The Dead Will Arise by Jeff Peires tells the story of how a female Xhosa prophet, an adolescent named Nongqawuse, and her uncle Mhlakaza inspired the faith of the Xhosa people in the Cape Colony, encouraging them to kill their cattle, refuse to cultivate crops, and abstain from sexual impurities so that the white settlers would be driven into the sea and the “new people” (Xhosa ancestors) would be resurrected. The end result of faith in the prophecy was tragedy and the end of traditional Xhosa life: over 40,000 Xhosa starved to death; the land was largely taken over by white settlers; and because of British policies, especially towards charity, survivors were forced into migrant labor to avoid starvation.
Peires argues that Nongqawuse’s prophecy was a mixture of Christian and Xhosa beliefs, thus appealing to the majority of Xhosa, and that her message was further made palatable to Xhosa chiefs because it was mediated through her uncle and it was made during a time when the people’s cattle were already dying because of lungsickness disease. He also argues that the Cape Governor, Sir George Grey, took advantage of the Xhosas’ tragedy to further his own career and advance his own ends, which was to civilize and Christianize the Cape Xhosa under British culture and a capitalistic economy. Peires’s book is a straight-forward narrative (written the way history should be written, in my opinion); he limits his analysis to the end of chapters and to a couple of final chapters in the back. However, despite the great story that Peires tells, there are some aspects of The Dead Will Arise which are lacking. Helen Bradford points them out in her article, “Women, gender and colonialism.”
Bradford argues that most history is incomplete and in fact inaccurate because of “insignificance accorded to gender differentiation and to women themselves.” Because women are seen as unimportant, certain roles that men play—husbands and fathers—are also deemed irrelevant to history because they fall into the female sphere. This perspective results in a “flawed analysis of both men and the colonial encounter.”
Bradford explores her argument in-depth in an 1825 slave rebellion but also in Nongqawuse’s millenarian movement. Bradford believes that “incorporating reproduction, sexuality and marriage into analyses [of this millenarian movement] is crucial.” How can a book concerned with cattle and crops ignore the issue of gender, she asks? Cattle were important for controlling both male and female sexuality, and critical in the role of arranging marriage and thus, access to women’s reproductive and productive capacities. Lungsickness and the subsequent death of cattle was “wreaking havoc” with this traditional method of “regulating sexuality” and must have “profoundly disrupted regulation of masculine behavior.” Nongqawuse’s message to destroy cattle because they had been “polluted”—along with her injunctions against witchcraft, which included fornication, incest, and adultery—clearly had symbolic connotations that are significant for a gendered history. Nongqawuse’s originality, Bradford states, lay in her connection between “promiscuous men engaging in sex that defiled them and the animals [that were] symbolically linked to female reproductive capacities.”
Thus, Bradford excoriates Peires for barely even mentioning the role of cattle as bridewealth, and for dismissing as “unimportant” Nongqawuse’s focus on sexuality. Instead, he focuses on the killing of cattle by the men who owned them, and fashions Nongqawuse’s uncle into the main actor of the movement. This interpretation “subordinates women, sexuality and the young to class, race and men.” Any legitimate explanation of this millenarian movement, Bradford concludes, must include an analysis of Nongqawuse’s “challenge to patriarchal power.” Further, women’s labor has been trivialized because Peires focuses on the cattle killing, to the exclusion of the destruction of crops and the refusal to cultivate grain—which was in all likelihood far more important for sustaining the people through a period of potential starvation.
Ultimately, it is not simply Nongqawuse’s words that have been marginalized and misunderstood, but men themselves because they are presumed to be understood in a sexual vacuum, apart from their gender roles as husbands and fathers and uncles and lovers.
Bradford’s sweeping judgment against Peires—and indeed, against all of African history that ignores the importance of gender as a concept—is compelling. Previously, I had seen women’s studies and feminist history as an attempt to correct a previous method of history that ignored women. I saw it as “balancing” an imbalance and that, perhaps, side by side, the histories could produce a complete history. In fact, focusing on women to the exclusion of men will result in just as flawed an analysis. Further, Bradford puts into context the need for a gendered explanation of history—for looking at both male and female sexuality in light of historic events, and constructing our explanations accordingly.
- The Dead Will Arise by Jeff Peires
- Women, gender and colonialism: rethinking the history of the British Cape Colony and its frontier zones, c.1806-70” by Helen Bradford