The Zulu Kingdom and the Mfecane
State-building in Natal
- the northern Nguni lived in modern day Natal and Zululand. This area to the east of the Drakensbergs and the eastern escarpment benefits from prevailing winds off the Indian Ocean; as a result the region has higher rainfall than almost anywhere else in South Africa and the temperatures are more even all year round (i.e., the winters are warm and mild). The northern Nguni lived much like the southern Nguni (the Xhosa) who provided most of the model I used to describe African societies in modules 4 and 5; i.e., there were a large number of relatively small chieftaincies.
- late in the 18th C, for reasons which are subject to a great deal of debate and which we shall discuss later, there began a process of consolidation and state-building. The process was stimulated by and in turn stimulated a great many innovations in weapons, in military tactics, in political arrangements and changed customs. Ultimately in the 2nd decade of the 19th C, a skilled and ruthless leader, Shaka, carried this process to the limit by incorporating or destroying all rival kingdoms and creating one large kingdom, the Zulu Kingdom; he had achieved this by about 1818 although he continued to consolidate until his death in 1828.
- it is not possible to assign who made what contributions and innovations with absolute certainty. During the late 18th C, a process of consolidation into rival confederaciesthe Ndwandwe and the Mthethwahad been taking place. The 2 leaders of these rival confederacies were Zwide of the Ndwandwe and Dingiswayo of the Mthethwa. Because the Ndwandwe were smashed and the people driven out, killed or incorporated into the Zulu, we have little information about them. The Zulu Kingdom recreated and extended the Mthethwa confederacy; as a result, most of the oral traditions which provide the bulk of our information survive via the Zulu. Many of the training and battle tactics are attributed to Shaka, but it is clear that the process had begun much earlier; Shaka was building on what had been created rather than being alone responsible.
- the 2 confederacies developed very similarly which seems to indicate that innovations were quickly copied and adopted by the other group. The organisation of age based regiments (impis) and perhaps the abolition of circumcision are usually attributed to Dingiswayo. However, Shaka extended these by keeping the regiments permanently mobilised and creating distinct identities for each one. Each regiment had its own huge kraal and its own cattle; cow hides were chosen to give each regiment its own distinctive shield. Regiments were not allowed to marry until Shaka gave permission which he did infrequently and only when the men were well into middle age. The young women too were organised into regiments, and when Shaka did give permission to marry, he would designate which regiment of women was to marry which impi. Until that time, both sexes were to remain celibate. If an unmarried woman became pregnant, both she and her lover were killed.
- an innovation that had huge military impact was training and operating as a phalanx rather than a long skirmishing line. This was further developed into the head and horns attack pattern. The men in the horns would rush forward at great speed to surround the enemy warriors; then the head would advance to wipe them out. These formations and tactics have been discovered and implemented many times in the history of warfare. However, they were an innovation in Africa at that time.
- instead of the long throwing assegai (spear), a short stabbing assegai was introduced and a new shield that allowed a warrior to pull the opponents shield aside, thus opening the opponent for a stab from the assegai. With an enemy surrounded by the head and horns attack, the warriors in head phalanxes could move in and massacre them with the stabbing assegais.
- rigorous training was instituted to toughen the warriors and to give great mobility to the armies. Zulu warriors were forced to run long distances, travel in bare feet, and perform with only limited food and water. Shaka was implacable; it is said that he ordered his warriors through thorns and any man who showed hesitation or wavered at all was killed immediately. In the end, Zulu armies could, using a system of brief, regular rest periods, travel great distances, mostly at a run.
- these innovations gave the Zulu tremendous military advantages over their opponents. With much smaller forces, Shaka and his Zulu core were able to wear down and defeat the much larger forces of Zwides Ndwandwe. The innovations also made warfare much more deadly as surrounded enemies were slaughtered close up with the stabbing assegais.
- Shaka was also responsible for developing a more centralised political system; Dingiswayo had created only a loose confederation with the identities and structures of the component peoples still in place. The weakness of this system showed up when Dingiswayo was killed and the confederation fell apart. Shaka built a more unified structure.
Explanations of State-building in Natal
- regiments were recruited from all areas, thus mixing the different peoples; then, following the approach of all successful armies, loyalty to the regiment was built and stressed. In fact, Shaka encouraged sharp rivalry between regiments to the point that serious fighting could often break out between regiments. As all men were conscripted into the army, this policy was extremely effective in submerging older identities; within one generation, everyone came to think of themselves as Zulu although the original Zulu had been a very small chieftaincy.
- in chieftaincies which resisted, the leaders if captured were killed and Shaka appointed men who were loyal to him to regional and local chieftaincies (often these were able regimental leaders who would have little or no traditional rights to be chiefs and who were, therefore, indebted to and dependent upon Shaka for their position).
- even when he left traditional leaders in charge (he became less likely to do this as time went on), they had to be absolutely obedient and not show any independence or Shaka soon found an excuse to depose and execute them.
