A Small, and Scarcely Perceptible Pathway to uMgungundlovu

Ettore Morelli

In Southern Africa at the beginning of the nineteenth-century, men and women travelled to distant places, packing their baggage with trade goods, rumors of wars and calamities, and hope and ambition. Signs of their passage could be found even in some of the most inhospitable environment, the mountain passes of the modern Drakensberg.

Strangers at Thaba Bosiu

On the second day of July 1833 a party of ten travellers arrived at Thaba Bosiu, the flat-topped hill where Moshoeshoe had his village, on the southern fringes of the Highveld. They were the subjects of ‘Tikani’, a ‘very powerful chief’ who lived in a town called ‘Matlakein’ or ‘Mossignasse’, and they had journeyed for ten days, crossing the mountains during the cold winter and getting to their destination the morning after a heavy snowfall. They were traders.

On the hilltop they met a young Frenchman who asked them questions about their travel. ‘Matlakein’, the town of ‘Tikani’, was at fourteen ‘sleeps’ from Thaba Bosiu, they said, travelling east-north-east. Three days further, in the same direction, there was the sea: seventeen days from Thaba Bosiu. The Frenchman would later write in his journal that ‘Tikani’ was the brother of ‘Chaka’, and his murderer, transcribing imperfectly the names of Dingane and Shaka.1Journal of Thomas Arbousset, Morija 17 July 1833, Journal des Missions Évangèliques 9 (1834), 33-64, 58-59.  On the other hand, the names he wrote for that distant town did not sound at all like uMgungundlovu, the place we know as the capital of the Zulu king in 1833.

This curious traveller went by the name of Thomas Arbousset and, on the 28th of June, he had reached Thaba Bosiu with Eguène Casalis and François Gosselin: a small group of two missionaries and an artisan moved by the objective of building a mission station for the Société des Missions Évangèliques de Paris. A few months before Moshoeshoe, as the story goes, had received at Thaba Bosiu Adam Krotz, an emancipated slave who had come from the Cape Colony to hunt and trade. After hearing the news, he sent Krotz back with cattle, in order to find missionaries for his kingdom. As it turned out, Moshoeshoe’s first and main preoccupation was to establish a trade connection with the Colony.

The request reached Philippolis, a London Missionary Society station on the Orange river, and then Cape Town, where the three Frenchmen had just disembarked. They were bound for the region north of the Vaal river, where their Society had established the mission of Motito among the Batlhaping and Barolong, but decided to change their destination once they spoke with Krotz at Philippolis. Fascinated by the news of an African ruler calling for missionaries, they ended up in the valleys of modern Lesotho.

By the beginning of July, the missionaries had been speaking for a few days with Moshoeshoe about their project for a mission station. The snowfall prevented them from scouting for the location, but the mission of Morija was eventually established on the 4th of July in a valley bottom, south of Thaba Bosiu. Moshoeshoe sent his two oldest sons, Letsie and Molapo, and an elder subject to build their villages nearby. 2Journal of Thomas Arbousset, Morija 17 July 1833, Journal des Missions Évangèliques 9 (1834), 59-62; Peter Sanders, Moshoeshoe: Chief of the Sotho (London, Nairobi, Ibadan, Lusaka: Heinemann, 1975), 46-59; Leonard Thompson, Survival in Two Worlds: Moshoeshoe of Lesotho, 1786-1870 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 70-104.

The names of Shaka, Dingane, and Mzilikazi had already appeared on the pages of the Journal des Missions Évangèliques, the periodical of the missionary society, with the letters sent by the brethren who lived north of the Vaal and whose mission station at Motito was endangered by the war raging between the king of the amaZulu and Mzilikazi. 3Extracts from letters of the missionaries Rolland and Pellissier, Journal des Missions Évangèliques 8 (1833), 97-111. Before that morning of July 1833, however, all that Arbousset, Casalis, and Gosselin knew about the amaZulu was hearsay or came through the press: at Thaba Bosiu for the first time they spoke with the subjects of the Zulu king. They started there and then to collect bits of information, correcting over time their spellings, and writing detailed pieces on the margins of their main evangelical and ethnographical interest, the Basotho.

The route to uMgungundlovu: the travel account and the map

Arbousset, in particular, was more keen to travel and explore than his fellow, Casalis, who focused on pastoral care and politics at Morija and Thaba Bosiu. Almost three years after their arrival, in March 1836, he took to the field with a newcomer missionary, François Daumas, to explore a large tract of the Highveld south of the Vaal. 4Letter of François Daumas, Thomas Arbousset, Morija, 16 June 1836, Journal des Missions Évangèliques 11 (1836), 321-329. They first travelled along the undulating northern bank of the Caledon river, but once they reached the capital of the Batlokoa of Sekonyela, Merabeng, they changed their minds. Arbousset’s interest for the mountains and what laid beyond was still much alive, but he was not alone in this: in the previous months, Dutch farmers started to cross the colonial border into the Highveld, and were now discussing how to reach the land of Natal.

