Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-5c569c448b-dnb4q Total loading time: 0.3 Render date: 2022-07-01T19:12:41.143Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true } hasContentIssue true

Textual Incest: Nathaniel Isaacs and the Development of the Shaka Myth

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 May 2014

Dan Wylie*
Rhodes University, Grahamstown


Literary practitioners have long been, often uncomfortably, aware of the ambivalently fruitful and constraining rhetorical influences of the past. Writers successively utilize or rebel against traditional tropes, poetic conventions, and narrative norms, balancing cultural depth against individualist innovation, acceptability against rejection, public intelligibility against the opacity of private connotation. By such gestures towards the traditions, literature challenges, upholds, or leaves unquestioned the moral, political, and cultural pre-suppositions of its day.

South African historiography is less aware than it might be of its textuality, in this sense, of its immersion in a similar “anxiety of influence,” as Harold Bloom has termed it. Little attention has been paid to its rhetorical lineaments and heritage or to the ways historians have read, used, and departed from one another. This is dramatically illustrated by the case of the historiography of Shaka Zulu (assassinated in 1828). Nowhere else has such poverty of evidence and research spawned such a massively unquestioned, long-lived, and monolithic “history.” Only in the last decade has the legendary, verbal construction of the Shaka figure been seriously questioned; only in 1991, at an important colloquium at the University of the Witwatersrand, was something approaching an academic consensus reached that the mfecane—the notion of Shaka's Zulus as the “storm-center” of a sub-continental explosion of autophagous, black-on-black violence—was no longer a credible vehicle for understanding the early nineteenth century in southern Africa.

Research Article
Copyright © African Studies Association 1992

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1. This paper is based on an unpublished paper entitled Utilizing Isaacs: One Thread in the Development of the Shaka Myth“, delivered to the Natal History Workshop, University of Pietermaritzburg, September 1990.Google Scholar I am grateful to Julian Cobbing, Malvern van Wyk Smith, and Christopher Fyfe for encouragement and comment.

2. Ritter, E. A., Shaka Zulu (London, 1955)Google Scholar has sold over 50,000 in Penguin paperbacks alone since 1978, and is now in its sixth reprint (Peter Carson, personal communication). On the front page of a recent newspaper, Zulu chiefs were reported to have called for the deaths of African National Congress youths for “making King Shaka's land dirty,” while AWB extremist Eugene Terreblanche reminded his Afrikaner followers that the “last white man who was without his weapon for a short time was Piet Retief,” murdered by Shaka's successor Dingane (Weekly Mail, 1 June 1990).

3. Said, Edward, Orientalism (London, 1978), 622.Google Scholar

4. Bloom, Harold, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (New York, 1973).Google Scholar

5. Barthes, Roland, Writing Degree Zero, trans. Lavers, Annette and Smith, Colin, ed. Sontag, Susan (New York, 1987).Google Scholar

6. Wylie, Dan, “Autobiography as Alibi: History and Projection in Nathaniel Isaacs' Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa (1836)“, Current Writing (Durban), 3 (1991).Google Scholar

7. The others are The Diary of Henry Francis Fynn (Pietermaritzburg, 1950)Google Scholar, a retrospective palimpsest of papers compiled (and censored) by James Stuart and D McK Malcolm; and Maclean, Charles Rawden, “The Loss of the Brig Mary at Natal, with Early Recollections of That Settlement,” The Nautical Magazine, 2224 (18531855).Google Scholar Isaacs and Fynn colluded on their stories; much neglected, Maclean's account contradicts Isaacs on every crucial count.

8. Martin, S. J. R., “British Images of the Zulu c.1820-1879,” (Ph.D University of Cambridge, 1982), 50.Google Scholar

9. Isaacs, , Travels, ed. Hermann, Louis (2 vols.: Cape Town [1836] 1936), 131, 203.Google Scholar All subsequent quotations are from Volume I unless otherwise specified.

10. Thompson, George, Travels and Adventures in Southern Africa, ed. Forbes, Vernon S. (2 vols.: Cape Town, [1827] 1968), 203Google Scholar; cf. Isaacs, , Travels, 2: 251.Google Scholar

11. Maclean, , “Loss of the Brig Mary,” (January 1853): 31.Google Scholar

12. Isaacs, , Travels, 10.Google Scholar

13. Isaacs, , Travels, xixxxGoogle Scholar; also ibid., xxxi, xxxii, 272.

14. Ibid., 62, 271.

15. For the unreliability of eyewitness accounts generally see Buckhout, R., “Eyewitness testimony,” Scientific American, 231 (1974): 2231CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Woodman, A J, Rhetoric in Classical Historiography: Four Studies (Portland, 1988), 1223.Google Scholar

16. Governor Kennedy of Sierra Leone described Isaacs in 1855 as “deficient in education” and unable to write letters unaided (Christopher Fyfe, pers.comm.).

