John Wright: iMfecane?

John Wright (1995) ©: Over the last two or three years [1992-1995] the active debates – not to say maulings and mudslingings – that took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s round the concept of the iMfecane have given way to an uneasy calm. To a large extent, I suspect, this is because many of the people formerly engaged in the debates have been waiting for the publication of what is likely to be a major direction-setting work in the field. This is The Mfecane Aftermath, a selection of revised papers, edited by Carolyn Hamilton, from the conference of the same title which was held at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1991. After long delays, the book has now (November 1995) made its appearance from the joint publishers, Witwatersrand University Press and the University of Natal Press.

It seems a good moment for me, as one of the historians closely involved in the debates as they have taken place so far, to make some comments on them. What I aim to do here is, first, to outline what I see as the main issues in the debates, and second, to spell out my own particular position in more detail. In the process I hope to clear away some of the confusions which have arisen round the debates, and, in arguing how problematic the whole concept of the mfecane is, to help get discussion stirring again.

Until the 1980s the iMfecane  was an unquestioned ‘fact’ of southern Africa history. The universally accepted idea was that the series of major political and social upheavals that took place among the African societies of the interior and eastern regions of the sub-continent in the 1820s and 1830s had been caused primarily by the explosive expansion of the Zulu kingdom under Shaka kaSenzangakhona wakwaZulu. Whether it was clothed with the name of ‘the Zulu wars’ or ‘the wars of Shaka’ as it generally was before 1966, or with the name of ‘the mfecane’ as it was after 1966, when John Omer-Cooper first popularised the term in his well-known book, The Zulu Aftermath, this idea was seen unproblematically as rooted in empirical evidence.

Then in the 1980s the idea of the iMfecane was challenged head-on by the Rhodes University historian, Julian Cobbing, first in a series of unpublished seminar and conference papers, and then in his by now well-known article, ‘The Mfecane as Alibi: Thoughts on Dithakong and Mbolompo’, in the Journal of African History; (1988). Cobbing did not deny that major upheavals had taken place over much of southern Africa in the 1820s and 1830s. His argument was that the wars and migrations of the period had primarily been caused not by the ravages of Zulu armies but, to put it at its simplest, by the impact of the expansion of the frontiers of European colonial settlement and commerce in southern Africa.

More particularly, they had been caused by the expansion of slave-raiding and slave-trading from the borderlands of the Cape colony in the south and from the Portuguese trading outpost at Delagoa Bay in the east. The impact of this process had been felt over a wider and wider area since at least the middle of the eighteenth century: the upheavals of the 1820s and 1830s took place when the two expanding zones of violence and instability began to overlap.

Cobbing went on to argue that the idea of the mfecane, that is, the idea that these upheavals had been caused by the violent expansion of the Zulu kingdom, was not simply wrong, but, in its origins at least, a deliberate falsification. It was concocted by slaving interests, particularly in the eastern Cape and Natal, to divert attention away from their nefarious activities by pinning the blame for the consequent violence and disorder on a convenient African agent. This was Shaka, a potentate whose newly risen kingdom lay near one of the epicentres from which the upheavals had spread out, that is, Delagoa Bay, and whose localised conquests could easily be magnified into the causes of a widely destabilizing series of wars and population movements. This idea was subsequently taken up, elaborated, and entrenched in the literature by generations of white historians as one of the ideological underpinnings of white domination in the sub-continent.

Cobbing’s ideas received support from me in certain respects, though, as I hope I shall make clear below, our positions were, and remain, very different in important ways. In an article published in the Canadian Journal of African Studies in 1989 I argued that the conventional idea that Zulu armies had been responsible for ‘devastating’ Natal south of the Thukela river in the 1820s had very little basis in the available evidence: to a large extent the idea had become a formula that had been uncritically reproduced by generations of historians using the same secondary sources. And in an article in History in Africa in 1991 I demonstrated that the main source of reference on the history of the region south of the Thukela in the 1820s, A. T. Bryant’s Olden Times in Zululand and Natal (1929), based its account of this topic not on oral traditions, as was commonly supposed, but on previously published sources which could be interpreted very differently from the way Bryant did.