- this has long been a subject of much speculation; the Zulu Kingdom fascinated Europeans and drew frequent comparisons with ancient Sparta (both societies were entirely organised around the army). Although the Zulu were defeated by a Boer commando in 1838 at the battle of Blood River, Zulu society had recovered, and from the 1850s and 60s, white settlers in Natal had frequent nightmares about being awakened by Zulu warriors who would promptly dispatch them with a quick stab of an assegai. This was unwarranted because the later Zulu kings consistently tried to avoid war with whites.
- the result of this fascination is a large volume of literature on Shaka and the Zulu. Unfortunately, much of it is not very good or very accurate. This is true of websites too which draw on the popular, but not entirely trustworthy, sources. The TV mini-series, Shaka Zulu, had many errors and a good deal of fiction. Thus, approach these sources with more than usual caution. However, the movie Zulu (about the battle of Rorkes Drift in the Anglo-Zulu War), while a bit theatrical, is more or less accurate.
(1) Imitating and/or learning from whites
- this was the leading explanation by whites in 19th C and still prominent in many popular histories. It has been so thoroughly discredited that Thompson does not even mention it!
- supposedly, Dingiswayo or Shaka (the accounts differ) ran into some white hunter or other tourist who imparted many ideas that Dingiswayo or Shaka used to begin the transformation. There is no credible evidence for this and the leading candidate as the white source of knowledge did not visit the area until well after the process had started.
- this explanation was largely a product of white racism; its assumption was that Africans were not capable of coming up with such far-reaching innovations on their own. Thus, there must have been some white man who provided the creativity. This is similar to the fantastic hypotheses put forward to explain Great Zimbabwe (i.e., the migration of light skinned strangers from the Middle East who had come via Ethiopia and east Africa) because whites would not and could not accept the possibility that it had been created by Africans ( best short text on Great Zimbabwe, more photos).
(2) Individual Genius
- the great man approach to history is too often overdone. In this approach, events and the course of history itself is attributed to one individual and his will, his genius.
- there are questions we need to raise. Do great men create the context and situation in which they operate or are they products of their environment? Are leaders thrown up by the requirements of the situation or do leaders create their own environment?
- Winston Churchill is an interesting example to consider. He had a number of ups and downs in his political career. However, in the 1930s, he was in the political wilderness and generally regarded as a warmonger. Except for a handful of supporters, he was rejected by most of the members of his own Conservative Party. With the failure of the appeasement policy and the coming of war, his party and virtually the entire nation turned to Churchill as the best person to lead them in the struggle against fascism and Nazism. Without World War 2 he would almost certainly have been regarded as a politician of promise, but ultimately a failure. Instead, he is regarded as one of britains greatest prime ministers. It was the situation and the circumstances which created the opportunity for Churchill to come to the fore. In another example, could there have been a Napoleon without the French Revolution?
- thus, while recognising the contributions and the leadership qualities that allowed the individual to seize their opportunities and to assert their leadership, it is necessary to analyse the situation and factors that had called forth and provided the opening for that leadership.
(3) Economic trade
- historically, trade has frequently been important in state and empire building. In this hypothesis, trade provides both the means (increased wealth) and the motive for empire building.
- Lourenço Marques had been occupied by the Portuguese for a long time and there certainly was a trading system centred there. Moreover, there was trade (ivory and skins for European goods) between the Nguni and this trade network. Some writers have made much of the fact that Shaka made trade a royal monopoly which he controlled and the profits of which he retained. This trade (which shifted to the trading post established on the coast at present day Durban) was never large, partly because Shaka limited it so severely; this was a constant source of frustration to the English traders there. This seems to destroy the argument that trade and trade profits was a significant motive or means. Although the Zulu acquired guns in this trade, they never learned to use them effectively.
- moreover, the Zulu never traded slaves (a main commodity in Lourenço Marques); they were more than willing to kill their opponents but not willing to sell them. However, Julian Cobbing (his thesis is discussed below) has asserted that Zwide and the Ndwandwe were trading slaves and it was their raiding to acquire slaves that provoked the military buildup and state-building process. However, I have not seen substantial evidence to support this assertion.
- Alan Smiths article (Thompson cites the reference) was seized on by those who think economic motives and relationships explain everything to put forward this hypothesis. However, there is no proof in that article; yes there was trade, but it was far too little to provide any credible explanation for Nguni state-building.
(4) Population Explosion
- this argument is that the process was provoked by a population explosion which intensified the struggle for land as population densities increased; this struggle initiated the consolidation and drive to become more proficient in military activities.
- the most probable cause of this explosion was the introduction of maize by the Portuguese in the 16th C; it produces greater production per area than did the previous cereal crops of millet and sorghum, both of which are more vulnerable to birds and losses during harvesting. This new crop won wide acceptance to become the staple cereal.
- population increases are cumulative and after 3 or 4 generations, the impact is large.
(5) Climatic crisis
- this explanation has been around for about 25 years or so and has been gaining acceptance; Thompson puts it forward as probably the most important single explanation. It is similar in many ways to the population thesis.
