Friday, 13 February 2015

The Military Career of Shaka, Zulu King

The Military Career of Shaka, Zulu King

This is a summary of a presentation done on in Durban on 12 February 2015 for the Military Historians Society of South Africa.

During the early 1600’s, a small band of people under the patriarch Malandela settled for a time on the Highveld in the proximity of present Vryheid. After trouble with local tribesmen during which the stone walls of their cattle kraals were damaged, they migrated down the White Umfolozi Valley, sojourning for a time in the area later known as Emakhoseni.
In due course they settled in the Valley of the Umhlatuze under Malandela, who established an umuzi on the long slope north of the present maNdawe Church.
After a quarrel between his sons Zulu and Quabe, Zulu returned with his mother Nozinja to the beloved Emakhosini Valley they had traversed earlier. He is recorded as living from 1627 to 1709. From these origins sprang a long line of Zulu chiefs (kings).
The otherwise nondescript valley holds the grave-sites of Zulu, Phunga, Mageba, Ndaba, Jama, Senzangakhona and Dinuzulu.  Shaka’s entire life was influenced by the heritage of the emerging Zulu nation, centred on the Emakhoseni valley, the ‘Valley of the kings’. Much of his military career can be attributed to his mother Nandi’s insistence that he take a rightful place in that dynasty.

In 1787, after a tryst between the Zulu heir Senzangahkona and Nandi, princess of the Elangeni tribe to the south, Shaka was born as an illegitimate. The Zulu dismissed the pregnancy as the work of ‘an intestinal beetle’. Shaka’s strong-willed mother became the unloved third wife of Senzangakhona. The fact resulted in humiliation for Shaka and his mother, leading to many hatreds and grudges and an urge to fight his way to supremacy.  
Nandi kept the kingly vision in front of Shaka from his birth until her death and constantly brought to his attention that he was the son of a Zulu paramount chief (king). She urged him to resurrect the Zulu nation to dominance in opposition to his many less robust half-brothers.
This ensured the honing of Shaka’s character and skills during a tough and even brutal childhood. He endured torment and hardships as a young herder, and oppression from the Elangeni tribe of his mother. These cruelties are supported by many anecdotes. He learned stick-fighting and perfected it until left severely alone by the other boys, apart from grudging respect. After an indiscretion involving disagreements with the Elangeni heir apparent Makedama and the stabbing of an unmanageable cow during the famine of 1802-04, he was obliged to flee with his mother Nandi to Mthethwa territory closer to the coast. They lived with that tribe for a decade.
Quick to learn military techniques and tactics, Shaka became a rising military star of the Mthethwa and a favourite of the renowned Dingiswayo. Shaka stamped his authority and presence on the younger warriors, and recorded notable achievements such as killing a cattle-raider known as Lembe.
In due course Shaka’s patron Dingiswayo engineered the young warrior’s supremacy amongst the Zulus in order to secure his western flank militarily against the feared Ndwandwe living to the north along the Phongolo River. Shaka arranged the assassination of his brother Sigujana and assumed the kingship while backed by a Mthethwa regiment. On Dingiswayo death at the hands of Zwide, he was free to extend his powers further.

He innovated the short, powerful iklwa stabbing spear and huge war shield, buffalo attack formation and hardening of his troops for battle. A strict regimen of discipline was instituted. Selected campaign strategies were refined and practiced on smaller local tribes. The Elangeni were overrun and a brutal vengeance exacted on those who had done him or his mother any hurt. The Buthelezi were defeated. Their leaders were incorporated as councillors, if compliant enough. Shaka steadily incorporated tribes near and far, and embarked on campaigns worthy of more historically lauded military leaders elsewhere, even Napoleon.

In his prime, Shaka as king was a magnificent physical specimen, resplendent in ceremonial dress. He showed an acute intelligence, capable of weighing evidence dispassionately, hypothesising, applying critical analysis and engaging with creative strategising. He showed acute awareness of how complex social and natural systems tend to operate. Many of these thinking processes are evident in his complex and usually successful military strategies.

Major battles includes Kwa Gqokli, involving an intricate deception to divide the Ndwandwe army between assaulting the Zulu regiments ensconced on Kwa Goqlkli hill, and pursuing a small herd of Zulu decoy cattle. Shaka used many elements such as thirst, breaking up the invading forces by various stratagems, superior fighting weapons, disciplined troop formations, and the constant availability of food and water provisions, to his advantage. The outcome was a far greater loss of manpower on the Ndwandwe side than with the Zulus. The result was more than satisfactory, because the Ndwandwe reward was a limited number of cattle as the spoils of war, while the Zulus bought time during which to build up their forces.
A major defensive campaign a year later was also concluded successfully, with the Ndwandwe suffering tremendous losses. The Ndwandwe were finally reduced to impotence in a savage campaign of retribution that took the Zulu army as far as the upper Phongolo River.

After the death of Shaka’s mother Nandi in 1827, the king introduced severe constraints to ensure a satisfactory period of national mourning for her. Sexual intercourse was banned. Living women were recorded as having been opened to check the presence of the unborn. Many cattle were also killed as result of the mourning period, while solid food might not be eaten. Resentment grew.
Shaka seemed to be suffering from schizophrenia, with wild mood swings consuming him in his last year. He was wounded by Quabe or Ndwandwe attackers, with a blade driven under his left biceps and into his ribs. The wounds were attended to by Farewell, to the king’s gratitude.

A few years after first meeting the white settlers who became ensconced in Port Natal in 1824 as traders, in 1828 Shaka engaged them with his army in an attempt to carve a way through Southern Natal and Xhosa territory to establish trading relations with the Eastern Cape town of Grahamstown.

