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

  • Dan Wylie (a1)


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.



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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 This paper is based on an unpublished paper entitled Utilizing Isaacs: One Thread in the Development of the Shaka Myth“, delivered to the Natal History Workshop, University of Pietermaritzburg,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. 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) 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.

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

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

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

7. The others are The Diary of Henry Francis Fynn (Pietermaritzburg, 1950), 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). 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.

9. Isaacs, , Travels, ed. Hermann, Louis (2 vols.: Cape Town [1836] 1936), 131, 203. 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), 203; cf. Isaacs, , Travels, 2: 251.

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

12. Isaacs, , Travels, 10.

13. Isaacs, , Travels, xixxx; 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): 2231; and Woodman, A J, Rhetoric in Classical Historiography: Four Studies (Portland, 1988), 1223.

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): 6379; 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, 153; 2: 66, 325-29.

18. For the children see Kirby, “Further Facts;” for executions, see Isaacs', Travels, 2: 94, 132. The case for at least some involvement in slaving is circum-stantial but strong: Fynn admitted to Zulus trading in slaves (Fynn, , Diary, 48, 5556); there are several documented Portuguese visits to Zululand, including a slaving vessel running aground at Port Natal (Isaacs, , Travels, 1: 58; 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), 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], 226–31). Finally, Isaacs later became a confirmed slave dealer in Sierra Leone (see Fyfe, Christopher, A History of Sierra Leone [Oxford, 1962], 239–40, 249, 275–78).

19. Isaacs, , Travels, 275.

20. Ibid., 281.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

29. Isaacs, , Travels, 295; Frazer, James, The Golden Bough (12 vols.: London, 19111915), 4: 3637. In a curious extrapolation of this, Edward Boyd, in his 1957 preface to Haggard's, Nada the Lily (London, 1895), 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.

31. See Torgovnik, Marianna, Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Minds (Chicago, 1990): “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.

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. Cf. Harris, William Cornwallis, The Wild Sports of Southern Africa (London, 1839), 93109. 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.

37. See Thompson, /Wilson, , Oxford History, 342–44n; Omer-Cooper, J. D., The Zulu Aftermath (London, 1966), 3033n; Shaka“, in The Standard Encyclopaedia of South Africa (Cape Town, 1973), 9: 599; 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.

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

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

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).

41. Quoted in Bloom, , Anxiety, 51.

42. Ibid., 14, 85.

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

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]), 8, 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.

46. Haggard, , Nada the Lily, 185; 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: 106); 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); Crafford uses Piet Retief as his mouthpiece.

47. Isaacs, , Travels, 262–63.

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

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

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

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

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

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

54. Woodman, , Rhetoric, 8.

55. Isaacs, , Travels, 130–32.

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

57. cf. ibid., 24, 71. An even more prominent example is in his History of the Zulu (Cape Town, 1964), 74. This is closely echoed, for example, by the opening of Becker's, PeterPath of Blood (Harmondsworth, 1972), 22. 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.

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, 270: 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.

61. See Morris, , Washing of the Spears, 6162; Omer-Cooper, , Zulu Aftermath, 32; Bulpin, T. V., Natal and the Zulu Country (Cape Town, 1966), 35; Selby, John, Shaka's Heirs (London, 1971), 4853; Roberts, Brian, The Zulu Kings (London, 1974), 5152; Smail, J. L., From the Land of the Zulu Kings (Durban, 1979), 22; Parsons, Neil, A New History of Southern Africa (London, 1982), 58; Davenport, T. R. H., South Africa: A Modern History (1987), 18; Hall, Lynn Bedford, Shaka: Warrior King of the Zulus (Cape Town, 1987), 12; Omer-Cooper, J. D., A History of Southern Africa (London, 1988), 56; Ballard, Charles, The House of Shaka (Durban, 1988), 16. Other studies exclude the name but retain such epithets as “tactically brilliant defence,” as in Walter, E. V., Terror and Resistance, 158. 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), 172; 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.

62. Barthes, , Writing Degree Zero, 3233.

63. Bryant, , Olden Times, 618–20.

64. Bloom, , Anxiety of Influence, 14.

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

66. Bryant, , Olden Times, 649.

67. Barthes, , Writing Degree Zero, 16.

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

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

  • Dan Wylie (a1)


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