- this view takes cognizance of the long term cycles in climate, often related to fluctuation in rainfall. During periods of increased rainfall, the carrying capacity of the land also increases and this allows for the population to increase; again this develops a momentum as increases are cumulative. Then, when the cycle turns and becomes drier, the population is too large for the lower carrying capacity of the land. The growing competition for the dwindling resources leads to rapid and escalating resort to military means. The winner is that group which developed the strongest and best military machine. This has been used to explain the periodic outbursts from Mongolia that several times have had profound effects for peoples in Asia and even as far away as Europe (i.e., the Huns, the Tartars, Genghis Khans outburst, etc.)
- however, the military machine has a logic and life of its own; its purpose is fighting and such a military machine can sometimes maintain momentum over vast distances and time. We shall see a prime example in Zwangandabas group when we look at the mfecane.
(6) Julius Cobbing thesis
- this is very recent (Cobbing first put his thesis forward in 1987) and it has not been widely accepted by most historians. In fact, Cobbing has tried to turn the entire concept of the mfecane/difaqane upside down. His argument is that it was outside pressures and intrusions that were disrupting the entire area. These included the pressures on and wars with the Xhosa in the south, the intrusion of trekboers in the middle and the trade, especially the slave trade, in the north. All of these, he claims, were efforts to appropriate the labour of Africans by whites.
- as Thompson points out, there is little evidence for this. Certainly, there were influences (even the knowledge that white people were coming from across the sea could alter perceptions and cosmologies) and the introduction of a major food crop such as maize could have far-reaching effects. However, the chronology does not seem to fit Cobbings thesis. The process seems to have started before many of the intrusions could have affected the northern Nguni. If the pressure on the Xhosa was such an important factor, why was it not the southern Nguni who were at the centre of the process? If they were being driven back in the west by the british, why did they not drive north and east? We have already discussed the trade and slave trade factor and discounted it.
- in some ways this is a restatement of the first explanationi.e., that the process was largely a product of external stimuli rather than something generated by internal dynamics and responses. It is a product of a fixation on finding a materialist explanation for everything. Thus, these intrusions and pressures are the end tentacles of a European capitalism which is found to be the root of everything. One problem with this is that it denigrates the ability of anyone other than capitalists to do or to initiate anything (thus, workers are always hapless victims; but how these manipulated and passive victims are supposed to initiate and carry out a proletarian revolution is never explained!).
- moreover, similar circumstances in Mongolia have several times produced similar solutions and outcomes without having to conjure up European or other capitalism as a deus ex machina explanation. On state-building and Cobbing's thesis, see Yonah Seleti's discussion.
- surely, we do not need to narrow down to only one explanation. The creation of the necessary conditions might well be a combination of both population growth and a climatic crisis. Then, the leaders who were most successful in forging the military tools to survive and be successful in these conditions were able to come to the fore.
Results of Zulu success
- the Zulu did develop a strong state and a powerful sense of identity. The Zulu Kingdom became the largest political and military African state in southern Africaat least 250,000 people and about 50,000 warriors by the time of Shakas death (from about 2,000 warriors and 10-15,000 people when he was assisted by Dingiswayo to succeed his father, Senzangakona, in 1816).
- the kingdom was so firmly established that it could survive Shakas death. There was no question of a breakup; Dingane, Shakas successor, quickly and easily quashed all revolt.
- however, that success also became a source of weakness;
- Shakas kingdom was built on terror and violence; it was highly militaristic like Sparta, but unlike Sparta, it was very aggressive and predatory on its neighbours. It also had high levels of internal violence;
- despite the arrival of whites (traders) who established a tiny settlement on the coast, neither Shaka nor his successors took much advantage.
- Zulu kings (including Shaka) controlled trade and used it to acquire guns, but the Zulu never learned to use them effectively. Nor did they ever acquire or use horses. The spectacular success of their organisation and tactics under Shaka embedded these in Zulu tradition. One can argue that it may require the shock of defeat to force societies out of their complacency. Thus, its not too surprising that they hadnt done much before the battle of Blood River 16 December 1838, but they had 40 years before confronting and being beaten in the Anglo-Zulu War in 1877-78. The Zulu learned nothing from the defeat at Blood River and fought the same way at Isandlwana and Rhorkes Drift. Even though Isandlwana was a victory, it was a Pyhrric victory (i.e., Zulu losses were so great that they could not recover).
- this further discredits the old arguments about borrowing from whites as the explanation of the militarisation and innovations among the northern Nguni; the Zulu became very conservative and resistant to change. This contrasts with Moshoeshoe and the Basotho who not only acquired guns and horses but also learned how to use them very effectively.
- in spite of the success and wealth, the Zulu people became tired of Shaka and his rule; Shakas assassination came as a relief. Dingane began by easing up; a number of older regiments were allowed to retire, marry and settle down. Executions and inner turmoil were reduced.
- the regiments were so competitive and so violent that they had to be kept separate; hundreds would die if they fell to fighting each other.
- this was a major reason why they were sent on such frequent attacks against neighbours; they needed to be occupied. New regiments of young men exerted enormous pressure to wash their spears; until they had shed blood in battle, the warriors were not allowed to wear the distinctive head ring of veteran warriors.
