A History of the Bulhoek Massacre

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Timeline of the Bulhoek Massacre

1868
Enoch Mgijima is born at Bulhoek, Eastern Cape, the son of Jonas Mayekiso Mgijima.
1907
19 April, Enoch Mgijima, who had already gained quite a reputation in his region as a lay preacher and as an independent evangelist, has a vision while hunting small game. In his vision, he receives several revelations from an angel, one of which requires him and his people to worship the Lord in accordance with established traditions.
1910
April, Halley’s Comet appears in the sky. Mgijima believes this to be a sign that God is angry with humans and that they should go back to their Old Testament beliefs.
1912
Mgijima breaks away from the Wesleyan Methodist denomination and joins the Church of God and Saints of Christ, which is run by African American missionaries. Mgijima claims to be the prophet of the African continent and the Church of God and Saints of Christ.
November,Mgijima begins to baptise his followers in the Black Kei River next to his home in Ntabelanga. In line with his personal identification with the Hebrews of the Old Testament he calls his followers “Israelites”. Mgijima predicts that the end of the world will take place on Christmas Day. As a result the Israelites stop working and ploughing of their fields. Mgijima’s prediction fails the test of reality.
1914
Mgijima receives another message from God, who asks him if he could hear the thunder in the distance. “The thunder symbolised a catastrophic war on earth which was going to destroy all sinners. Only those who were faithful to God’s Word would be spared.” (Edgar, 2010: 12)
Enoch Mgijima’s visions become more violent. He is asked by the leaders of the Church of God and the Saints of Christ to renounce his visions as they cannot condone the preaching of conflict or war. Mgijima refuses and he is excommunicated from the church. This results in a split into two factions – the Church of God and Saints of Christ, and the Mgijima’s Israelite faction.
28 July, When World War I begins, Mgijima sees the event as the fulfilment of his earlier vision.
1917
13-20 April, The Israelites’ Passover ceremony is held at the local Shiloh Mission Station.
1918
April, The Shiloh Mission Station refuses to allow the Israelites to use their property for Mgijima’s Passover celebration. As a result Mgijima applies to Geoffrey Nightingale, the government’s inspector of African locations, to host their Passover festivities at the commonage at the Kamastone. Permission is granted on the condition that the churchgoers leave immediately after Passover.
1919
Magijima re-applies to host the Passover festivities at Kamastone but objections from other residents ensure his application is rejected. He then applies to hold the festivities at Ntabelanga, in the Bulhoek sub-section, and permission is granted.
After Mgijima calls upon all his followers at a church service, 3000 Israelites from all over South Africa gather in Ntabelanga to “await the coming of the Lord”.
1920
Geoffrey Nightingale, the government inspector of African locations, reluctantly agrees to allow the Israelites to hold their Passover festival at Ntabelanga.
8 June, Geoffrey Nightingale visits Ntabelanga and finds that many Israelites are building houses there. Once again Nightingale agrees to let the Israelites stay, temporarily, despite being uneasy about the situation.
July, The headman of Kamastone complains to Geoffrey Nightingale that more Israelites are arriving and erecting houses illegally.
September,Nightingale estimates that 1200 to 1300 Israelites are living in Ntabelanga and the majority are doing so illegally. As a result, Queenstown officials begin considering methods to pressure the Israelites to leave. Summonses are sent to 20 Israelites to appear in court for illegal squatting. Nightingale tries to create a list of all the Israelites at Ntabelanga but the Israelite leaders refuse to co-operate.
Two Israelites, Charles Mgijima and Adonijah Ntloko, write a letter to the Queenstown magistrate in which they explain:“We are not making war against you; we are your servants living in this place for the purpose of praying and fearing God’s wrath which is coming upon the whole world... We humbly beg you to give us a chance to pray.”
White officials in Queenstown are not convinced that the Israelites are peaceful. The police and Native Affairs officials, dealing with policies towards Africans in Pretoria, tell the Queenstown officials to tactfully enforce the law and persuade the Israelites to leave.
October,Ntabelanga is at this point a permanent settlement with streets and sturdy brick homes.
7 December, The Senior Magistrate of Queenstown, ECA Welsh, visits Ntabelanga. He is accompanied by 100 police officers under the command of Major Hutchons from Grahamstown. The police set up their tents 500 metres from the Israelites’ settlement.
8 December, Israelite leaders and police officers meet to discuss the matter but neither side is prepared to compromise. As part of the Israelite churchservice 1000 Israelites begin marching as the discussions come to an end. Thinking that the Israelites are preparing an attack, the officers flee to a farm five kilometres away – but the Israelites do not seize their supplies or belongings.
The police withdrawal causes certain issues to arise:

  1. Stories are spreading that the police had shot at the Israelites.
  2. A group of Africans challenge White authority.
  3. White farmers in the area are alarmed and relocate their families to towns like Queenstown.
14 December, A white farmer, John Mattushek, shoots two Israelites looking for food on his land. One is killed and the other wounded.
The South African government asks a group of “moderate” Africans from the Eastern Cape to persuade the Israelites to leave. The group, consisting of JT Jabavu, Meshach Pelem, Patrick Xabanisa and Chief Veldtman, fail to convince the Israelites to leave.
17 December, The government sends a White delegation including top army and police officers and the secretary of Native Affairs, EJ Barrett, to meet the Israelites. The Israelites state that they will not move unless they receive a message from God.
1921
April, Charges against John Mattushek are dropped as the Israelites refuse to appear in court. They believe government officials will arrest them if they leave Ntabelanga.
6 and 8 April, Prime Minister Jan Smuts sends the newly appointed Native Affairs Commission to Queenstown. Enoch Mgijima sends his brother, nephew and another high-ranking church member to negotiate on his behalf. They claim that they “wished to obey the law of the land, but Jehovah was more powerful than the law” and they “fear to offend him by disregarding his wishes and obeying the laws of men”.
May, Whites see the Israelites defiance in Ntabelanga “Black Bolshevism” and the issue is widely discussed. The government puts together the largest force of police and soldiers since the Union of South Africa had been established in 1910. Colonel Truter is placed in charge of 800 White policemen and soldiers selected from around the country to assemble in Queenstown.
11 May, The Native Affairs Commission attempts to negotiate with the Israelites but the Israelites continue to refuse to leave the area.
17 May, Newspapers such as Imvo Zbanstundu and The Star urge the government to enforce the law at Bulhoek. The General Council of the Transkeian Territories passes a resolution criticising the Israelites.
21 May, Colonel Truter issues his final ultimatum: The Israelites are to leave Ntabelanga or the police will arrest Enoch Mgijima and demolish the houses.
22 May, Delegates Silwana Nkopo and Samuel Matshoba deliver a letter from Enoch Mgijima to Colonel Truter in which he defends the Israelite position. Mgijima asks Colonel Truter if he is planning to destroy them. Colonel Truter warns Mgijima that serious consequences will follow if the Israelites continue their resistance.
Mgijima advises his followers that they can leave before the police arrive, but no one leaves the village.
23 May, The Police mobilise and move to a farm close to Bulhoek. The force is well armed with three machine guns and artillery.
24 May, At about 10:30am the police and soldiers are in position around Ntabelanga overlooking the Israelite village. The Israelite men, about 500 armed with clubs and spears, are split into regiments and prepare for battle.
At 11:30am the Israelites are given a final chance to discuss the situation. Edward Mpateni and Charlton Mzimkulu come forward to meet three policemen – Sergeant Wicks, Sergeant Boucher and Inspector WH Quirk. Wicks restates Colonel Truter’s ultimatum and the negotiation fails.
It is not certain how the battle started but it may have begun after a shot is accidentally fired, resulting in the two sides clashing. The Israelites run towards the police lines and are gunned down. After about 20 minutes, 200 Israelites are dead and almost 100 wounded. One policeman suffers from a stab wound.
Enoch Mgijima is arrested without resistance from the Israelites. Colonel Truter tells Mgijima: “Enoch, I hold you responsible for all this bloodshed.” Mgijima replies: “You take your orders from the government. I take mine from Jehova.”
November, A two-week trial of 141 Israelites begins in Queenstown. They are charged with sedition or “violent and forcible conduct against the authority of the state.” Forty witnesses support the contention that the Israelites had used their religious beliefs to hide their real political objective, namely that they were organising a rebellion.
Enoch Mgijima, Charles Mgijima and Gilbert Matshoba are sentenced to six years hard labour at De Beer’s Convict Station in Kimberley. One hundred and twenty-nine of their followers are sentenced to between 12 and 18 months of hard labour.
1924
Charles Mgijima dies in prison.
Enoch Mgijima is released from prison.
1929
5 March, Enoch Mgijima dies at the age of 71.

Last updated : 21-Jun-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 05-Sep-2012