AmaNgwane and how their history came to be written

AmaNgwane and how their history came to be written

AmaNgwane are a Nguni-speaking tribe resident in a reserve under the Mont-aux-Sources in Bergville district, Natal. Numbering 30 000 souls, they form one of the largest tribes in the province. A great, an. Eventful, a spectacular caree did they have during the first half of. The past century, and many proud memories of those stirring time still linger amongst them.

“Athi uMgovu kaNdidane “uma benibulele beniyini, nxa senifelwe inkosi yenu?” (And Mgovu asked them, “had they killed you, what would that have mattered, once your chief was lost to you?”)

The quotation above is taken from the narrative of their history which is reproduced in this book. It sums up to my mind the admirable sentiment. Of loyalty and devotion which pervades the whole tale, and makes interesting what would otherwise be merely a record of bloodshed and plunder

The AmaNgwane have played a not inconsiderable part of the earlier history of this country, a part which briefly referred to in the more reliable works of on South African history, but which deserves to be better known as the following outline show

Around the year 1800 amaNgwane were still living peacefully on the White Mfolozi in Northern Natal (near Vryheid). They were an independent tribe; the ancestry of their chiefs cannot. Be connected up with that of any other royal family we know. Their chief was Matiwane, a remarkable man whose name has since become a by-word from Zululand to the Cape. The tribe was attacked by Shaka around 1818 and moved southwards to the Mont-auz-Sources. They (amaNgwane) routed the Hlubi in battle, but soon after, fearing an attack from Shaka, they followed them over the Drankenberg into Basutoland, where they commenced operations amongst the South-Sotho tribes dwelling there.

It should be realised that once a large tribe had been disturbed and was on the march, it had no food supplies for any length of time and not even the seed corn with which to. Start making gardens again, let alone the wherewithal to tide over the time till the next crop. So amaNgwane, like all other tribes in a similar predicament, continued to live on plunder.

They fought many battles amongst others with the Hlubi and also with amaNdebele of Mzilikazi, besides making an abortive attack on Moshoeshoe’s stronghold of Thaba Bosiu. Then they moved down across the Orange River into Tembuland.

In 1828 it so happened that just at the time when amaNgwane re-commenced their raids on the Thembu, Shaka was plundering Pondoland. The governemtn feared that there might be a great influx of refugees into the Colony (cape), with disastrous consequences. Thus it came about that after a preliminary encounter in which Major Dundas took part, a mixed force of regulars, burghers and Hottentots under Lt. Col. Somerset attacked Matiwane at Mbolompo near where Umtata now stands on the 28th August 1828. AmaNgwane were defeated and scattered. Matiwane with a small following went back to the now called Zululand and was murdered by Dingane soon after.

Though the great days of the tribe had ended with the defeat at Mbholompo, the nettative gains rather than loses interest from there onwards. It is impossible not to admire the courage, resource and devotion of men who now march with their chief to what seems certain death at the hands of Dingane, and when Matiwane is slain, flee with his youthful heir Zikhali to Swaziland, save him from death at Sobhuza’s court, again seek refuge in Zululand, plot for freedom with Mpande and finally when opportunity offers, make a dash with him for the safety of Natal and the Mont-aux-Sources.

Thus was the heir to the throne saved and with him the very life of the tribe. For had Matiwane’s house come to an end, the tribe, which was much scattered at the time, would have ceased to exist. But now with Zikhali established in a country of his own, thousands of tribesmen began to re-assemble from every corner of the land. As far afield as Grahamstown where the Chief’s messengers actually sent to announce to the scattered amaNgwane that Matiwane’s son and their heir had come into his own again, and to invite or coerce them to return.

The tribe has never been moved since those times; dwelling far away from the scene as it did, it was spared the tribulations of the Zulu War and the rebellion and has lived as peacefully as the warlike and pugnacious nature of its members has permitted, ever since.

AmaNgwane are thhus a tribe of historical interest and importance. They were the first Nguni-speaking tribe to meet Europeans in open battle and did so within the lifetime of Shaka, and almost of the confines of the Cape Colony, as it was then. The battle was fought and the way they conducted themselves are equally worthy of note. Besides several native versions of it, we are fortunate in also having the report written by LT. Col Somerset shortly after the battle and now preserved in the state archives in Cape Town.

As regards purely native history, the consequences of AmaNgwane migrations were tremendous. It is they who attacked the Hlubi of Mpangazitha and drove them into Basutoland. It is they who, together with the Hlubi turned that country upside-down and brought about chaos out of which the new Basutoland of Moshesh was. To rise.

The wandering of Matiwane and Zikhali lead us through a great part of South-Eastern Africa and especially to the Zulu court of Dingane and that of the Swazi king Sobhuza. The battle with maKholokoe of the chief Wetse, after who Witzieshoek is named, marks the end of the eventful sequence of the wars of the tribe.

Considerable interest also attaches to the origin of the manuscript containing the narrative of Ngwane History reproduced in this book.

Matiwane second son Macingwane became regent after Zikhali’s death. He had a son named Msebenzi who was early recognized as a poet and a lad gifted in many ways. According to the custom of royal houses, he was therefore handed over to an old bard, Siyikiyiki for instruction in the traditional poetry and history of tribe and was permitted to smoke hemp to a certain extent a practice forbidden to other chiefs sons. He proved to be a good pupil and acquired in time a great reputation as a reciter of izibongo (praises) and as a repositoty of tradition. His fine character which also made a lasting impression on myself earned him great standing in the tribe.

However the day came when an accusation of whitchcraft though never very seriously pressed made him leave his country and resolve never to return. He settled near Butha Buthe in Basutoland and intends staying there till the end.