Instead of proceeding northwards across the plains, the missinonaries turned south towards the mountains, ‘which so far as known, no European foot had yet trode’. The reason was officially to investigate possible fields of evangelisation, but this also gave the occasion to track down the trade route that led across the range, to the lands near the sea. 5 Thomas Arbousset, Relation d’un voyage d’exploration au nord-est de la Colonie du Cape de Bonne-Espérance, entrepris dans le mois de mars, avril et mai 1836 par Mm. T. Arbousset et F. Daumas (Paris: Arthus Bertrand, 1842), 83; Thomas Arbousset, Narrative of An Exploratory Tour North-East of the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope by the Revs. T. Arbousset and F. Daumas, translated from the French of the Rev. T. Arbousset by John Croumbie Brown (Cape Town: A. S. Robertson and Saul Solomon, 1846), 42. Their ‘most experienced’ guide, Monaile, a Motlokoa, warned that the mountains were ‘infested with hyaenas, tigers, lions, and even cannibals’, that there was ‘no beaten track’, and they could ‘perish from hunger’, if he lost his way, but they decided to proceed, accompanied by the Methodist missionary of Merabeng. 6Arbousset, Narrative, 43; Arbousset, Relation, 84-85.

Significantly, the first step of this diversion was back in the direction of Thaba Bosiu. About halfway between the two capitals, in the region of Koeneng, the guides brought them to a large rock, with a cave: it was a lodgement for the travellers to Dingane’s, but also the shelter Moshoeshoe employed when hunting antelopes in the mountains. The country was marked by abandoned villages and –as said by Monaile – had been theatre of a war with the ‘Matebeles’,7Arbousset, Narrative, 43-44; Arbousset, Relation, 85-87.one of the names that the peoples of the Highveld gave to those coming from the coast. 8Norman Etherington, Great Treks: The Transformation of Southern Africa, 1815-1854 (London: Longman, 2001), xv-xvi, 75-77.

The next day the travellers climbed atop the first peak of the Maloti range, and were discouraged seeing that, to the south-east and east, no clear track across the mountains could be found. Arbousset wrote that ‘there appeared to be nothing before us but a world of mountains piled one above another in strange confusion, which seemed to rise and recede from us as we approached’. 9Arbousset, Narrative, 44; Arbousset, Relation, 88.

Leaving Koeneng behind and travelling North-East, then East, the party crossed the many rivulets that run down towards the upper Caledon, and reached Botha Bothe, the old hilltop village of Moshoeshoe. Twice besieged by the Batlokoa in 1823 and 1824, Moshoeshoe was forced to leave his native valleys and relocated to the south, occupying the hilltop of Thaba Bosiu. 10Sanders, Moshoeshoe, 27-35; Thompson, Survival, 38-51. Peace – for the moment – reigned, and the region was ruled by Mota, brother of Sekonyela, who gave the travellers another guide. On this occasion the party was also joined by Tlokoa hunters. 11Arbousset, Narrative, 48-50; Arbousset, Relation, 96-101.

Further upstream they arrived at ‘Intluana-Chuana’, a locality known for the platinum extracted from a ravine. The mineral was ground, mixed with fat and charcoal, and employed as body smear. The inhabitants were ‘once cannibals’, but treated them kindly. 12Arbousset, Narrative, 51; Abousset, Relation, 101-102. Indeed, during the travel fearful stories of dangerous ‘cannibals’ were told by guides and villagers, and were associated with the wildest landscape and impoverished or hostile communities. No act of anthropophagy was ever witnessed by Arbousset, but he nonetheless believed to have discovered ‘cannibalism’ in Southern Africa and his pages became one of the first footings for this colonial trope in the region, strongly connecting it with the wars fought in the 1820s against the ‘Matabele’. 13Arbousset, Narrative,vi, 52-61; Abousset, Relation, vii, 105-123. For context, David B. Coplan, “History is Eaten Whole: Consuming Tropes in Sesotho Auriture”, History and Theory 32, no. 4 (1993), 80-104; Peter Delius, “Recapturing Captives and Conversations with ‘Cannibals’: In Pursuit of a Neglected Stratum in South African History”, Journal of Southern African Studies 36, no. 1 (March 2010), 7-23. A critical voice on Arbousset’s descripitons of ‘cannibals’ came in 1847 from the French hunter and explorer Adulphe Delegorgue, Voyage dans l’Afrique Australe notamment dans le territoire de Natal dans celui des Cafres Amazoulous et Makatisses et jusqu’au Tropique du Capricorne exécuté durant les années 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842 & 1844, accompagné de dessins et cartes (Paris: A. René et Ce., 1847, 2 volumes, vol. 2, 545-546. The travellers were getting close to the sources of the Caledon. The environment got rougher and Arbousset and Daumas decided to send the party back to Merabeng. They, on the other hand, went straight east with only Monaile, who would not leave them, and two horses. They managed to trace the ‘small, and scarcely perceptible pathway’ that came from Thaba Bosiu and went to ‘Mococutluse’ – uMgungundlovu, now clearly recognisable in a hybrid Sesotho-French form, and started the hike across the mountains. 14Arbousset, Narrative, 62. The original French text bears the spelling ‘Mococoutlouse’. Arbousset, Relation, 126.

