Home  Back

The Umtetwa

Along the lower part of the Black and White Umfolosi Rivers, in what is now the heart of Zululand, there lived at that time a powerful tribe called the Umtetwa.  Tributary to it along with other small clans was the Amazulu, an insignificant tribe numbering about two thousand, and occupying the land along the upper part of the White Umfolosi. Senzan­gakona was the chief of the Amazuln. The adjoining tribes not owing allegiance to the Umtetwa were the Undwandwe under Zwide, the Amangwana with its chief Matiwana, the Abatembu, and the Amacunu.  Further to the north and nearer Delagoa Bay were the Amaswazi people. These tribes, like those south of the Tugela, had lived for hundreds of years in peace and comfort under the patriarchal rule of their separate chiefs. No wars or rumours of wars disturbed them. About the year 1812 a more turbulent phase of their history began, and the events which led to it, arose out of dissensions in the family of the Umtetwa chief.  These events, apparently unimportant, affected the welfare of all the natives from the Zambesi to St. John's River and were ultimately the cause of Natal becoming a British colony.


The Assegai Wound.

The old Umtetwa chief Jobe had two sons, Tana and Godongwana Tana was nominated by his father as his successor, and dwelt with his brother in one of the royal kraals.  Impatient to occupy his father's seat, he, and Godongwana plotted the murder of the old chief.  The con­spiracy was found out and the brothers hut was surrounded in the night. All the inmates were slain except Godongwana. He leaped the fence and escaped, but with a barbed assegai in his back thrown at him in the darkness.  The wounded man concealed himself in the bush, where he was found next day by his sister. She extracted the spearhead, dressed his wound, and enabled him to disguise himself so as to escape detection. At first he wandered about among the neighbouring tribes, often having hairbreadth escapes from the emissaries of his father. Native traditions aver that his life was miraculously preserved.  After some time he disappeared, and for ten or fifteen years nothing was heard of Godongwana.  Old Jobe was gathered to his fathers, and a new chief reigned over the Umtetwa people.


Return of the Wanderer.

All at once strange stories began to find their way to the kraals on the Umfolosi of a young chief who was coming from the south, along the base of the Kahlamba, and who was exciting the greatest interest and astonishment among the tribes on his route by reason of two strange animals which accompanied him, and on one of which he sat. Before that time none of the natives north of the Umzimvubu had ever seen a horse. The horseman advanced by slow stages to the  Umtetwa kraals.  By the time he arrived it was generally be­lieved that he was the long-exiled Godongwana. His wonderful escapes, his mysterious disappearance, and the unknown animals he brought with him, all favoured his being regarded with superstitious reverence. When he showed the scar on his back, he was hailed with acclamations as the rightful chief of the Umtetwa.  "His wound is his witness," the people said. Godongwana no longer, he assumed the name of Dingiswayo, the Wanderer.



During his years of banishment Dingiswayo had lived in the Cape Colony, probably in the service of some colonist. He had observed there that the white men had a standing army properly officered and divided into regiments and companies. So when he returned as chief of his tribe he brought back with him the idea of union and organised combination as opposed to petty tribal jealousies and individual weakness. The Umtetwa people were not long in discovering that in Dingiswayo they had found their master. They listened to his counsels, and he was soon able to mould the various actions of the tribe into a strong military force. He divided his young men into regiments, distinguishing each by a different name and by the colour of the shields. Their weapon was the long-handled spear, or umkonto, which was thrown at the enemy from a distance.

