From Round to Square (and back)

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Saturday, May 21, 2011

Endings (13)—End of the World

[a] Rapt    RF
Endings, indeed.

This post is not meant to be the least bit humorous. It is meant to send a deeply ironic message across the ages to those who take today (it is 12:05 a.m. on Saturday, May 21, 2011 as I post this) as anything other than an ordinary Saturday—for anyone who has felt hints of a rupture...or something like that. As difficult as it may be to believe, it is also not meant to offend those who believe today to be different. Really. All I want to do is to "problematize" it a bit, as we say in the academic biz. My purpose is sincere, as even readers who might be offended thus far will see if they keep reading.  Anyone who knows the subjects in which I am interested will also know that I have little patience with "rationalist" defenses against "superstition." Far from it. I seek to understand how ideas shape our lives. All ideas. All lives.

Alls I'm sayin' (as we are said to say back home) is that these things are complicated. I think that most readers of this blog will remember that I have been sayin' that...for some time already.

Here's the context. Thirty years ago to THIS day (I can prove it), I submitted an essay as part of my anthropological and religious studies work at Carleton College. I cannot help but post it today. It should not be hard to see the cruel parallels, and perhaps remind at least a person or two that "the end of the world" is not a new idea in the least. It wasn't even remotely a new idea in Homer's time. Or probably Grog's.

[b] Endings
Just two quick notes. First, I am not embarrassed of this paper, even after three decades, and am happy to share it with anyone who wants to read about an awful (I use the word in several senses) event in world history. Second, however, I wish to remind anyone who bothers to read it that it was written thirty years ago by an undergraduate—and several years before an explosion of scholarship on the events I relate here made them almost common knowledge for some readers. When I wrote, I had to piece it together from little fragments in this book or that. By the late 1980s, the Journal of African History had published several articles on the subject, and John Edgar Wideman was already writing his novel, The Cattle Killing. All I am asking is that you not critique my essay for not containing what I could not have known. I have left it unaltered (and, if you know this website well, you will realize that this could be a "Fieldnotes from History" entry, if you think about it).  And, to be completely forthright, I just discovered an article that I could have known...but didn't. Alas, I was just learning, but am nonetheless abashed.

There are much more important questions to ponder today, however. If you are reading this at any time after May 21st, as I am sure most of you will be, I hope you will note the parallels in the last segments of the essay—with the sun rising again, and things remaining just as terrible as they had been before...only much worse. It is always worse when you destroy your infrastructure out of sheer frustration and hopelessness. As I typed the last paragraphs of this essay on Wednesday, May 20th all of those many years ago, I cried. It still chokes me up to think about how helplessness against Western technology could lead to wrenching despair. 

Sort of makes "end of the world" t-shirts and suppers seem suddenly kind of silly, doesn't it?

I have compressed the essay, since I realize that it is too long (and way too old) for most people to want to read. I have included three short segments below, and the rest is linked to my "business book" website, The Emperor's Teacher, so as not to take up too much room here. This excerpt does not include the endnotes; check the full text (there are links below) for full documentation.

Robert André LaFleur (young, and in college—long, long ago)
Millenarianism and Resistance Among the Xhosa, 1779-1880: An Essay in Cultural Explication
Three Excerpts  

1—Early Contact
The Afrikaners' movement eastward took place at an astounding speed.  But unlike the Nguni expansion, the Afrikaner population did not increase as remarkably as their “consumption” of land.  Every man felt a God-given right to possess six thousand acres of land—called a “hide” by trekkers.  Ivory and animal skins culled from white hunting expeditions were immediate sources of income for Afrikaners and, equipped with guns and stabbing spears called assegais, they scoured the South African frontier for game.  The consequences of this expansion manifested themselves quickly: by the turn of the century many indigenous species were endangered.  The Afrikaners, during their long push eastward, were armed with those elements they felt raised them—materially and spiritually—above the indigenous Africans.  The wheel, horses, guns, and the Bible were the essential reasons the Afrikaners could advance the South African frontier at phenomenal rates.