The path ran close to the highest mountain region of Southern Africa. The vertical ramparts of modern Golden Gate towered upon the travellers as immense fortifications, silence conjured in them ‘deep thoughts and dreams of the past’, and caves offered them resting places along the route. Walking past the grave of a more unfortunate traveller – a Motlokoa – Arbousset, Daumas, and their guide hiked all day and reached the valley beyond, near modern Witzie’s Hoek, at night, shocked and worn out by fatigue and hunger. They camped on the banks of a river, lost, fearing to be close to the villages of the ‘Bamakakanas’, a ‘cannibal nation’ of ‘Matebele’. The next day they decided not to procede further towards the sea, and explored for some days the rest of that section of the mountain range. 15Arbousset, Narrative, 62-65; Arbousset, Relation, 125-131.

Without horses, the missionary noted down, the passage across usually took two days to make, instead of one full day. Villages of Basotho and ‘Matebele’ ‘cannibals’ were the only human presence on the two sides of the Maloti, but small and big game was plentiful, from the hartebeest to the eland. Instead of being entirely foreign to him, the environment reminded Arbousset of the Cévennes, north of the region of Montpellier where he was born, but was much more sparsely inhabited. 16Arbousset, Narrative, 65-69; Arbousset, Relation, 131-139.

During the exploration the missionaries noticed a massif whence several springs flowed, and called it Mont-aux-Sources. Arbousset explained that the rivers Orange, the Caledon, the Nahamadi or Elands, and the Thukela all originated from the mountain, and went in the four cardinal directions. The Basotho, on the other hand, called the mountain Phofung, ‘the Place of the Eland’, because they frequently hunted the large antelope there, as across the whole range, and told stories of their raids on the ‘herds’ of the ‘imaginary shepherd’, ‘Unkonagnana’ or ‘little nose’. To the eland they also sang a thoko, or praise poem. This poem is among the first forms of literature recorded in Sesotho and it is worth noticing that is about an animal that possessed a strong symbolic value also for the hunters of the Drakensberg, the people often referred to as San. 17Arbousset, Narrative, 45-48, 70-71; Arbousset, Relation, 91-95, 142-144; Patricia Vinnicombe, People of the Eland: Rock Paintings of the Drakensberg Bushmen as a Reflection of their Life and Thought (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 2009 [1976]); David Lewis-Williams, Sam Challis, Deciphering Ancient Minds: The Mystery of San Bushman Rock Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2011).


From the summit of Phofung, if Arbousset and Daumas had climbed its ramparts, they would have seen the lowlands stretching towards the sea in the direction of Port Natal, where European traders had built their base in the 1820s, and the hilly hinterland of uMgungundlovu. 18Albert Brutsch, “Arbousset and the Discovery of Mont-Aux-Sources”, Lesotho. Basutoland Notes and Records 7 (1968), 49-56. They decided instead to trace their steps back to the Caledon valley, joined the rest of the party and rode to the grassy plains where the Society wanted to establish a new mission.

The missionaries came back to Morija two months and two days after their departure. They sent a first report of their ‘missionary and geographical expedition’ to their missionary society in Paris in June 1836, together with the sketch of a map that was then printed in Paris. Both were published on the missionary periodical, the Journal des Missions Évangèliques. 19“Carte du Voyage de Mrs. Mrs. les Missionnaires T. Arbousset & F. Daumas au nord des Bassoutos. Morija Juin 1836”, and Letter of François Daumas, Thomas Arbousset, Morija, 16 June 1836, Journal des Missions Évangèliques 11 (1836), pages between 320 and 321, 321-329; The publication was highly regarded in France, in particular for the ‘discovery’ of Mont-Aux-Sources and of the sources of the Orange and other major rivers: in November 1836 the Bibliothèque Royale asked for copies of all the maps printed by the Journal, while the Société de Géographie praised the two ‘intrepid missionaries’ and asked permission to reprint their report in the geographical bulletin, and to print and sell 500 copies of the map. 20Letter Bibliothèque Royale to Société des Missions Évangèliques de Paris, Paris 27 November 1836, and Letter Société de Géographie to Société des Missions Évangèliques de Paris, Paris 25 November 1836, Journal des Missions Évangèliques 11 (1836), 383-384.

The map, titled ‘Carte du Voyage de Mrs. Mrs. les Missionnaires T. Arbousset & F. Daumas au nord des Bassoutos. Morija Juin 1836’, actually represented a greater region going from the Orange-Vaal confluence and Kuruman in the west to the coast of modern KwaZulu in the east, and from modern Eastern Cape in the south to modern Magaliesberg in the north. Most details, however, were located in the Maloti-Drakensberg and southern Highveld sections of the map.