Besides re-organising his tribe and founding a military system, Dingiswayo cultivated the arts of peace. He opened a trade with the Portuguese at Delagoa Bay, and he estab­lished a manufactory for karosses where over a hundred men were constantly employed.  He offered rewards for new and ornamental designs for pillows, snuff-spoons, milk-dishes, and ladles.  A table and chair were sent as a gift to the chief from who fully recognised his favourite's extraordinary military ability as well as his loyalty to himself. As a tributary chief, Chaka joined in all Dingiswayo's raids. Together they at­tacked the Amangwana under Matiwana about 1812 and drove them across the Buffalo. The fugitives forced their way with rapine and bloodshed through the country of the Amahlubi and settled themselves under the Drakensberg near the Tugela waterfall.  The Amahiubi was thus the first Natal tribe displaced and scattered by the warlike wave from the north.  It was a tribe weakened by internal strife, and it presented no united front to the foe. Some of the Amahlubi fled across the Berg into what is now the Orange Free State Province; others made their way to the Cape frontier; while a  feeble  remnant  under  Langalibalele  remained  in part of their old land near the sources of the Umzinyati, in what is now the Utrecht division of Natal. They afterwards became Zulu tributaries.


Dingiswayo's Death.

The great chief of the Umtetwa fell a victim to the vin­dictiveness of a woman.   On one of his forays into the Andwandwe country, probably about 1818, Dingiswayo was with the advance guard of his army and was taken prisoner by Zwide.  Mindful of the magnanimity so often manifested by Dingiswayo when he was in a similar predicament, Zwide wished to liberate his captive.  But his mother, Tombazi, bearing malice in her heart, persuaded him to put his generous enemy to death.  Zwide's people then overran Dingiswayo's country, and the Umtetwa people took refuge with Chaka. They have ever since formed part of the Amazulu nation, though keeping their distinctive tribal name.  By their accession the originally small and despised Zulu tribe became a dreaded power in the hands of Chaka.

Chaka's Army.

Chaka was a merciless savage, with all Dingiswayo's desire for conquest but none of his generosity.  His ambition was made of sterner stuff, and he entirely disapproved of Dingiswayo's policy of releasing prisoners and of allowing vanquished enemies to re-occupy their land. By the defeat of his powerful neighbour, Zwide, who had all along defied Dingiswayo and himself, and by the submission of the Undwandwe tribe, he gained another numerous addition to his army. Chaka spared only the young men of the tribes he conquered. The old men, women, and children were invariably destroyed, sometimes with the most atrocious cruelties, as "they only consumed the food which made young warriors strong." Instead of the handful of long spears for throwing with which each soldier had hitherto been armed, only one short broad­bladed spear-the irwa or stabbing assegai-was allowed to each warrior.  That ensured their coming to close quarters with the enemy, and any one returning from battle without his weapon or that of his foe was immediately put to death. Cowardice or suspected cowardice was also punished with death. The soldiers were not allowed to marry lest the tender ties of wife and children should alienate their hearts from martial pursuits.  Military kraals were placed all over the country, and the time not occupied in fighting was dev6ted to military drill, singing, dancing, and athletic games.

Each regiment numbered about 1,500 and was distinguished by the colour of the shield. The "Ironsides" or tried warriors carried white shields with one or two black spots.  A warrior in full dress was a more impressive figure.  A thick pad of otter skin covered his head and projected over the forehead, imparting a ferocious look to his appearance.  This fillet was graced by a single long crane feather in front and a bunch of feathers of all kinds and hues at the back, while from its sides and covering his ears depended pieces of jackal skin.    

Strips of ox skin of divers colours covered his body, from the neck to the waist, and his right arm.  The left or shield arm was bare.  A costly simba or war-kilt, made of four hundred rolls of civet skin, hung from the waist to the knee.  The lower part of the leg was covered with white tails attached to a garter, and suffles of skin protected the ankle.  Sandals, worn before Chaka's time, were by him forbidden as they impeded the movements of his warriors.

Chaka had also cadet corps.  All the cadet companies had black shields, each company being distinguished by a differently shaped and ornamented head-dress. Veteran regiments were allowed to retire after a certain period of service and the warriors to marry; the cadets were then promoted to the regular army. When an impi or war-party was sent out, only the general was entrusted with the secret of its destination, so that the devoted victims could know nothing of the intended onslaught till the awful war-chant of the Zulus sounded in their ears.   If Chaka was satisfied that the spears of his warriors had been bathed in blood and that the enemy's country had been thoroughly looted, then the regiments were feasted and a share of the spoil was allotted to them; on the other hand, the failure or partial failure of an expedition was the signal for the massacre of half the men with the most cold-blooded cruelty.  The Zulu soldier knew that he must either as

"Victor exult, or in death he laid low"

by the spear of his foe or ignominiously on his return, as "a man who had dared to fly."

