6. The World of the Black People before the Mfecane: 1816

Chapter 6 in the series WHO STOLE THE LAND?

— No indigenous nation south of the Congo River ever developed any form of writing. As a result, they have little to present in the way of documented history or evidence of their history. A few of their own who learned to read and write managed to commit some of the background to paper in the late 19th century. But, beyond that, we have only the best analyses of 19th century men who spent their lives dealing with these folks. I prefer to ignore the ramblings of post-1960 liberal white professors trading in one-sided guilt-based thought. I, for one, would much rather trust an honor-bound proper grey-headed amaZulu or aba’Tswana Elder than a present day white university professor crampedly clutching a handful of pottery shards and sporting a politically correct lexicon. We merely need to remember that each tribe’s Elders are obliged to sing the praises of their tribe and its supposed existence prior to that of their nearest or strongest competing nation. And, of course, matters move more toward abject myth as they go back in time.

Beyond the isiXhosa speaking peoples whom we have discussed before, we now first need to treat the disposition of the people of Natal and the Interior of South Africa, before proceeding to the Mfecane itself:

1. The San Bushmen- The Original People of Southern Africa

There is little doubt that the original indigenous inhabitants of Southern Africa were the San Bushmen (above). Their rock paintings (below) may be found all over the region, including specifically Botswana, the Northern Cape, the Free State, the Lesotho Drakensberg, and even into Natal. They were caught between the southward migration of the Black peoples and the northward migration of first the Koranna Khoi people, later the Griqua people of mixed descent, and finally the White people. Of note to all humans on this planet is the fact that, according to Spencer Wells, the San people represent DNA-wise the essential original humans from whom all of us are descended over many tens of thousands of years.

2. The Coastal Nguni People beyond the Mtamvuna River

It is generally agreed that the original Black people of Natal along the East Coast were the Mbo, whose later representative descendants were people such as the amaHlubi. Theal1 quotes reports from early Portuguese sources that the Mbo people were on the north bank of the Zambezi in 1570, but that there were many in Natal after 1600. In his “Despatch No. 12” of February 26th, 1864, Lieutenant-Governor Scott of the Colony of Natal, lists2 at least ninety-four tribes inhabiting Natal between 1760 and 1828. We shall focus on four key tribes that had the greatest impact on history in the areas of concern. Many others have intriguing and dramatic histories, but that is not the point with this work.

All four nations were part of the greater coastal sub-grouping of Nguni peoples, as different from the Black peoples of the interior as the West Coast Salish people are from the Plains Indians east of the Rockies in North America. That is, they were as different from the interior peoples as the Flathead Indians west of the Rockies are from the Sioux/Lakota of the Dakotas. They too are separated by a 11,000 foot snow-peaked mountain range.

          ♦ The amaZulu

By 1812, the amaZulu were an insignificant tribe living near the Mhlatuze River in today’s Kwa-Zulu Natal. Matters were comparatively stable at the time, as Africa goes, which meant constant but locally contained turmoil. King Senzanghakona of the amaZulu died in 1816, and one of his four sons, all of them mutual half-brothers, became king. His name was Shaka and he would precipitate one of the most calamitous and horrific upheavals ever suffered by Mankind. It would scatter people almost to the very equator and change the face of Southern Africa. It would unleash a brutality and a reduction in the stature and condition of Mankind such as never seen before, nor since. It is unsurpassed in the annals of history of this planet for its extreme horror and gratuitous violence. Shaka’s name has become synonymous with the word “tyrant”, but the Zulu revere him as founder of their nation. He would eventually be succeeded by two of his brothers, but that comes later.

Shaka decreed3 that the age-old custom of initiation be discontinued and that adolescent youths be conscripted for military training. He then rounded up all bachelors between the ages of twenty and thirty, announcing that henceforth only those who excelled in battle and who served the Zulu army loyally would be permitted to marry. They were trained in hand-to-hand combat, replacing the traditional throwing assegai with a distinctive long-bladed stabbing-spear (see above). He threatened with execution any warriors returning unarmed from battle or who had exhibited cowardice. Shaka’s army would attack according to a rigid plan that would become its trademark. It would advance in close column and, on locating the enemy, would split up into three divisions; two encircling columns or “horns of the bull” would move out to the left and right, leaving the central body, the “head” or “chest”, to advance in direct attack. In the course of the ensuing battle, the tips of the horns would meet to encircle the enemy and then close in on the surrounded enemy to annihilate it – a deadly double outflanking maneuver.

