A prophet had appeared among the Paiutes of Nevada. He preached a new religion. It was a religion that offered hope for the Indian race - hope not dependent on promises of the white men. He held forth a vision of paradise in which all Indians would at last be free of the white burden and reside in a blissful land, a land without white people, a land inhabited by all the generations of Indians that had gone before...and it could be simply attained by practicing the tenets of his faith and dancing a prescribed "Ghost Dance."1
The closing years of the 19th and into the early 20th century witnessed the last stand of many indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa and Asia against the invasion of their lands and the destruction of their cultures and way of life by Europeans and Americans. Just as many individual people in the depths of crisis turn to religion to offer them hope and salvation, movements arose in these indigenous societies that were embraced by many as a means of destroying the foreign invaders and ushering in a time of paradise. Tragically, for all of them, the promises offered by these indigenous spiritual movements led to death and disaster.
Many of my fellow Americans are probably familiar with the Ghost Dance movement that spread among the Great Plains Indians in 1890. From Robert Utley's The Indian Frontier of the American West, "All over Pine Ridge Reservation, and on others as well, the people abandoned their cabins and pitched their tipis in the cottonwood groves. Hypnotically, in slow shuffling cadence, they danced around sacred prayer trees. As the intensity and the excitement mounted, some fell to the ground, to die and go to heaven and there talk with the Indian Messiah and see the beautiful new world foretold. They came back to describe their experiences and to urge others to dance with a passion that would reveal to them, too, a vision of the promised land."
As the movement grew, some of its proponents began to preach confrontation and sought to bolster the courage of the Ghost Dancers by telling them that the white man's bullets could not harm them if they wore their "Ghost Shirts."
A decade later on the other side of the world, a similar movement arose in China. Ever since its defeat at the hands of the British in the Opium War in 1842, the Qing Dynasty that had ruled China since 1644 suffered humiliating defeats and the carving up of its territory into spheres of influence at the hands of foreign, mostly European, powers. In this climate of increasing foreign encroachment, Chinese nationalist fervor increased, leading in some cases to extreme xenophobia.
The Boxers United in Righteousness, as they called themselves, began to emerge as a force in northwest Shandong during 1898. They drew their name and the martial rites they practiced from a variety of secret-society and self-defense units that had spread in southern Shandong during the previous years, mainly in response to the provocations of Western missionaries and their Chinese converts. Some Boxers believed they were invulnerable to swords and bullets in combat, and they drew on an eclectic pantheon of spirits and protectors from folk religion, popular novels, and street plays. Although they lacked a unified leadership, Boxers recruited local farmers and other workers made desperate by the distastrous floods that had been followed by droughts in Shandong; they began to call for the ending of the special privileges enjoyed by Chinese Christian converts and to attack both converts and Christian missionaries.2
In the summer of 1905, in German East Africa, now Tanzania, African villagers who labored in work gangs to pick cotton for export to Europe, began to listen to a spirit medium named Kinjikitle Ngwale, who called on them to unite and drive out the Germans.
The news spread like a fever. All they needed was maji ('water' in Swahili), with some castor oil and millet seeds. This was a 'war medicine' strong enough to turn German bullets into water. The leaders of each clan flocked to Ngarambe to obtain the magic water and the magic seeds... By the summer of 1905 the movement had spread more than a hundred miles west and south. But none of these men had modern rifles, only cap guns, spears and arrows.3
So here we have three completely different cultures in three different parts of the world where indigenous spiritual movements arose in a climate of anger and despair in the face of foreign encroachment. While they had their own unique characteristics, they shared many similiarities. They all promised a world cleansed of the hated foreigners. And they promised their followers that the foreigners bullets could not kill them.
The outcome of the Ghost Dancers is well known to many Americans. At a place called Wounded Knee, on December 29, 1890, the US Seventh Cavalry attempted to disarm the Native Americans encamped there. Utley describes the encounter:
As the search progressed, powerful tensions arose on both sides. A medicine man pranced about inciting men to fight; their Ghost Shirts would protect them, he said. Nervous troopers fingered their carbine triggers. One seized a deaf man and grasped his rifle. It went off. The chanting priest threw a handful of dirt into the air. A knot of Indians dropped their blankets and leveled Winchester repeaters at a rank of soldiers. Both sides fired at once, and the fight that neither side intended or expected burst on them.