At much the same time, a number of other historians were directing sharp criticism at some of Cobbing’s basic theses. In an article in the Journal of African History (1992), Carolyn Hamilton hammered at his argument that the notion of the iMfecane had its roots in the anti-Shakan writings of British traders who had operated at Port Natal in the 1820s, dealing ostensibly in ivory but covertly in slaves. She argued that on many empirical counts Cobbing was wrong. The British traders had held a variety of opinions on Shaka, and had hardly been in a position to trade slaves: Cobbing could argue to the contrary only by heavily distorting the evidence. And his notion that the idea of the iMfecane  was an invention of white writers was ill-informed, in that it took no account of the influence of ideas that were widespread in African communities. Recorded oral traditions indicate that the idea of Shaka as a tyrannical ruler was common among his enemies in the Zulu kingdom, and was widely disseminated during the reign of his successor, his assassin Dingane. The idea of the ‘Shakan wars’ was a product not of a conspiracy of white writers but of a complex historical interaction between European and African dealers in history.

In the same issue of the Journal of African History, Elizabeth Eldredge took Cobbing to task for misusing the source-material relating to the timing and dimensions of European slave-raiding and -trading in southern Africa. Cobbing’s notion was that the Delagoa Bay slave traffic had begun in the eighteenth century, and had grown to the point where it was a prime cause of the wars which culminated in the emergence of the Zulu kingdom in the early 1820s. In opposition to this, Eldredge argued in detail that there was no evidence to suggest that the Delagoa Bay trade had begun on any significant scale until the mid-1820s, after the emergence of the Zulu kingdom had destabilized the region. As far as Cobbing’s treatment of the slave trade on the northern Cape frontier was concerned, Eldredge agreed that he had put his finger on an important and much neglected factor in the history of the region, but went on to criticise him for overstating his case and distorting evidence.

In the July/October 1991 issue of this journal (an expanded version appeared in an issue of the Journal of Southern African Studies in 1993), John Omer-Cooper also published an article critical of Cobbing’s arguments, and, to a lesser degree, mine. He accepted much of what Cobbing had to say about the impact of slave-raiding by bands of Dutch, Griqua, Kora and others on the northern Cape frontier, and much of what I had to say about the exaggeration in the literature of the impact of the Zulu factor. He argued, however, that these ideas were quite compatible with the notion of the mfecane, and that Cobbing and I were in effect building up a straw man to knock down.

What Omer-Cooper did not say was that in mounting his argument he had significantly shifted his notion of what the mfecane was. His original understanding of it (to quote from The Zulu Aftermath, p. 5n) was as a word used to denote ‘the wars and disturbances which accompanied the rise of the Zulu’, which is very much how the great majority of historians have understood it since 1966. In his SARoB article, though, Omer-Cooper used the term to refer to the general process of African state-formation in the 1820s and 1830s, which in my view represents a major fudging of his original position.

In a 1993 issue of JSAS, Jeff Peires criticised Cobbing and me for in effect trying to re-invent the wheel. We had, he said, conveniently overlooked the fact that for fifteen or twenty years before Cobbing’s 1988 article was published, historians had actively been debating and rethinking the reasons for the rise of the Zulu kingdom. In putting forward our respective cases against the iMfecane, we were guilty of practising ‘selective amnesia’.

My response to this is that Peires entirely missed the central point of what Cobbing and I, in our different ways, had been arguing. Our concerns were not about what had caused the rise of the Zulu kingdom: they were about what had caused the upheavals of the 1820s and 1830s. If, as Cobbing and I were arguing, the upheavals had not been caused primarily by Zulu expansionism, then a rerun of the various arguments on the origins of the Zulu kingdom, such as Peires put forward in his article, actually had very little to do with what Cobbing and I were talking about. Peires was continuing to conflate, as most historians have done, two issues that Cobbing and I both insisted needed to be seen separately: the long-term causes of the political changes that took place in African societies over much of southern Africa in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the shorter-term causes of the emergence of one particular African state.

