Political mythology and the making of Natal's Mfecane

Wright, John
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Over the last twenty years or so the concept of the mfecane has come to be deeply rooted as a notion round which much of the history of southern Africa in the first half of the 19th century is written. As generally used, the term refers to a series of wars and migrations which are supposed to have been sparked off by the emergence of the Zulu kingdom In the late 1810s, and then to have swirled across most of the eastern half of the sub-continent. In the view of many historians, these upheavals were the direct cause of the profound changes in the political map of southern Africa which took place in the 1820s and 1830s, changes which in turn were of the greatest significance in shaping the nature of black-white interaction in southern Africa for the rest of the century (1). In a series of so far unpublished papers written since 1983, Julian Cobbing has formulated a radical and sweeping critique of the notion that the mfecane actually happened (2). While not denying that the history of African societies in the earlier 19th century was marked by numerous violent conflicts, he rejects the particular significance which white writers since at least the mid-19th century have attached to them. He empasizes that they were a continuation of conflicts which had begun long before the 1810s, conflicts whose primary cause was not the expansion of the Zulu kingdom but the onslaught which Dutch and British settlers and imperialists at the Cape and, to a lesser extent, Portuguese slavers at Delagoa bay were making on neighbouring African societies in their unrelenting attempts to seize control of land and labour-power. The upheavals of the times had not one but several epicentres.
African Studies Seminar series. Paper presented September 1988
Africa, Southern. History. Mfecane period, 1816-ca. 1840