- executions were frequent and endemic; a favoured form of execution was impalinga sharpened pole up the rectum. Shaka especially was arbitrary and unpredictable; however, an army trained to a peak of violence may need a heavy hand to keep it from running amok.
- Shaka distorted so much; as noted the warriors were supposed to remain celibate while they were in the regiments until Shaka gave permission to marryusually into their 40s. Any unmarried woman who got pregnant by a warrior was executed as well as her lover.
- any of Shakas wives who got pregnant was killed. There are two explanations put forward for this behaviour:
- Shaka did not want any sons who might later challenge him and pose a threat;
- Shaka was impotent and knew that if a wife became pregnant she was guilty of adultery.
- on the death of his mother, Nandi, he ordered that all sexual intercourse should cease for up to a year. In addition, there was a frenzy to display grief; anyone who did not show enough was killed (hundreds, perhaps thousands, died). Shaka was pathological and Zulu society came to reflect that.
- however, the system soon triumphed and Dinganes kingdom soon came to be not very different from Shakas; executions increased again.
- Mpande, who was another brother of Shaka and came to power with help from Boers after Blood River and the assassination of Dingane, did try to get things more peaceful; also, Zulu society needed time to recover from the crushing defeat at Blood River. But by 1860, many Zulu were getting restless again. Two sons were competing for the succession and after a civil war, Cetshwayo triumphed. He actually usurped power from his father. Zulu society seemed to be reverting to the old ways with rising executions.
- one difference was that Cetshwayo himself was strongly defensive and very anxious to avoid conflict with whites, especially with the British. He did try to mollify the aggressive younger regiments who were agitating to wash their spears with occasional raids against the Swazi. Thus, when war came in 1877, it was almost entirely provoked by Sir Bartle Frere, the Governor-General at the Cape.
- Shakas Kingdom has left a continuing conservative legacy as it is held up for inspiration. Some African nationalists, not just Zulu either, invoked Shakas name and that of the Zulu Kingdom as a way to kindle pride in the face of the repression and humiliation to which Africans were subjected in the 20th C. But the legacy tends to emphasise traditional and military values. Zulu still tend to pride themselves as being warriors and superior to others.
- Zulu migrant workers are notoriously the most conservative and alienated from urbanised, more assimilated Africans; much of the terrible fighting in the PWV (Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging) area in the late 1980s and early 90s usually involved Zulu migrant workers against urbanites. Its true that the government and police used and stimulated this conflict, but it was already there to be manipulated.
- Zulu migrants were especially desired by property owners as watchmen because they would fight to the death as a matter of honour to protect the property.
- the Inkatha Freedom Party tended from the later 1970s increasingly to embody this backward-looking tendency and in fact had deliberately tried to expropriate the Shaka tradition for itselfto glorify the macho, the violent and the aggressive.
[Under apartheid, a number of homelands or Bantustans were created for the various African linquistic groups; Kwazulu was the one created for the Zulu in the area of Zululand in Natal Province. The Inkatha Freedom Party was created by the chief minister of Kwazulu, Mangosutho Buthelezi. Initially, Buthelezi and Inkatha were strong critics of apartheid. However, Inkatha subsequently wanted to draw all Zulu under its control, including the large numbers who lived outside Kwazulu and in the cities such as Durban, Pietermaritzburg and Johannesburg. However, in these areas, the African National Congress (ANC) had long been established and had lots of Zulu supporters.]
- Inkatha supporters increasingly tried to destroy the ANC and what it stood for; they allowed themselves to be used in the attempts to prevent the end of white minority rule, first by the National Party Government and then when De Klerk was negotiating, by police and army elements who were trying to destabilise the situation and thus to abort the process of political change. Inkatha has its own website and gives a very different account of its history and role. However, in the 1990s, it was revealed that Inkatha and its supporters had been subsidized and assisted by the National Party government in the 1980s in the bloody struggles against the ANC.
- in Natal itself, there was a virtual civil war between Inkatha and the ANC in which thousands of people died. While both sides have been guilty of massacres and terrible atrocities, the underlying cause has been the attempt by Inkatha, which had its origins and base in Zululand, to destroy the hold that the ANC had in the white farming area as well as the urban areas of Natal where it had been established since the creation of the ANC in 1912.
- although some scholars have emphasised positive aspects, Shakas legacy has had a number of negative features, both for the short term in the 19th C and again in the way that it has been used late in the 20th C.
- like the epicentre of an earthquake, the creation of the Zulu Kingdom and the militarism upon which it was based sent shock waves throughout southern Africa; its effects and ramifications were felt much farther afield up into central Africa as far as modern Tanzania and lasted for decades. In other ways, it was like the blasting of a cue ball into a rack of billiard balls which were then sent careening in all directions. Africans came to call this turmoil the mfecane or difaqane (see ThompsonŐs explanation of the terms). The broadest outline of the effects can be found in J. D. Omer-Cooper, The Zulu Aftermath. Again, for a discussion of Cobbing's challenge to this view of the mfecane see Yonah Seleti.
- by the end of the process, the surviving northern Nguni had either been incorporated into the Zulu state or had been driven out. Refugees and smashed chieftaincies were set in motion; some groups were small and not well organised, although even they were often desperate and starving; other groups were organised and powerful fighting units.
