Thursday, 23 April 2020

No 103 - Was Shaka a slaver?

The recent news that an alleged Brazilian drug-smuggling kingpin has been finally arrested in a posh Maputo hotel coincided with my receiving a new article on the nineteenth-century slave trade out of that same port. Like many ports, then, a den of iniquity and illicit trade, not much changing over the centuries.

The new article, in the prestigious Journal of African History, is by Linell Chewins and Peter Delius of Wits University. Chewins is working on a PhD; Professor Delius is well-known for his work on the history of the Pedi people. The article carries the ponderously informative title, “The Northeastern Factor in South African History: Re-evaluating the volume of the slave trade out of Delagoa Bay [Maputo] and its impact on its hinterland in the early nineteenth century.”

I read it with great interest, since it promised to cast some light on one of the many puzzlements of Shaka’s reign: his relations with the Portuguese and their slaving activities out of the Bay. As noted by Chewins and Delius (let’s call them C&D for short), South African historians of this area of inquiry have been almost uniformly English-speaking. They have therefore been unable (or “unwilling”, C&D allege) to utilise Portuguese archival sources (though a few items were available in translation). In any case, they tell us, the Lisbon maritime records were until very recently in chaos, and hard to sort through.  As it was, myself and colleagues indeed had to work with “fragmentary and circumstantial” evidence from which to draw some inevitably tentative conclusions. Now, C&D have scoured those Portuguese archives in order to throw further light on the impact of the slave trade on the peoples of what is now southern Mozambique and Kwazulu-Natal.

All terribly specialised. I need to backtrack a bit.

In 1988, Julian Cobbing of Rhodes University began challenging the accepted accounts of the Shakan period (roughly 1780-1828). Drawing on some tantalising hints by previous historians, he put together a series of papers, building a case that caused what C&D call an “intemperate” debate – actually the most exciting upheaval in South African historiography in years. Essentially, Cobbing argued that, contrary to the usual mythology, a perceived wave of violence spreading across the subcontinent in the early nineteenth century was not to be attributed solely to the manic imperial ambitions of one Shaka and the Zulus. Rather, he suggested, a crucial, if not the primary, source of regional violence was a growing slave trade at Delagoa Bay. Indeed, the ripples may have played a part in the surge towards ‘state formation’ by the Ndwandwe, the Mthethwa, the Zulu and others. In that 1990s ‘Africanist’ phase of historiography, there were howls of protest that this implied that African states couldn’t form themselves, but had to be dependent on some outside force. But Cobbing’s major contribution was that, instead of “South African” and “Zulu” and “Mozambican” history being pursued in different ‘nationalist’ boxes, he insisted on seeing the whole region as seamless and interlinked. This was later reinforced by Australian historian Norman Etherington, whose book The Great Treks (2001) did exactly that, in more detail, and it’s a perspective rightly endorsed by Chewins and Delius.

C&D do not give Cobbing remotely sufficient credit for launching this perspective. They mention only his earliest, most exploratory paper, rather than a series of later, more finely detailed and rigorous ones. Some of those, to be fair, were not formally published but circulated in sort of samizdat copies.  Cobbing was nevertheless somewhat hobbled by the lack of access to Portuguese sources (not to mention Dutch, French and American ones – they were all slaving). So was I (hobbled, that is, not slaving), when following up on Cobbing’s work in my own study of Shaka, Myth of Iron (2006). I demurred from Cobbing in various ways, and in writing the book tried to evaluate the available evidence independently and on its own terms. In the end, though, I came round to presenting a rather similar view.

Still, here was the main sticking-point: there was simply too little direct evidence of the scale of slaving in the crucial periods – that is, prior to 1815, round about when Shaka assumed the chieftainship of the still-small Zulu people; and then during Shaka’s reign itself. Slaving from Delagoa Bay was unquestionably afoot, and expanding, but was there enough slaving to stimulate the kinds of change visibly happening in the interior: violent movements and consolidations and varieties of militarisation? I looked excitedly to C&D’s new research to bring us closer to certainty, if not clinch the matter. (As Jeff Peires reminded me the other day, no conclusion is ever reached in history.)