As I have discussed it so far, the debate on the mfecane seems to resolve into a polarisation between pro-Cobbing and anti-Cobbing views. The actuality, as constituted by numerous written and spoken interchanges, most of them so far unpublished, is far more complex. It is more accurate to talk of a series of debates, in the plural, than of a debate or the debate. For my own part, as I indicate below, I support Cobbing on some points and disagree with him on others. Elizabeth Eldredge criticises major elements of Cobbing’s argument, and accepts others. She also criticises some of Peires’s arguments (see her essay in the recently published R.W. Harms et al., eds.,Paths towards the Past: African Historical Essays in Honour of Jan Vansina, on a forthcoming essay by Peires). Carolyn Hamilton and I agree on some aspects of the debates, and disagree on others. And as I have indicated, John-Omer Cooper has taken on board some of the arguments made by Cobbing and by me, while rejecting others. (On this point, it is instructive to compare the accounts of the iMfecane published by Omer-Cooper in the two editions – 1987 and 1994 – of his History of Southern Africa.)

The point perhaps needs to be emphasised that participants in the debates are themselves not always agreed on precisely what they are arguing about, nor on what needs to be argued about. For instance, as far as the concept of the mfecane itself is concerned, some, like Cobbing and like me, want to abandon the term altogether in order to move on from what we see as the inescapably Zulu-centric genre of explanations associated with it. Other historians see no reason for abandoning it. Others, like Omer-Cooper, want to change its meaning. Others recognise the need to move away from Zulu-centricity, but still want to retain the term mfecane as a generic label for the upheavals of the 1820s and 1830s. The diversity of opinion, the multiplicity of different positions in the debates, is well illustrated in the various contributions to Hamilton’s The Mfecane Aftermath.

As far as my own position is concerned, I feel that Cobbing is strongly on track in some aspects of what he has to say, and way over the top in others, and that some of his critics have not always distinguished clearly enough between the good and the bad parts of his case. Some commentators talk about what they call ‘the Cobbing hypothesis’, but I think this is a misleading notion: we need to distinguish clearly between what I call his big hypothesis and his little hypothesis.

The big hypothesis, which is not always clearly articulated in his work, but which in my view is there to be extracted from it, is a very simple one – that we cannot understand the history of African societies in the interior and east of southern Africa from at least 1750 onward without taking into account the impact of the expansion of European settlement and trade. This notion may now sound trite to numbers of historians of southern Africa, but it is one which we – and I mean all of us without exception – have been prevented from holding until very recently by the concept of the mfecane and by its ideological twin, the concept of the great trek. Together these concepts had us believe that until the 1830s the history of white people in southern Africa was largely segregated from the history of black people. Yes, there were the struggles between Dutch, “Bushmen” and “Hottentots”, but they were not of great importance in the sub-continent’s overall history, and in any case the “Bushmen” and “Hottentots” were not really “black”. There were the struggles between Dutch, British and Xhosa, but they were confined to a corner of the eastern Cape. The major ‘interactions’ between blacks and whites, the theme which has dominated much of southern African historiography for a century and a half, did not begin until the time of the great trek.

Since the late 1960s a few historians – like Martin Legassick on the Cape northern frontier, and Alan Smith and David Hedges on the Delagoa Bay region – have been pointing towards a view of history which sees the European impact as having been significant in the interior and east eighty or a hundred years before the great trek. But Cobbing deserves credit as the first to have put forward an overarching hypothesis which tries to establish a sub-continent-wide perspective on the relationship between European expansion and the often profound political and social changes which took place in many African communities in the region from the mid-eighteenth century onward.

Where Cobbing too often goes over the top, in my view and in the view of numbers of other historians, is in arguing his little hypothesis: the view that the conflicts which took place in African society were due primarily to the impact of the European slave trade. While Cobbing has performed an important service to southern African historiography in calling attention to this trade as a factor in the history of southern Africa outside the Cape colony, his particular arguments about the nature of its role distort the evidence too often to be entirely credible. By the same token, his notion of the iMfecane as an invented alibi is based on a heavily reductionist view of the processes in which views of the past have been constructed in South Africa over the past 150 years.

Probably the most important product of the debates which have taken place round Cobbing’s hypotheses since the late 1980s is the growing acceptance by many historians that a thorough reassessment is needed of the history of much of southern Africa in the period 1750-1850. The need is not simply for new empirical research, but for the critical re-examination of existing source material, and of the usefulness or otherwise of the concepts which inform the conventional history of the period. Foremost among these concepts is the notion of the iMfecane. Some colleagues will no doubt disagree with me, but in my view, if we want to move on to new approaches to the period, we need to abandon the notion of the mfecane altogether, along with the package of assumptions and associations that goes with it.

