Nonquwuse, a young girl of the Xhosa people, liked to sit at the edge of the a pool just off the river Gxara and stare into it’s waters. Every day she did this. But one day, in May of the late 1850’s, she saw something more in the deep waters of the river. Faces looked up at her and voices whispered on the breeze. The spirits of the ancestors! They whispered to Nonqawuse, telling her that they would help the Xhosa people drive the Europeans from the land if only they would destroy their crops and cattle as a sign of faith in the ancestors.
Nonqawuse returned to her village to share the story of her experience. Her uncle, Mhlakaza, a well know witch doctor, was impressed with her tale of her vision and, acting as her herald, hurried to Galeka, the great place, where he was hosted by the paramount chief, Kreli, and his indunas. Ther he recounted his nieces experience.
Kreli was excited by the details of the vision. Finally, here was a way to defeat their European foes and unite all his subjects under his rule. Messengers were sent to tribal leaders across the land with news of the vision and the chief’s instructions to destroy all crops and cattle.
News traveled and a great stir of excitement spread amongst the people. Men traveled from distant villages to consult with the young prophetess and crowds gathered at the pool’s edge in hopes of catching a glimpse of the whispering spectres. Some claimed to have seen the faces of the ancestors and confirmed that they did indeed demand unquestioning faith in return for the support of the supernatural world. Some claimed to have seen vast armies waiting eagerly below the surface of the water for their impending war. Others saw herds of cattle and swore that the horns of oxen could be seen among the reeds as they broke through the surface of the river. People swore to the spectral presence of warriors and their battle cries in the clouds and on the wind.
The destruction began. A great fever of cattle killing and crop decimation swept the citizens up. Crops were destroyed, cattle were slaughtered and the river ran red with blood. Even before the promised day of reckoning men and women were dying of starvation, and even those with stocks left continued to destroy what they had,s ending teh people deeper and deeper into starvation and toil.
The people of the Gcaleka were more fervent in their execution of Nonquwuse’s vision, while the Ngqika people were more reasoned and chose not to partake of the slaughter. The rest of the people called the Ngqika cowards, claiming they would die along with the white men when the ancestors rose from the waters of the river.
On a day, the day that the ancestors would deliver their punishment upon the white men, the sun would rise blood red in the east, and leave a trail of hurricanes and destruction in its wake taking any unprepared man, woman or child with it.
But the day arrived and nothing happened. No blood red sun rose. No hurricanes lay waste to the land. No warriors emerged from the waters of the river. No cattle. All was at it had been in the days before.
Desperate panicked people were sent into a violent rampage. Looting and fighting broke out over even the most meagre of resources and the oldest and youngest of the people were left to fend for themselves and starve. 25 000 people were said to have died, while those who survived only did so through the compassion of those who had been more reasonable and the very Europeans they had sought to defeat.
Nonquwuse, discredited as a charlatan, was arrested by the European police and died in obscurity, her name forever to be linked to one of the biggest tragedies to befall a South African people.