King Sarhili was the last King to rule over Xhosaland before it was fragmented by the consequences of the ‘Cattle Killing Movement’ of 1856-7. The movement was spurred on by 1) the encroachment of colonialists over the lands and sovereignty of the Xhosa, 2) the prophecy of Nongqawuse and 3) lungsickness which spread rapidly among the cattle - a vital source of sustenance to the livelihoods of the Xhosa. Hence, King Sarhili’s rule and his life is characterised by a turbulent political climate in the shifting tides of precolonial and colonial history of Southern Africa.

King Hintsa was Sarhili’s father and he was assassinated by the British in 1835. [1] Hintsa was the son of Khawuta, whose father was Gcaleka. [2] Gcaleka was the son of Phalo, whose father was Tshiwo. [3] King Hintsa’s assassination occurred against the backdrop of the ‘6th Frontier War’. [4] At this point in time, colonialists were doing all they could to capture land occupied by the Xhosa through agreements, assertion of British imperialism, violence, political ally ship and the opportunism afforded by chief rivalry. The trigger of the conflict that led to Hintsa’s assassination was the injury of Xhoxho who was of a royal bloodline, being one of Ngqika’s sons of the Rharhabe lineage. [5] Xhoxho was attacked for grazing his cattle in lands that the British had ‘forbidden’ from usage. [6] The attack was largely emblematic of the undermining and disrespect with which the British treated Xhosa chiefs and as such the Xhosa retaliated. King Hintsa had been consulted by the chiefs Maqoma and Tyhali (the brothers of Xhoxho) and had given his approval to their efforts to go to war. [7] As such the conflict was primarily dominated by the Ngqika, but the heart of the war was about Xhosa sovereignty and hence applied to all Xhosa people - although not all Chiefs were willing or able to participate for varying reasons particular to their positionalities in the political scope. [8] On a more formal front, King Hintsa portrayed a neutral stance, though he opened his land to the Rharhabe refugees and their cattle. [9]

When Maqoma and Tyhali took to retreating to mountainous regions from the colonialists, King Hintsa’s jurisdiction was targeted. [10] Governor D’urban and Colonel Smith demanded the Rharhabe refugees as well as compensation in cattle and horses for the losses of the colonial ‘settlers’ from the King. [11] On the 29th of April 1835, Hintsa entered the British camps on the Governor’s promise that he would be safe. [12] However, they imprisoned the King and threatened him for the purpose of making him give up Maqoma and Tyhali, as well as for cattle and horses. [13] When King Hintsa tried to escape during a point in which the party marched along near Nqabara River, he was shot in the back and his dead body was mutilated by the colonial soldiers. [14]

It is against this backdrop that Sarhili inherited the title and leadership of Kinghood. Sarhili’s mother was Queen Nomsa and her father was Gambushe, a Bomvana chief. [15] It said that the name ‘Sarhili’ is not a Xhosa name and came from the name of a Boer – Sarel – that had been encountered. [16] Sarhili was not close with his father, because King Hintsa had been in dispute with Queen Nomsa, and had her sent back to her people. [17]

Sarhili ascended without any dispute to his birth right. [18] However, the young King had a difficult start, because King Hintsa’s power had mostly fallen to his Great Councillors and so Sarhili struggled to assert himself in his own right. [19] As custom when Sarhili left his father’s Great Place (the residence of the King), to establish himself, he began with trying to fight the Sotho to no avail. [20] He then tried to conquer the upper Kei region that was occupied by the Thembu people in 1839, but led by Mtirara, he was defeated and retreated. [21] In July 1843, Sarhili and his Gcaleka followers tried again and succeeded in seizing Thembuland. [22] King Sarhili then set up his Great Place at Hohita, the capital of Xhosaland.

In many praises of King Sarhili there is mention of a python. It is said that there was a python that had been killed in the Manyubi forest by a trader. [23] It was unique, like no other ever seen before by the people. The bones and the skin of the python were sent to Sarhili and it was ground into powder with which the young King and his closest relatives were doctored by. [24] Hereafter, the young King’s fortunes began to improve.