- the southern Nguni (Xhosa) along the coast were subjected to successive waves of refugees; many were taken in by the Xhosa as dependent clients where they became known as Mfengu (Fingos). This almost certainly increased the population pressure in the Transkei and eastern Cape areas which was further increased by the British pushing back the Xhosa during the wars. The British also gathered a force to repel one group of invaders from Natal who made their way through Lesotho.
- later, the British engaged the Mfengu as allies who played a major role in the wars in which the Xhosa were repeatedly defeated. The Mfengu were rewarded with land and cattle taken from the Xhosa. This produced long term hostilities which are remembered even to this day.
- others fled from Natal up into the high veld area where their raiding and desperate attacks disrupted life and societies there. The Sotho and Tswana peoples were peaceful and totally unprepared for the onslaught of waves of fierce and desperate invaders. Chieftaincies there were disrupted, destroyed or in their turn set in motion attacking others. One of the best known of the latter was led by a woman, MaNtatisi, and the group were referred to a Mantatees; she was a great wife of the chief who was regent during the minority of her son, Sikonyela. We know of them because they launched a number of attacks on peoples where missionaries were located in the area from Kimberly northwards. Eventually, the remnants returned to their original area where the north eastern corner of the Cape meets Lesotho.
- in the turmoil in the area, an outstanding leader, Moshoeshoe, was able to use two hilltop fortresses to provide an island of refuge and relative safety. There he collected and received refugees of many peoples and welded them into a kingdom known as Basotholand. We shall return to analyse his achievement in more detail later.
- a breakaway group from the Zulu led by Mzilikazi began to establish the Ndebele kingdom in the Orange Free State/Transvaal area. When white trekboers in the Great Trek moved into the area in 1837, defeats in several clashes convinced Mzilikazi to move north of the Limpopo River and establish his kingdom thereknown historically as the Matabele Kingdom in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe.
- another manifestation was a group known as the Kololo. It was formed from fragments of Sotho and Tswana peoples in the high veld. They attacked and disrupted peoples in modern Botswana, and eventually, pushed by attacks of Mzilikazis Ndebele, they moved north to settle in the upper Zambesi River. There, they helped to form the Rozwi kingdom and became known as the Barotzi.
- other refugee groups fled from Natal north; about 1820, a group led by Soshangane devastated the area around Lourenco Marques (the Portuguese had to flee to ships and watch as the town was looted and burned). Eventually, they settled down (becoming known as the Shangaan) and created a large chiefdom in Mozambique.
- another band left Zululand in the 1820s led by Zwangandaba. The history of this group shows the amazing durability of a social, military system. After harrying people in Mozambique, the group moved into Zimbabwe where it finished the Shona culture and society that had originally centred on Great Zimbabwe. The group crossed the Zambezi River in 1835. There was some fragmentation in the next decades as some elements attacked and then settled down in a number of places around Lake Nyasa. Others, however, continued northward and eventually were brought to a halt in southern Tanzania just south of Lake Tanganyika in the late 1860s. The process was still going on when the Germans arrived in the area in the late 1880s.
- the secret of this durability was the regimental system which could continually incorporate new recruits to replace those who died off or who dropped out to settle down. The system also provided very substantial military advantages over the organisation and fighting tactics that were commonly used. Even where peoples managed to avoid being smashed, they did so only by adopting the same innovations as their attackers. Thus, there was a reorganisation and militarisation of societies in all areas affectedeither from elements that dropped out and used the system or by forcing people to adopt the same innovations in order to survive.
- it is fascinating to observe the momentum and durability of a social and political system; usually, procreation and rearing of children is the mechanism for perpetuating a social system over time. With Zwangandabas Nguni group, it was conquest and incorporation. In the course of their wanderings, the personnel was completely changed as the original Nguni members from Natal were killed, died or dropped out. By the time they reached central Africa, the language had changed and the groups came to be called Ngoni.
- the Swazi, another northern Nguni kingdom in Natal when the process started, were forced to move north-westward from Natal and managed to hold their own despite some Zulu attacks in what became Swaziland.
- the results of all this were enormous losses of life and massive disruptions of many societies. Even cannibalism broke out as disruptions led to famines; however, cannibalism was no more common among Africans than among Europeans. Africans regard it with as much horror as other people do. Nevertheless, the stereotype of Africans as cannibals (missionaries in big pots) is still a source of cheap jokes. What were the sources of the stereotype?
- for both reasons then, Africans sometimes accused other Africans of being cannibals and this was reported as fact by Europeans.
- in regard to neighbours with whom you are in conflict and whom you fear, there is a tendency to attribute terrible traits and characteristics. What is the most fearful and terrible thing? Cannibalism. That is even more likely if that enemy is engaged in capturing and/or trading slaves.
- if you are a middleman in trade between Europeans and peoples farther inland and want to continue to monopolise that trade, you might try to deter Europeans from bypassing you to trade directly by frightening them with stories about the terrible practices of those peoples.