When his human war machine was ready, it spelled the end of military rabbles fighting each other in ineffectual skirmishes. Shaka was a man with a plan and the savage brutality to execute it at any cost. This was a serious army with doctrine, strategy, and tactics and a command and control system based on bone whistle signals. It could mobilize in double quick time and move with amazing speed and uncanny stealth. This was the power at the very heart of the Mfecane, and almost all it met would fall before it for twenty years. It would eventually defeat the British Army on three fronts and completely annihilate a body of more 1000 soldiers. The world has yet had to see something like this again since 1879.

          ♦ The amaNdwandwe

To the north of the amaZulu, nearer to H. Rider Haggard’s famous Ghost Mountain4 (below), outside today’s town of Mkuze, lived the very powerful amaNdwandwe under their leader, Zwide. Like all Black people in South Africa, the amaNdwandwe traced their origins to Central-Eastern Africa.

Legend has it Zwide used to execute those who displeased him by having them thrown off the cliff of Tshaneni, the high mountain in the picture—Ghost Mountain. This author has not been able to confirm that, but the mountain has a popular history wrapped in the weird and the mystic. The effect of events around the AmaNdwandwe in South Africa would be minimal, but they would eventually affect Africa all the way almost to the Equator, and almost destroy the Portuguese in Mozambique.

          ♦ The amaNgwane

Around the headwaters of the White Umfolozi River, on the higher ground of Northern Natal, lived the amaNgwane under their king, Matiwane. Another major player in the period that was to follow, he would lead his army in a huge odyssey right around 11,000 foot moutain ranges and through worlds they had never seen, to end up back in Zulu Territory. There his name would live on to haunt history in one of the most horrific ways possible. Proud fighters, the amaNgwane warriors (above: from the later 19th century and in British employ) could stand their ground against almost anyone, but the operative word is “almost”.

          ♦ The amaHlubi

The amaHlubi was in the early 1800s the most numerous people in what is now Kwa Zulu-Natal. I found their distribution at the time in a rather interesting cultural thesis5 (below) about royal praise songs. In this work, H.S. Bongani places them on a large swath of land along the Buffalo River of Natal, covering the triangular area described by the present Mpumalanga eascarpment in the north, the Drakensberg in the West, the Blood (Ncome) River in the east, and extending southward to around the confluence of the Blood River with the Buffalo River. They were another tough group and were among the earliest of peoples in Natal, predating the amaZulu. They are related to the amaSwazi, who are discussed elsewhere below. The image above shows a present day procession of amaHlubi.

3. People of the Interior – The Greater Family of Sotho Peoples

In reality, it is difficult to make a clear separation between the people known today as the ba’Tswana, the ba’Sotho and the ba’Pedi of the South African interior. It would be more correct to view the present ba’Tswana as the Western Sotho, the ba’Pedi as the Northern Sotho and the present so-called ba’Sotho as (more properly) the Southern Sotho. They are also further massively subdivided, but for this work it is merely important to remember that breakaway tribes were often named after either their leader or after their preferred totem animal. So, for example, the ba’Taung are named after their lion totem, tau.

To desrcibe the Tswana or Western Sotho people in particular, we shall rely on the work of L. Ngcongco6 which seems to this author to be well substantiated. Ngcongco does not treat all the groups that will be important to our picture of key events in South Africa. We shall therefore add the background on the ba’Tlokwa and the ba’Taung from other sources.

          ♦ The ba’Fokeng

The main point for us at this stage is that, according to Ngcongco, the main group of the ba’Fokeng lived in the Magaliesberg (below) west of Pretoria before the Mfecane.

