Long Read | The virus that wrecked Africa a century ago

Rinderpest ravaged the continent in the late 1800s, flourishing in conditions of colonial repression and environmental degradation. A lesson for a climate-challenged world?

Not since the rinderpest. When someone referenced a seminal event from a long, long time ago, it was invariably “not since the rinderpest”. This was said in a way that you were supposed to know what it was. It seemed inappropriate to ask.

In extensive reading on the making of South Africa, I can’t recall references to must-read accounts on the rinderpest. A few years ago, though, I read that the Hartebeespoort Dam, which included 400km of canals below the wall, was built to ameliorate the “poor white problem” – people enfranchised at the creation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, but who were destitute because rinderpest had wiped out 90% of the national cattle herd.

Under the coronavirus lockdown, with disastrous economic consequences looming, it seemed a good time to read up on this panzootic that killed cattle in their millions in most parts of the world. In the late 1800s, it cut a swathe through Africa, from the north westwards and southwards, including into southern Africa, wiping out almost all domestic cattle and wild antelopes. 

In an agricultural, pre-industrial age, rinderpest was as devastating an economic blow as can be imagined.

German for cattle plague, rinderpest has no direct effect on humans, but it brought famine in some cases, with substantial loss of human life. At best, economic recovery took a decade, but its effects were often more lasting. Rinderpest exacerbated the effects of colonisation, and the colonised never recovered from the destruction it wrought.

“Massive deaths of livestock, wild animals and the people dependent on them led to widespread human misery and changed the face of the African continent forever,” writes German veterinarian Peter Roeder, an international expert on the disease. 

Slow-moving killer

Covid-19 had to do no more than hop on a plane or two to get to South Africa, arriving within weeks of the first cases being detected in Wuhan, China. Rinderpest, having made landfall in the Horn of Africa in 1889, began a seven-year, north-south journey, travelling as many as 20 miles a day. It reached southern Africa in 1896, where it killed an estimated 2.5 million cattle.

Paul Kruger, president of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR), Trump-like came up with his own cure for rinderpest, while even captive eland on Cecil John Rhodes’ Groote Schuur estate in Cape Town succumbed.

We have come to know that the coronavirus is as virulent as it is hidden, the infected often not even knowing their status until they have passed the virus on. Rinderpest was as well disguised. Infected animals had an incubation period of three to 15 days during which the disease was not observable. Then the animal would take another eight to 12 days to die, it being infectious throughout the period.

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A veterinarian in the British colony of Natal described the symptoms and the horrible stricken death: “Experience soon guides the eye and ear, and the broken-winded cough and the discharge of tears from angry-looking eyes are at once noticed. As the disease runs on, the animal becomes dull and disinclined to rise from the ground – some of the beasts may be constipated, passing hard pellets of yellow-grey clay – but most will be affected by a watery and foetid diarrhoea, often tinged with blood.

“The temperature is very high, and the breathing laboured . . . ropey saliva hangs round the mouth and nostrils . . . As the temperature falls, the animal becomes semi-comatose and weaker, muscles quiver incessantly, moaning and gulping increase, and about six days after an attack commences the beast dies …”

The disease was written up at the time in journals such as The Lancet, Nature and Science, which are all covering Covid-19 now. But some academics have complained that rinderpest has received little scholarly attention. A notable exception is CA Spinage’s Cattle Plague, A History (2003). The result of 50 years of study, it is a 750-page mausoleum. Revered in rinderpest circles, I just had to get my hands on a physical copy – not easy to do during lockdown.

Follower of war

Rinderpest is so closely associated with conflict that it is known as the disease that follows war. Spinage records numerous such cases. The Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, for example, conquering the Scandinavians in 800, found “so great was the pestilence of oxen in his expedition that scarcely in the whole army did one remain, but all perished; and not only there, but a plague among animals, causing a dreadful mortality, broke out in all the provinces conquered by the emperor”.

In southern Africa, rinderpest is associated with the First War of Independence, the Chimurenga in Zimbabwe; the Langeberg rebellion, a war of resistance by the Batlhaping and the Batlharo against British settlers in Griqualand West; as well as resistance by Griqua leader Andries le Fleur and Makhaola in  Basutoland (Lesotho), both of whom led uprisings opposing colonial government policies to contain rinderpest. 

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While humanity now races to produce a vaccine to combat Covid-19, southern Africa played a breakthrough role in combating rinderpest. Robert Koch, a founding father in virology research and Nobel Prize winner, is credited for developing the first vaccines in Kimberley in 1897 using bile from infected cattle.

This began the arrest of the advance of the pathogen, rinderpest being one of just two viruses – the other smallpox – that humanity has managed to eradicate. But it is sobering to note, though, that while the initial breakthroughs were made by Koch 120 years ago, global eradication was only achieved more than a century later, in 2011.