2. African practices that revolted Europeans
3. European racism and expansionism
- in some cases, the stories gained credence as a result of ritual practices (not so much in human sacrifices because that was rareDahomey being one of the few examples).
- parts of slain enemies were sometimes taken and used in purification rituals;
- the Zulu used spears to make holes in the abdomens of their slain enemies; Europeans reacted with horror at these mutilations. The Zulu regarded the taking of a human life as an awful act; the Zulu made the hole to let the spirit of the dead person out. Otherwise, they thought that the spirit would haunt and harm them (the idea of a trapped spirit probably arose from the bloating of corpses in the hot sun). After killing someone, the person was ritually impure and in great danger until purification and strengthening ceremonies could be performed.
- during the scramble for Africa, racism made attribution of cannibalism to Africans by whites both psychologically and politically useful. It provided a major justification for conquest and annexation.
- as a result of the mfecane, large areas of southern Africa were depopulated (or at least were left with small groups of people hiding out in inaccessible areas). This was the situation on the high veld area where Ndebele impis (and occasional Zulu impis) kept the turmoil going in the 1830s as well as the other hordes which were still moving about and raiding. In Natal, it was even more the case. The Zulu were north of the Tugela River, but Zulu impis were sent south frequently; the rest of Natal had only small, isolated and very insecure little bands left in remote, out of the way places. Thus, it seemed relatively vacant and empty when the Trekboer spies visited in the middle 1830s.
Moshoeshoe (c. 1786-1870)
- Moshoeshoe was also a state-builder who built a large kingdom; his career and his kingdom were made possible by the Mfecane. He also provides an interesting contrast with Shaka.
[A short explanation of the spelling and pronunciation of his name is in order. The first missionaries to go to Moshoeshoes kingdom in the 1830s were French Protestants from the Paris Evangelical Societysee below. They were the ones who reduced the language to a written form. In doing so, they used French orthography i.e., represented the sounds with French spellings. Most other African languages in South Africa were reduced to writing by missionaries who used English orthography. In English, Moshoeshoes name would be represented Moshweshwe and pronounced moe SHWE shwe with exaggerated stress on the second syllable and the last syllable short and clipped. Please try to learn and remember the correct pronunciation.]
- like Shaka, Moshoeshoe was a genius, but he operated very much within the parameters of traditional chieftainship. However, he could also transcend the limitations of a traditional world view and in fact he came to understand a great deal about a much wider world.
- he had political and diplomatic skills of a very high order. He was also much more perceptive about the changes that the intrusion of Europeans was bringing; he never stopped analysing and adapting in order to achieve the optimum outcome.
- thus, Moshoeshoe was a man of both worlds, epitomising the traditional chief and king, keeping in touch with the bulk of his traditionalist people; he was also able to operate effectively in the realms of the whites, both missionaries and government officials.
- Moshoeshoe was the son of a minor chief in modern Lesotho who early gained a reputation as a good cattle thief; this attracted a number of young men to him, but he would have remained a minor chief but for the Mfecane.
- in the midst of the disruption and turmoil, he selected a mountain top for protection and gathered his family and a few people there to ride out the storm. However, this proved to be inadequate, and selecting a much better stronghold at Thaba Bosiu, he moved his people there. This stronghold was virtually impregnable and was never captured by African or European attackers (the Boers never tried, but a British army did in the 1850s and the Cape Colony tried in the early 1880ssee the article on the Gun War).
- with this stronghold as a refuge, Moshoeshoe attracted people looking for peace and some stability. Accepting all sorts of people, even former cannibals, he slowly built up his kingdom in present day Lesotho and substantial areas in the south eastern corner of present day Orange Free State. Although he always tried to use non-military means to achieve his goals and to protect his people, he and his people became formidable fighters when forced to defend themselves.
- the migration of trekboers in the Great Trek created new threats from the 1840s. The Basotho held their own through the 1850s, but were under increasing pressure in the 1860s in wars with the trekboers of the Orange Free State.
- Moshoeshoe always tried to remain on good terms and have treaties with the British. However, the British, with their withdrawal from north of the Orange River, had pledged as part of their deal with the Boers (the Sand River Convention in 1852 and the Bloemfontein Convention in 1854) to abrogate all treaties with Africans north of the Orange River.
- in the 3rd war with the Orange Free State in the mid-1860s, the Basotho were in danger of complete defeat. Finally, the Governor of the Cape Colony intervened in 1865 and annexed Moshoeshoes kingdom. The main reason he did this was that if the Orange Free State drove the Basotho out of Basutholand down into the Transkei, the latter would blow up as it was already over-crowded and rather tense.
- having saved his people from destruction at the hands of the Boer government of the Orange Free State, Moshoeshoe died in 1870, well over 80 years of age.
- Moshoeshoe is for me the most admirable and most sympathetic leader in South Africa in the 19th C.
Moshoeshoe and missionaries
- he received and accepted peoples from different ethnic backgrounds; in fact because of all the turmoil, his people were extraordinarily diverse, including not only Sotho-Tswana people from the high veld area, but also Nguni refugees from Natal; there were even a few Griqua and Bergenaar people from westward areas.