One story, bordering on legend, has a group of them crossing the Vaal River — at some unknown time — to settle at a place called Ntsoanatsatsi, between the present Frankfort and Vrede in the northeastern Free State. This place assumes near mythical status as a “Fount of Ancestors” in Sotho folklore in particular, some believeing that the first mo’Sotho (indiviudual Sotho person) emerged from the ground in that place. They then proceeded from there to form the core of the ba’Sotho of the present Free State and Lesotho. J.C. Macgegor7, in his Basuto Traditions, tells us that the ba’Fokeng of the FreeState and Lesotho know nothng about any other country than the Caledon River Valley…“. By 1822, according to Ellenberger8, whom we rely on for the Southern Sotho distribution, a ba’Fokeng group under Chief Mabula was living in what is now the Free State, between the Elands River (Harrismith) and the Liebenbergspruit (Bethlehem). He also places other ba’Fokeng east of the Caledon River in what is now Lesotho.

         ♦ The ba’Rolong & ba’Tlhaping

Ngcongco states that the ba’Rolong settled in the present Northern Cape, south of the Molopo River, which runs through the famous Mafeking (now Mahikeng). Around 1600 a group split from them and moved south to settle at the point where the Harts River joins the Vaal River. They broke with Tswana tradition and took to eating fish (tlhaping in the seTswana language). For this reason they were named after their totem as the People of the Fish, the ba’Tlhaping. Other ba’Rolong later joined the ba’Tlhaping, who were pushed north to the area of Taung. This is the place where the famous Taung skull was found. There are also excellent San Bushman paintings in the area, proving their original presence. The Molopo River area is shown below. To the west lies the Kalahari Desert, the domain of the San. The most comprehensive description of the Mantatee Host (see below) will be provided by the missionaries attached to the ba’Tlhaping.

We also know from the writings of the missionary Samuel Broadbent9 that, by1823, a branch of the ba’Rolong lived further east at Makwassie, just north of the Vaal River near Wolmaransstad, roughly halfway between Kimberley and Johannesburg. They were by then already fleeing the Mantatee, whom we meet below. This section of ba’Rolong were led by a chief whom Broadbent referred to as Siffonello. We shall meet his son, Moroka, in the next chapter,when he enters the picture at a crucial moment.

          ♦ The ba’Kwena and ba’Hurutshe

According to Ngcongco, the ba’Kwena at one point lived near what is now Brits, just north of the Magaliesberg near Pretoria in what is now the Gauteng Province. It would appear that, at some point in the 1600s, spurred on by severe drought, the ba’Kwena split into two groups, one moving across the Vaal River to the same Ntsoanatsatsi “Fount of Sotho Ancestors” between Frankfort and Vrede where some of the ba’Fokeng had settled earlier. According to Ngcongco, on whom we rely for this description of the ba’Tswana, these southern immigrant ba’Kwena are the originators of the ba’Sotho Kingdom of the independent country now known as Lesotho. The remaining ba’Kwena split into groups remaining in the Western Transvaal and in what is now Botswana. The ba’Hurutshe are essentially the northernmost of the groups that remained in the Transvaal. Ellenberger, already referenced above, also places some ba’Kwena east of the Caledon River in the present Lesotho at that time.

          ♦ The ba’Pedi

In the northeast, in the subtropical Bushveld east of the present Potgietersrust near the Leolo Mountain (See below), were the North Sotho people called the ba’Pedi whom we fleetingly met above as Tswana descendants. The Pedi people themselves claim descendancy specifically from the ba’Hurutshe Tswana. Their language is today recognised as distinct from that of the southern Sotho people and the Tswana people. The well laid out history of the ba’Pedi may be read in a contracted Limpopo Government study10 . They would suffer the brunt of the Matabele onslaught in the Transvaal of old, as described in the following chapter.

          ♦ The ba’Sotho

The next Sotho group, situated at the southern limit of this group of nations, are the South Sotho. They consisted of a number of tribes that united in the impregnable Maluti Mountain safe haven of the present Lesotho under the collective name ba’Sotho. This is really a “taxonomic misappropriation” (theft of a name from other co-owners), as the other groups under this heading are also Sotho people, but the name has stuck because of the prominence of their leader, Moshesh or Moshoeshoe. Ironically, the ba’Sotho are actually an amalgalmation of disparate Tswana, Sotho, and Nguni refugee nations, thrown together by necessity and the vagaries of the Mfecane and clashes that predate it.

