The Day The World Did Not End

Matthijs Bijl
8 min readApr 1, 2022

Will the world end this year? Is the apocalypse tomorrow? These questions are not unique to our day and age. Long before the onset of nukes and fears for the massive man-made destruction of the planet, apocalyptic and millenarian scenarios were already widespread throughout human history. Each time the end was predicted, however, the world continued on living. The tales of these world-ending non-events and the impact they had on their participants are utterly fascinating.

Imagine knowing the world is going to end on a fixed date. Soon. You realize the futility of any further human endeavors. Your savings won’t matter anymore. Studying for a degree has become pointless. Any possessions you might have will be rendered useless soon. So what do you do? You stop caring. You give away whatever you have, or don’t bother protecting the things you own.

On the day of the apocalypse, you wake up, bursting with energy. The end is nigh. Part of you may feel utter despair. But some part is also utterly enthralled by the prospect of being able to witness the end. Human existence will cease, and you’re one of the lucky few to experience its final chapter. You go outside, grab a chair, and wait.

The clock keeps ticking, and ticking, and ticking. The day you’ve looked forward to for so long, that dominated your life for months, years, just passes. Slowly, without any part of you being able to stop it. Unable to fulfill the horrors that were promised, that you held true to every fiber of your soul, the day of apocalypse slowly turns into a nightmare. Despair takes hold of you. With each passing minute, your beliefs slowly and gradually disintegrate as the earth keeps on spinning with you on it.

How would you deal with the strongest possible refutation of your beliefs? The absolute negation of them?

“I sat outside my hut and saw the sun rise. So did all the people. We watched until midday, yet the sun continued its course. We still watched until the afternoon and yet it did not return, and the people began to despair because they saw this thing was not true.”

On the 18th of February, 1857, tens of thousands of people went through the very experience described above. The man quoted lived in a region nowadays known as Eastern Cape, South Africa. He was part of the Xhosa people. The reason for their despair that day was not just the refutation of their beliefs, but the realization of its dire consequences for their continued existence on earth.

See, most of the Xhosa people had spent the preceding year getting rid of their earthly possessions and means of survival. They had stopped caring for their surroundings. Most importantly, as part of the predicted apocalypse, they had been told to kill their main means of subsistence, their cattle.

Known as the Xhosa Cattle-Killing, an estimated 400,000 cows were put to death between 1856 and 1858. When the apocalypse didn’t arrive, a massive famine ensued which decimated the Xhosa population and killed according to estimates 40,000 people.

“Column of Xhosas crossing a River in a Deep Ravine”, painting by Frederick Timpson I’Ons (1802–1887)

The famine soon afterward brought about the eventual subjugation of the Xhosa by the British, with whom the Xhosa had warred for a century. The British only provided famine relief in exchange for contract labor in the colony with no right of return. The Xhosa were forcefully dispossessed of their land. The predicted apocalypse fulfilled its prophecy in a macabre twist by effectively bringing about the end of Xhosaland.

The millenarian movement which led to this catastrophic event is attributed to a teenage Xhosa girl named Nongqawuse. At age 15 she started receiving visions from spirits who told her the Xhosa ancestors were returning and that in preparation for this event all cattle had to be killed and all cornfields destroyed.

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 eternal), the son of Sifuba-sibanzi(the Broad Chested).

When the veracity of Nongqawuse’s visions was confirmed by Xhosa spiritual leaders, her call to action was quickly adopted and executed en masse.

The only known photograph of Nongqawuse, taken around 1858–9

Nongqawuse was ostracized by her community in the aftermath of her erroneous prophecy. But at the time, the broader causes for the initial Xhosa conviction of its truth were misunderstood and its linkages with European affairs were underappreciated.

The millenarian movement Nongqawuse instigated gained traction due to both indirect and direct British colonial interference. Nongqawuse’s visions were, moreover, linked with the events of the Crimean War, fought from 1853 to 1856.

A few years prior to Nongqawuse’s visions, Xhosa cattle numbers had already dwindled significantly when European settlers inadvertently imported lungsickness disease to the Xhosa lands. This traumatic event had given rise to several other Xhosa prophets, who among other things advocated killing animals to prevent or stop the spread.

The second determinant in Nongqawuse’s success as a prophetess, as the historian Jeff Peires claims in his The Dead Will Arise: Nongqawuse and the Great Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement of 1856–7, was the massive stress already imposed on Xhosa society as a consequence of the continuing loss of territory and autonomy.