- he not only provided a degree of security in this very unstable era, but he also provided land and cattle, thus showing the generosity that Africans looked for in a great chief.
- he tried to avoid war and fighting when possible; he sent crane feathers to Shakaa sign of subordination. This helped to direct Zulu attacks away from Moshoeshoe and his people.
- on the other hand, he had a keen eye for military matters and advantage; he showed this in moving his military base from Butha Buthe to Thaba Bosiu. When confronted by Griqua with guns and horses, Moshoeshoe set out to acquire both and encouraged his men to become proficient in the use of both. The Basotho were the only African people to do this and it is a major reason why they became such a formidable military entity.
- Moshoeshoe was an innovator in other ways too; he urged his young men to go to work in the Cape Colony. This was partly to acquire guns and horses, but he also urged them to learn all they could and to bring back anything useful (plows, wagons, etc.). This achieved considerable success because in the 1870s and 80s, the Basotho turned out substantial quantities of grain and agricultural surpluses for export.
- he learned about missionaries and how useful they were from the Griqua. He sent cattle to buy a missionary; when the first cattle were intercepted and stolen, he sent a second time. When Moshoeshoes request for a missionary arrived at the LMS station, it so happened that 3 French Protestant missionary families had just arrived and were trying to decide on an appropriate field to begin mission work. They treated this as a Macedonian call and went there in 1833. The missionaries and Moshoeshoe founded an amazingly successful alliance and relationship.
- the missionaries became Basothophiles and worked very hard to advance and protect Basotho interests. They helped with correspondence and advice on how to conduct relations with the British; they used contacts with the LMS as well as Presbyterian and Congregational churches in Britain to bring political pressure to bear.
- Moshoeshoe, on the other hand, encouraged and assisted the activities of the missionaries; he provided land for mission stations, sent his own children to mission schools to provide the lead to other people. He raised no obstacles to wives or children who wanted to convert; for the wives, he gave them a divorce and provided cattle for their maintenance.
- he dampened hostility and harassment of missionaries. This was of course useful in keeping missionaries in line; if they were getting too demanding, he simply lifted his influence. The missionaries then had to go to Moshoeshoe for help because their gardens were being trampled by cattle or all the children were pulled out of school. Missionaries soon learned that their work and ability to stay depended largely upon Moshoeshoe.
- Moshoeshoe seems to have used the missionaries. Thompson claims that mission stations were located along likely invasion routes because Moshoeshoe knew that other Africans were reluctant to attack whites, especially missionaries.
- Moshoeshoe was very able and intelligent; he never learned to read and write, but learned a great deal in discussions with missionaries. He came to be knowledgeable about Christianity and world affairs. He showed his ability to hold his own in the new world imposed in South Africa by the intrusion of whites. He got European clothes and furniture; missionaries taught some of his wives to make and serve English tea. European visitors were given the full treatment of being served tea and offered knowledgeable conversation about religion (including theological differences between different denominations) and about world affairs. They never failed to go away raving about Moshoeshoe. They were of course almost always condescending with qualifications about for an African or treating him as some sort of freak who was the exception that proved the rule about African inferiority. The point is that no matter how deeply ingrained their prejudices, they could not help but be impressed.
- he was extraordinarily gifted as a diplomat, showing a deep understanding of human psychology. His sending of the crane feathers as a sign of submission to Shaka spared his people further attacks and cost him nothing.
- he used this technique of allowing his opponents to save face several times. Mzilikazis impis were beaten off and retreating when Moshoeshoe sent a number of cattle as a gift with the message that they must be starving to engage in such ferocious attacks and here was a gift to help feed their children. This gesture so impressed Mzilikazi that he never again sent an army to attack Moshoeshoes people.
- again in the 1850s after a British force under Gov. Cathcart had been beaten off and were retreating in failure, Moshoeshoe sent a substantial herd of cattle with the message that Cathcart had punished him enough and the cattle were offered as payment of a fine. This allowed Cathcart to accept and to save face.
- Moshoeshoe also showed his genius in domestic politics and he managed this better than almost any other African leader during these very difficult times.
- white intrusion and Christianity often split African societies; as we shall discuss in more detail, the southern Nguni were split between school people and reds and even today some bitterness persists. In Natal, the Christians were called Kholwa.
- Moshoeshoe started with a much more heterogeneous population than others. His power rested upon influence and personal prestige; he did not use coercion or terror. When people had come to him in groups, he allowed them to settle as groups; later, as pressure from the Boers grew, one or two leaders did make deals with the Boers, but most maintained their loyalty to Moshoeshoe and remained Basotho.
- as the Basotho nation grew, Moshoeshoe used his sons as regional chiefs in administration; this worked well during Moshoeshoes lifetime because his prestige was so great that his sons could not become too independent. However, it did cause trouble after his death as the sons had independent power bases.
- the success and security provided by Moshoeshoe welded the heterogeneous people into a nation over a period of a couple of generations so that even divisions and almost civil wars in the 1880s-90s did not destroy that sense of common identity.
