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Before Mgungundlovu
11 Sep 2009
John Wright

The intrusion of Boer pastoralists into the region east of the Drakensberg in the late 1830s, the emergence of the Republic of Natalia, and the establishment of Pietermaritzburg as its capital have too often been seen as having occurred in a demographic and political vacuum.

Conventional accounts see the Boers as penetrating into a region that had largely been depopulated by war in the 1820s. They describe the dealings from 1837 onward of the Boers with the Zulu kingdom to the north of the Thukela River, and with the British hunter-traders at Port Natal.

They pay very little attention to the interaction that took place between Boers and local African communities, or to the prior history of these communities. The aim here is to collate what evidence there is in recorded oral tradition on the history of the region between the upper Mngeni and upper Mkhomazi Rivers to the time of the Boer incursion.

The establishment of a Boer-dominated community at Pietermaritzburg can then be set in the context of local history rather than simply in the context of Voortrekker history.

For an unknown period before about 1820 the region under discussion seems to have been dominated by the cluster of Wushe chiefdoms that occupied the Mngeni valley from what is now the Dargle area to beyond Otto's Bluff (kwaKhwela). The valley of the Msunduze where Pietermaritzburg now stands, and the area to the west and south, was occupied by a group of Nqondo chiefdoms. According to some recorded traditions, the section of the Nqondo which lived on the site of the City and in its immediate environs was, circa 1820, under a woman chief named Machibise kaMlithwa or kaMlifa: her name survives today as the designation for part of Edendale.

To the east and south-east near Table Mountain (emKhambathini) were chiefdoms such as the Njilo, the Nyamvu and the Dlanyawo; in the higher country to the south-west were groups like the Yobeni. All these chiefdoms, like most of those in central and southern Natal, were small in area and in population. The biggest among them consisted of at most a few thousand people inhabiting an area of a few hundred square kilometres. They were fluid in structure, with homesteads and groups of homesteads not infrequently breaking their allegiance to their chief and moving off to settle under the authority of another chief. The ability of chiefs to deploy force against their subjects was limited, and their power depended largely on their skills as arbitrators and managers. Though there were clear social and political distinctions between the ruling family and the families that recognized its authority, there were no major discrepancies of wealth. Internal conflicts over succession to the chiefship seem to have been frequent, as do cattle-raids between neighbouring chiefdoms, but wars were generally of low intensity and of brief duration. Contrary to the conventional view of 'Zulu' and related societies as having been primarily pastoralist, the economies of these chiefdoms were based on agriculture, though the husbandry of cattle was regarded socially as more important.

Politically the upper Mngeni-upper Mkhomazi region lay in the shadow of a polity of a rather different order. This was the Thuli paramountcy, which had been established in the coastlands in the later eighteenth century. The Thuli had previously lived in the south-east of what is now Zululand, but had been driven out in the course of conflict between a number of the larger and more militarized states that were beginning to emerge in the region north of the Thukela after the mid-eighteenth century. After their flight southward, the Thuli extended their domination over the region from north of the Mngeni to the Mkhomazi, and inland to about the Camperdown region. Their chiefs ruled what was by far the biggest political unit yet seen south of the Thukela.

Though there is no record of the relations that existed between the Thuli and the chiefdoms on its borders, the latter no doubt went about their affairs with a wary eye on their much larger neighbour.

Though all these polities shared a broadly similar language and culture, there were at this time, as there had long been, marked regional variations of both across what are now Natal and Zululand. The people of central and southern Natal spoke variants of the tekeza (or Lala) dialect, which was markedly different in some respects from the related dialects spoken by the people who lived across the Thukela to the north. Marriage practices, eating habits, styles of dress, and other cultural features also varied from one locality to another. Standardization of language and culture according to what came to be known as the 'Zulu' pattern did not begin until the establishment of Zulu domination of the PhongoloMzimkhulu region in the 1820s, but even today clear local differences in dialect and culture still exist in it.

In the last years of the eighteenth century and the early years of the nineteenth the struggle for supremacy among the large states that were emerging north of the Thukela was intensifying. From time to time the southward flight of refugee communities brought these conflicts to the attention of the inhabitants of Natal, but until the late 1810s they remained largely undisturbed by the momentous political events that were taking place in the regions across the river.

Then, in about 1819, the victory of the Zulu under Shaka kaSenzangakhona over the Ndwandwe of Zwide kaLanga sent large bodies of refugees spilling across the Mzinyathi (Buffalo) River into northern Natal. The Bhele and Zizi inhabitants of this region fled southwards through the Natal Midlands into East Griqualand and beyond, breaking up or expelling the chiefdoms which they encountered. A year or so later a large group of Thembu fled from the lower Mzinyathi region to escape subjugation to the Zulu, and forced their way through the chiefdoms ofthe Midlands and southern Natal across the Mzimkhulu. Soon afterwards their former neighbours, the Chunu, followed suit. A short while later, a number of chiefdoms in the northern Midlands, also driven by fear of the Zulu, formed a military alliance, and fled in a body through the already shattered communities to the south.