Finally, Nongqawuse’s visions, which promised expulsion of the white, foreign settlers by the Xhosa ancestors, also found fertile soil because of the inclusion of ‘Russian’ help.

Around that time, the Crimean War was fought between Russia and several European nations, including Britain. While there was no direct impact of this war on the daily lives of the Xhosa, tales somehow arrived of a military victory by the unknown Russians over the British. The Russians had killed the former, much-hated Cape governor George Cathcart, who had previously led the British victory in the most recent military standoff between the British and the Xhosa.

“The Xhosa had never heard of Russia; much less did they understand the obscure causes of the Crimean War. All they knew was that these mysterious ‘Russians’ had killed Sir George Cathcart and put the British army on the defensive. Who were these Russians? What weapons did they fight with? What colour were they? The colonial answer that the Russians were white like themselves and that the British were winning was received with polite scepticism. […] The Russians, it gradually came to be believed, were not a white nation at all but a black one, the spirits of Xhosa warriors who had died fighting in the various wars against the Colony. For months after the news of Cathcart’s death, the Xhosa posted lookouts on the higher hills to watch for the arrival of the Russian ships.” (Peires, 1989)

News of the Russian victory and Cathcart’s death raised expectations that the British could and would be beaten. In Nongqawuse’s visions, the strong, black Russians would help the Xhosa to expel the white British from their ancestral lands and “drive them into the sea”.

Nongqawuse’s prophecy thrived on this fertile soil. It was a millenarian movement rooted and popularized in a desire among the Xhosa to rid themselves of the British presence and reclaim the wealth they had lost through the lungsickness disease. Nongqawuse’s visions promised more beautiful and healthy cattle to replace the pastures, once the Xhosa obeyed their ancestor’s wishes of self-destruction.

It is perhaps for this reason that despite the repeated inaccuracies of Nongqawuse’s prophecies, claiming several dates for the return of the ancestors, many of the Xhosa kept believing until the bitter end that the prophecy would eventually be fulfilled.

The British were initially taken aback by the actions of the Xhosa. But under the leadership of Cape governor Grey, they quickly and ruthlessly capitalized on the opportunity to conquer the Xhosa once and for all after decades of protracted fighting and inconclusive victories.

Besides withholding famine support to Xhosa families unless they signed over their land, Grey’s administration invented a conspiracy plot called ‘the Chief’s Plot’, claiming the Xhosa chiefs were deliberately starving their people in order to instill desperation and recruit the Xhosa for war. Under this guise, the British directly confiscated land from numerous chiefdoms and redistributed it among colonial settlers.

The end result was devastating, with large swaths of the Xhosa population dying or being interned under contract labor.

Nongqawuse’s infamous reputation as the prophetess leading her people to the apocalypse has been revisited and recast many times since. The self-destruction of the Xhosa, with the ruling elites ordering the destruction of resources, has been interpreted by some as an act of mass protest and resistance, as well as a kindling of black consciousness. Some feminist writers have argued that the current telling of the Cattle-Killing history does not do justice to the true story, which was actually that of a woman uprising against Xhosa patriarchy.

Among the Xhosa community, Nongqawuse has long been seen as a British agent. The event of the self-destruction of the Xhosa was re-interpreted by casting Governor Grey as the main initiator. He would have used Nongqawuse in his plan to dispossess and exterminate the Xhosa, having been the one feeding her the visions, which were then successfully spread through the Xhosa communities.

The Keiskamma Tapestry, Cattle-killing Panel, Detail 3. Copyright Robert Hofmeyr

In that sense, Nongqawuse, whose personal guilt was contested within this Xhosa version of history, was reclaimed as a British pawn, allowing for the blame to be shifted entirely to the British authorities. This “usable past”, according to Peires in a follow-up article, was helpful in battling the apartheid regime.

The debate has not rested since, with a growing acknowledgment that this Xhosa past is irrevocably pieced together with fragments from multiple intertwined tales. The Xhosa Cattle-Killing, the name for its movement criticized as well, thus remains a deeply troubled and disputed South African history.

--

--

Matthijs Bijl

Interested in Sino-African and Afrasian relations. Contact for research/writing opportunities: https://www.linkedin.com/in/matthijs-bijl/.