- Moshoeshoe also managed to contain the Christian-traditionalist divisions; he allowed and encouraged Christianity even in the face of strong opposition among the traditionalists. He was helped in this by the French missionaries who argued that their converts could and should support their chief and country in war, even against the British, just as people in Europe did (only a few British missionaries managed to divorce their own nationalism to do this). However, Moshoeshoe never allowed the missionaries to interfere too deeply in Basotho culture.
- he never became a Christian; that would likely have alienated the traditionalists. However, he always kept the missionaries in a state of thinking he was likely to convert. He was genuinely interested and became very knowledgeable about Christianity. A daughter of one of the earliest missionaries (she had been born in Basutoland) had been quite close to Moshoeshoe as a little girl. Then, after being educated in France, she returned as the wife of another missionary and the close relationship continued. She never stopped urging him to become a Christian. Then, as he lay dying, she rushed to his deathbed and again urged him to become a Christian; she always claimed after that he agreed and thus became a Christian on his deathbed. Who knows? He might well have wanted to please her and knew that it wouldnt matter after his death.
- Moshoeshoe could usually persuade his people to do what he considered necessary, including observing treaties and agreements; however, this was sometimes difficult (e.g., when the Basotho were required to give up land they had held) and took time. This was misunderstood at times by British officials who had a stereotype of African kings as despots or was sometimes used as an excuse to accuse Moshoeshoe of duplicity.
- Moshoeshoe did operate a direct national parliament called, the Pitso. This dealt with national issues and all adult males were allowed to attend and participate. This was like a war council in most African societies, but it was used for a broader range of political issues. Here again Moshoeshoe usually got what he favoured, but it was on the basis of his prestige and ability to persuade, not on force.
Moshoeshoe and the British
- with advice of French missionaries, Moshoeshoe early decided that an alliance and perhaps even annexation by the British was necessary for his people. He felt that the trekboers were a serious threat and that the Basotho could not withstand them on their own.
- in pursuing this objective of an alliance with the British, he was confronted by great fluctuations and reversals in British policies.
- as a result, British policies tended to vacillate. Moshoeshoe was prepared, nevertheless, to resist the British when that was necessary to maintain his people and society, but he always maintained or returned to his overall policy of trying to achieve a British alliance or finally, as defeat by the Orange Free State loomed, an annexation.
- the imperial government always wanted to reduce expenditures, but on the other hand needed stability. Without stability, wars erupted and expenditures soared. But stability required a more active involvement of the imperial government and troops. The 2 objectives clashed.
- London was a long way from South Africa (until steamships, it took about 3 months each way); this not only limited knowledge, but made officials in London dependent on advice from those supposedly knowledgeable of South Africa. They also had to give governors a good deal of latitude. Sometimes governors would take action to play a greater role in the interior even if their instructions had strongly discouraged such actions. Then, officials in London would order a reversal.
- Moshoeshoe did preserve his people and left a nation as his legacy.
- the annexation in 1865 had been to the British crown directly (i.e., the imperial government). However, on grounds of reducing expenditures by reducing responsibility, the imperial government exerted great pressure to get the Cape Colony to take responsibility by annexing Basutholand, which was done in 1872. This is not what Moshoeshoe and the Basotho had wanted.
- at first it went quite well because the Cape did not interfere in Basutholand. However, when Sir Bartle Frere persuaded the Cape government to disarm all non-whites, the Basotho refused to give up their guns (see the Gun War 1880-81). Finally, the Cape government, on the verge of bankruptcy, disannexed Basutholand in spite of the opposition of the imperial government; very reluctantly, the imperial government allowed Basutholand to revert to being a direct dependencya crown colony.
- the imperial government wanted as little expense and trouble as possible. Warning the Basotho that if they made any trouble, the imperial government would abandon them to the Boers, the British set up a system of indirect rule through the existing political hierarchy. Only 4 British officials were involved in the administration.
- this status of being a direct dependency of the imperial government had great significance later as this kept Lesotho (along with Bechuanaland and Swazilandknown as the 3 high commission territories) out of the Union of South Africa, created in 1910. Although it was assumed that the Union would take over the 3 shortly, it never happened as opposition continued to build as South Africa became increasingly segregationist and repressive towards Africans. Indeed, many white South Africans were not very eager either because they were not anxious to bring in territories inhabited almost exclusively by Africans and thus further reduce the proportion of whites in the population.
- with decolonisation in the 1960s, Basutoland became independent as Lesotho in 1966, even though entirely surrounded by South Africa.
- economically, it has not been very successful. For a brief period in the late 19th C, Basutoland exported agricultural products, but over time that changed; over-cropping and over-grazing have caused widespread erosion. Also, the population has grown.
- in the 20th C, Lesotho has come to rely increasingly on food from outside to feed its people and its biggest export by far was the labour of its people. In recent times, most of the national income arises from its migrant workers in South Africa who remit part of their earnings back to Lesotho.
- politically, it has known mostly authoritarian governments as a coup détat was carried out in 1970 by the prime minister. Later, with the aid of the army, the king carried out a counter coup. Under pressure from the Mandela-led South African government, the king agreed to a restoration of a democratic government in 1992.