The 1850s were a low point for the Xhosa nation: most of their land had been seized by the British, drought had withered their crops, and cattle-sickness had decimated their precious herds. In 1856, a young woman called Nongqawuse, whose uncle Mhlakaza was a prophet, claimed to have seen and heard ancestral spirits in a pool on the Gxara River. The spirits told her the Xhosa must kill all their remaining cattle and destroy their remaining crops; if they did this, new cattle and crops would arise, along with new people who would drive the whites into the sea.
As news of her prophecy spread, opinion was sharply divided among the Xhosa – those whose herds had been badly affected by cattle-sickness were most inclined to believe her. A turning point came when the Gcaleka paramount chief Sarili became convinced she was telling the truth and ordered his subjects to start the cull. Thousands of cattle were killed, but when the “new people” failed to materialize, the unbelievers who had not killed their herds were blamed. By February 1857, the next date for the appearance of the new people, over 200,000 cattle had been slaughtered. When the new people failed once more to materialize, it was too late for many Xhosa. By July there was widespread starvation; 30,000 of an estimated population of 90,000 died of hunger.
The British administration saw the famine as a perfect way to force the destitute Xhosa into working on white settlers’ farms. To speed up the process, the Cape governor Sir George Grey closed down the feeding stations established by missionaries and laid the blame for the disaster on the Xhosa chiefs, imprisoning many of them on Robben Island.