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The Varying Views Towards The ‘Mfecane’

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  • Pages: 4
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  • Category: Africa

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During the course of this essay, I will be comparing the views of Professors Carolyn Hamilton and Julian Cobbing. I have just two very simple reasons for choosing these historians: they have both achieved high accolades in their various fields and the fact that Hamilton and Cobbing don’t exactly see eye-to-eye on the history of the Mfecane makes a somewhat entertaining read. Although the professional opinions of both Hamilton and Cobbing will form the basis of this work, I also want to bring my own opinion of the Mfecane period into play.

One of my biggest sources in this work relating to Carolyn Hamilton’s viewpoint on the Mfecane is a seminar paper that she wrote in June 1991 at the University of Witwaterstrand. The reason for choosing her counterpart in this work is predicated on two reasons: one, Hamilton makes extensive mention of Professor Cobbing in this seminar paper and two; Julian Cobbing is known for his extensive writing on the subject of the Mfecane. So there is both ample knowledge between the two as well as conflict. In terms of Julian Cobbing himself, the biggest resource that I’ve decided to use is an abstract from his seminar paper, The Case Against the Mfecane also from the University of Witwatersrand published in March 1984. In her seminar paper, Hamilton makes it quite clear on her standpoint to Cobbing’s ideologies; she even went as far as to say, “In particular, Cobbing has come under fire for making sweeping generalizations and employing imprecise periodisation.”

In my opinion, the Mfecane itself is just a story of Westerners who arrived on the banks of Southern Africa to further their own (and their nation’s) wealth through trade. The story would take a turn when some of the traders felt that they were coming under threat from the native peoples (such as the Nguni and the Zulu). One such person was a Henry Francis Fynn who led an expedition into the heart of Zululand in 1824 in an effort to establish a trading post with the locals. I believe that had people like Fynn not arrived where and when they did, the thousands of deaths caused during the Anglo-Zulu War could have been avoided.

The textbook, In Search of History (Grade 10) by Nigel Worden, Pippa Visser and Jean Bottaro makes mention of the standpoint of Henry Fynn in particular through diaries of the six months he spent at Delagoa Bay in 1822. In most instances, a firsthand account of the Zulu kingdom (or any place/period) would be an invaluable source to any modern historian. Hamilton however, stresses the point that Fynn’s diaries were written long after his stay at Delagoa Bay. She also makes reference to the fact that he sailed on a ship called Jane which was owned by a Cape merchant company by the name of Nourse & Company. We must bear in mind that the Jane did sail under the protection of the British Navy.

Based on the information put forward by Hamilton I find Fynn’s account of the Zulus a difficult pill to swallow. Since Henry Fynn is no longer alive to tell the tale and all that we have is a diary written after his stay at Delagoa Bay I, and other historians, don’t know the extent to which Fynn’s writings was in place purely to suit his protector’s ongoing struggles against the native peoples of Southern Africa.

One of Hamilton’s criticisms of Cobbing’s theory of Shaka’s portrayal as the villain was pure fiction created to suit the British agenda is very nicely summed in the last paragraph of her introduction (which I found to be a longwinded hate-speech about Cobbing’s work), “Finally, I look at the production of Shaka by African communities on the Cape frontier. Examination of the correspondence amongst the colonial officials concerned with the frontier in 1827-28 [the year of Shaka’s death] reveals that the idea that Shaka posed a threat to the stability of the Cape, and was the agency behind a “shunting sequence” of “tribal attacks”, originated independently of the Natal traders amongst the frontier communities who then relayed there information to the colonial authorities.”

Since Cobbing began his career as a historian, he has fought tirelessly for people to recognize that Shaka wasn’t the total monster that the South African Apartheid government portrayed in their authorized textbooks but rather just a small cog in the wheel that was the Mfecane. Thanks to Cobbing, perceptions of Shaka are slowly changing to that of a more critical view and less of a brainwashed, “Shaka is evil” mentality.

I think that in terms of Shaka being given an equal opportunity to ‘tell his side of the story’ as it were has been best portrayed in Bottaro, Visser and Worden’s Textbook In Search of History (Grade 10). It has given equal opportunity to the theories that Shaka was, yes, a bit of a tyrant but also a “nation-builder” and “military genius.”

In summary, I think that Hamilton and Cobbing despite their differences of Shaka Zulu the person would come to agree that Shaka Zulu had an immense affect on both the Zulu people and the formation of modern South Africa. If it was up to me, I would take a watered-down mix of both Carolyn Hamilton and Julian Cobbing’s theories to help me come up with my own theory as to Shaka’s involvement during the Mfecane period in Southern Africa’s history.

Ballard, C., 1981. The Role of Trade and Hunter-traders in the Political Economy of Natal and Zululand, 1824-1880, s.l.: African Studies Program, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Bottaro, J., Visser, P. & Worden, N., 2011. In Search of History (Grade 10). Pietermaritzburg(Eastern Cape): ABC Press. Cobbing, J., 1984. The Case Against The Mfecane, Johannesburg: University of Witwaterstrand Press. Hamilton, C., 1991. The Character and Objects of Chaka: A Re-Consideration of the Making of Shaka as the ‘Mfecane’ motor, Johannesburg: University of Witwaterstrand Press.

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