In 1846, war broke out again which led to the Rharhabe subjugated under the reconceptualised territory of British Kaffraria in 1847. Although King Sarhili lost political authority over this region, he held more moral and emotional power over the Xhosa across the borders as a result of the onslaught of British imperialism. [25]

For the most part the Gcaleka people under King Sarhili were at peace. The King grew wealthy and enjoyed popularity and respect amongst his followers and chiefs. [26]Sarhili’s leadership style was characterised by his cautious and humble nature. He committed resources to the wars of 1846-7 and 1850-3, but for the most part tried to remain out of other conflicts. [27] Despite the frequent clashes with colonialists and the decentralisation of the Xhosa kingdom, King Sarhili managed to bring some degree of unity to the Xhosa nation – until the prophecy made by Nongqawuse was revealed to him. [28]

Nongqawuse was the orphaned niece of Mhlakaza, a councillor of King Sarhili. Nongqawuse’s prophecy was the follow-up of many prior prophecies made and it contained the following instructions from the ancestors:

1) the dead would arise;

2) all living cattle would have to be slaughtered, having been reared by contaminated hands;

3) cultivation would cease;

4) new grain would have to be dug;

5) new houses would have to be built;

6) new cattle enclosures would have to be erected;

7) new milk sacks would have to be made;

8) doors would have to be weaved with buka roots and lastly;

9) that people abandon witchcraft, incest and adultery [29]

When King Sarhili received word of this, he personally went to visit Mhlakaza’s homestead by the Gxarha River on the 10th of July 1856. [30] The King believed what the prophetess and Mhlakaza communicated to him, for he then dispatched messengers across his scope of jurisdiction to communicate the contents of the prophecy and to tell the Xhosa nation to abide by its instructions. King Sarhili then proceeded to begin killing his own cattle starting with his favourite ox. [31]

The prophecy articulated by Nongqawuse fell on fertile soil, not just because of the similarities in the contents of her message to that of other prophets such as Mlanjeni, but also due to the rapid spread of lungsickness which was killing off the cattle. King Sarhili was making attempts to contain the disease and the havoc it was wreaking, to the point in which he put 20 suspected individuals of witchcraft to death and individuals who had broken quarantines of the movement of the cattle. [32]

So the ‘Cattle-Killing Movement’ commenced. By the end of 1857 disappointment began to set in because the prophecy was not bearing fruits. The Xhosa nation was divided by believers and unbelievers, which served to be a strong source of conflict. For example, believers would attack unbelievers for stalling the prophecy. Despite the dawn of disillusionment many believers including King Sarhili held on and acted in accordance with the prophecy’s instructions for as long as they could. [33] By 1858, King Sarhili’s lands were desolate and marked by the deaths of Xhosa from starvation. The British authorities swooped in to capitalise on the needs of the Xhosa by using basic means of sustenance as a trade into labour contracts for the needs of the colony.

King Sarhili who lost most of his cattle moved out of Hohita back to Butterworth, where his father had previously resided. [34] He made numerous attempts to reach out to the Bishop of Grahamstown and Governor Grey to request aid and to submit apologies for the ‘Cattle Killing Movement’. [35] King Sarhili was deeply concerned for the survival of his children and his people. Grey ignored King Sarhili, and instead opted to invade the already desolate Xhosaland which situated outside the jurisdiction of the colony, had never actually posed a substantial threat to the British to warrant an invasion. [36] The attack against King Sarhili was justified by Grey through his claims that the King and his people had been plotting against the colony by driving the Xhosa to kill all their cattle and stop their cultivation thus forcing them to go to war against the British. [37] This theory was later deemed the ‘chief’s plot’.

The invasion of King Sarhili’s region resulted in further violence done against the Xhosa and left them more disenfranchised than ever. [38] King Sarhili, along with a bodyguard took refuge in forests of Cwebe, east of the Mbashe River. [39] He passed away in 1892. [40]

Despite the vast numbers of Gcaleka that died of famine, a significant amount still survived due to the many sons and daughters that King Sarhili had. When he passed, his son Sigcawu (the eldest and mothered by Nohute) was in line to receive the Kinghood. Other sons left behind by King Sarhili were Mcothama (from the Right Hand House), Lutshaba, Sonwabo and Mthotho. [41

King Sarhili’s rule was largely shaped by the climax of the onslaught of British imperialism and their goals of acquiring land for colonial ‘settlers’, the withering of a long period of Xhosa resistance and simultaneously the strengthening of Xhosa nationhood symbolic of the faith given to the ‘Cattle Killing Movement’. The renowned Xhosa literate S.E.K. Mqhayi, wrote the following as a tribute of the King:

U Sopasi u Ntaba!

Intsundu yo Nomsa, -

Inamb’ enkul’ ebijel’ i Hohita.

Int’ enkomo zimalunga nezika yise;

Usaliwa ngaqubu lisesiswini.

Umagan’ indlazana;

Umavel’ elunguza ngenchi yenchuka,

U Nyoka yobugqi ngu Mamlambo.

Gxotan’ imantyi ziy e Mgwal’ apo zibuliswayo,

Ndim ndedwa n’omdal’ ebantwini?

Nit’ ezizinto ndizazi nganina?

Ndonganyelwe zinto zonke nje?

Ndonganyelwe kukulima nokulamba;

Ndonganyelwe bubuciko nobuhle;

Ndonganyelwe bukulu nokuduma;

Ndonganyelwe bubuntu nobukosi;

Ndonganyelwe nokulaula;

        Ilunga legwaba lika Hintsa!

              Ncincilili!! [42]

Father of Passes! Ntaba!

The darkbrown son of Nomsa,

great python wrapped around Hohita.

As many cattle as his father’s;

kept as a lump in the belly.

He marries a whole family of females;

he peeps through the eyes of a hyena cub,

the enchanting snake’s Mamlambo.

Chase the magistrates to be met at Mgwali,

am I the only old person left?

How do you think I know all these things

when so much weighs me down?

I’m weighed down by ploughing and hunger;

I’m weighed down by beauty and eloquence;

I’m weighed down by greatness and fame;

I’m weighed down as a human and chief;

I’m weighed down by leading and ruling.

      Hintsa’s black-crested cuckoo!

           That’s it!! [43]


[1] Ibid

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Jeff Peires, The House of Phalo (Johannesburg and Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 1981), 104.

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid, 105

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid, 123

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid, 124-5

[14] Ibid

[15] Jeff Peires, The House of Phalo (Johannesburg and Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 1981), 104.

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid, 129

[18] S.E.K. Mqhayi, Abantu Besizwe (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2009), 383.

[19] Jeff Peires, The House of Phalo (Johannesburg and Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 1981), 130.

[20] Ibid

[21] Ibid

[22] Ibid, 131

[23] Jeff Peires, The Dead Will Arise: Nongqawuse and the Great Xhosa Cattle-Killing of 1856-7 (Johannesburg and Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2003.), 101.

[24] Ibid

[25] Jeff Peires, The House of Phalo (Johannesburg and Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 1981), 131-2.

[26] S.E.K. Mqhayi, Abantu Besizwe (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2009), 382 & 384.

[27] Jeff Peires, The Dead Will Arise: Nongqawuse and the Great Xhosa Cattle-Killing of 1856-7 (Johannesburg and Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2003.), 106.

[28] Ibid, 102

[29] Ibid, 99

[30] Ibid, 108

[31] Ibid

[32] Ibid, 107

[33] Ibid, 297

[34] Ibid, 298

[35] Ibid, 301

[36] Ibid, 302

[37] Ibid, 240

[38] Ibid, 305

[39] Ibid, 307

[40] S.E.K. Mqhayi, Abantu Besizwe (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2009), 388.<

[41] Ibid, 388

[42] Ibid 388-90

[43] Ibid


Mqhayi, S.E.K. Abantu Besizwe. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2009.|Peires, Jeff. The Dead Will Arise: Nongqawuse and the Great Xhosa Cattle-Killing of 1856-7. Johannesburg and Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2003. |Peires, Jeff. The House of Phalo. Johannesburg and Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 1981.

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