A foothold in Africa

Rinderpest has been around for several thousands of years; serious efforts to combat it began in Europe from the 1700s. But, for its impact on the continent, we start in Eritrea in 1889, where it established a foothold, having most likely been brought by Italian soldiers from Asia.

Gary Marquardt wrote in Open Spaces and Closed Minds: A Socio-environmental History of Rinderpest in South Africa and Namibia (2007) that cattle plague wiped out 90% of Ethiopia’s plough oxen, placing severe limitations on food planting and harvesting. Combined with a harsh drought and a locust plague, it contributed to famine that killed one-third of the human population.

The virus worked its way down the Nile River, destroying not only domestic bovines but also antelopes along its course. British Army captain FD Lugard wrote of Maasailand (East Africa) in 1893 that “never before in the memory of man, or by the voice of tradition, have the cattle died in such numbers; never before has the wild game suffered”.

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“Nearly all the buffalo and eland are gone. The giraffe has suffered, and many of the small antelope – the bush-buck and the reed buck, I believe, especially. Dead and dying beasts were all around. The whole country was scattered with dead bodies.”

Marquardt quotes a traveller who noted heavy game losses near Meru, Tanzania: “The buffalo were also chiefly affected and they came down to the river in thousands to die … the giraffe, lesser kudu, and eland also suffered …” 

German soldiers reported that in Tanzania in late February 1890, on their way to Kilimanjaro, at the beginning of the month they saw nothing amiss among the abundant Kisongo herds in the upper Pangani River. “However, by month’s end, rinderpest had decimated the cattle, leaving only 3 000 of the original 30 000,” writes Marquardt.

The virus reached northern Malawi and Zambia in 1892, the disease spreading here as elsewhere through sharing the same “hotspots” – perennial watering holes, visited by domesticated animals during the day and their wild cousins at night.

Zambezi River slowdown

By 1893, the pestilence had crossed Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and arrived at the Zambezi’s northern bank, where it remained contained by the river’s depth and breadth. Charles van Onselen, in Reactions to Rinderpest in Southern Africa, 1896-1897 (1972), writes that the Zambezi slowed its travels, appearing in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) in 1896.

“By then it was in a region with a relatively well-developed communications network, where transport centred on the extensive use of the ox-wagon,” writes Van Onselen. The disease now moved with a speed which more than compensated for its protracted stay north of the Zambezi.

He quotes Cape Colony veterinary surgeon Duncan Hutcheon: “Within 25 days [of the first occurrence in Rhodesia], rinderpest had travelled southwards at a rate of 20 miles a day, and had reached a point 16 miles north of the colonial border on March 31.”

In 1890, Rhodes had taken political control of this region, his British South Africa Company (BSAC) operating on a royal charter to expand the British Empire by colonising north of the Limpopo. The BSAC’s powers included the right to maintain law and order; the new country was named Rhodesia.

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A revolt against the BSAC rule followed in 1893. Called the Matabele War then, it is now memorialised as the Chimurenga, the First War of Independence. The roots of this conflict included repressive taxation, forced labour and land policies implemented after the Ndebele lost to colonial forces, writes Marquardt. Rinderpest and a severe locust plague added to the misery.

FC Selous, a “notable hunter and naturalist”, was hired to patrol between the Umzingwani and Insiza rivers, over 150km from north to south, writes Marquardt. Selous noted that “in the early part of the year there were over 100 000 head of cattle, all sleek and in excellent condition in Matabeleland, but when it closes, I think it very doubtful if 500 will still be left alive in the whole country”.

Carcasses everywhere

The authorities tried to control the spread of rinderpest by killing suspected infected cattle. But the culling only encouraged “African pastoralists” to move away from policed areas, further spreading the disease, writes Marquardt. Finally, in March 1896, colonial officials decided to allow the disease to run its course.

He quotes local priests: “These white men are your enemies. They killed your fathers, sent the locusts, this disease among the cattle, and bewitched the clouds so that we have no rain. Now you go and kill these white people and drive them out of your father’s land and I will take away the cattle disease and the locusts and send you the rain.”

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French missionary Francois Coillard wrote in 1897 that “no one who has lived in Africa can form the least idea of this awful calamity. It mowed down the whole bovine race in its passage. Hundreds of carcasses lay here and there, on the road side or piled up in fields.

“In vain did the natives gorge themselves, careless of the consequences. In vain did legions of vultures and beasts of prey gather to devour them. They could not overtake the quantity, and the carrion lay there, putrefying everywhere,” wrote Coillard.  

