The historiographical development of the concept "mfecane" and the writing of early Southern African history, from the 1820s to 1920s

by Richner, Jürg Emile

Abstract (Summary)
The mfecane was for most of the twentieth century regarded as a historical certainty for the South African public and the Apartheid government, as well as for historians here and world-wide. The mfecane had achieved the permanence of a paradigm and a dominant discourse, as it was accepted equally by settler, liberal, Afrikaner, Africanist and Neo-Marxist historians. This certainty was shaken when Cobbing’s mfecane critique appeared in 1988, with which I concur.

This study examines how mfecane history was written from the first published articles in mid-1823 until Walker coined the concept mfecane in 1928. This thesis undertakes a journey through a host of published works, books, pamphlets and articles in journals, magazines and newspapers, from which a number of conclusions emerge.

The mfecane narrative was developed over a period of a hundred years in the English language by almost exclusively white, English-speaking male amateur historians and ethnographers. Their occupations, age, ideology and level of education differed markedly, but they shared one European ideological value, the discourse of the European “Image of Africa”, which regarded Africans as the negative Other of their own positively perceived society. This was a culturallyshared view of Africans, which formed the baggage in the mind of all writers examined, and accounts for the mfecane narrative’s negative attitude towards Africans. Furthermore, mfecane history was influenced by racism and the use of literary devices such as the gothic novel and the romance.

Authors writing in the 1823 to 1846 period on events which had taken place in the “blank space” beyond the Cape Colony, which most of them had never visited, laid the basis for the mfecane narrative. It constituted a set of geographical or ethnically focused, separate accounts. These separate accounts focused on the themes of Shaka’s creation of the Zulu state, including his expulsion of several chiefdoms; his depopulation of Natal and the flight of the Fingo to the Transkei; the path of destruction of the Hlubi and Ngwane during their flight from Natal via the greater Caledon Valley area to the Transkei; the incorporation of the Kololo and other Sotho chiefdoms into the Mantatees - due to pressure from the invaders from Natal - who subsequently laid waste the Free State and Transvaal as far as Dithakong, where they were defeated; the further depopulation of the Transvaal by the Ndebele during their escape from Shaka; the flight of Moshoeshoe and his people to Thaba Bosiu where he built up the Sotho state, with Moshoeshoe being the only positive figure in this history.

This multi-narrative was thereafter repeated without any critical thought by all authors examined until in 1885 Theal created a Zulu-centric, geographically integrated mfecane narrative whereby he integrated the previously separate accounts into one coherent whole - a whole which was so much more than the sum of its parts, but so far without a defining name. That was provided by Walker in 1928 when he coined the Xhosa neologism, mfecane. The Theal, Cory and Walker racist mfecane was thus bequeathed as the mfecane to the rest of the twentieth century.

Bibliographical Information:


School:Rhodes University

School Location:South Africa

Source Type:Master's Thesis



Date of Publication:01/01/2005

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