By the 1820s, the ba’Sotho leader was the very wily and competent Moshesh (left – as per his French missionary, Rev. Eugène Arnaud Casalis). He strengthened his mountain fastness and turned it into an unassailable fortress from which he could repel any army. A stock of rocks would be prepared to roll down onto any army that was forced to scale the heights via constricted routes.The weakness of his solution was that he could not outlast a lengthy siege.

The ba’Sotho also sowed grain on subsistence basis in the high country at the western foot of the Drakensberg Mountains (below), the Kathlamba – the “Barrier of Spears” of the amaZulu. This would be the present Ladybrand to Ficksburg region.

Moshesh would prove to be by far the best leader any Southern African nation could have prayed for, including the Afrikaners and their Colonial British masters. From his mountain perch he would proceed to play off  the various parties one against the other to great effect. Much of his diplomacy was due to his French missionaries, led by Casalis, who advised him very well indeed. Unlike their British counterparts, the French missionaries did not represent colonial interests. Casalis wrote a book11 about his years as Moshesh’s de facto Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and it is worth reading.


The hot subtropical bush country of the of the ba’Tswana nations and of the ba’Pedi stands in marked contrast to the ba’Sotho country, which lies at up to 6,000 foot above sea level (see above)with temperatures that can drop to -6°C in winter, along with heavy frost and snow in particular on the mountains, but sometimes quite extensively on the ground. The reader needs to ponder what drove a classic tropical humanity into such snow country.

           ♦ The ba’Taung

We cannot proceed with the story of South Africa without  mentioning the Ba’Taung, the People of the Lion. They and the ba’Rolong described above would each have a key role at precise moments in the future. As with all these interior Tswana-Sotho groups, there is never-ending discussion about the origins of the ba’Taung, and about a list of ever more mythical ancestors as we go back in time. However, what is clear is that, by the early 1820s, they were living between the Vet River and the Vaal River in what would become the Free State. For more detail on their background, one may read Ellenberger’s account12. Based on Ellenberger’s work, they seemed to hold sway as far east as the present Heilbron. The Northern Free State was theirs.

           ♦ The ba’Tlokwa

The last Sotho group were the ba’Tlokwa, a South Sotho group who were immigrants to the relatively higher and cooler grassland at the source of the Vaal River in the general region of today’s Harrismith and Vrede (below) in the far Eastern Free State Province. Their elders claim they originally lived in the Magaliesberg and in the country of the Pedi13, but were led to this new location by Chief Mokotsho. In 1819 Mokotsho died, and his warlike wife, Mantatisi of the nearby and related ba’Sia tribe, became regent for their second son and future king, Sekonyela.

Based on Mantatisi’s name, the tribe would become known as the Mantatee; a name that would strike terror into the hearts of people long after their demise as a threat. They would become associated with some of the worst of African horror and would cause immense upheaval and trauma. The mention of their name would inspire terror among particularly the Tswana peoples. However, by 1820, the Mantatee had not yet acquired their horrific reputation.

4. The Other Black Nations in the general Area

A short list of further peoples found themslves positioned around the area of concern in the Mfecane. We briefly address them below, though they had little influence in the Mfecane and were not much displaced by it.

            ♦ The vha’Venda

The vha’Venda, located in the very far northern tip of South Africa, only arrived from over the Limpopo River in the mid-1600s around the same time the Dutch settled the Cape of Good Hope. They are the people of the present President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa. They have a long-standing reputation as metal-workers, particularly the Lemba subgroup among them, who famously claim Jewish descent. The vha’Venda occupied most of the old Transvaal north of the Strydpoort Mountains just north of Potgietersrus and west of the northern reaches of the Drakensberg.

            ♦ The vha’Tsonga

To the east and southeast of the vha’Venda, and distributed into Mozambique and far northern coastal Natal, lived the vha’Tsonga people. They are the people that vistors to the famous Kruger Park are likely to meet as personnel in the reserve. In the early 19th century they formed the major population group in southern Mozambique up to the Indian Ocean coast and from there toward the Zambezi River. They still do. While they would be hugely disturbed by the Mfecane in Mocambique, they would not be central to it in South Africa.

