The Maphumulo Uprising

The Maphumulo Uprising


  • Author: Jeff Guy
  • Publisher: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press
  • Publish Date: 2005
  • ISBN: 1-86914-048-6
  • Price: 10.00

Review By : Ian Knight

      In the middle of 1906, settler society in Natal was convulsed by the dread of an apocalyptic armed uprising from among its African population. With the settlers greatly outnumbered by the Africans over whom they ruled, such a fear had been part of the settler psyche since the colony’s foundation, and in 1906 it seemed to be happening. The Natal Government, seeking to balance its books in the aftermath of the Anglo-Boer War, had instituted a Poll Tax that was widely resented by the African community, upon whom the burden of taxation already weighed heavily. A wave of unrest had culminated in an attack on a police patrol by a minor inkosi in the Greytown district, Bambatha kaMancina, who had then fled across the border to Zululand. The colonial authorities had reacted fiercely, determined to assert their authority once and for all. Spurning help and advice from London, they called out their militia and steadily converged on the Nkandla forest, where Bambatha had taken refuge and been joined by a small but significant number of Zulu amakhosi. Here, on 10 June, the rebels had been surprised in the Mome Gorge and slaughtered. Bambatha himself was killed – allegedly – and the in the aftermath the remaining rebels in Zululand surrendered. Yet, even as the authorities congratulated themselves on the end to the rebellion, a new and superficially unconnected rising occurred. Two influential groups living the Maphumulo district of Natal proper, in the broken country inland from the town of Stanger, attacked a local store and ambushed a column of militia wagons on the march. Troops, including those fresh from suppressing the rebellion in Zululand, were hurried into the area and began to sweep through the valleys and bush, breaking up rebel concentrations.

Into this electric scenario rode a curiously Edwardian vision, a young white civilian, a clerk in the Works Department named Oliver Veal. Veal was a keen cyclist, and his story is unsettling because it is at once tragic, pathetic and absurd. Despite the disturbed state of the country, Veal had bet a friend that he could cycle from Pietermaritzburg, through Greytown and on to Kranskop, visit a friend in the militia posted there, then return to Durban before the weekend was out. He made the first part of his journey safely enough – though he missed his friend at Kranskop - and his return route took him through Maphumulo. Here he was warned by an officer he met on the road to stick to the main route, which was alive with militia, because the temper of the country beyond was unpredictable. He was running late, however, and decided to take a short-cut, following a track which took him off the road and into the territory of the Qwabe inkosi Meseni kaMusi. It was a fatal mistake, for Meseni had just then felt compelled to join the rising, and his young men guarded the track against militia patrols. Veal was captured by warriors who sprang out from the bush on either side, and taken to Meseni’s principle homestead. Here, among a large and excited crowd of armed men, there was a brief debate as to what to do with him; inkosi Meseni himself walked away, then Veal was led to one side and suddenly speared through the chest. As he fell a blow from a cane knife finished him. His body was then mutilated and organs removed; they were intended to provide powerful medicine to prepare Meseni’s warriors in their struggle against the militia.

The medicine, and Veal’s sacrifice, was in vain. Meseni’s men were destroyed by the militia with a thoroughness which disconcerted many even at the time. Winston Churchill, then an Under-Secretary in the Colonial Office in London, was scathing about the colonial reaction, and, on being consulted on the subject of a campaign medal to be awarded to the troops, suggested that it should be struck in bronze, at the colony’s expense, and depict not the head of King Edward VII but the severed head of a rebel leader. Indeed, the militia actions still make disturbing reading now. Spoiling for a fight, they burned homes, looted, and shot Africans, under arms or not, with impunity. Both Meseni and Ndlovu kaThimuni, the other Maphumulo inkosi who had joined the rebellion, fled to Zululand for fear that they would be shot if they tried to surrender to local troops. There they were arrested, returned to Stanger and duly tried for treason.