When the shooting finally stopped, some 150 Native Americans lay dead or dying. In a spasm of brief violence, the Ghost Dance movement came to an end. Wounded Knee came to symbolize the end of armed resistance to the United States by the Native Americans, just as 1890 is cited as the year that the American frontier in the West vanished.
Ten years later, the Boxers in China had increased their attacks against Chinese Christian converts and foreigners, climaxing with the siege of the foreign diplomatic compounds in Beijing. This event is depicted in the Charlton Heston film 55 Days In Peking. The seige was broken on August 14, 1900 by a multinational expeditionary force of 20,000 soldiers. The Qing Dynasty, which had thrown in its lot with the Boxers after initially wavering, capitulated and signed a peace treaty known as the Boxer Protocol.
From Jonathan Spence's The Search for Modern China:
In this protocol, the Qing agreed to erect monuments to the memory of the more than two hundred Western dead, to ban all examinations for five years in cities where antiforeign atrocities had taken place, to forbid all imports of arms into China for two years, to allow permanent foreign guards and emplacements of defensive weapons to protect the legation quarter in perpetuity...and to execute the leading Boxer supporters including the Shanxi governor Yuxian.* They also agreed to pay an indemnity for damages to foreign life and property of 450 million taels (around £67 million or $333 million at the then current exchange rates), a staggering sum at a time when the entire annual Qing income was estimated at around 250 million taels. The Chinese were to pay the indemnity in gold, on an ascending scale, with 4 percent interest charges, until the debt was amortized on December 31, 1940.
But by far the worst outcome in terms of human life lost was the Maji Maji revolt in German East Africa in 1905-1906. There, the rebels experienced initial success, as the German military presence in the country was small and the German colonial government was slow to take the rebellion seriously.
The turning point came on August 30, 1905, when the maji attacked the German garrison at Mahenge. Thomas Pakenham quotes a mission worker who witnessed the battle in The Scramble For Africa:
Since they came to make an end of all of us, we had to defend ourselves and take part in the firing, which opened on the attackers at about 1,000 metres. Two machine guns, Europeans, and soldiers, rained death and destruction among the ranks of the advancing enemy. Although we saw the ranks thin, the survivors maintained order for about a quarter of an hour, marching closer amidst a hail of bullets. But then the ranks broke, and the men took cover behind numerous small rocks.... Then suddenly the cry broke out; 'New enemy on the Gambira [eastern] side!' Everybody looked in that direction, and there thick clouds of smoke were rising from our three schools and a second column of at least 1,200 men were advancing towards us... As soon as they [appeared] within range they were met by deafening fire. The first attackers were only three paces from the firing line when they sank to the ground... When no more enemy could be seen, the station commander climbed down from the top of the boma tower... and distributed champagne.
Then the Germans went on the offensive, incorporating forced famine into their strategy. According to Pakenham, historians of the revolt estimate that 250,000 to 300,000 Africans died as a result of the famine, some ten times more than had taken up arms in revolt. Maize and cotton fields in depopulated regions reverted to forest.
Pakenham also notes that African natives who did not join the revolt were skeptical of the claims that the maji water would protect them from the German bullets. He mentions one tribal chief who said he would drink the maji if some of the rebels survived a firing squad. "They did not survive."
As noted in the title of this post, in desperate times, people will believe desperate things. They will listen to the exhortations of priests or shamans to embrace beliefs in things that they should know are untrue, such as magic water or shirts making someone invincible to bullets. When religious beliefs come up against the laws of physics, the latter will win every time. Paying heed to this is not only smart, it could save your life.
1 The Indian Frontier of the American West: 1846-1890 by Robert Utley.
2 The Search For Modern China by Jonathan D. Spence.
3. The Scramble For Africa by Thomas Pakenham
* Yuxian promised the missionaries in Shanxi province that he would protect them from the Boxers and then proceeded to have all of forty-four of them, men, women, and children, murdered when they arrived.