A number of years ago he visited his brothers son the Rev. Albert Hlongwane who is acting inkosana of the Siphahleni royal kraal and lives near it on the Berlin Mission station Hoffenthal which os situated within the AmaNgwane reserve. The old man (he was born ca. 1850) was then still very active mentally and Albert Hlongwane who had always been passionately interested in the affairs of his people suddenly had the inspiration that he must take down in writing what the old man had to tell and so save their tribal history from oblivion.

This he did forgetting all other work and using every mean he had to keep his informant going.

He wrote morning, noon and night even by lamp-light. Day after day, the old man’s words were laboriously written down as he dictated. Zulu is a slow language to write and no abbreviations whatever were used. Thus a great deal of patience and toil were expended and thus did this remarkable manuscript.

I must emphasize that the text is a verbatim report of what Msebenzi said, not a paraphrase by Albert Hlongwane of what he heard. This was proved to me often enough in going through the MS. with him, for not only were many passages obscure to him, but there were words and phrases he did not know at all. Especially was this the case with izibongo of the chiefs, of which only the smaller part was ever completely intelligle.

Experience with such praises elsewhere leads one to regard it as normal that no more than a third should usually be understood by others than the trained reciters of poetry themselves.

In order to clear up such difficulties in the text, to get meaning of Izibongo and obtain additional information especially for the genealogy, I took Albert Hlongwane with me to Butha Buthe in March 1937 to see the old man. I camped there for several days and got as much as possible but it was plain that he was getting old and that te answering of questions fatigued him very much.

He is but another instance of valuable informants being approached too late, for it is quite certain that in his prime he would have been a veritable well of information which is now lost for good and that information was valuable.

The whole story about Masumpa for instance was extracted from Msebenzi at Butha Buthe and it was toold merely by way of explanation of the first line of izibongo of that chief.

It was quite plain that many other anecdotes and data might have similarly obtained from him years ago when he was younger and more active.

Undoubtedly this Msebenzi was a gifted person, his tale proclaims it everywhere. Bearing in mind how difficult it must be to dictate a coherent story at the snail’s pace of longhand writing in Zulu, one is astonished by the naturalness and freshness of the narrative but above all by the effective use of dialogue. I do not remember ever. Having seen anything in the vernacular that shows with equal vividness and vigour how the native tells a tale.

Where possible a dialogue is made to describe what happened in other words everything is dramatised and the narrator himself. Acts each part on turn.

Msebenzi had the further advantaged of being able to quote poetry generously and partly to enliven the tale, in fact one often cannot escape the impression that he was thinking in terms of poetry all the time and merely weaving the narrative around it.

It is told in the text how after the defeat at Mbholompo part of the tribe remained in Cape under several members of the royal house to whom the gave allegiance. These people lost their independence but not their tribal cohesion. In order to ascertain what traditions were still known amongst the descendants of these amaNgwane, I visited the more important sections myself and the Chief Magistrate of the Transkei was good enough to get statements from others through the resident magistrates, all of which assistance is gratefully acknowledged.

These larger sections of amaNgwane are all found in districts adjoining or near Umtata. They all adopted Xhosa language and custom; exactly. How much of their custom still survives I cannot say. But of their traditions there is some part left though largely in the memory of old men, and probably lost to the younger generation.

The battlefield of Mbholompo near Umtata was also visited and I must thank the magistrate Mr. W G Mears for his assistance in that connection but it is difficult to visualise from the available information exactly what happened. These matters dealt with in the chapters following text.

A small but independent section of the tribe occupies a location in Bulwer district under Chief. Vasha also a descendant of Masumpa. This tribe deserves more attention than I have been able to give it but see my remarks in Chapter 28

With the exception of the swazis, who I was not. Able to consult, this exhausts the list of native sources of information I have tapped. It now remains to mention the European sources available.

By far the most interesting are the papers dealing with the invasion of amaNgwane into Tembuland in 1827 and 1825 and especially the reports of Major Dundas and Lt. Col. Somerset. All these are in the Archives in Cape Town. There are very few items of original information. In any printed. Sources, excepting Ellenberger’s “History of the Basuto” 1912 an invaluable and excellent work, which only contains flights of fancy in the chapter.

Brant on the othe hand (“Olden Times in Zululand and Natal” 192?) Mixes fact and fancy throughout a book which is, in spite of that indispensable.

The earliest information about Zikhali’s tribe in the archives in Maritzburg dates from 1852 and the subsequent papers I could find are not of much importance. It would appear that many documents of value have been lost or mislaid. Only one other file is of interest, viz. That on the murder of Moncrieff and the trial of Ngazana. These papers are also in archives in Maritzburg.

The information given in the genealogy is more detailed than strictly necessary to understand of the text but this matter is of great interest to the tribe itself. And moreover throws a very instructive light on the family affairs and organisation of the dynasty of one of the biggest tribes in Natal

It is a pleasure to recall the generous assistance given by officials of the department and of the archives and the many kindness of Rev. C Schimann of Emmaus and Rev. O Bruggemann of Rosenstein without Albert Hlongwane’s unflagging interest the manuscript would of course never have seen the light

The book titled ‘History of Matiwane and the Ngwane Tribe’ was written as told by Msebenzi Hlongwane to his kinsman Rev. Albert Hlongwane. It was edited and supplemented by Archive Documents and other material by N.J. Van Warmelo who was the government ethnologist

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2 thoughts on “AmaNgwane and how their history came to be written

  1. Amamgwane were not the first Nguni speaking tribe to encounter whites in Battale…in the 1820’s amaXhosa had long been engaged in war against white people.

  2. On that, I fully agree. Historical records at the British Library show that during and after Napoleon’s death, the British Army was already involved in Frontier Wars, and preceeeding that, they were busy fighting and dispossessing, and forming alliances with the Khoi.

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