The map was published in the same year as another map included in the book by Captain Allen F. Gardiner, Narrative of a Journey to the Zoolu Country, 1836. 21Allen F. Gardiner, Narrative of a Journey to the Zoolu Country, in South Africa, by Captain Allen F. Gardiner, R.N., Undertaken in 1835 (London: William Crofts, 1836). Both maps contained the first geographical representation of uMgungundlovu respectively in a French and English publication, and both maps showed how to get to the capital of Dingane. 22The Arbousset map was not analysed by Norman Etherington, who published on the geographical representation of the 1820s wars. Norman Etherington, “A False Emptiness: How Historians May Have Been Misled by Early Nineteenth Century Maps of South-Eastern Africa”, Imago Mundi 56, no. 1 (2004), 67-86. In Gardiner’s map, that was limited only to the coastal region, the route started from Port Natal and crossed the Tukhela going north; in Arbousset’s map a route started from Philippolis, the missionary establishment north of the Orange river, not far from the colonial border, then went to Bethulie, Bersheeba, and reached Morija. From Thaba Bosiu started the ‘route of the indigenous people from Bossiou to Mococoutloufe’, part of which had actually been walked by Arbousset and Daumas a few months before. 23“Carte du Voyage de Mrs. Mrs. les Missionnaires T. Arbousset & F. Daumas au nord des Bassoutos. Morija Juin 1836”, Journal des Missions Évangèliques 11 (1836), pages between 320 and 321.

On the map, the route was clearly shown as comprising ten stops – not fourteen as the 1833 Zulu traders had said, a hint that a longer route existed, skirting around and not across the Golden Gate. The last stop-over appeared to be a village on the other side of the Thukela, in a small pocket of land labelled ‘Remains of the tribe of the Bassoutos’. As for many other details included in the map, no explaination was given in the short report published on the Journal des Missions for this ‘tribe’ of ‘Bassoutos’.

Trade and survival across the escarpment and a former inhabitant of uMgungundlovu

Even without reaching uMgungundlovu, the missionaries could collect further information from various individuals who were born or had travelled on the eastern side of the Maloti. These details became two separate chapters – one on the amaZulu and the other on the amaSwazi and Bapedi – when Arbousset finally published the travel account, printed in Paris in 1842 with the title Relation d’un voyage. Four years later, in 1846, the first English edition came out in Cape Town as Narrative of an Exploratory Tour, while a second English edition was published in London in 1852. 24Arbousset, Relation; Arbousset, Narrative; Thomas Arbousset, Narrative of an Exploratory Tour to the North-East of the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope, by the Revs. T. Arbousset and F. Daumas of the Paris Missionary Society, translated from the French of the Rev. T. Arbousset by John Croumbie Brown, Minister of the United Presbyterian Congregation, Belmont Street, Aberdeen (London: John C. Bishop, 1852). The Paris and Cape Town editions are the sources for the passages mentioned above and below; all three included a slightly altered version of the 1836 map, but the Paris edition alone included engravings and their explaination.

In the book, Arbousset pictured a world that still bore the marks and memories of the wars fought in the early 1820s, but a living world nonetheless, with long distance trade, corporate and individual migration, social rise and social failure.25 In one section of the French map, in modern eastern Free State, the missionary simply wrote ‘deserted towns’. Some of the voices that found their way to its pages are directly or indirectly relevant for our knowledge of uMgungundlovu. One of them was Mumpo, a refugee who lived in Morija. A scarred warrior, Mumpo was born in a community of subjects of the Zulu kingdom referred to as ‘Matlapatlapa’, from the name of the leader who rebelled against the amaZulu and brought them to the mountains. Still independent in 1836 when Arbousset and Daumas had stopped not far from their villages, they had joined an expedition of the Batlokoa of Sekonyela against Dingane, and were subsequently attacked and dispersed by the Zulu king. In 1842 only 7,000 or 8,000 survived, wandering in the mountains overlooking their former villages. 26Arbousset, Narrative, 75-77; Arbousset, Relation, 152-155.

The ‘Bamakakanas’ were another impoverished community of the eastern side of the Maloti, their name likewise coming from a ruler in the recent past. In 1821 they had been raided, their ruler killed, their villages burnt, and they ‘had no resource but cannibalism’. It was near one of their villages that Arbousset, Daumas, and Monaile had slept, fearing for their lives, after crossing the mountain range in 1836. They were among the ‘cannibals’ that constituted one of the main ‘discoveries’ made by the missionaries, but this notwithstanding, lived organised in villages, under a ruler, hunted, herded, cultivated, and traded with the people of the Caledon valley to the point that their ‘manners and external habits’ were changing towards those of the Highveld. 27Arbousset, Narrative, 77; Arbousset, Relation, 155-156.

Indeed, both communities regularly participated in a short range trade network with the Basotho of Moshoeshoe and the Batlokoa of Sekonyela, bringing from the eastern side of the mountains their produce: iron, hoes and pickaxes, tobacco, goats and sheep, and tanned antelope skins. 28Arbousset, Narrative, 77-78; Arbousset, Relation, 156-157. Both these communities were placed on Arbousset’s map on the route to uMgungundlovu, between the mountain range and the ‘remains of the Bassoutos’. The region they occupied is generally associated with the amaHlubi, the amaZizi, and amaNgwane, communities that were involved in the wars of the 1820s and had had both peaceful and bellicose relation with the Caledon and Nahamadi valleys for decades before the outbreak.