Economic well-being on both sides hinged upon a policy of peace.  Especially for the Dutch Afrikaners, the movement of firearms, cattle, trade goods, and labor depended on safe trade routes.  However, as demographic and economic pressures increased, each group required more land; the early contacts between the Nguni “advanced guard” and the Afrikaners gave way to more intense conflicts between organized militia.

By the late eighteenth century outright warfare became inevitable, and the first of the great Kaffir Wars broke out in 1779.  During the first and second Kaffir Wars, the latter in 1793, the conflict became far more intense than in previous battles, and scattered cattle-raiding gave way to pitched battles and armed resistance.  In spite of their advanced military technology, however, the Boers never achieved lasting control over the Xhosa in these wars.  The far superior Xhosa numbers were sufficient to counteract the Afrikaners’s technological superiority.  Indeed, the Xhosa actually could be said to have “won” the first three encounters.

But in 1806 a crucial change took place at the Cape.  The Dutch lost control of southern Africa to the British.  A growing international industrial power, the British government, was prepared to do something the Dutch never accomplished: advance the white settlements with the military force of the state.  In 1811 the British government at the Cape decided to expel all Xhosa living west of the Fish River.  The war which followed—the fourth of the Kaffir Wars—was of unprecedented intensity.

Total war was a foreign and entirely shattering experience for the Xhosa.  Traditional African warfare was based on a fundamentally different premise than those fought in nineteenth century Europe.  The purpose of warfare in traditional Xhosa society was to assimilate the defeated into the society or realm of influence of the victor, not destroy the social and economic base of the society by burning crops, destroying cattle, and executing males.  Instead of being subjected to the victors and incorporated into their society—an extremely difficult process itself, but one that was understood—the Xhosa were rejected and expelled from their land.  No longer on roughly equal terms, militarily and economically, with the aggressors, the Xhosa found themselves in the unfamiliar position of total defeat.

2—Nxele's Vision
Nowhere was anything resembling Christian messianic visions found in traditional Xhosa thought.  But it was precisely this vision—a future millennium in which the ancestors would return to earth and end the domination of the white man—that the Xhosa adapted from Christian teachings.  Thus millenarian prophecy, which would have been virtually impossible to implement in pre-colonial Xhosa society, became a part of Xhosa religion under the twin influences of European guns and Biblical teachings.

Although he was fascinated by the unusual power of the white man—a power he perceived in Christian terms—Nxele (d. 1819) found it difficult to cooperate with the Christian missionaries at the Cape for long.  At length, he became convinced that he could never be perceived as the equal of white Christians, and began to move away from his earlier mainstream Christian teachings.  As a young man, Nxele was so impressed by the Christian doctrine of resurrection that he persuaded many Xhosa to bury their dead.  It was from the traditional Christian education of his youth that Nxele strayed in later years.  After years of proclaiming divine truth to the Xhosa as a servant of God, Nxele began to associate himself with this divinity—a quite common indigenous reaction to Western teachings during the colonial period.

In 1816 Nxele began calling himself the younger brother of Christ.  Nxele’s “House of God” was truly syncretic, merging Christian religious concepts with Xhosa social structure.  Nxele perceived Christ as an eldest son of a bulging patrilineage.  Moreover, he reasoned that it was foolish to call Mary a virgin.  Procreation was an essential part of life, he taught, and the way to worship God properly was to “dance and enjoy life so that black people would multiply and fill the earth.”

Once outside the Christian mainstream, Nxele quickly began to move away from its dogma.  He took three wives and accepted a diviner’s share of cattle, generally incorporating himself into the mainstream of Xhosa society.  But political events in South Africa were drawing Nxele inexorably into direct conflict with the British.  His popularity as a prophet increased as he took stances more in line with Xhosa nationalistic ideals.  He began to teach that the world was a battleground between Tixo, the god of the whites, and Mdalidipu, the god of the blacks.  This dichotomized conceptual universe reflected the conflict at all levels between Xhosa and European cultures.

