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What to Know About Mfecane War


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The Mfecane, also known as Difaqane or Lifaqane, was a period of intense conflict, forced migration, and state formation in Southern Africa.

It took place from the late 18th century to the mid-19th century, with a focus on the 1810s to the 1840s.

This period is historically significant for the emergence of new states, institutions, and ethnic identities in Eastern Southern Africa.

However, there are different interpretations of the Mfecane, and its historiography has been shaped by various political motivations.

The Mfecane was a time in Southern Africa when there was a lot of fighting, people were forced to move from their homes, and new countries and groups were formed.

Some people think it started because of the wars led by Shaka Zulu, who was said to have killed many people and caused others to fight each other for new land.

However, more recent research shows that the reasons for the conflicts were more complex, including political, economic, and environmental factors.

The Mfecane is important because it led to the creation of new states and groups in Eastern Southern Africa.

It is also interesting to study how different versions of its history have been used for different political purposes throughout time.

Cause of Mfecane War

During the Mfecane, there were various factors that contributed to the widespread warfare and migration of different ethnic groups in the region.

One of the causes was the increased population in Zululand, which was a result of the introduction of maize by the Portuguese in the late 17th century.

Maize was a more productive crop, but it required more water, leading to competition for resources such as land and water among the growing populations.

Additionally, there was significant trade in ivory with the Portuguese in Delagoa Bay, which created economic inequalities within African societies.

This further exacerbated the vulnerability of people in the region, especially when faced with multiple droughts.

The Mfecane involved three major ethnic groups: the Ngwane, the Ndwandwe, and the Mthethwa. They occupied specific areas and were led by powerful kings.

The Zulus, at that time, were a weak minority under the leadership of Senzangakhona and occupied a small piece of land.

Oral history tells us that after the death of Mvulane, the younger brother of Phungashe, Mvulane’s sons Khoboyela and Ngqengelele sought refuge with Senzangakhona in the Zulu royal court.

Many members of the Buthelezi ethnic group also joined them. When Shaka attacked the Ngwane, the combined forces of the Mthethwa, the Buthelezis led by Ngqengelele, and the Zulus outnumbered Sobhuza’s men.

To summarize, the causes of the Mfecane were the need for land, population growth in Natal, Shaka’s military, and expansionist strategies.

These factors, along with environmental challenges and economic inequalities, contributed to the intense conflicts and migrations during this period.

Rise of the Zulu Kingdom

Around 1817, Chief Dingiswayo of the Mthethwa group in the southern region near the Tugela River formed an alliance with the Tsongas, who controlled trade routes to Delagoa Bay (now Maputo).

This alliance posed a challenge to the Ndwandwe alliance, which occupied the northern region near the Pongola River and relied on those routes.

The clashes between Chief Dingiswayo’s allied forces and Chief Zwide’s Ndwandwe alliance likely marked the beginning of what we now call the Mfecane.

In the conflict, Zwide emerged victorious by defeating the Mthethwa and executing Chief Dingiswayo.

However, Dingiswayo played a significant role as a mentor to a young man named Shaka, who sought refuge with him along with his mother Queen Nandi.

After Dingiswayo’s death, many Mthethwa leaders joined forces with the Zulu clan under Shaka’s leadership.

The Zulus embarked on a campaign of conquest, absorbing smaller clans and assimilating them into their own.

When Zwide attacked King Shaka, it resulted in a decisive battle known as the Battle of Gqokli Hill. Shaka emerged victorious, marking the beginning of his conquest of the Ndwandwe.

The Zulu approach was to incorporate the women and young men of conquered clans or villages into their own society.

However, they would eliminate the elderly and men of fighting age, while some fortunate individuals managed to escape.

These survivors, having witnessed Zulu tactics and strategies, would then descend upon distant clans that were unfamiliar with the new Zulu order.

In summary, the Mfecane began with an alliance formed by Chief Dingiswayo and the Tsongas, which threatened the Ndwandwe alliance.

After Dingiswayo’s demise, Shaka and the Zulus joined forces with the Mthethwa leaders, leading to their conquest of smaller clans.

The clashes between Zwide and Shaka resulted in Zulu victories and the subsequent spread of their influence through assimilation and the displacement of other clans.

Consequences for the Nguni Societies

Around 1821, a Zulu general named Mzilikazi from the Khumalo clan rebelled against Zulu king Shaka and established his own kingdom.

This decision made him many enemies, including the Zulu king, Boers, Griqua, and Tswana. After suffering defeats in several battles, Mzilikazi decided to move north towards Swaziland.

He and his followers, known as the AmaNdebele or Matebele, traveled north and then inland along the watershed between the Vaal and Limpopo rivers. Eventually, they settled in an area northwest of Pretoria, establishing a Ndebele state.

During this time, the Matebele left a trail of destruction behind them. Between 1837 and 1838, clashes with Boer settlers, particularly the battles of Vegtkop and Mosega, forced the Matebele north of the Limpopo River.

They eventually settled in an area known as Matabeleland, located in present-day southern Zimbabwe.

Mzilikazi chose Bulawayo as his new capital. The AmaNdebele pushed the AmaShona people of the region further north and imposed tribute on them. This created resentment that continues to exist in modern-day Zimbabwe.