In Morija, Arbousset spoke also with somebody who had lived at the very end of the trade route: Rasekuai, a man who had spent ‘four years in the service of Dingan’, in his ‘seraglio’, and was his main informant on the Zulu kingdom. 29This source was already mentioned in John Wright, “Thinking Beyond ‘Tribal Traditions’: Reflections on the Precolonial Archive”, South African Historical Journal 62, no. 2 (2010), 268-286. Arbousset did not describe the settlement, but mentioned that the executions of criminals generally took place only at the capital, apart from when entire villages were destroyed for some grave faults. He also related the functions of the top political institutions of the kingdom, mentioning the same Omthléla and Tapouza that were also described by Gardiner as the two main councillors of Dingaane. 30Arbousset, Narrative, 137-141; Arbousset, Relation, 276-283. On the site itself of uMgungundlovu, he could then record a story that is not documented elsewhere.

The word mokokonthlafu, (mokokonthlufe) signifies elephant’s hide. About the year 1823, the present king of the Zulas left Nobampa, his native town, to found another some miles distant to the west: there, in the course of one year, he killed no less than twenty-eight elephants, and of the tusks he had a number of ivory bracelets made for his mistresses. The animals wer taken by a singular stratagem. As the elephants generally lean against a tree when sleeping, the savages made deep cuts in the largest trees of the country, and the elephants, comig to seek support there, fell with the trees, and were immediately covered with a shower of spears. The capital of Dingan, and the regiments [sic, but only one regiment in the French original] stationed there, have received the one common name of Mokokonthlufe. 31Arbousset, Narrative, 146-147; Arbousset, Relation, 293-294.

This story suggests, therefore, that Dingane had a connection with uMgungundlovu even before he killed Shaka, succeded to the kingship, and built there the new royal capital. The same name was employed for the capital and the regiment there deployed, of the 26 that composed the Zulu army according to Rasekuai. Indeed, the detailed account of the military ranks in the army suggests that Rasekuai had been employed in the army.

The main division was between the ‘White’ and ‘Black’ regiments, ‘Emetlopes’ and ‘Emeniamas’, from the colour of their shields: the former were composed of veteran warriors who had been allowed to marry, and as sign of distinction shaved their heads and chins, leaving only a circle of hair on the top of the head, and wore otter skin head rings, to which it was fastened a crane feather. 32Arbousset, Narrative, 142-146; Arbousset, Relation, 285-292.  The uMgungundlovu regiment, the fourth one, was one of the ‘Whites’, and likewise the twelfth, the ‘Leetane’/‘Zeetane’/‘Litane’ or ‘Travellers’, only composed of ‘young prisoners of war’, and ‘native travellers’ captured on the road and ‘reduced to servitude’. 33Arbousset, Narrative, 147; Arbousset, Relation, 294. The first ‘White’ regiment, the ‘Omobapankue’ or ‘Panther-Hunters’, so called because they had caught a living ‘panther’ for Shaka, further distinguished themselves because their officers wore ‘panther’ – that is, possibly, black leopard – skins. 34Arbousset, Narrative, 146; Arbousset, Relation, 292-293.  A representation of a ‘Matébélé’ warrior of Mpangazitha, leader of the amaHlubi, was included in the French edition, creating confusion, but also proving that the ‘Whites’ of the Zulu army were not alone in wearing crane wings as head ornaments. 35The explaination of the picture is found in the appendix of the book, Arbousset, Relation, 616.

The final part of the chapter on the amaZulu was dedicated to the story of Shaka and the praises of Dingaane, as related by two informants, Okopulana and Omokotunguana, the former appearing as ‘Commandant’ or ‘N’duna-e-nkholu’ of the twenty-third regiment, the Onkome. 36Arbousset, Narrative, 142, 155-163; Arbousset, Relation, 285, 311-324. The relevance of these praises has already been noted; 37Wright, “Thinking Beyond ‘Tribal Traditions’”, 268-286. for the present, it suffices to say that Arbousset added several footnotes to the text, explaining in one of them that ‘Kankela’ was the former name of uMgungundlovu, Kankela. The praises also recalled a victory that Dingane had over the amaHlubi on the ‘Mossiniate’ – the ‘Mossignasse’ mentioned by the Zulu trader at Thaba Bosiu in 1833, now clarified as being a tributary of the Tukhela river, not the capital of the Zulu king. 38Arbousset, Narrative, 159, 163; Arbousset, Relation, 317, 322.

Surprisingly, and despite the abundant details, no direct mention is made in Arbousset’s book of the ‘remains of the tribe of Bassoutos’ that were shown on his map not far from uMgungundlovu.

The short and animated life of Manoah Entouta

Two other men conversed about the land of the amaZulu and uMgungundlovu with the missionaries, the brothers Entlaole and Entouta. They both lived at Thaba Bosiu when the Frenchmen first arrived, but had spent much of their lives on the other side of the mountains; they were among the first to convert taking the names of David and Manoah, and Entouta was the first Christian to die in the small community of Lesotho, in 1842. For this reason Eugène Casalis, who had been his missionary, wrote a lengthy obituary, detailing his life, his conversion, and his death. This ‘Notice Biographique’ was published in the Journal des Missions Évangèliques in 1843 and brought these two Basotho centrestage, although just for a brief moment. 39Letter  of Eugène Casalis, Thaba Bosiu 18 July 1842, Journal des Missions Évangèliques 18 (1843), 81-91. The letter was later published as an extract. Eugène Casalis, Notice biographique sur la vie, la conversion et la mort de Manoah, membre de l’Église de Thaba-Bossiu, chez les Béchuana-Bassoutos (Afrique méridionale) (Paris: J. Smith, 1843). The document was already mentioned, with a slightly different analysis, in Elizabeth Eldredge, A South African Kingdom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 26. 