Chaka ruled by terror only.   Life and death depended on his caprice.   His striking personal appearance, his iron will, and the reputation, which he had of being more than human, compelled the submission and fear of his people. From his relentless cruelty and ferocity he has been called the "Hyena-Man."  His immense size gained him the designation of "Great Elephant," and the royal kraal on the Umfolosi was thence known as Umgungundhlovu  the place of the great elephant, a name naturally transferred in after years by the natives to Maritzburg, the Umgungundhlovu or seat of government of the white man.


Chaka's Conquests.

The tribes south of the Tugela soon began to suffer from the new military power, which had sprung up in the north. The Abatembu and the Amacunu, living on the Lower Buffalo and the only remaining check to the extension of Chaka's power in that direction, were speedily attacked and driven south.   These tribes caused much misery in their progress southward through the western part of Natal.  The Natal natives had hitherto only played at fighting and were quite unable to cope with invaders whose proximity to Chaka had necessitated their acquiring some knowledge of aggressive warfare.  Their huts were burned, and their corn and cattle seized by the passing freebooters.   But worse days were in store for them.   The tribes in the Tugela valley were the first exposed to Cbaka's attack.   Some fled to the south; others surrendered and were permitted to remain as vassals. When the Zulus burst upon the tribes in the valley of the Umvoti, the terrified people endeavoured to make their way south.   Not strong enough singly, the tribes united and, forced their way through, spreading death and desolation as they went.  Self-preservation was the first thought, and all ancient friendships disappeared.   Every man's hand was against his neighbour.  By the time the dreaded Zulu army marched through the land the work of destruction was easily consummated.   All live stock was captured, huts were burned, crops destroyed, and the wretched people speared without mercy.  Before the feet of Chaka's impis the land was like the garden of Eden, and behind them a desolate wilderness. Only those escaped who were able in time to flee their kraals and betake themselves to secret defiles in the mountains or to recesses of the forest.  Many of the tribes, which had fled before the Zulus were overtaken by Chaka and destroyed.   The young men had the choice of death or enlistment in the army of the conqueror. Thousands escaped the spear by boldly penetrating into the country beyond the Umzimvubu and throwing themselves on the mercy of the other kafirs.

Chaka at the zenith of his power had a force of nearly 100,000 warriors, called the Zulu army, but in reality composed of men from nearly every tribe between Delagoa bay and St. John's River.  He added half-a-million of  people to the Zulu nation.  Only the fever-haunted swamps along the Maputa River and the fear of a collision with the Cape colonists prevented Chaka from extending his sway further north and south. Within these boundaries he was supreme.  No human dwelling was allowed south of the ngati or Tongaat River.   Only the herdsmen of  royal cattle could roam as far as the Umzimkulu.  The people he permitted to live were kept under his own eye. By banishing the conquered natives from their ancient homes, by murdering their chiefs, Chaka hoped to destroy all tribal associations and in time to make them Zulus in g as well as in name.  During his reign of terror Chaka calculated to have destroyed 300 tribes and extended his power 500 miles north, south, and west.   He, in truth, “waded through slaughter to a throne, and shut the the gates of on mankind."



          The  devastation of Natal was complete. Remnants of some of the tribes yet lingered in the country and found hiding-places in the dense bush of the river valleys and in the gorges of the mountains. But their condition was most pitiable.  Most of them had escaped the assegai only to perish by hunger.  It was hazardous to cultivate their mealie gardens, for there was the danger of being seen by a Zulu impi if they ventured to stay too long in the open ground.  So long as their dogs, the only domestic animal remaining to them, were fairly well fed, the wretched people could still capture game.  Even that resource, however, soon failed them.  The dogs were starved, could not hunt, and were then killed and eaten.  For years thousands of people must have subsisted on roots, some of them of a poisonous nature.  One species-an insane root, that takes the reason prisoner"---could not be eaten with safety until it had been boiled for twenty-four hours.   If that precaution were not observed, insanity was the dreadful consequence.  In that state the poor creatures would throw themselves over precipices or become the prey of the hyena and the panther.  Hyenas became so bold as to attack men and women and carry off children.   The Amatuli were reduced to such straits by hunger that they took to eating fish, an abomination to all other kafir tribes.  Their cattle were all taken and their crops destroyed, but, although the tribe dwindled down to a very small number, they never left their ancient residence on the Bluff.

