Saturday, 2 July 2016

No 28 - "Swim-the-Seas": An inconvenient history

Shaka statue at Ulundi
On the wave-pounded beach at St Lucia, north of Durban, a boat overturned in the surf.  A punch-up ensued between the drenched occupants, one English, one Xhosa.  The Xhosa was a prisoner of sorts; he knocked the white man down and ran, disappearing into the interior.  It was 1823.  The man was taken by locals to Shaka, leader of the amaZulu.  Because he had apparently emerged from the ocean, the man was named Hlambamanzi, or ‘Swim-the-Seas’.

Writing about Shaka in my previous post reminded me of a long-standing but dormant possible project on Hlambamanzi.  From time to time I’ve talked about him with local historians Hazel Crampton and Julie Wells, both equally intrigued by his turbulent career; and recently KwaZulu-Natal amateur historian Roger Gaisford sent me his own notes, hoping I might ‘do’ something.  But I have so many projects on the go already...

This week I saw the Sibikwa Arts Centre’s play Ilembe, playing in Grahamstown at the National Arts Festival.  “Ilembe” is an axe – one of Shaka’s praise-names.  It’s a visually vivid and conceptually adventurous play, escaping from clichés into puzzlement.  It’s gratifying to see Shakan history presented as a set of contesting stories, rather than someone’s blinkered propaganda narrative, either of heroism or monstrosity.  Cannily, Shaka himself never appears in the play; stories of him are told by a set of ‘minor’ characters: his ‘bodyguard’ Mbopha, the white trader Fynn, Shaka’s sister Nomcoba – and Hlambamanzi.

Why is he so intriguing?  He is one of the many in-between characters of history, defying borders and classifications, inhabiting different worlds at once, an inconvenient figure for those who like things etched in clear divisions.  He was a “misfit in the margins”, to quote Malvern van Wyk Smith’s recent article (in English in Africa) on the sundry such personalities in African history.

Our man was born Msimbithi (or some such) not 40 km from where I write in Grahamstown, under headman Botoman, in the territory of Xhosa chief Ndlambe.  Boer traders and British military invaders were already warring with the Xhosa, and the young Msimbithi quickly got involved in a series of frontier skirmishes and cattle raids, learning to play sides off one another, and learning some Dutch in the process.  Eventually he was arrested for cattle theft and transported to Robben Island, where he almost coincided with another Xhosa chieftain, Makhanda (or Makana, after whom our present municipality is named).

He sailed to the Cape Colony under an ex-Navy chancer named James Saunders King, who was allegedly kind to him in his seasickness.  Hence Msimbithi (now dubbed by the whites as Jacob, sometimes Jakot) was picked up as an ‘interpreter’ by an acquaintance of King’s, Captain W F W Owen.  Owen was surveying the south-east coast, and took Msimbithi with him.  He was supposed to be grateful, apparently, but he was still only too glad to take the gap when he got the chance at St Lucia.

Henry Francis Fynn
A year later, in 1824, other white adventurers of King’s circle, including the (in)famous Henry Francis Fynn, managed to make their way from the coast near Durban to Shaka at kwaBulawayo.  Imagine their surprise when they discover, amongst Shaka’s coterie, none other than Jacob Msimbithi.  Complete with an umuzi settlement and wives of his own.  He had ingratiated himself with Shaka, he told them, by repelling a faked attack by bewitched wildcats.

He had also evidently told Shaka that the whites were violent, rapacious and deceitful, and not to be trusted.  They would take his land.  Shaka seemed nevertheless disposed to give them the benefit of the doubt, and provided them with many of their needs.  While they manoeuvred behind Shaka’s back to move guns, slaves and ivory, he tried to use them to provide firepower in his raids and to open up trade with the Cape.  In a mish-mash of plots and counterplots, betrayals and suspicions, Jacob Msimbithi acted as ‘interpreter’ and escort. He accompanied expeditions sent by Shaka both to Algoa Bay (Port Elizabeth) and Delagoa Bay (Maputo).  Alternately valued and suspected by every party, he played his own ambiguous game.  Just how competent an interpreter he was is open to question: at least, there must have been ample room for both inadvertent and deliberately manipulative mis-interpretation.  (Ilembe has some fun with this.)  

It was all bound to end badly.

We can’t believe much of what Fynn and Co. said of him, but we don’t have much in the way of other sources.  I’m not sure we have enough to write a substantial history of him.  I’ve thought of writing a novel; it would make a great novel.  But I’m daunted by the mass of research that would have to be done to bring it to life.  The textures of everyday life in all the places he visited, the whole length of the subcontinent; the appearance and demeanours of all the other historical personalities he crossed; the necessary invention of explanations to fill the gaps in the record.  Think of what one would have to do to flesh out just this little extract from Fynn’s account of machinations unfolding in 1830, when Dingane, Shaka’s successor, and the whites were at serious loggerheads:

The following morning he requested me to go with 4 of his chiefs and Jacob to argue over the report Jacob had brought from the Colony.  Jacob began by stating that he had been sent to the Colony by Dingan with a present to the Governor and to bring back what might be sent.  The Governor refused the present.  Met a man of the Indwandwo nation on his way to the Colony who mentioned to him [Jacob?] he had heard of an attack being intended upon the Zoolas, and that the 4 principal Kaffir chiefs Gaika, Slambi, Vosanie and Dushani were dead and a consultation was about to be held by the remaining chiefs as to the best way of freeing themselves from the white people.  A servant called in by Jacob repeated the same statement, and another man who had been with Ogle to the Colony repeated the same.  Col. Somerset came unto Cane and asked who Jacob was.  Said it was Jacob, when Col. Somerset replied: ‘Oh, it is the villain?  I will send him back to his chief Botman’!

It’s hard to know what was really going on.  And how did the exchanges summarised here unfold?  With what tones of voice?  What did each personage look like?  What clothes, what gestures, what motives?  How would one tell the story overall?  Through a third-person omniscient narrator who could tell the back stories?  More dramatically through Msimbithi himself (surely a Xhosa writer would do that most successfully)?  Through a medley of different voices?  Each strategy would offer strengths and limitations.

As I said, Msimbithi’s career was destined for a sticky end.  Not long after the exchange quoted here, Dingane colluded with the whites – or simply ordered them – to get rid of this stray and problematic Xhosa.  The man delgated to do the deed, John Cane, couldn’t, and passed the job on to one Henry Ogle.  Ogle invited Msimbithi to his umuzi on a pretext, took him round the back and shot him, or got his retainers to do it.

Yet there is something very telling in Msimbithi’s career, something more common than we might expect.  In the current atmosphere of hardening racial and political lines, it can be forgotten that very many southern Africans are not ‘pure’ this or that; they have mixed ancestries, tangled allegiances, multiple identities, mingled cultural influences, bundled languages.  One way or another, we are almost all ‘in-betweeners’, potentially bridging rather than dividing communities.  I certainly am – and I hope this inner cosmopolitanism will ultimately prove to be fruitful, rather than fatal!


1 comment:

  1. In 'A DANCE CALLED AFRICA'the 1st book of'THE 'JOHN ROSS' TRILOGY is where the story of Jakot Msimbithi begins. Follow his amazing story all the way to the end. I have made strenuous efforts to keep his part, as all the other characters, in the trilogy as authentic as possible. Available on Amazon in print and e book.