The document, here provided in a working translation from the French, is a testimony of how commoners and impoverished individuals were affected by the period of wars and violence that lasted from the late 1810s through the 1830s. The source is complicated by the strong Christian tone that permeates it, but retains undeniable historical value. Instead of the perspective of war leaders focusing on corporate communities, alliances, battles, and betrayals, here we read of the attempts made by two young men to slip through the general disorder, and to find a living on the margins of more established centres of power.

Migration was a key factor in Entouta’s strategies of survival, turning himself into trader, hunter, and finally messenger, while at the same time aiming at settling down permanently in a village. Indeed, Entouta’s obituary is the prime source on what appears to be a Sotho village near uMgungundlovu and one of the main descriptions of the route that connected Thaba Bosiu to the capital of Dingane.

The friend who left us had received from his parents the name of Entouta, but baptism gave him the name of Manoah. He was brother of Daniel Entlaloè, the first born of the Church of Thaba-Bossiou. His career was short and very animated: only during the last eight years of his life, thanks to the Gospel, he tasted the rest he had always longed for. His childhood was marked by the scenes of desolation that took place during the prolongued quarrels between the Matébélés and the Bassoutos. Not older than twelve, he lost his father and his family and had to expatriate to earn some bread among the cruel vassals of Dingân. During the journey, Entouta experienced the utmost hunger and exhaustion. These poor migrants under the guidance of Chéou, a grown up and experienced man, climbed with difficulty the White Mountains, these Pyrenées of Austral Africa that divide the Béchuanasie from the land of Natal. On the borders of the domains Zoulas, a chief, with a haughty look, blocked the travellers to seize Entouta, whom he intended to make his slave. He was already dragging him away when Chéou ran to help his young friend and, seizing his arm, attempted to pull him back. Αn obstinate fight ensued; the child, pulled violently, cried with pain and fear. The Zoula, feeling to be the weaker one, became furious; he raised his sagaie: ‘This child, he said, looking ferociously at Chéou, will not be neither yours nor mine; watch, I am going to smash his skull’. This move shooks Entlaloé, who had remained with the women to protect them; he springs, stops the arms of the murderer, and cries: ‘Oh Chéou, my father, do not resist any longer; let Entouta be slave; it might be that one day he will come back to us’. Daniel’s expectations were fulfilled. After a few months, the poor captive joined his family. He found them settled at one day’s travel from Mokokotloufé, ordinary residence of Dingân. A considerable number of Bassoutos, gathered because of common sufferings, had obtained by the Zoula monarch permission to found a village, that quickly became flourishing. With the help of the relations they had with their compatriots in Lessouto, these migrants obtained ostrich feathers, crane wings and panther skins, which they re-sold with profit to the Zoulas, among whom these objects were the main military ornament. The small community already possessed some herds, and waited for the day when these acquisitions would have let them return to their home country; but, hélas, the source of their prosperity became the cause of their ruin. The lure of a more advantageous deal attracted some friends of Entlaloé to offer their goods to the Barapoutsas, a neighbouring tribe, hostile to Dingân. This was enough to light up the wrath of the despot. During a dark night the Bassouto village was completely surrounded by some hundred warriors, deployed in three rows. The massacre was total; Entlaloé and his young wife severely wounded were left for dead under a heap of corpses. The hut of Entouta was sacked and burnt. As to himself, thanks to the intervention of God, he had left for a journey the day before with Chéou his protector. When Entlaloé and his wife had recovered sufficiently from their wounds, they abandoned with their brother the inhospitable country of Natal. Once more in the utmost hunger, they had to join a band of hunters who lived off hippopotamous meat and wild boar, along the banks of the Calédon. During this adventurous life, Entouta exposed himself to great dangers. He was one day swiftly chased by a hippopotamous, wounded and furious. The young hunter, exhausted, was going to be inevitably torn apart, but God, who guarded over his days, led his run towards a deep ravine that the animal did not dare to cross. Some months later, Entouta and his friend Taële, hunting hyrax in a thicket, were taken by surprise by a leopard. They attacked him without hesitation and wounded him. Angered, the animal jumps on Taële, grounds him and is about to tear him in pieces, when Entouta renews the fight, frees his friend, and with a blow of his mace kills the fierce beast. The skin of the leopard belonged to the victor, but on this occasion our friend showed a very praiseworthy generosity. After having led Taële to his family, he went looking for the precious trophy, and displaying it before his friend he said: ‘My friend, it is you who suffered the greatest danger, this spoils of victory belongs to you’.

These events will suffice, Messieurs, to give you an idea of the scenes that peopled the youth of our brother. After many years of trouble and misery, the exiled family came back to Thaba-Bossiu, their homeland; they found here abundance, rest, and what is infinitely more worthy, the words of eternal life. Entouta, who I shall call now onwards Manoah, was converted just slightly more than two years ago.40Casalis, Notice biographique, 3-7.