“More than 900 wagons, loaded with merchandise, without teams or drivers, stood abandoned along the Bulawayo road. In a few weeks – a few months, let us say – I am assured that 800 000 head of cattle – some say 900 000 – perished in Khama’s [King Khama III] tribe alone.” 

Rinderpest ravaged cattle herds throughout southern Bechuanaland (North West province, South Africa) in 1896, killing upwards of 97% in certain districts. Cattle being so important, farmers sabotaged government policies in an attempt to save them. They cut fences, contravened quarantine regulations and, in some cases, intimidated veterinarians and rinderpest guards, encouraging its spread.

“[Rinderpest] interrupted economic, social and political livelihoods for many years; for thousands of people, it destroyed their livelihoods forever,” writes Marquardt, arguing in Building a Perfect Pest: Environment, People, Conflict and the Creation of a Rinderpest Epizootic in Southern Africa (2017) that the disease, which could not move of its own accord, relied on environmental factors, cattle management practices and human conflict. “African and white pastoralists and colonial officials collectively spread the disease by working against each other.”

Crossing the Limpopo 

Rinderpest crossed the Limpopo River into the ZAR, the Boer republic, and, as elsewhere, rapidly decimated the animal population. The Crocodile River, which runs into the Limpopo and is fed by the Jukskei from Johannesburg, was choked with carcasses of wild and domestic animals.

Charles Ballard writes in The Great Rinderpest Epidemic in Natal and Zululand (1983) that a fence, which ran from the extreme northern point of the colony towards the mouth of the Tugela River, was erected to try to keep rinderpest out. 

Thousands of whites and even more Africans were engaged in the haulage of goods by ox wagon between Natal and the Witwatersrand gold fields, writes Ballard. Transport riders had sizable investments bound up in wagons, harnesses and trained oxen. “Rinderpest brought almost complete chaos and paupery to Natal transport riders unlucky enough to be stranded on the cold winter veldt of the interior, with a lifetime’s investment in oxen destroyed in as little as 30 hours.” 

The ZAR government used stamping-out measures (culling), with black transport riders from Natal complaining bitterly that the Transvalers shot their cattle whether they were infected or not. 

One, Joseph Gumede, denounced the government for not providing assistance to riders disabled and hungry in the Transvaal: “When we find all we have worked very hard for, in the shape of a span of oxen and wagon, got through many years of patient toil, and now are cast adrift in a foreign state where it is so cold that our cattle will die, then we feel it is time to appeal for justice at the hands of our good government, to help us with the Transvaal government first, and afterwards to give us a place to quarantine our cattle, until . . . our cattle are free from all disease.”

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The Natal government set up disinfecting stations. At Charlestown on the Transvaal border, white railway passengers were “bundled off the train to a disinfecting station where they were fumigated with a light solvent spray of bacterial disinfectant”, writes Ballard.

“Africans received contemptible treatment as they were unceremoniously stripped and queued for fumigation. [They] complained bitterly at being stripped and having their clothes soaked with disinfectant and then having to don them while still in a wet and cold state.”

Van Onselen recounts the procedure as explained by the Transvaal veterinary surgeon: “Every k—– from an infected area is dipped by us, and everything he wears is washed and the guards have strict orders to burn any milk, meat or cattle products found in his possession. After being washed he has to remain there until he is dry, when he gets a pass, and he may then go on his way.”

Africans’ cattle losses

Ballard writes that cattle losses were more than twice as severe among Africans as whites. “The Commissioner of Agriculture stated in his annual report for 1897 . . . that there are many cases where European farmers have lost practically all their cattle is unfortunately too true. But the losses in herds belonging to Europeans will be about 40%, and in those to natives 90%.”

In 1896 in Natal, Africans owned an estimated 494 402 cattle and whites 242 165. The 1898 totals reveal a startling plunge in the number of cattle held by Africans – 75 842 – as opposed to whites, who owned 155 456, Ballard writes. “For the first time in the colony’s history whites owned more cattle than blacks. It took blacks nearly eight years to recoup their losses to the point where their herds equalled the 1896 figure.”

White farmers suffered less from the epidemic and reaped high profits by selling stock to Africans anxious to buy “salted” or rinderpest-free oxen for ploughing, transport riding and lobola. The price for disease-free oxen trebled or even quadrupled during this period, according to Ballard.

“Rinderpest destroyed the chief source of storable wealth. A fundamental social institution, marriage, was thrown into disarray because of insufficient cattle to meet lobola or bridewealth commitments.”

Rumours and prophecies

Before rinderpest reached Transkei and Pondoland, the regional chief magistrate reported a spate of wild rumours and prophecies, stories of persons, animals, birds and even stones prophesying evils, writes Van Onselen.