I was doomed to be a little disappointed. Not because of the quality of the research, so much as because the Lisbon archives apparently can’t offer much more than what we already surmised. We already knew that slaving appeared, relative to that further north, subdued in the Bay area prior to about 1810. Was this due to a lack of slaving, or just a lack of documentation? Despite their access to the Lisbon records, C&D are obliged to find pre-1820s slaving “as-yet unquantifiable”. In the early 1820s,  Brazil (alongside other operators and destinations) took further advantage of  loopholes in the unfolding international slaving ban to start shipping out several thousand slaves a year, continuing well into the 1830s. But C&D’s tabulated figures for slaves offloaded from the Bay begin only in 1829 (the year after Shaka was assassinated by Dingane). Those figures are themselves bound to be underestimates, and before that date numbers of a deeply clandestine trade simply don’t appear to exist. Whatever C&D can postulate about the earlier era is, they admit, as fragmented and “circumstantial” as ever – little more than “a hint” (97).

The primary questions (or at least my questions) remain: did slaving crucially stimulate state consolidation among the Zulus and others? And did, in that process, Shaka himself eventually participate in the slave trade? The first question, C&D point out, couldn’t be treated “satisfactorily” within the scope of the article, which focuses on the late 1820s onwards. That’s fair enough. They do show that Dingane, Shaka’s successor, was quite deeply involved in various trades at the Bay, including at times slaves. Was Shaka, too? C&D offer a couple of tantalising clues, but no more than, as they say, a “probability”.

A crucial issue, which they discuss in some detail, is identifying exactly who was doing what in the vicinity of the Bay. The Portuguese themselves raided and fomented local wars to generate captives, but there were also groups marauding further inland, sometimes with extreme violence, feeding victims into the slaving network. (It’s an uncomfortable truth, that some Africans – from Sierra Leone to Somalia and Angola – were willing to sell other Africans into slavery, but so it is.)  The marauders in question were variously described by the Portuguese and English visitors to the Bay as Vatwas, Vatuas, Bathwa, Zwietes, Switis, Hollontontes, Mapsitas, and Zoolas. It was very confused. The same name was often applied to quite different entities. I discussed this in considerable detail in Myth of Iron (pp.240-52), presenting and evaluating such snippets as I could find. C&D omit some of mine, and add some to mine; but even a combination of them all doesn’t cast much more light. There were several groups. Zwide’s Ndwandwe (Zwietes) are underplayed by C&D, though as recent work by John Wright and Carolyn Hamilton is confirming, they were palpably the most aggressive of the inland peoples. Other groups, led by Shoshangane (the Gaza), Zwangendaba (Jere), and Nxaba (Msane) are well documented as continuing to vigorously trade slaves into the 1830s. These migrant polities were somewhat fluid in the first place, identifying them from the outside tricky.

C&D want to conflate ‘Vatwas’ with Zulus – as they were on just two documented occasions –  more firmly than I think the evidence can bear. They claim tangentially that the Zulu “army” was “in the Bay” (whatever that means) in 1823, and that they pursued a “scorched-earth” strategy of “destructive forays”. This seems to me to over-generalise the import of only a couple of references; and exactly where, and upon whom, these forays were deployed is not stated, apart from allegedly disembowelling one priest. There was some devastation: John Cane, an Englishman camped at Port Natal (Durban) who was twice sent to the Bay by Shaka, reported as much, but he did not attribute this to Shaka’s forces. (C&D don’t cite this rare eyewitness testimony.) Very interestingly, they do reference a Portuguese letter saying that Shaka established a monitoring or trading-post 100km inland of the Bay on the upper Maputa river. This is one of very few Portuguese items they can offer: they otherwise rely heavily on the testimonies of a British naval officer, W F W Owen – as did I. So, as Owen averred, the links were certainly there. Portuguese were encountered at Shaka’s own capital, way south on the Mhlatuze river, in 1824-5. There seems no reason to discount slaves as part of Shaka’s trade dealings. It would not be a big step from inducting war captives into the existing forms of local servitude, to releasing some of them into the international network. But this still speculative, and C&D can still provide no incontrovertible “smoking musket” or specify the scale.