To add to the horrors of that unhappy period, a man of the Amadunge tribe named Undava began the disgusting practice of eating human flesh.   He soon collected a band of natives from his own and other tribes who hunted the country for human beings as tigers do for their prey.  They began it from necessity and continued it from choice.  The Amadunge chief himself was one of their victims.  Cannibalism continued to be practised until Dingaan drove the last of the man eaters from the Biggarsberg, about the time of the arrival of the Dutch farmers.

Nomsimekwana's escape.

Nomsimekwana, the chief oŁ the Amanyamvu, told Sir Theophilus Shepstone many years ago how he had escaped from the Cannibals when he was a boy.  In the absence of the men of the tribe, who had gone to search for food, Undava's band of cannibals made a raid on the Amanyamvu and carried off Nomsimekwana with some women and children.   The cannibals drove the captives up the Umsunduzi valley.  They made Nomsimekwana carry a flat-shaped pot and told him it would serve as a lid to the one in which he should be cooked. As the party was passing a deep reach of the river swarming with hippopotami just below Bishopstowe, Nomsimekwana darted from his captors and dived into the water.  The cannibals threw their assegais after him but fortunately missed him.  He hid himself in the reeds till his pursuers were gone. The young chief had sad news to tell the men who had been away seeking for food for their wives and children. The desolate cave in which they took refuge was more desolate than ever, and the men determined to join the Zulu people with whom they would at least be sure of food.


The Amanyamvu.

The history of Nomsimekwana's people is the history of many another Natal tribe.  The Amanyamvu lived on the right bank of the Umgeni below Table Mountain, and the facilities for concealment afforded by that rugged country enabled a remnant of the tribe to successfully defy the Zulu assegais.  They were attacked by Chaka's army and many of the tribe killed.  Some were driven south and scattered among other tribes.  The numbers of those who clung to their old home through all vicissitudes were gradually thinned by the ravages of starvation, of wild beasts, and of equally fierce man-eaters in human form.  They at length abandoned their country and joined a tribe in the Tugela valley tributary to Chaka.  Many of the Amanyamvu were soldiers in the Zulu army and perished from fever near Delagoa Bay.  In the time of Dingaan, the chief Nomsimekwana made his way back to Table Mountain where he was joined at intervals by his people from the Zulu country and elsewhere.

After all the turns of Fortune's wheel, the Amanyamni are again in their ancient home near Table Mountain where they had lived for hundreds of years before Chaka swept across the land.


The Fingoes.

Many thousands of the Natal Kafirs of all tribes, fleeing before the invading hordes from the north, took refuge with the Amaxosa and other kafirs on the Cape frontier.  They were starving and homeless, and the expression used by the first refugees when begging for food and shelter-' 'Fenguza," we are pedlars-obtained for them all the name of Arnafengil or Fingoes.  The Fingoes immediately passed into a state of servitude to the frontier kafirs resembling that of the Laconian helots.  They did not come of a race that would suffer slavery gladly, and they took every opportunity of freeing themselves.  They have always been firm allies of the British.   In the frontier war of 1834 when Hintza, the Galeka chief, was defeated, the Fingoes remained neutral. As an acknowledgment of their friendly attitude, 16,000 of them were formally released from bondage by Sir Benjamin   D'Urban the Governor of the Cape, and settled on land given them on the lower part of the Great Fish River.  They were afterwards removed north of the Kei River to the district now called Fingo Land,


CHAKA BEGAN HIS REIGN of TERROR   -           1818

NATAL DEVASTATED       -                                  1820