The hunger for land is a central theme of southern African history from the 17th century onwards. It generated conflict, sparked off wars and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
The first Europeans in southern Africa confined themselves at first to the western part of the region, centring their activities on the Cape of Good Hope. Here the Dutch East India Company was established in 1652. Gradually the Dutch colony expanded north and east, displacing, in the first instance, the oldest known inhabitants of this region, the Khoikhoi (referred to by the Dutch as 'hottentots').
The Khoikhoi were part of a larger group called the Khoisan, spread across southern Africa, sharing much of the same language. The San branch were hunter gatherers; the Khoikhoi were herdsmen. As a whole, the Khoisan needed large amounts of land in order to hunt and graze their cattle. The Dutch refused to recognise their traditional grazing and hunting rights.
Not wide enough for both of us
"They objected that there was not enough grass for both their cattle and ours. 'Are we not right therefore to prevent you from getting any more cattle? For, if you get many cattle, you come and occupy our pasture with them, and then say the land is not wide enough for us both! Who then, with the greatest degree of justice should give way, the natural owners, or the foreign invader?'" - Jan van Riebeek describing the Khoikhoi objections to the Dutch invasion of their pastures, quoted by Kevin Shillington in History of Africa.
The Dutch both stole and bought cattle off the Khoikhoi. In 1659, the Khoikhoi fought the Dutch over grazing land south of able Bay and lost. Soon the Khoikhoi way of life disintegrated.
The Dutch, who came to be known as Afrikaners (as well as Boers, which means farmers) started to expand their activities. They cultivated land and hunted across large distances. Subsequently, they acquired the title of Trekboers, when they embarked on long journeys or treks to get away from British officialdom in the Cape Colony.
The Khoikhoi often ended up as slaves, either working in the Cape Colony, or as farm labourers for the Dutch. The final blow came to them in 1713 when they fell victim to a small pox epidemic brought on a Dutch ship. The descendants of the Khoikhoi and San can be found in the deserts of Botswana and Namibia today.
The second group of original inhabitants who suffered in the 19th century were the Xhosa. They had their western settlements between the Bushmans River and Fish River. They came into conflict with both the Dutch and then the British.
There were two major battles in the 1830s and 1840s. By 1854 the British had stripped the Xhosa chiefs of power and planted them as salaried functionaries in the colonial administration.
Collapsing World Order
The loss of power and land was devastating, materially and psychologically. The final blow came when their cattle became infected with a lethal lung infection, killing as many as 80 per cent of some of the chiefs' cattle. Their world order and sense of purpose collapsed and the Xhosa turned to their religion to find the reasons behind these disasters.
Prophecy and suicide
A 16-year-old prophetess claimed to have been in touch with the ancestors who called on Xhosa leaders to create a new beginning for their people. This, the ancestors said, could only be done by wiping out the old, and that meant killing the remaining cattle.
The spirits command
"You are to tell the people that the whole community is about to rise again from the dead. Then go on to say to them all the cattle living now must be slaughtered, for they are reared with defiled hands, as the people handle witchcraft.
Say to them there must be no ploughing of lands, rather must the people dig deep pits, erect new huts, set up wide, strongly built cattlefold, make milksacks, and weave doors from buka roots."
- The words of the spirits, talking to 16-year-old Nongqawuse, as recorded by W.W. Qqoba in his narrative of the Cattle killing, based on oral sources. Quoted by J.B. Peires, in his book The Dead will Arise.
The Xhosa people became completely divided over what to do. The amathamba 'soft' believers thought they must obey; the amagogotya or 'hard' unbelievers rejected the culling.
In February 1856, the Xhosa began killing their cattle. A total of 400,000 were culled. 40,000 Xhosa died as a result of this and many of those that survived had to work in Cape Town or as labourers on farms.
"Every day King Williams Town was thronged and its inhabitants distressed at the sight of emaciated living skeletons passing from house to house. Dead bodies were picked up in different parts within and around the limits of the towns, and scarcely a day passed over, that men, women or children were not found in a dying state from starvation.
My consulting room was every day surrounded with emaciated creatures craving food, having nothing to subsist on but roots and the bark of the mimosa, the smell of which appeared to issue from every part of the body, and to whom it would be a mockery to say, you must seek employment, or proceed on to the colony."
- Dr. John Fitzgerald Founder of the Native Hospital, King Williams Town. Quoted by J.B. Peires, in his book The Dead will Arise.