In 1818, at the Battle of Mhlatuze River, the Zulu forces under Shaka defeated the Ndwandwe. Soshangane, one of Zwide’s generals, fled to Mozambique with the remaining Ndwandwe.

There, they established the Gaza kingdom and oppressed the Tsonga people living in the area. Some Tsonga people escaped over the Lebombo Mountains into the Northern Transvaal.

In 1833, Soshangane invaded Portuguese settlements with initial success. However, internal disputes and conflicts with the Swazi eventually led to the downfall of the Gaza kingdom.

The Ngwane people resided in present-day Eswatini (Swaziland) and inhabited the southwestern region. They engaged in periodic wars with the Ndwandwe.

Zwangendaba, a commander of the Ndwandwe army, fled north with Soshangane after their defeat in 1819.

Zwangendaba’s followers became known as the Ngoni. Continuing their journey north of the Zambezi River, they established a state in the area between Lake Malawi and Lake Tanganyika.

Another leader named Maseko formed a separate Ngoni state to the east of Zwangendaba’s kingdom.

To the east, various clans and tribes fleeing the Mfecane sought refuge in the lands of the Xhosa people. Some clans, like the amaNgwane, faced resistance and were defeated.

Those who were accepted had to pay tribute to the Xhosas and lived under their protection. Over time, they assimilated into the Xhosa culture and became part of the Xhosa people. After years of oppression by the Xhosas, they eventually formed an alliance with the Cape Colony.

Consequences for the Sotho-Tswana Tribe

In the 1780s, there was an increase in conflicts among the southern Tswana populations due to a growing population and competition for resources.

Trade with the Cape Colony and the Portuguese also intensified, leading chiefdoms to strive for control over trade routes by conquering land.

Dutch settlers from the Cape Colony encroached on the territories of the Khoikhoi and San people, which resulted in the formation of a group called the Korana.

These Korana began raiding other communities, fueled by their access to firearms and horses. The Xhosa people, who were escaping violence in the Eastern Cape, also conducted raids.

All of these events contributed to a progressively unstable region. Missionary interference, internal politics, and raids by Dutch settlers further impacted the situation.

By the early 19th century, the Bahurutse, the most powerful Tswana chiefdom, faced challenges from the Bangwaketse.

In the face of Zulu aggression, Moshoeshoe I brought together mountain clans and formed an alliance.

They fortified easily defendable hills and expanded their influence through cavalry raids, successfully fighting against their enemies. Moshoeshoe I’s territory eventually became the kingdom of Lesotho.

The Tswana people suffered pillaging from two large invading forces during the Mfecane. Sebitwane gathered various Kololo ethnic groups and traveled north through what is now Botswana, plundering and killing many Tswana people along the way.

They also took captives with them as they settled in Barotseland, north of the Zambezi River, where they conquered the Lozi people.

Another force led by Mzilikazi and the Matebele moved across Tswana territory in 1837. Both of these invading forces continued northward without establishing a stable state.

Additionally, smaller groups also moved into Tswana territory but faced defeat and eventually disappeared from history.

European adventurers, such as Nathaniel Isaacs, were involved in these invasions, and Isaacs later faced accusations of slave trading.

Controversy of the war

In 1988, Professor Julian Cobbing of Rhodes University put forward a different theory about the rise of the Zulu state.

He argued that the accounts of the Mfecane were distorted by apartheid-era politicians and historians to serve their own interests.

According to Cobbing, these historians misrepresented the Mfecane as a period of Black-on-Black destruction caused by internal factors.

Instead, he believed that the conflicts were rooted in the labor demands of Portuguese slave traders in Mozambique’s Delagoa Bay and European settlers in the Cape Colony.

These pressures led to forced displacement, famine, and war in the interior, which allowed Afrikaner settlers to colonize large parts of the region.

Cobbing’s theory sparked intense debates among historians, known as the “Cobbing Controversy.” While new approaches to studying the Mfecane were already emerging in the 1970s and 1980s, Cobbing’s paper was the first major challenge to the prevailing “Zulu-centric” explanation of the time. This led to heated discussions in the early 1990s. Many historians acknowledged that Cobbing’s analysis offered valuable insights into early Zulu society.

Historian Elizabeth Eldredge contested Cobbing’s thesis, arguing that there is limited evidence of a resumption of the Portuguese slave trade from Delagoa Bay before 1823.

She also challenged Cobbing’s claim that European missionaries were primarily responsible for slave raids from the Cape, suggesting that the Griqua and other groups played a bigger role.

Eldredge emphasized the significance of the ivory trade in Delagoa Bay and how African groups and leaders sought to establish centralized states to control trade routes and gain wealth.

She argued that these factors, along with reactions against European activity, led to internal movements, violence, and displacement.

By the early 2000s, a new consensus emerged among historians, recognizing that the Mfecane was not solely caused by the founding of the Zulu Kingdom but resulted from multiple factors both before and after Shaka Zulu’s rise to power.

This debate and controversy among Southern African historians about the Mfecane have been compared to similar discussions about the Beaver Wars in seventeenth-century northeastern North America.

In both cases, apologists for European colonialism propagated narratives of indigenous “self-vanishing” to justify their actions.




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