I list here six sets of objections which can be raised against the notion of the iMfecane . First, as I have indicated, the notion serves to maintain the long-established segregation from each other of histories which, it is increasingly clear to many historians, were becoming more and more intertwined from at least the mid-eighteenth century onwards: that is, the history of the white-dominated societies of the expanding Cape colony, and the history of the black societies of the southern African interior.

Second, it lumps together histories which need to be treated separately. For example, it unquestioningly links the migration of the Ndebele in the late 1830s from the western trans-Vaal region to the south-west of what is now Zimbabwe with the expansion of the Zulu kingdom between the Mkhuze and Thukela rivers twenty years before. But why not rather with the expansion of colonial settlement in the Cape colony, where the Boers who drove out the Ndebele came from? By the same token, iMfecane-informed history ascribes the settlement of Ngoni communities in Malawi in the 1840s unproblematically to their supposed flight from the Zulu in the early 1820s. It tells us very little about what was possibly a far more important factor: the effects on the Ngoni migrations of the Portuguese slave trade in southern and central Mozambique in the 1820s and 1830s. In both cases proximate causes are underplayed in favour of temporally more remote causes – bad methodology by any historian’s Standards.

Third, it unproblematically attributes the often violent political transformations that took place in the interior and east in the 1820s and 1830s to the expansion of the Zulu kingdom, and tends to underplay or neglect the wider sets of causes which Cobbing has pointed towards. In consequence it tends to underplay the role of other African polities, like that of the Ndwandwe, which emerged at much the same time as the Zulu kingdom.

Fourth, it makes for an irredeemably teleological history. In terms of iMfecane -theory, the history of the Natal region in the later eighteenth century leads automatically to the rise of the Zulu kingdom in the 1810s and 1820s. There is no consideration of the fits and starts, accidents and near misses, of the historical processes involved, processes which, if they had taken slightly different turns, could easily have produced a different outcome.

Fifth, it makes for a heavily distorted periodization of political change in African societies by focusing mainly on the 1820s and 1830s, and largely neglecting previous decades.

Sixth, it brings with it a vocabulary which is at once highly compelling and potentially profoundly misleading. It is a vocabulary which has ensnared most historians who have written on the subject. In one account after another, words like ‘chaos’, ‘turmoil’, ‘massacres’, ‘holocaust’ are used without reflection to describe events of the time. Critical analysis of the language used in iMfecane -informed studies is long overdue.

Some time ago, in response to arguments of this kind that I put forward in a seminar at the University of Cape Town, a colleague asked me, ‘If we can’t call it the mfecane, then what can we call it?’ My answer to this question is simply that there is no single ‘it’ out there in the first place. The issue is not about finding a new name for a particular historical ‘event’, or set of events. Nor is it about finding new causes for such an event. It has to do with abandoning not just the name but the whole concept of the mfecane.

In this connection it would, I suggest, be highly instructive to consider the effects of what Edwin Wilmsen, in another context has called ‘the need to name’ (see his Land Filled with Flies, p. 26). We need to ask why, since at least the mid-nineteenth century, so many writers on southern African history have had a powerful and deep-seated need to see an ‘it’ in the upheavals of the 1820s and 1830s, and to give that ‘it’ a name – the wars of Shaka, the Zulu wars, and now, more singularly than ever, the mfecane. Why is it that they want to portray a multiplicity of disparate happenings, spread over many years and taking place in widely separated places, as a unitary, bounded event, a discrete ‘thing’ in the past?

Even historians who are prepared to concede the validity of many of the criticisms that have been mounted against the concept of the iMfecane, and to abandon this specific term, find difficulty in letting go of the idea that the upheavals of the 1820s and 1830s constitute a single phenomenon for which there is a single line of explanation. This is not the place to try to answer the question of why this is so: the history of the concept of the iMfecane needs its own detailed study. My concern here is to make the point that to understand the issues at stake in the current debates on the iMfecane we need to be aware of how, over a long period of time, certain events of the 1820s and 1830s have been objectified, fetishized even, into a nameable ‘fact’ of southern African history. In the 1990s it is time to turn away from this idol and develop more critically founded notions of southern Africa’s pre-colonial past.

John Wright (1995), Professor of History at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg.

© John Wright (1995): Mfecane Debates, edited by Ben Khumalo-Seegelken, 2015.

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