As for the wider implications of the impact of slaving, C&D do not engage at all with the 30-odd pages throughout Myth of Iron in which I unpack the evidence in painstaking detail. In some ways my case was negative or deductive. The oral records we have indicate several groups moving wholesale away from the Bay in the period 1790-1810 (some eventually into the arms of Shaka): why? A little further south others were consolidating militarily and using hilltop retreats: why? I argue that some common earlier hypotheses – blaming drought and the ivory trade, primarily – don’t make complete sense of these dynamics. Escaping from, defending against, and/or participating in violent slave-raids would be a more logical explanation. C&D state that I blandly “concluded that slavery at the Bay remained a controversial subject”. In fact, my sentence reads: “How much Delagoa Bay participated in the upsurge remains controversial” (162). Which is what C&D are saying, too! Nor was this sentence my conclusion, but a cautionary rider to my conclusion, which concerned Ndwandwe involvement in particular and is clearly stated just a page later:

Zwide was almost certainly amongst those chieftains angling for a greater portion of the expanding Bay trade. There is little question that commerce of all descriptions was traversing the Thukela-Phongolo catchment ... The coincidence of an upsurge in trade of all kinds, most importantly slaving, and the increase of more violent attacks by more organised amabutho [armed units] in the immediate hinterland, is, at the very least, deeply suggestive. ... I think it’s safe to say that slaving was the most important factor in stimulating [those] kinds of attacks. (163-4)

C&D seem determined to include me in a “straw man” construction of the passé historian who needs to “pay more attention” to the “northeastern factor”, when in fact I – and several others – have long done exactly that.

 Similarly, regarding the earlier scale of slaving, they cite my question as to whether Delagoa Bay was “somehow exempt” from the terrible depredations happening further north. This was the assumption made by earlier historians, such as American Elizabeth Eldredge. It was therefore a question I posed at the beginning of a section. In proceeding to answer that rhetorical challenge at some length, I suggested strongly that, despite the lack of precise figures, the Bay could not be so exempt. A question is obviously not a conclusion –  and ironically our conclusions in this instance coincide.


In a final odd misreading, they state: “Historians have commonly viewed Shoshangane and Zwangendaba’s move north to as an [sic] attempt to escape from Shaka’s violent orbit”, rather than attracted to the Bay trade. They cite Myth of Iron, p.245. It’s ambiguous: do they mean that this is what I state? (As it happens, it’s true, but I don’t say so there.) Or do they mean that I also hold that “common view”? In fact, on p.235 I offer a more complex, push-pull interpretation: “[P]rompted by Shaka’s growing power, Zwide’s shift northwards, and an attractive explosion in the slave trade, they gradually moved closer to the Bay”. And on p.245 I actually reinforce C&D’s own emphasis: “If it was not Shaka chasing the Msane, Gaza and Jere into the Delagoa Bay area and northwards, why did they go there? ... [T]he answer [is] quite clear: slaves”.

One does not demand to be agreed with, only to be read accurately.

On the whole – though there are other details I would question –  our differences are matters of nuance  rather than substance. It’s good in its way to know that this further research pretty much confirms one’s own. The paper will certainly help revive an area of debate which, as Chewins and Delius rightly note, has gone rather quiescent.

And if this all sounds like minor quibbles and merely incremental advances in arcane knowledge about one remote corner of the globe, remember that slaving is greater in volume today than ever. There are more misbegotten people living in various conditions of servitude than at any previous time in history – according to the International Labour Organisation, anything between 26 and 40 million. And I will bet my bottom escudo that some are still being trafficked through Maputo.

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