At Thaba Bosiu, goes on the obituary, Entouta was recruited as ‘trusted messenger’ by Moshoeshoe, a duty that implied ‘heavy toils, that he endured without complaining’. 41Casalis, Notice biographique, 8. His new role was clearly possible thanks to the knowledge of long distance travel that he had accumulated during his troubled youth. Unfortunately, his destinations are not mentioned, and it is unknown whether he was ever sent on missions back to the Zulu kingdom.

The obituary proves that trade between the Caledon valley and uMgungundlovu had existed for some time when Arbousset, Casalis, and Gosselin arrived in Lesotho, in 1833. Moreover, in the recent past, such trade had functioned also thanks to a community of Sotho refugees that had been permitted to settle close to the Zulu capital. Obtaining a rough chronology is a useful speculative exercise. Entouta had ‘found rest’ eight years before his death, that is in 1834. This could be the year of his arrival at Thaba Bosiu under Moshoeshoe. The destruction of the Sotho village near uMgungundlovu had already taken place, possibly in 1833 or even before, since he had spent months hunting in the Caledon valley. Incidentally, the fact that Zulu traders reached Thaba Bosiu in July 1833 could be a hint that the Sotho trading community had already been eliminated from the Zulu kingdom. It might well be, therefore, that the ‘remains of the tribe of the Bassoutos’ on Arbousset’s map were the defunct community of refugees and traders where Entouta and Entlaole had lived. When was the village established, and where? Answers to this are also speculative: there is no clear sign that the founding of the settlement was connected with the establishment of the royal site of uMgungundlvu, in 1829; as to the location, being at one day’s travel it could have been anywhere in a 30-40km radius, likely in a westerly direction from uMgungundlovu.

Finally, who were these ‘Bassoutos’? The term was starting to be employed for the subjects of Moshoeshoe, but had a longer history as blanket term for the communities of the southern Highveld. Arbousset was aware, for example, that the amaZulu called ‘Bassoutos’ ‘all the Bechuanas in their neighbourhood, the subjects of Moshesh, the Mantetis, the Lighoyas, &c.’.42Arbousset, Narrative, 157 n9; Arbousset, Relation, 314 n4. Entouta and Entlaole became Basotho of Moshoeshoe when they arrived at Thaba Bosiu, but there is no evidence that they had been born thus.

The Sotho village was an undeniably ephemeral phenomenon, but was nevertheless located at the heart of the Zulu kingdom: providing ostrich feathers, crane wings, and ‘panther’ skins to Dingane, the village assured the supply of regalia that had a rigidly codified use in the Zulu army. A sense of the importance of such trade is given by the fact that the king ordered the destruction of the village when he discovered that they had started to trade also with the ‘Barapoutsas’, the amaSwazi, with whom he was at war.‘Barapoutsas’ was a Sotho name for the community of Sobhuza. 43Eldredge, A South African Kingdom, 23; Etherington, “A False Emptiness”, 71. Indeed, the longer history of the trade between Thaba Bosiu and the Zulu capital was marked by the wars that had disrupted the lives of Entouta and Entlaole, among many others.

The lifaqane, the longer history of Sotho-Zulu trade, and Matiwane’s village

Moshoeshoe was thirty-eight when he settled at Thaba Bosiu in 1824. It was the peak of the war that the communities of the Highveld were starting to call lifaqane: 44Neil Parsons, ‘“The Time of Troubles”: Difaqane in the Interior’, in Carolyn Hamilton (ed.), The Mfecane Aftermath: Reconstructive Debte in Southern African History (Johannesburg-Scottsville: Witwatersrand University Press and University of Natal Press, 1995), 301-306. a few years before Mpangazitha of the amaHlubi an Matiwane of the amaNgwane had crossed the Drakensberg and attacked the Batlokoa living on the Elands and Wilge rivers. The Batlokoa, in turn, moved to the upper Caledon valley, pushing Moshoeshoe and other local leaders out. As Moshoeshoe moved to the south, Mpangazitha was defeated by Matiwane across the Caledon, and the amaNgwane settled in modern southern Free State, becoming a dangerous neighbour. 45For older and newer accounts of these years, see William F. Lye, “The Difaqane: The Mfecane in the Southern Sotho Area, 1822-24”, Journal of African History 8, no. 1 (1967), 107-131; Norman Etherington, Great Treks, 111-182.

It was in around 1826 that, according to the recollections of one of his sons, Moshoeshoe performed one of the diplomatic acts he was famous for: he sent a messenger to Shaka, and pleaded to be a subject of the Zulu king. Shaka accepted, and replied that he did not want cattle as tribute, but ‘feathers of the ostrich and the blue crane and the skins of wild cats’; in return, he would send cattle to Moshoeshoe. The deal was made, and trade – in the form of tribute – between Thaba Bosiu and Bulawayo, the Zulu capital under Shaka, started thus. 46This story and the relevant documents were already pointed out and reviewed by Eldredge, A South African Kingdom, 22-27. See also Sanders, Moshoeshoe, 38. Moshoeshoe declared in 1861:

This alliance [with the amaZulu] is not a new one. I was still very young when Chaka did choose me as his servant to procure him Ostrich’s feathers, skins, and others ornaments used among the Zulu, and so I did since that time, and as a compensation the Chief of the Zulu is wont to send me Cattle. 47Letter of Moshoeshoe to the Secretary for Native Affairs, Natal, Thaba Bosiu 8 November 1861, published in George McCall Theal (ed.), Basutoland Records, vol. 3 1862-1868 (Cape Town: W.A. Richards & Sons, 1883), 109.

