, creator of the Xhosa, who would raise ancestor spirits to assist them in battle. The god of black men, Dalidipu, was greater than the white god, Tixo, and Dalidipu's wife was a raingiver, while his son was Tayhi, the Xhosa name for Christ. Dalidipu sanctioned the Xhosa way of life, including the customs of polygamy and brideprice, which the missionaries said were sins. Makanna taught that black men had no sins except witchcraft, since adultery and fornication were not sins: on the other hand, the white men were, on their own admissions full of sins. Dalidipu would punish Tixo, and the white men would be destroyed. If the Xhosa danced, they could bring back the ancestors, who would come armed and with herds of cattle.

The British were allied with Gaika [leader of another group of Xhosa], who was the first object of attack by Ndlambe and Makanna. His defeat led the British into the Fifth Kaffir War of 1818-19, but their first success against Ndlambe's men beyond the Fish River did not prevent further hostilities between Gaika and Ndlambe, and Makanna's army crossed the Fish River singing that they would chase the white men from the earth. On 23 April 1819 ten thousand warriors, led by Ndlambe's son, Dushane, and Makanna attacked Grahamstown, which they failed to take and where they suffered heavy losses. This failure did not, however, bring about Makanna's downfall, and the war continued with the British driving the Xhosa back as far as the Kei River. In August Makanna gave himself up because his people were starving, and, so he declared, to see whether this would restore the country to peace. He was drowned some months later in attempting to escape, after his fellow prisoners on Robbell Island had overwhelmed the guard and made a bid for the mainland. That he was dead was not believed by the Xhosa, who for years expected his return to help them.

Source: Bryan Wilson, Magic and the Millennium (London: Heinemann, 1973).

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