Just in case you might be thinking that the United States is the craziest country that has ever existed, I thought I would mention the Xhosa famine.

In early 1856, Nongqawuse, a teenage Xhosa girl, said that the spirits had told her that the Xhosa should destroy their crops and kill all their cattle.  The spirits would then sweep the British into the sea,  afterwards refilling the granaries and replacing the slaughtered cattle with more beautiful cattle.

Sarhili, the paramount chief of the Xhosa was convinced by this argument, and the Xhosa  proceeded to implement the plan.

It didn’t work. Tens of thousands of the Xhosa starved to death.

Then there’s the battle of Alcazarquivir, in which Portugal made a go-for-broke invasion of Morocco – and went broke.  Almost the entire army was killed or captured,  along with  the young King Sebastian and all the nobility.  The King’s body was never found, and a cult of “Sebastianism” arose. You see, Sebastian is the sleeping king who will arise again in the time of need and presumably lead Portugal (and Brazil too, at slightly higher prices) to an even greater disaster.

There were plenty of record-setting cases of folly in the 20th century, but you’re already supposed to know them.

So relax.   We’re not Number One in the funny farm of nations. 

 Not yet.








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38 Responses to Nongqawuse

  1. Cuttlescar says:

    “Sebastian is the sleeping king who will arise again in the time of need and presumably lead Portugal (and Brazil too, at slightly higher prices) to an even greater disaster.”

    Portugese Arthur!

  2. Rod Carvalho says:

    The Battle of Alcazarquivir in 1578 was arguably the most tragic event in Portuguese History, but not exactly because it left the country broke. It most likely did, but it was even worse than that. King Sebastian had sired no children, and after his death, a succession crisis ensued. The Habsburg Spanish crown was one of the candidate successors and, unsurprisingly, Portugal was absorbed by Spain and 60 years of Phillipine rule followed.

    This was unfortunate especially due to the fact that the almost 200-year old Anglo-Portuguese Alliance was temporarily broken, which resulted in the Portuguese colonies becoming fair game for the nascent British Empire.

    • gcochran9 says:

      Go for broke is a phrase from Hawaiian Pidgin meaning “to bet everything”.

    • Tomás says:

      Well, that’s true just as long as you buy into the Bragancist narrative, mandatory since their coup d’état in 1640 and the subsequent defeat of the loyalists’ counter-coup. A narrative continued and enlarged by the XIXth century nationalism that firstly countered, and then defeated and prosecuted, the iberist nationalism (because, well, it was a nationalist project too).

      If you’re an iberist portuguese you don’t buy that crap (sorry). I guess you know what I’m talking about, having you “Carvalho” as surname, but nowadays you can never overestimate historical literacy.

      Since its inception as a county seceded from the Kingdom of Leon (just like Castile) Portugal was considered by the portuguese, specially the cultural elite, just like another spanish kingdom. Because Spain, for centuries, didn’t mean “the current nation-state of Spain”. Just like Ireland wasn’t politically unified, but every chiefdom was “irish”, an just like every polis in the ancient Greece was independent but each and every one of them was “greek”, every independent kingdom or principality in the free christian territories was considered by its literate inhabitants as a heir of the “Lost Spain”.

      The problem was (and is) that every territory wants to be in charge. Everybody wanted the union, but nobody wanted to submit.

      From the fourteenth century onwards, probably even before, the ruling monarchs in the Kingdom of Portugal, the Crown of Leon and Castile, and the Crown of Aragon (we’ll leave the small Navarre aside for the moment) were constantly intermarrying, to the point that several times the kingdoms were near of reaching the dynastic union. It wasn’t an accident: it was a matter of policy.

      Philip II (because II is the correct ordinal for the whole of Spain) was uncle of Dom Sebastiao. He desperately tried to change his nephew’s mind about that crazy project and he tried to do so in conversations carried on in portuguese: Philip II’s mother was portuguese. The portuguese was the only language, besides castilian, he truly dominated. When he saw it was impossible to stop his uncle, he send some troops to support the expedition, knowing that it was going to be a disaster.

      He had the right to the throne. He was, and that’s undeniable, the true heir of the throne. In that moment, the Hispanic Mocharchy was the Big Guy and a significant majority of the portuguese elite supported the dynastic union. The opposition was clearly a minority, supported by foreign enemy powers like France and England. There was fear of absorption and a colonial competition between Portugal and the Crown of Leon and Castile but, at the same time, there was a desire of union and a whole host of common enemies (the United Provinces, France) and interests. Beneath all that, there was the common blood.

      Portugal kept all tis customary laws. All of its institutions. There was some new tax and some orders coming from Madrid. How could it be otherwise? But it kept its autonomy, including the colonial matters, at a 90%.

      It was, probably, the Golden Age of Portugal. Its power was at its apex. There were many instances of true recovered brotherhood. Blood spilled together against the same enemies (Bahia, 1625, anyone?).

      But when the Hispan Habsburgs’ empire started to decay then, all of a sudden, many wanted to flee the (apparently) sinking boat. In Andalusia, in Portugal, in Catalonia and in other places too, some elites, in the minority (that must be pointed out), tried to change horses. Some failed and some others, like the bragancists, triumphed. The loyalists had to flee and, suddenly, the traitors were heroes and patriots.

      Still in 1700, when Philip V of “Spain” was crowned, Portugal’s ambassador demanded from him to stop using that title because he wasn’t the only king in Spain. Pedro II was also a king of Spain. It was the same complaint that the Catholic Monarchs had to hear when some people -it was never the official practice– started to call them “monarchs of Spain”. Joao II complained because he was a king of Spain too.

      From the XVIIIth century onwards the meaning of “Spain” has been changing. That’s why the unionist movement was called “Iberism” in the XIXth century. Anyway, there has always been some cultivated people who has kept the old customs. The great Oliveira Martins self-defined himself as a “spaniard from Portugal”, just like Camoes four centuries before.

      The problem is that every territory wants to rule. It’s been always the same. In Portugal the anti-unionist “education” has been pushed with such energy from the state apparatus than today, when the old Crown of Leon is demographically dead and politically dismembered, when (at least!) it could be Portugal’s moment, most people are so afraid of the ghostly “Castelha” that everything keeps stalled, just like the oligarchs want it to stay. It’s always been better for them, even when they were sending portuguese boys to die on behalf of Great Britain in the World War One.

      • Rod Carvalho says:

        Yes, all countries are built on myths. Yes, History is written by the winners.
        So, what do you propose? Merging Portugal and Spain? What for?
        An Iberian monetary union might make sense (e.g., “iberos”, instead of euros). An Iberian electricity / natural gas market might also make sense (e.g., MIBEL). Why is the union of the two countries desirable?

  3. The British invaded Suez. The Americans said “No deal”. Britain was revealed to be broke. Foolish move.

  4. The irony is, from the perspective of natural selection, self-inducing a bit of famine is not much of a big deal, nowhere near as close to auto-genocide as inviting mass immigration.

  5. Sid says:

    George W. Bush was a superior strategerist than Francisco Solano López. We have that much to be thankful for.

    • gcochran9 says:

      Probably he hadn’t heard of Lopez. I’m not sure that the US can do anything quite as dumb as the Paraguayan War: we’d probably have to attack ourselves.

      • albatross says:

        Yeah, and to do that, we’d have to build up a whole new chunk of the government with lots of money and weapons and technology, lots of armed goons, and probably some kind of creepy name. So that’s not anything we have to worry about.

      • erica says:

        “we’d probably have to attack ourselves.”

        I’d say we’ve been doing that for a while now.

  6. Toddy Cat says:

    Probably the only episode in U.S. history that comes close to this level of stupidity is the American Civil War. I mean a war that killed 750,000 mAmericans, permanently damaged the Constitution, and tore wounds that still have not healed, in order to either : A) defend a social and economic system that probably would have ended in thirty years or so anyway, or B) to “free” a people who did not see any real increase in their freedom and well-being, and many of whom sided in with the side that was enslaving them. All to resolve a situation that most other countries managed to resolve without bloodshed. So of course, it’s gone down in (liberal and neo=-con ) history as America’s finest hour.

    • misdreavus says:

      defend a social and economic system that probably would have ended in thirty years or so anyway

      I seriously doubt that.

    • gcochran says:

      “many of whom sided in with the side that was enslaving them”

      Oh really?

      • Yes, really. It may not be fashionable to say, but it is historically accurate. Many Black slaves saw themselves as essentially citizens of the CSA (even though they didn’t hold that formal status). In many cases, invading Union soldiers looted slave homes, and raped Black women & girls, thus further instilling a Confederate identity in Southern Blacks.

    • teageegeepea says:

      “did not see any real increase in their freedom and well-being”
      I addressed this earlier at Moldbug’s. I cited some data, if someone has data to cite against it they’re welcome to.

      • gcochran9 says:

        Well sure, but what we need is not more arguments to use against damn fools, a largely fruitless endeavor, but something that reduces foolishness.

  7. Toddy Cat says:

    You might want to check out the slave narratives, with regard to how the slaves regarded their freedom. On the whole, they were disappointed with what they got, and one could hardly blame them. I have no idea if the slaves regarded themselves as citizens of the CSA (I personally would doubt this), but there were very few slave uprisings during the Civil War, to the surprise of both North and South, and many slaves displayed remarkable personal loyalty to the white families they lived with. There do seem to have been at least a few black Confederate soldiers, although this topic is very controversial, for obvious reasons. But in the long run, I suppose that your views on the Civil War depend on whether you think that what was gained justified 750,000 dead, especially since maost other societies were able to eradicate slavery without hecatombs of dead. I personally do not, and niether did most historians prior to 1945 or so.

  8. Toddy Cat says:

    It’s also interesting that holding an opinion that was the consensus among historians between 1875 and 1945 somehow makes me a “Damned Fool”. That’s progress, I suppose…
    By the way, TGGP, here some evidence that mortality rates for blacks went up significantly after the Civil War. Admittedly, mortality isn’t everything, and I’d accept an increased risk of death in exchange for freedom any day. But it does indicate that the Civil War and emancipation were not an unalloyed blessing for Blacks.

    • gcochran9 says:

      The facts don’t have anything to do with whether an event was “justified”. The notion that slaves were to any significant degree Confederate nationalists is nonsense. The claim that blacks, to any significant degree, fought voluntarily for the Confederacy, is also false. I know all about the internal debate in the Confederacy on the subject – Patrick Cleburne, Lee, etc. It never happened.

      As for the argument that the North had to keep the South from seceding because it needed the money from the Tariff – I guess that explains why the South had no trouble financing the war, while the North went bankrupt. Except that of course it was the other way around. The North had other ways to raise money, capisce?

      Any state that casually allowed at-will secession would end up like the Holy Roman Empire, or disintegrate. Certainly the Confederacy didn’t: they used force to keep East Tennessee in, tried to get back West Virginia, sat on the hillbillies in Arkansas that wanted no part of the war, sent out troops to enforce the draft among the Germans in the Texas hill country, who were too literate to be true Southerners.

      Of course the primary motivation in the North, stronger than antislavery (although that was significant) was support for Union. People didn’t want a rival significant state on the continent, since that would of course mean repeated wars, importation of European struggles, etc – as it had before, when the French still mattered.

      The notion that the Civil War initiated an all-powerful centralized state (which I hear fairly often) is something that only an idiot or libertarian (I repeat myself) could take seriously. After the war, the average guy’s interaction with the Feds was largely confined to the Post Office. For example, in 1900, the Federal cut of GNP was 3% – which includes the Navy and the guerrilla war in the Philippines.

      Slaves produced more economic value than they consumed – quite a bit more. Otherwise, why would anyone have bothered to buy slaves? After the War of the Rebellion, they got to keep a good deal more of that value for themselves. Their standard of living went up. Labor income was about the same for blacks and whites, after the war. They also didn’t have that annoying thing where other people got to sell their children.

      There are myths about the Civil War generated in support of other ideological positions – like the claim that enlisted blacks made good soldiers, which Sherman, who had a certain claim to expertise, didn’t buy. But southern sympathizers have the harder job. Reminds me of a long-ago closed-list discussion in which I had to point out the chivalrous way in which the Confederate routinely executed captured black soldiers and their white officers.

  9. Terrymac says:

    This is from my blog. Thomas Fitzgerald was the man who built my house in 1858,He was a great friend of Sir George Grey and so was his brother Dr. John Fitzgerald.

    ‘Grey was the moving force behind the creation of proper hospital facilities for the Xhosa population for the Ciskei and further afield. Gray’s first step was to appoint FitzGerald as Superintendent of Native Hospitals. FitzGerald opened the forerunner of Grey Hospital on 28 April 1856 in 18 cottages in the Pensioners village in King Williams Town. During this phase the Superintendent played a major role in relieving the suffering during the cattle killing mania in which an estimated 50000 Xhosa eventually perished. He and Grey were also largely responsible for the erection of the native Hospital which was designed by Woodford Pilkton. The imposing building cost over 16000 pounds and was opened on the 14 June 1859. As a fitting tribute to Sir George Grey, the building was officially named Grey hospital in 1887. This declared monument is today the oldest and best known institution in King William’s town and is still in use as a hospital.’

    A sixteen year old girl, Nongqawuse, had a vision on the banks of the Gxarha River. She saw the departed ancestors who told her that if people would but kill all their cattle, the dead would arise from the ashes and all the whites would be swept into the sea. The message was relayed to the Xhosa nation by her uncle, Mhalakaza. Although deeply divided over what to do, the Xhosa began killing their cattle in February 1856. They destroyed all their food and did not sow crops for the future. Stored grain was thrown away. No further work was to be done. Days passed and nights fell. The resurrection of the Xhosa dead warriors never took place.
    In his book The Dead Will Arise, historian J.B. Peires contends that by May 1857, 400,000 cattle had been slaughtered and 40,000 Xhosa had died of starvation. At least another 40,000 had left their homes in search of food. According to Dr. John Fitzgerald, founder of the Native Hospital who witnessed the events, one could see thousands of those “emaciated living skeletons passing from house to house” in places such as King Williams Town. Craving for food, they subsisted on nothing “but roots and the bark of the mimosa, the smell of which appeared to issue from every part of their body.”
    As the whole land was surrounded by the smell of death, Xhosa independence and self-rule had effectively ended.’

  10. Tomás says:

    “…too literate to be true Southerners…”


    “… And then, with that little “faux pas” all the purportedly intelligent speech was exposed as an emotionally-driven rant from a Union loyalist.”

    Just let me see if I got it right: at the end of the day the boys in blue are still the good boys. Not for the “emancipation” of the negroes this time, but because through the -“very adaptive”- slaugther of some 800.000 of their cousins they, supposedly, averted untold euro-style horrors.

    “You’ll see, cousin, I’m gonna kill you to keep your sons in the Union. But it is for your well-being.”

    Let’s talk about mythically-oriented thinking. Like justifying a brutal real war with imagined wars that we will never know if they could have happened.

  11. neilfutureboy says:

    With no battle leading aristocracy the US will have to wait for the return of Ambrose Bierce to lead the country to literary pre-eminence.

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