As a prophet, Nxele gained great influence among his people, but his ambitions were both political and religious.  The Western differentiation between political and religious action as “realistic” and “idealistic” was quite foreign to the Xhosa.  Nxele was able to fulfill a leadership role among the Xhosa by merging his religious influence with the secular power of a paramount chief.  The prophet had to work within the confines of the formal power system, even though the chiefs’ “real” power had been severely weakened during the Kaffir Wars. 

The Fifth Kaffir War (1818-1819) was the scene of Nxele’s greatest triumph as a messianic leader, as well as his ultimate defeat.  In earlier wars with the Afrikaners, it was difficult to discern which party was the aggressor.  Each side engaged in cattle raids and similar intrusions, until the conflicts widened into outright warfare.  But in December of 1818, at the order of the British authorities at the Cape, British troops crossed the Fish River—hitherto the outermost boundary of the Cape province—into Xhosaland.  After burning crops and huts they captured over 23,000 cattle before retreating.  In reaction, Nxele, leading 10,000 Xhosa warriors armed with stabbing assegais, launched a daylight attack on Grahamstown.  As they marched, Nxele’s army sang:

          To chase the white men from the earth
          And drive them to the sea.
          The sea that cast them up at first
          For AmaXhosa’s curse and bane
          Howls for the progeny she nursed
          To swallow them again.

White men were commonly believed by the Xhosa to originate in the sea—an accurate observation, considering the shipping industry based at the Cape—and “driving the whites back into the sea” became a popular idea in the Xhosa resistance.  But the physical confrontation was lopsided.  Nxele’s spear-wielding warriors were slaughtered by white bullets.  Nxele was captured and executed by British troops.  After his death, his prophetic legend lived on, and Xhosa continued to wait for his millennial return for many years.  Even today the Xhosa saying Kukuza kuka Nxele (“It is the coming of Nxele”) means “deferred hope."

3—The Ending
In October of 1856, Mhlakaza, paramount chief of Gcalekaland, ordered that all remaining cattle be sacrificed within eight days, and on the ninth day the ancestors would return to the earth.  He predicted, with the aid of his trusted diviners, that there would be a period of darkness, after which two suns would rise and battle for control of the earth.  The visions of the suns, representing the forces of white and black, recalls Nxele’s synthesis in which the earth was a battleground between Tixo, the god of the whites, and Mdalidipu, the god of the blacks.  Now the battle had moved to the sky, and the judgment was at hand.

Believers rose on the appointed day to see the battle, but the sun simply rose and set like countless days before.  The prophet explained this with the message that disbelievers who had not yet killed their cattle had prevented the realization of the millennium.  A few converted, and a new day was set for the following month.  But this day, too, passed without event.  Belief in the prophecy lingered on—in some areas for as long as three years.

The continued re-explanation of the millennium’s failure may seem odd to the Western mind, but it, too, is in accordance with traditional Xhosa cosmology.  The role of what Robin Horton calls “secondary elaboration” plays a basic role in many African systems of thought.
In the theoretical thought of the traditional cultures there is a notable reluctance to register repeated failures of prediction and to act by attacking the beliefs involved.  Instead, other current beliefs are utilized in such a way as to “excuse” each failure as it occurs, and hence to protect the major theoretical assumptions upon which the prediction is based.

When it threatens the basic assumptions of a society’s thought, few are prepared to throw out their beliefs after a failure or two.  For the Xhosa, those beliefs, based upon the sacrificial role of cattle, had an absolute validity.  To abandon them would threaten total chaos in nature and culture.  Westerners are no less secure during attacks on their most basic assumptions about the universe.  Whether religion or science is involved, humans seek a sense of order in the world.  The most profound threat to our powers of knowing is the idea that, as Einstein put it, “God plays dice with the universe.”
***  ***
At least half of the Xhosa population perished in the aftermath of the cattle-killing.  For countless others, wage labor at the Cape was the only alternative to starvation.  There is little doubt that the millennial dreams which rested on the cattle sacrifice was a final effort to stem the tide of European intrusion.  Having failed, their independence was gone.  Although the Kaffir wars dragged on for another twenty years, for the Xhosa at least, the reality of Westernization had set in.  Neither armed rebellion nor millenarian prophecy was able to halt the establishment of colonial rule in South Africa.

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