In the space of two or three .years organized community life over most of the area between the Thukela and Mzimkhulu Rivers had been largely destroyed. Most of the chiefdoms that had not joined the exodus to the south had been broken up, and small groups of surviving inhabitants without cattle and often without their former leaders, were hiding out in broken or forested country. Cohesive communities, now under Zulu domination, survived only in the lower Thukela valley and in the northern coastlands. In the hills and valleys of the upper Mngeni-upper Mkhomazi region, pockets of refugees clung on in patches of forest, but all the pre-existing chiefdoms had either been destroyed or had fled to the territories across the Mzimkhulu.

Above: Dumazulu, the great place of chief Fodo kaNombewu, was located on the Mkhomazi River some ten kilometres above the present-day Josephine bridge. Allen Gardiner's 'View of Doomazoolu', drawn in 1835, is below contrasted with a photograph taken from approximately the same spot in 1988.

It was not until after the death of Shaka in 1828 and the establishment of a new Zulu regime under Dingane that a few small communities began to re-establish themselves in central and southern Natal. Predominant among them was a group of Nhlangwini under Fodo kaNombewu. These people had originally lived between the lower Bushmans (Mt shezi) and Mooi (Mpofana) Rivers, but had made off during the upheavals of the early 1820s. In the course of nearly a decade of struggling for an existence in southern Natal and East Griqualand they had managed to preserve their cohesion as a group better than most other refugee chiefdoms. By 1830 they had settled on the middle reaches of the Mkhomazi River, and were trading ivory to the British hunter-traders who had been operating from Port Natal (later Durban) since 1824. In the early 1830s they came under the hegemony of the Zulu king Dingane who, to avoid conflict with the British traders at Port Natal, was then withdrawing his garrisons and cattle posts from the coastlands south of the Thukela and, to compensate, was beginning to extend effective Zulu authority over parts of the interior of Natal. In 1835, when Captain Allen Gardiner visited Fodo at his great place, Dumazulu, the Nhlangwini chiefdom numbered several thousand inhabitants.

Two much smaller groups which established themselves in the southern Midlands in the early 1830s were a section of Mpumuza under a regent, Yenge kaNontshiza, who acted for the young chief, Nobanda kaNgwane; and a section of the related Nxamalala (or Zuma) under Lugaju kaMatomela. Fear of the Zulu under Dingane had led them to separate from their respective parent chiefdoms, whose territories both lay near the confluence of the Mooi and Thukela Rivers, and to migrate southwards together. After many vicissitudes they found a refuge among the forests of the Swartkop (iMbubu}-Howick (kwaNogxaza) region, where they became tributaries of the Nhlangwini.

Also in those years, a section of Fuze under Madlenya kaMahawule was allocated land by Fodo near what is now Boston, after a succession dispute had impelled them to leave the Fuze territory near Greytown. Slightly later arrivals were the Zondi (or Nadi), who moved from near the Mooi-Thukela confluence for reasons which are not recorded. Under their chief, Dlaba KaNomagaga, they were settled by Fodo in the Swartkop region near their genealogically junior relatives, the Mpumuza. A hundred and fifty years later, all four of these groups still have a presence in what was until recently called the Swartkop location.

By the mid-1830s , after a hiatus of ten years or so, a measure of settled existence was returning to the upper Mngeni-upper Mkhomazi region, with a number of small immigrant groups, ever-fearful of the sudden advent of a Zulu army, attempting to re-establish the bases of communal life. To avoid attracting the attention of the Zulu they probably kept few, if any, cattle, and depended for their livelihood on cultivating small patches of crops, gathering wild food plants, and hunting. They paid tribute to Fodo, chief of the Nhlangwini, who in tum recognized the overlordship of the Zulu king Dingane. A surviving tradition records that Fodo paid tribute to the king in pelts and feathers (which were always in demand for the dress of the Zulu armies): this would confirm that there were few cattle to be found in the region.

There is some evidence that further to the east, in the rough country near Table Mountain, small groups of former inhabitants were also re-establishing themselves in the late 1830s. Recorded tradition indicates that among them were families of the Nyamvu and the Njilo people, but it has virtually nothing to say about their history.

This, as far as the evidence goes, was the situation in the southern Midlands when, in the period 1837-9, parties of Voortrekkers came down the Drakensberg into Natal, defeated the Zulu, and proceeded to set up the Republic of Natalia. In the upper Mngeni-upper Mkhomazi region, where the Trekkers placed their capital, small African communities had for some years past been trying to revive something of the life they had known before the upheavals of the 1820s.

Suddenly, and dramatically, they were faced with the problems of coping with the demands made of them by a new set of overlords. The story of how they responded still has to be written. New research into the history of the period of Trekker domination in Natal is badly needed; when it comes to be done it will no longer be able to avoid taking as one of its central themes the history ofthe region's African inhabitants.

SOURCE: Pietermaritzburg 1838–1988: a new portrait of an African city, edited by John Laband and Robert Haswell (Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press and Shuter & Shooter, 1988), p. 18-21.

Comments: [Post a Comment]
Posted by siyanda njilo on 02 May 2013
i would like to request that anyone who has the history of the Njilo surname forward it to me please. My email address is: [email protected] and my cell phone number is: 078 425 1899. Thanks to those who are willing to help, Siyanda Njilo.
Posted by mthunzi on 06 Apr 2010
very interesting
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