17. Kirby, P. R., “Unpublished Documents Relating to the Career of Nathaniel Isaacs, the Natal Pioneer“, Africana Notes and News, 18/2 (1968): 6379Google Scholar; idem., “Further Facts Relating to the Career of Nathaniel Isaacs, the Natal Pioneer“, ANN, 18/6 (1969), 237-42. For Isaacs' descriptions of landscape, with a consistent eye to prospects for settlement, see especially Travels 1: xxxiv, 26, 57, 149, 153Google Scholar; 2: 66, 325-29.

18. For the children see Kirby, “Further Facts;” for executions, see Isaacs', Travels, 2: 94, 132.Google Scholar The case for at least some involvement in slaving is circum-stantial but strong: Fynn admitted to Zulus trading in slaves (Fynn, , Diary, 48, 5556Google Scholar); there are several documented Portuguese visits to Zululand, including a slaving vessel running aground at Port Natal (Isaacs, , Travels, 1: 58Google Scholar; 2: 10, 113); the South African Chronicle and Mercantile Advertiser (6 June 1826) reported the loading onto French vessels of slaves from the northern Transkei, precisely the area in which Fynn and Francis Farewell were then operating; John Cane and others made at least four ill-explained trips to the slave station at Delagoa Bay; Isaacs himself traveled precisely along the slaving route to the Comoros in 1831, making contact with a known American slaver, the Complex (2: 305)Google Scholar, and in 1832 made a bizarre proposal to the Cape Government to permit the military occupation of Natal by one Ramanataka, a Madagascar prince almost certainly implicated in slaving (Leverton, B. J. T., ed., Records of Natal, II, September 1828-July 1835 [Pretoria 1989], 226–31Google Scholar). Finally, Isaacs later became a confirmed slave dealer in Sierra Leone (see Fyfe, Christopher, A History of Sierra Leone [Oxford, 1962], 239–40, 249, 275–78Google Scholar).

19. Isaacs, , Travels, 275.Google Scholar

20. Ibid., 281.

21. Quoted in Martin, , “Images of the Zulu,” 50.Google Scholar

22. Holden, William, History of the Colony of Natal (Cape Town, [1855] 1963), 42.Google Scholar

23. Bryant, A. T., Olden Times in Zululand and Natal (London, 1929), e.g., 5152.Google Scholar

24. Morris, Donald, The Washing of the Spears (London, 1965), 84.Google Scholar

25. The Oxford History of South Africa, ed. Thompson, Leonard and Wilson, Monica (Oxford, 1969), 337.Google Scholar

26. du Buisson, Louis, The White Man Cometh (London, 1987), 35Google Scholar; cf Ballard, Charles, The House of Shaka (Durban, 1988), 13Google Scholar; Saunders, Christopher, ed., The Reader's Digest Illustrated History of South Africa: The Real Story (Cape Town, 1988), 86.Google Scholar

27. Walter, E. V., Terror and Resistance: A Study of Political Violence, With Case Histories of Some Primitive African Communities (New York, 1969), 130.Google Scholar

28. Theal, G. M., The History of South Africa since September 1795 (London, 1908), 2: 300Google Scholar; Colvin, Ian D., South Africa (London, [1909]), 269CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mackeurtan, Graham, The Cradle Days of Natal (London, 1930), 127.Google Scholar

29. Isaacs, , Travels, 295Google Scholar; Frazer, James, The Golden Bough (12 vols.: London, 19111915), 4: 3637.Google Scholar In a curious extrapolation of this, Edward Boyd, in his 1957 preface to Haggard's, Nada the Lily (London, 1895)Google Scholar, could use Frazer's authority to make a backhanded critique of the novel: “In common with many primitive people throughout history, the Zulus had a custom of slaying their kings when they showed signs of age and failing strength; so that the actual, historical slaying of Chaka, which Haggard depicts in Nada the Lily as a vendetta murder, is probably to be understood in terms of ritual. From a rigidly ethnological point of view then, Nada the Lily is almost certainly a great deal less than pure Zulu story.” Here of course Boyd was right, but for all the wrong reasons.

30. Chalk, Frank and Jonassohn, Kurt, eds, The History and Sociology of Genocide (New Haven, 1990), 223–29.Google Scholar

31. See Torgovnik, Marianna, Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Minds (Chicago, 1990)Google Scholar: “Western thinking frequently substitutes versions of the primitive for some of its deepest obsessions—and this becomes a major way in which the West constructs and uses the primitive for its own ends” (18). Torgovnik usefully distinguishes a “rhetoric of control, in which demeaning colonialist tropes get modified only slightly over time; and a rhetoric of desire…which implicates ‘us’ in the ‘them’ we try to conceive of as the Other” (245).

