The early decades of the nineteenth century witnessed a demographic upheaval that accompanied a dramatic and violent realignment of African states in the interior of southern Africa. In colonial historiography (and in South African state schools until the end of the twentieth century), this was depicted as a period of ‘savage tribal warfare’, initiated by the rapid rise of Shaka’s Zulu Kingdom. In this historiography, Shaka was the unbridled tyrant at the centre of the mayhem. This view was heavily influenced by the published evidence of two British traders at Port Natal Henry Francis Fynn and Nathaniel Isaacs despite the latter freely admitting that he had exaggerated his account for dramatic effect. In what became known as the mfecane (the ‘crushing’), it was claimed that Shaka’s regiments devastated the region driving people to starvation and cannibalism to the extent that the territory south of the Tugela River became an ‘empty land’, and thus (conveniently) available for white settlement. In due course, this historiography became a justification for what became, in the 1840s, the colony of Natal. It was further related that the total and ‘constant warfare’ of the Zulu Kingdom drove refugees and raiders across the Drakensburg onto the highveld, where they set in motion a difaqane (‘scattering’) that caused similar levels of starvation and cannibalism and making ‘empty land’ available for subsequent occupation by emigrants Boers from the eastern Cape Colony.
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