The Cape Times’ Mount Frere correspondent recounted: “There are mischief-makers in our midst who lose no opportunity for their own personal ends for spreading as much sedition as possible. The witch doctors are busy, wonderful resurrection cases occurred recently … A woman in the Umzimvubu died and rose again. During her brief sojourn in Heaven it was revealed to her that the white man had in his possession two boxes. The first contained rinderpest. This he had already opened. The second (to be unlocked shortly) contains locusts with horses’ teeth.”

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The rinderpest was equivalent to 1929’s great Wall Street Crash in that it threatened to wipe out the only capital of the people and restrict future capital accumulation, writes Pule Phoofolo in Face to Face With Famine: The BaSotho and the Rinderpest, 1897-1899 (2003).

Calling the Xhosa rinderpest experience a “calamity”, but one which did not dramatically change the labour migrancy rate, Phoofolo argues that the Basotho and Xhosa retooled their coping strategies “by reacting energetically to the crisis”.

Basotho communities ensured some plots remained vacant and allowed grasses exhausted by herds prior to the disease to recover. Some Xhosa communities shared their few remaining oxen to keep their fields ploughed and planted. Many switched to drought-resistant crops and used traditional methods of cultivation, such as the hoe, to stave off hunger.

Likewise, Lewis Mtonga writes in A South African Society Under Stress: The Southern Tswana in the Rinderpest Pandemic, 1896-1897 (1992) that Batswana societies honed their survival strategies. By foraging for food and enlisting young men to work at the mines to earn money to restock herds and replant fields, the Batswana were able to successfully restock their cattle within 10 years.

Lockdown in the Cape Colony

As the disease neared the Cape Colony, the authorities went into suppression mode, a hard lockdown in current speak. Every effort was made “to prevent its extension further southward”, wrote Michiel Henning in Animal Diseases in South Africa (1932). Herds of cattle were shot, cordons of mounted police were stationed at various points and a barbed-wire fence, 1 000 miles long, was erected along the northern boundary, 1 000 yards south of the Orange River.

Communication between the infected north and the Cape Colony was carefully supervised. Whites from the north were admitted only after disinfection, while entrance by Africans was practically prohibited, writes Marquardt.

“In practice, this highly contagious disease was very frequently spread by white farmers who were mobile, active in trade and apt to console their rinderpest-stricken neighbours with little regard for the risks of contagion involved,” adds Van Onselen.

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Spinage writes in a chapter titled The Breakthrough in Africa that the Cape government asked Germany to make Koch, the acclaimed bacteriologist, available. Farmers and veterinarians had been experimenting by injecting the bile of infected cattle into healthy animals as a preventative measure. Koch tried various options and became convinced that bile injections could offer immunity. 

There is debate on exactly what Koch’s contribution was, with some arguing he was just first to publish what others were already doing and others saying that he developed, rather than discovered, methods already in use. But his bile method was widely used as an inoculant, and Spinage says the intervention saved 61.4% of the Cape’s 1.6 million cattle.

Rinderpest in the end “more or less burnt itself out”, writes Spinage. “Aided by vaccination and movement restrictions on stock, it was largely controlled in South Africa in 1898, and by 1903 it was finally eradicated. The last South African case was in the Marico district on August 30, 1903, seven years and five months after its first appearance there.”

Not since the rinderpest

South Africa was industrialising at the time of the rinderpest, Van Onselen writes. State doctrine was that “skill and high wages were a privilege of the white race, while heavy labour and menial tasks were the province of the black race”.

In a system that depended on cheap black labour, it did not matter if Transkei Africans were “incorrect” in their belief that “the government had introduced the disease for the purpose of impoverishing the people and thus forcing them to go out and work at the mines.

“While the disease was obviously not spread by the government, and mining companies like De Beers assisted in the fight, the long-term results of rinderpest had beneficial aspects for both. It is certain to have contributed to the proletarianisation of Africans.”

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It was not long before officials were stating the benefits of rinderpest in terms of their own racialised world-view. Van Onselen quotes one such official: “The ravages of rinderpest, although reducing the native to poverty, has not been without very beneficial results, and the native has now learnt humility to those to whom he is subordinate, and also the lesson that by work only can he live, and having learnt to work he is now a happy and contented man instead of the discontented, indolent, lazy and besotten being he was when the numerous cattle he possessed provided his every want.”

While rinderpest seemingly happened an eon ago, much described then applies to the present too. East Africa, for instance, is not only dealing with the coronavirus pandemic but has locusts and floods as well.

South Africans know all too well that a state of disaster was declared to combat Covid-19. Less publicised is that we already had another state of national disaster in place, one which effectively allows the government to rule by decree to counter the effects of drought.

Viruses love conditions of economic dislocation and inequality. Climate breakdown is likely to exacerbate all. In the absence of strategies to mitigate its impact, we should expect more disease, disruption and conflict.

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