32. Quoted in Bloom, , Anxiety, 27.Google Scholar

33. Ibid., 7, 88, 109.

34. Ibid., 15, 109.

35. Eden, Charles H., An Inherited Task; or, Early Mission Life in South Africa (Oxford, 1871), 62, preface.Google Scholar Cf. Harris, William Cornwallis, The Wild Sports of Southern Africa (London, 1839), 93109.Google Scholar Eden's main plagiarisms or close paraphrases from “Isaacs” (in parentheses) occur at 58(48), 62-64(262-67), 66(270), 67(281), 68(269).

36. Ritter's clumsily executed MS was extensively revised by Edward Hyam at the request of Longman, the publishers; the original (Killie Campbell Collection, Durban) indicates that the suppression of at least some acknowledgments was initiated by Hyam, though Ritter must have been aware of this. The most prominent examples of plagiarisms are Ritter: 7-15 (Bryant: 70-79); 16-17 (48-9, 62-63); 21 (63); 24 (96); 51-52 (66); 57 (123-24); 102-05 (163-67); 193-94 (249-51); 226-28 (564-71); 257-58 (588-91). For unsourced quotations see, e.g., Ritter: 205-06, 226, 231, 258, 277, 290. For quotations of Isaacs via Bryant, see, e.g., Ritter: 226 (cf Bryant: 567); 257 (589); 266 (598-99); 290 (620). All Ritter quotations are from the Panther edition (1976). For Bryant's plagiarisms see Wright, J. B., “The Dynamics of Power and Conflict in the Thukela-Mzimkhulu Region in the Late 18th and Early 19th Centuries: A Critical Reconstruction,” (PhD., University of the Witwatersrand, 1989), chapter 3.Google Scholar

37. See Thompson, /Wilson, , Oxford History, 342–44nGoogle Scholar; Omer-Cooper, J. D., The Zulu Aftermath (London, 1966), 3033nGoogle Scholar; Shaka“, in The Standard Encyclopaedia of South Africa (Cape Town, 1973), 9: 599Google Scholar; Ngcongco, L. D., “The Mfecane and the Rise of New African States,” in Ajayi, J. F. Ade, ed., General History of Africa, VI: Africa in the Nineteenth Century Until the 1880s (Berkeley, 1989), 104.Google Scholar

38. Bryant, , Olden Times, 641Google Scholar; Ritter, , Shaka Zulu, 299Google Scholar; cf. Brookes, E and Webb, C. DeB., A History of Natal (Pietermaritzburg, 1965), 14.Google Scholar

39. Watt, Elizabeth Paris, Febana (London, 1962), 128–30.Google Scholar Cf. Millin, Sarah Gertrude, King of the Bastards (London, 1950), 242ff.Google Scholar

40. I have dealt in more detail with some of these issues in “Language and Assassination“, an unpublished paper presented to the colloquium, The Mfecane Aftermath: Towards a New Paradigm” (University of the Witwatersrand, 6-9 September 1991).Google Scholar

41. Quoted in Bloom, , Anxiety, 51.Google Scholar

42. Ibid., 14, 85.

43. Cf. Fynn, , Diary, 84Google Scholar; Bird, John, ed., Annals of Natal (Pietermaritzburg, 1888), 1: 8183Google Scholar; Bryant, , Olden Times, 579Google Scholar; Ritter, , Shaka Zulu, 232–34.Google Scholar

44. Bryant footnotes (662) that there were no eyewitness accounts of the assassination, only “conflicting Native reports.” If he actually had heard Zulu accounts, he ignored them and gave “Isaacs'” version primacy. Nowhere does he mention that less craven traditions were in fact to hand; indeed, Fynney, F. B., Zululand and the Zulus (Pietermaritzburg, [ca. 1880]), 8Google Scholar, noted: “It has been asserted that when stabbed, Tyaka begged most pitifully for mercy, but I have not been able to obtain any testimony which would bear out this statement.”

45. Ritter, , Shaka Zulu, 308–09.Google Scholar

46. Haggard, , Nada the Lily, 185Google Scholar; he derived his version from F. B. Fynney, Zululand. The “swallows” metaphor was circulating at least as early as 1924 (Stuart, James, “Tshaka, the Great Zulu Despot“, United Empire, 15: 1924: 106Google Scholar); and the prophecy, not surprisingly, could be integrated into later stories in support of white settlement; e.g., Crafford, F. S., The Place of Dragons (Cape Town, 1964)Google Scholar; Crafford uses Piet Retief as his mouthpiece.