            ♦ The amaNdebele

South of the ba’Pedi, on the northern edge of the 6000 foot Highveld, near the present Middelburg, lived the Ndzundza branch of the amaNdebele. These Nguni people, who speak a derivative of isiZulu, had by all accounts lived “out of position” in that area since the mid 1600s. The amaNdebele have always been, and are to this day, arranged in two groups. One group calls themselves the Ndzundza and the other calls themselves the Manala. The Ndzundza people will return to our story in the next chapter.

The amaNdebele are well known for their strikingly colourful angular graphic designs (below) that find their way into their clothes, their home walls, and even onto the vertical stabilizers of British Airways jetliners. They are also known for the peculiar practice of their women affixing rings permanently around their necks so as to systematically stretch their necks to ridiculous proportions. This author still saw them doing this in the mid-1980s .

            ♦ The ama’Swazi

North of the Pongola River, west of the Lebombo Mountains, and up to the Olifants River of Eastern Transvaal lived the amaSwazi, an Nguni nation of Mbo descent speaking siSwati. They are like the amaHlubi, among the earliest inhabitants of Southern Africa’s eastern subtropical coast. Their political and military conduct throughout history has set them apart from the other Nguni nations. They were a powerful blocking force to the amaZulu. Among the Nguni peoples, they have somehow always represented a quiet but powerful presence. Today they are still a Kingdom. They, more than any other, represent in Africa the philosophy of “Speak softly but carry a big stick“. When they DID move, they tended to win.

5. The Northern Khoi and groups of Mixed Descent

The Koranna were the northernmost Khoi people. They and the Griqua were distributed to the west, east and north of the confluence of the Vaal River with the Orange River and their position extended northward along the Vaal River to the southern limit of the ba’Tlhaping.

            ♦ The Koranna

The Koranna (often called “Kora”) were, as best it has been possible to determine, Khoi inhabitants of the Southwest Cape who moved away from the white settlers during the 1700s. They had not had much contact with Europeans. They initially had neither guns nor horses, but were armed with bows and arrows. According to Stow14, based on the explanations of a San Bushman, the Koranna crossed the Orange River around 1785-1790 and moved northward roughly along the Vaal River, the largest tributary of the Orange River.

They soon clashed with the, ba’Tlhaping, the southernmost of the Black people on the Harts River, a northern tributary of the Vaal River. The Koranna gave this tribe the name “Briqua” (a word having a Khoekhoe format; the “-qua” suffix meaning “people”). See again Chapter 2 dealing with Commander Jan van Riebeeck’s understanding of the people beyond his own world. The Koranna stopped this vangaurd of the Black  people around Taung on the Harts River in what is now the Northwest Province15.

            ♦ The Griqua

Behind the Koranna followed the Griqua, who were of Khoi and mixed White and Slave descent. They originally called themselves “Bastaards”, but the missionaries of the London Missionary Society convinced them to change their name. They decided on “Griqua” in recognition of their partial Khoi origins, which they agreed to be the Chaguriqua clan. Their first leader, Adam Kok I, was originally from Piketberg in the West Cape, but had later settled in Namaqualand near Namibia. He was reputedly an emancipated slave. They settled initially at Klaarwater, later renamed to Griquastad.

The Griqua should properly be viewed as Westerners. They built regular houses and undertook commercial agriculture. They were equipped with horses and muskets. This would turn out to be a key factor in the history of the interior and in limiting the southern extent of the hell the Mfecane would wreak. By 1820 the Griqua were settled in two distinct regions north of the Orange River under three leaders who seldom quite saw eye-to-eye. The first group under Nicolaas Waterboer was settled on the north bank of the Orange River to the west of the confluence of the Vaal River, Cornelis Kok was situated with his people to the north of this first group, and the group under Adam Kok II was located north of the Orange River and east of the confluence, centered on what was to become the Philippolis mission station of the London Missionary Society in 1823.

6. Summary on the situation before the Mfecane

The above extended description places the various relevant nations and tribes in their positions in readiness for the terrible story of the Mfecane to unfold over the area that would one day be Natal, the Free State, and the Transvaal. This author views this as the “World of the Black People”, rather than the Territory of the Black People of South Africa. This was the world they knew about. They had barely any idea of the world west of the Fish River or of the Black Kei River, and little if any south of the Vet River in what is now the Free State.

The following map (click to enlarge) displays the disposition of the different peoples described above around approximately 1816, before the eruption of the Mfecane. The suffixes “ama-” and “ba’-” are omitted for the sake of brevity and clarity. A comprehensive summary of this disposition in 1822, as relates to more particularly the ba’Sotho in the interior, is provided by Ellenberger16. It would be in that year that the events of the previous six years east of the Drakensberg would spill over onto the Sotho people and destroy their world.

It can be clearly seen on this map how the 11,000 foot Drakensberg separated the Coastal Nguni peoples (green background), from the Sotho peoples of the interior (khaki background). To the extent that the Venda and Tsonga peoples differed significantly from either of the foregoing groupings, both in language and culture, they are presented on a light purple background. The Khoi and mixed descent Griqua and shown on a light red background. The Ndebele people, then east of the present Pretoria, lived completely out of position with respect to all other Nguni peoples and disconnected from them.

The amaSwazi had direct control of the country up to the Krokodil River and their word counted pretty much up to Olifants River. That would represent in today’s terms the area between the Mozambique border and the Drakensberg Mountains, from around Letaba camp in the Kruger Park southward. They held the amaZulu in check and were the major concern of the ba’Pedi for decades. It bears repeating that the amaSwazi, amaHlubi, and (likely) the amaNdebele were descended from the original Nguni settlers, the Mbo, predating specifically the amaZulu and the groups further south. As per the Bird reference below, there were MANY more Nguni peoples. These included the Pondo people who lived near the Mzimvubu River and the Bhaca people, related to the amaSwazi, who lived at the site of the present Pietermaritzburg. Similarly, there were many Sotho subgroups, but we cannot possibly show them all. The background colors seek to convey the general coverage of the cultural groups of peoples. The “baRolong*” denotes specifically the group of the chief Siffonello.

With the map laid out and an the peoples described, we are now ready to consider the terrible events of the Mfecane, the horror in its wake, and the massive movement of peoples that would scramble this map all the way to the equator. These are treated in Chapter 7.

—Harry Booyens

INTRO PAGE & MENU : Next Chapter (in preparation)


1. George McCall Theal, The yellow and dark-skinned people of Africa south of the Zambesi, (1919), p.164

2. John Bird, The Annals of Natal Vol.1, (1888), p.124

3. P. Becker, A comparative study of strategy in bantu tribal warfare during the 19th century, (1968), Military History Journal Vol. 1 No. 3 (1968), The South African Military History Society

4. H. Rider Haggard, Nada the Lily, (1895), p.6 and many others; the mountain certainly appears ominous at dawn, silhouetted against the rising sun

5. H.S. Bongani, The History of the amaHlubi Tribe in the isiBongo of its Kings, M.A Thesis, University of Natal-Durban, (1992), p.11; this work also supports the historic links of the amaHlubi to the amaSwazi

6. L. Ngcongco, Origins of the Tswana, Botswana Journal of African Studies Vol.1 No.2, (1979), p.21

7. J.C. Macgregor, Basuto Traditions, (1905), p.21

8. D. F. Ellenberger, History of the Basotho, ancient and modern, (1912), p.121

9. Samuel Broadbent, A Narrative of the First Introduction of Christianity Amongst the Barolong, (1865), p.61

10. Udo Küsel, Tjate Heritage Management Plan, (2006), p.5

11. Eugène Arnaud Casalis, The Basutos: or, twenty-three years in South Africa, (1861)

12. D. F. Ellenberger, History of the Basotho, ancient and modern, (1912), pp.56-62

13. D. F. Ellenberger, History of the Basotho, ancient and modern, (1912), pp.39-51

14. G.W. Stow, The Native Races of South Africa, (1905), p.282

15. G.W. Stow, The Native Races of South Africa, (1905), pp.286-288

16. D. F. Ellenberger, History of the Basotho, ancient and modern, (1912), p.120

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