This year is, of course, the centenary of the 1906 disturbances, and while the South African government has organised plans to mark the heroic ‘struggle of the people’ against colonial rule, the events themselves will undoubtedly be the subject of significant re-interpretation. Professor Jeff Guy is a towering figure in the field of Zulu historical studies, and his previous works – including ‘The Destruction of the Zulu Kingdom’ – largely redefined the historiography of the period. Yet he remains a challenging author in many respects, a pioneer of Marxist historical interpretation in the 1970s, a historian preoccupied with the impact of colonialism on the Zulu kingdom and its wider context, yet mercilessly critical of Imperialism and its pretensions, and utterly devoid of any trace of the stultifying romance of the red-coat which blights many books on the Anglo-Zulu War. In the 1906 disturbances he has found a subject to which he is ideally – and perhaps ideologically – suited, for it is the 1879 campaign stripped of all glamour. As Guy rightly points out, the African chiefdoms of Natal had not before been conquered by the British; they had been ruled by an accommodation reached between the African groups and the newcomers, an accommodation which was presented as paternalistic and sympathetic, but which was ultimately exploitative and repressive. It is interesting that many scholars shy away these days from describing the events of 1906 as a ‘Zulu Rebellion’, pointing out that they originated in Natal over very specific grievances against colonial authority, and that the involvement of the Zulu themselves was limited. More significantly, the use of the term reinforces the colonial preoccupation that the rebellion was part of a widespread and co-ordinated anti-European movement linked in some undefined way to the protracted struggle of the Zulu kingdom against white encroachment. And yet, in a sense, there is some truth in this, for by 1906 the African peoples of Natal had come to look upon the lost independence of the neighbouring Zulu kingdom with nostalgia. Whereas once many had fought against King Shaka to resist incorporation into the kingdom, or had been recruited into the NNC to serve the British in 1879, some had come to regret that, and saw in the old Zulu way of life a vanished age of African power, glory and economic vibrancy. The rebels certainly sought to draw on the power of that mythic image; Bambatha adopted the war-cry of the Zulu Royal House, ‘uSuthu!’, and used King Cetshwayo’s grave as his rallying point. And in Maphumulo, the groups who resisted were historically linked to the Zulu; Meseni’s Qwabe had once been one of the most powerful chiefdoms in Zululand before being dispersed by King Shaka. The chiefdom of inkosi Ndlovu, the Nodonga, were a section of the Zulu people themselves. Their history is instructive. Under Ndlovu’s father, Thimuni, they had split away from Zululand to escape the constraints of the Zulu king Mpande. Thumuni was an impressive figure, the subject of a famous sketch by the artist George French Angas, who used him as a model for the archetypal Zulu warrior (a purpose for which the image is still often reproduced today). Yet life in Natal soon turned sour for Thimuni, who placed his trust in Theophilus Shepstone’s assurances that the Nodunga would one day wax fat under colonial rule; after decades of taxation, of labour tribute and of the erosion of traditional ways, Thimuni came to believe that Shepstone had ‘deceived the people’. His son Ndlovu shared a sense of growing despair at the erosion of traditional power and practices, and the exploitation of the chiefs by the colonial authorities that used them as agents of their administration. This was a position that put them impossibly at odds with their responsibilities to their own people. Caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, both Ndlovu and Meseni felt driven to rebellion in 1906, forced into a corner by the grievances of their people and isolated from any meaningful influence upon the increasingly self-confident colonial administration above them. Yet they were only too aware of what had happened to the Zulu in 1879, and that the numerical and technological disparity between their followers and that of the militia was overwhelming. It was to try to bridge that gap that Oliver Veal was killed, in an attempt to invoke spiritual forces to offset the inescapable military advantages held by the militia.

In the first part of the book, Professor Guy displays a talent for narrative history he has often obscured before – more of this, please – as he charts the events in Maphumulo. In the second the book changes gear and requires closer reading as it analyses the trial of men arrested for the rising and for the killing with which the Maphumulo rising began. The Natal administration, determined to assert its legal and practical authority, was determined to call individuals to account for what were essentially corporate acts of violence. Here the significance of Zulu ritual becomes central for in the death of Veal, and in the ceremonies that both preceded and followed it, the government saw the hand of a dark and sinister African conspiracy whose apparent heathen savagery justified the extremes of their own reaction. What was in fact a series of different rituals designed to protect and strengthen the African community in the face of the crisis was universally interpreted by the Government as ‘doctoring for war’ - an act which proved a premeditated intention to violence. Government lawyers were keen to prove the presence of African ritualists who had mutilated corpses for ceremonial purposes and who were believed to link the disparate groups in the rebellion into a united front, with the aim of sweeping the white man from Africa. By their persistent leading of witnesses, by the offering of amnesties to convicted rebels who testified, they finally got the evidence they required. As a result a number of men were convicted of inciting the rebellion by ritual means. And, as this book chillingly reveals, the result was almost certainly a stitch-up. A rebel spiritualist by the name of Mabalengwe topped the authorities’ wanted list, suggested in witness evidence as the man behind most of the individual killings, an inexpressibly alien bogey-man dressed in baboon-skins who mutilated European bodies in order to make the medicine which launched a pan-African conspiracy. And indeed a man named Mabalengwe was duly arrested, tried and hanged – despite very clear inferences that no such omnipresent figure ever existed (‘how many doctors called Mabalengwe were there in the rebellion?’ asked one confused lawyer, confronted by the accounts of his apparent ubiquity), that evidence was planted on him, and that he was probably not even present when Veal was killed. Yet, as Veal was offered up by the Qwabe as a sacrifice to the shades of an Africa in fact already hopelessly lost, so Mabalengwe was killed on the alter of deep-seated settler neuroses. Meseni and Ndlovu, as Guy points out, were adroit enough to distance themselves from the actual killings, but they were punished nonetheless – deposed and exiled, like other great enemies of the British Empire, to St. Helena.

This book is an important one by an important author, and is particularly recommended to anyone who seeks to place the events of 1879 within a wider context, and to see how South Africa arrived at ‘here’ from ‘there’. The British invasion may indeed have an undeniable glamour of tragedy and heroism, but underneath that veneer it was part of a process of the naked destruction of African independence, of dispossession and economic exploitation – and the reality of that process is brutally apparent in the events of 1906.

Thursday 30th of March 2006 12:28:31 PM