47. Isaacs, , Travels, 262–63.Google Scholar

48. Wörger, W, “Clothing Dry Bones: The Myth of Shaka,” Journal of African Studies, 6/3 (1979): 147.Google Scholar

49. Ritter, , Shaka Zulu, 17Google Scholar; Bryant, , Olden Times, 63.Google Scholar

50. Thompson, /Wilson, , Oxford History, 350.Google Scholar

51. Ritter, , Shaka Zulu, 68, 297.Google Scholar

52. Davenport, T. R. H., South Africa: A Modern History (London, 1987), 16, 74.Google Scholar

53. Heaney, Seamus, The Government of the Tongue (London, 1988), 97.Google Scholar

54. Woodman, , Rhetoric, 8.Google Scholar

55. Isaacs, , Travels, 130–32.Google Scholar

56. Bryant, , Olden Times, xii, 640.Google Scholar

57. cf. ibid., 24, 71. An even more prominent example is in his History of the Zulu (Cape Town, 1964), 74.Google Scholar This is closely echoed, for example, by the opening of Becker's, PeterPath of Blood (Harmondsworth, 1972), 22.Google Scholar The myth also underpins the static quality almost universally assumed in southern African societies before the advent of Shaka. It occurs even in such works as The Oxford History of South Africa (“the African system which had existed for several centuries was revolutionized from within” [334]) and Omer-Cooper's Zulu Aftermath, chapter 1.

58. Bryant, , Olden Times, 174.Google Scholar

59. Except for a tenuous possibility in Mkehlangana's and Mmemi's accounts in Wright, J. B. and Webb, C. DeB., eds., The James Stuart Archive (4 vols.: Pietermaritzburg, 19761986), 3: 211, 270Google Scholar: Mmemi states: “Zwide defeated Tshaka twice [!] at Kwa Gcori hill.…” Cf. the very different accounts of Mmemi (3: 270-72) and of Jantshi (1: 184-86).

60. Ritter, , Shaka Zulu, 116–34.Google Scholar

61. See Morris, , Washing of the Spears, 6162Google Scholar; Omer-Cooper, , Zulu Aftermath, 32Google Scholar; Bulpin, T. V., Natal and the Zulu Country (Cape Town, 1966), 35Google Scholar; Selby, John, Shaka's Heirs (London, 1971), 4853Google Scholar; Roberts, Brian, The Zulu Kings (London, 1974), 5152Google Scholar; Smail, J. L., From the Land of the Zulu Kings (Durban, 1979), 22Google Scholar; Parsons, Neil, A New History of Southern Africa (London, 1982), 58Google Scholar; Davenport, T. R. H., South Africa: A Modern History (1987), 18Google Scholar; Hall, Lynn Bedford, Shaka: Warrior King of the Zulus (Cape Town, 1987), 12Google Scholar; Omer-Cooper, J. D., A History of Southern Africa (London, 1988), 56Google Scholar; Ballard, Charles, The House of Shaka (Durban, 1988), 16.Google Scholar Other studies exclude the name but retain such epithets as “tactically brilliant defence,” as in Walter, E. V., Terror and Resistance, 158.Google Scholar The most recent studies rightly omit it altogether: e.g., Hamilton, Carolyn, “Ideology, Oral Traditions and the Struggle for Power in the Early Zulu Kingdom” (MA, University of the Witwatersrand, 1985), 172Google Scholar; Wright, John and Hamilton, Carolyn, “Traditions and Transformations” in Duminy, A. and Guest, B., eds., Natal and Zululand: From Earliest Times to 1910: A New History (Pietermaritzburg, 1989), 67.Google Scholar

62. Barthes, , Writing Degree Zero, 3233.Google Scholar

63. Bryant, , Olden Times, 618–20.Google Scholar

64. Bloom, , Anxiety of Influence, 14.Google Scholar

65. Fynn, , Diary, 20, 134Google Scholar; Thompson, Leonard, A History of South Africa (New Haven, 1990), 85.Google Scholar

66. Bryant, , Olden Times, 649.Google Scholar

67. Barthes, , Writing Degree Zero, 16.Google Scholar

68. van der Post, Laurens, The Dark Eye in Africa (London, 1956), 95.Google Scholar

Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Textual Incest: Nathaniel Isaacs and the Development of the Shaka Myth
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Textual Incest: Nathaniel Isaacs and the Development of the Shaka Myth
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Textual Incest: Nathaniel Isaacs and the Development of the Shaka Myth
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *