Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

The Story of a False Prophet

After the eighth Kaffir war was over the governor hoped that he had made a lasting peace with the natives. But they were really ready to fight again as soon as they saw a chance, although Sir George Grey, who was now governor, did his best to prevent war and make the people happier.

Among many other things Sir George built a large hospital where black people might come when they were ill. He did this hoping to stop the belief in witch doctors and the terrible cruel habit of "smelling out" witches. Many Kafis did come to the hospital, and some of them were so pleased and grateful that they wrote to Queen Victoria to thank her.

"I am very thankful to you, dearest Queen Victoria," wrote one, "because you have sent for me a good doctor and a clever man. I was sixteen years blind, Mother and Queen, and now I see. I see everything. I can see the stars, and the moon, and the sun. I used to be led before, but now, Mother, O Queen! I am able to walk myself. Let God bless you as long as you live on earth. Let God bless Mother. Thou must not be tired to bear our weaknesses, O Queen Victoria!"

But although the hospital did much good, a great witch doctor had meanwhile arisen who did much harm. He was so powerful and so clever that the people believed in him more than ever, for he told them that he had seen and talked with strange beings who were the everlasting enemies of the White Man. They had come, he said, from battlefields far across the ocean to help the Kaffirs. They were very powerful spirits, against whom none could stand, and if the Kaffirs only obeyed them, the White Men would soon all be driven into the sea.

But, said the prophet, if the Kaffirs wished to be free they must obey the commands of these great spirits. They must kill and eat all their cattle, they must destroy all the grain they had, they must leave their fields and gardens unfilled. And when all this was done at a day appointed, a new world would begin. The gardens would then spring to fresh and undreamt-of beauty; corn would suddenly start from the ground, waving, golden, ripe for harvest; herds of cattle, such as never before had been seen, would come thundering over the plains. Never more would the Kaffirs know pain, or sorrow, or suffering. Every joy that they could imagine would be theirs. As for the White Man, he would be swept into the sea, and go down for ever into darkness.

All Kaffirland went mad with joy and excitement. With such a fairyland in promise they made haste to kill and eat as they had been commanded. Everywhere there was feasting and revelling. And as they feasted and grew fat the Kaffir pride grew great. They looked upon the White Man with haughty hate mingled with savage joy, for soon these pale faces were to be swept into the sea, and the Kaffir was once more to be lord in the land, a land made glorious.

As the days passed and the destruction of cattle went on, the excitement grew wilder and wilder. Many Kaffir's spent their time making huge skin bags from the hides of the slaughtered animals. These bags were to hold the immense quantities of milk which they expected from the fabled herds. Others built great kraals in which to pen the flocks and herds which were to swarm upon the earth in numbers greater than the stars of heaven. But even before the work was done and the great day came, hundreds were starving. The herds were all slain, the corn all eaten or destroyed, and the fields and gardens lay barren, and so, with hunger and excitement, many went mad.

At length the long-looked-for day was near. The night before the great dawn, the Kaffirs shut themselves into their huts, and spent the hours of darkness in trembling, impatient watching. When morning was near they came forth in wild excitement, expecting to see not one, but two, blood-red suns rise glorious in the east.

But the dawn was dim and misty. Breathlessly the people waited and watched. Slowly, slowly the sun rose above the hills, casting a pale yellow light around. Slowly there mounted into the sky one pale yellow ball, not two, nor blood-red.

Then there was heard a cry of agony, "We are deceived! we are deceived!"

"Nay," said some, "have patience, at midday we shall see the marvel."

But midday came, and passed, and the golden sun sank to evening in the west, and not in the east as had been foretold. Still there was no sound of hoof, no thunder of coming cattle, no rustle on the earth of yellow corn ripe for harvest, no darkness and death for the hated White Man. Then wild exultation was followed by wilder wailing, and the madness of despair.

A whole nation was starving, and they had themselves destroyed their food. By their own act they had brought famine and barrenness upon the land. From end to end the country was filled with hopeless agony and clamour, it was one wild cry for food. Men killed each other for a handful of roots, a mouthful of bread, mothers snatched the food from their children's mouths. The great milk sacks so joyfully prepared were torn to pieces and fought for. Father and son, mother and daughter, strove with eah other for scraps; mercy and kindness were forgotten.

Hundreds of starving wretches poured into Cape Colony, imploring help from the very white men that they had hoped to see driven forth with fearful slaughter. It was said that this was what Kaffir chiefs wanted, that they had spread wonderful tales on purpose, thinking that when the people were mad with hunger they would swarm over the colony destroying all that came in their way. But if this was so the plan failed utterly. For the people were too weak to do more than crawl and beg.

The British had known how the dream must end, and they had prepared for it. Great stores of food had been gathered, and now they were able to help many of the famishing wretches, sending them, when they were fit, to work on the farms. But thousands died of hunger and of the terrible diseases that hunger brings, before they reached even the borders of the colony. They fell by the wayside as they staggered along, they lay down to rest and never rose, till the plains of Kaffraria were whitened with the bones of thirty thousand skeletons.

By this slaughter of hunger, great tracts of land were left desolate, and Sir George Grey sent white settlers to take the place of the dead Kaffirs, so that the bounds of the colony were extended. Among these new settlers were a great many Germans. During the Crimean War Great Britain had raised some German regiments to help them, and when the war was over these soldiers were given farms in South Africa. Other Germans came too, and proved very good colonists. And as British Kaffraria had thus become full of white people, it was thought better to add it to Cap Colony. This was done in 1865.

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