Towards the end of the 19th century a story was told in Lesotho, that Moshoeshoe then withheld the submission of hunting regalia, blaming Matiwane for this: be as it may, Shaka eventually sent an impi on the Highveld, to deal with the amaNgwane. The two sides joined in battle near modern Ladybrand in 1827, but neither obtained a clear victory, and many died on both sides. Dingane, who was leading the Zulu army, was wounded by a spear in his chest, but survived. 48Sanders, Moshoeshoe, 38; David-Frédéric Ellenberger, J.C. Macgregor, History of the Basuto Ancient & Modern, facsimile reprint of the 1912 edition (Morija Lesotho: Morija Museum & Archives), 177-179. It was also due to this campaign that Matiwane decided to relocate across the southern Drakensberg, and met with a complete defeat at Mbholompo, in the land of the abaThembu, in 1828. 49Jeff Peires, ‘Matiwane’s Road to Mbholompo: A Reprieve for the Mfecane?’, in Hamilton (ed.), The Mfecane Aftermath, 213-239. He then came back to the Highveld, and finally returned the country of the amaNgwane, asking forgiveness and pleading obedience to Dingane, who had just become the king of the amaZulu.

There is no mention of further interruptions in the trade from Thaba Bosiu during these troubled years. Indeed, Moshoeshoe quickly renewed his submission to Dingane when he learnt about the killing of Shaka. Zulu traders in Lesotho were mentioned by Arbousset in 1833, as we have seen in the opening paragraph. In 1835, Casalis wrote that they came to Lesotho to exchange tobacco, iron hoes and spears for ‘panther’ and otter skins, ostrich eggs, and ‘small cattle’, and again in 1859 the missionary said that the Basotho sent otter skins, ‘panther’ skins, ostrich feathers, and crane wings for the Zulu warriors, in exchange of cattle, hoes, iron spearheads, necklaces, and leather rings.50Eldredge, A South African Kingdom, 26; Letter of Eugène Casalis, Morija 26 May 1834, Jounal des Missions Évangèliques 10, 1835; Eugène Casalis, Les Bassoutos, ou vignt-trois années de séjour et d’observations au sud de l’Afrique (Paris: Librairie de Ch. Meyrueis et Cie., 1859), 178. The agreement, originally struck in 1827, went on at least until the death of Moshoeshoe in 1870.51L.B.B.J. Machobane, “Cape Colonial Rule and African Vassallage: The Case of Lesotho”, N.U.L. Journal of Research 5 (1995), 87-114. 

The village at one day from uMgungundlovu where Entouta and Entlaole lived, importing hunting regalia for the Zulu army, was therefore inscribed in a much longer history of economic and political relations between the valleys of the southern Highveld and the hills of kwaZulu. Such history operated both on a grand scale, with the peoples on the move and the battlefields of the lifaqane, where the mountains met the plains, and around hilltop settlements; and on the micro scale of refugees and traders who chose a more difficult path across the Maloti. In this village near uMgungundlovu, the two threads became entangled, with an unexpected twist. The same year of Casalis’ obituary of Entouta, in which the trading village was mentioned, Arbousset gave his version of the life of the other brother, Entlaole: he and his wife had hired themselves to the village that Matiwane was granted by Dingane, and – thanks to the ‘Divine Providence’ – were ‘mercifully preserved’ by the general massacre ordered by the king of the amaZulu in 1830, when he had Matiwane executed on the hill that later took his name, and where the life of Piet Retief was later taken. 52Arbousset, Narrative, 301-302fn; Arbousset, Relation, 598fn; N.J. van Warmelo (ed.), History of Matiwane and the amaNgwane Tribe as Told by Msebenzi to His Kinsman Albert Hlongwane (Pretoria: Union of South Africa, 1938), 76; Etherington, The Great Treks, 286, 303 n41. In this version, no mention to a village of traders is made.

Both Matiwane’s village and the village of the ‘Bassoutos’ were razed to the ground. Were they the same, or were they at least destroyed together? Dingane’s praises, as transcribed and translated by Arbousset, declared at some point ‘Thou puttest to death the Basuto – to death the old men. / Thou hast despoiled the troops of Makheta. / The smiths themselves are torn in pieces by thee / Without their hearing a breath of thy approach.’ 53Arbousset, Narrative, 159; Arbousset, Relation, 317. Makheta was Moshoeshoe’s rival and his senior within their extended family in the Caledon valley. In the early 1820s Makheta had allied with Matiwane, and had joined him on the battlefield, against Moshoeshoe and against Shaka. It might therefore be that at least some of these ‘remains of the tribe of Bassoutos’ on Arbousset’s map were remnants of the alliance between Matiwane and Makheta, among whom Entlaole and Entouta found a temporary home. However, no evidence is decisive on this matter: only discordant news came through the small and scarcely perceptible pathway that lead to uMgungundlovu.

Online from: 14 Sep 2020


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