The traders had a broad strategy of setting up a trading empire that would eventually link in with the Cape authorities. This involved a major campaign to Xhosa territory to the south. The policy brought mutterings from the Zulus, who felt that Shaka’s relationships with the traders were too warm, and too disparaging of the Zulus themselves. There were rising intrigues against the king.

The king was murdered in September 1828, in a side-kraal Nyakamubi of the great ikhanda (military village) at Stanger in Natal. The role of Shaka’s aged aunt and previously regent, Mkabayi, is clear in approving the actions to be taken by Dingane, Mhlangana and Mbopa to ‘save the nation’.

The book Shaka.The story of a Zulu king is available for a few dollars on Amazon Kindle and in hard copy from Createspace, under Alex Coutts. The web site and blog site will get you there. Alternatively you might just enjoy looking at the 50 paintings on the website or reading of the blogsite stories set in KZN.




Tuesday, 10 February 2015

The Coelancanth and Other Marine Creatures

The Coelancanth and Other Marine Creatures

Coelacanth at Durban Watersports Club

Relics of the past

For anyone interested in palaeontology and pre-history, South Africa is a good place to be.  Our unique and precious geological and palaeontological histories have left magnificent relics of the past in the form of fossils. Many of these are of interest to South Africans and tourists alike. KwaZulu-Natal has its full share of these gems. More exciting yet, we have a ‘living fossil’.

During the Cretaceous period from about 100 million down to fifty million years ago, Maputaland in the north of the province was under a warm, shallow sea. Great creatures roamed the waters. Simple, shelled organisms were plentiful. Billions of marine molluscs decayed to form part of the sediments of present-day Maputaland. These are most prolific along the banks of the present rivers that have eroded the overlying sediments and some are far from the present seashore. Ammonites and trilobites are plentiful. To the perceptive observer, they come as a reminder of the instability of our earthly topography.

Great sharks and other things

The Maputaland coast re-submerged about twenty million years ago and then emerged again, during the Early Cainozoic period. The sea receded, and then returned five million years ago. Before the waters receded again, they left sand deposits that formed into low ridges roughly parallel with the present coastline.

As result of this many shellfish fossils are now unearthed far inland. Great sharks (carcharodon megalodon), probably related to the present-day great whites (carcharodon caracharias), shed their 15 centimetre teeth and left them as part of our palaeontological and tourism heritage. These beasts were perhaps the length of present-day whale sharks. That means they were fifteen or more metres long.

Lethal waters of the East Coast

Sharks have also made their mark in recent times. Since World War 11 especially, while going about their business of attacking and eating a wide range of creatures venturing into the aquatic environment, sharks have also made their predations felt amongst the human population.

The last month of 1957 and during the first months of 1958 was a dreadful period for bathers off the East Coast of South Africa. I remember it well since I was part of a group of Northlands High School students who during the holidays spent spare hours two hundred meters out at ‘seconds’ waiting for the perfect wave. On rare occasions these reached five metres, enough to drag one for a hundred meters under water before one could catch one’s breath.

We very occasionally saw the ominous flash of a grey fin when the Umgeni River brought down sediment, and one of our gang went off a whale’s back as it surfaced close to shore. So our lives were not without incident. But nothing would touch us. We were protected utterly by what the writer Robert Ardrey used to call ‘the illusion of central position’. Reason told us it was always the other chap who’d get the chop, never us. We were seventeen, and therefore innately immune from harm.

On 23 December 1957, Vernon Barry suffered fatal mauling while swimming at Margate, and three days later at Splash Rock on the South Coast Donald Webster suffered wounds to the head and neck. On 30 December, a shark savaged Julia Painting at Margate. Julia lost her left arm and was mauled on the thigh and torso. The incident set newspaper headlines ablaze. On 9 January 1958, Derryk Prinsloo became a further victim and a few months later there were more victims, one at Port Edward and one at Uvongo. People dubbed the tragedies, collectively, ‘Black December’.


As with so many other scenarios where humans venture into the realms of powerful predators, observers laid blame solely on the wild creatures, and revenge in the form of their destruction became a powerful motive. During the years that followed, men with .303 calibre rifles turned up regularly at the Blue Lagoon promontory adjacent to the Umgeni River, to shoot at any fins that presented in the offshore waters.

One or two bullets ricocheted off the surface, and the stories of yacht sails impacted by ricocheting bullets grew in number. Faced with heated complaints from offshore yachtsmen and ski boat owners, the authorities banned the hunting. In 1962, the Sharks Anti-Shark Measures Board was established and in due course, they implemented the netting of beaches. Unfortunately, over the years the nets have taken the lives of turtles, dolphins and other sea creatures as well as sharks. The practice remains controversial.

Destruction of species

Apart from sharks, the coastal waters of KwaZulu-Natal have been host to myriads of fish species, now badly depleted from over-angling, defiance of legal catch quotas, neglect of the law in a variety of other ways, and the view that natural species are so plentiful that they can be consumed endlessly. The annual sardine migrations up the KZN coast and the schools of shad and other predatory species that follow them have fuelled the view of bountiful, even endless ocean life. Repeatedly, research is proving that contention wrong. Coastal species are highly vulnerable.

In good years during ‘shad season’, certain coastal locations will see two or three kilometres of fishing rods, with anglers standing shoulder to shoulder. Where the shad (pomatomus saltatrix) are in particularly high concentrations, some anglers in the throng are forced to cast their baits directly over those pushing in front of them.

Offshore, ski boats carry the more opulent anglers to fishing grounds where pelagic species occur. In sheltered locations where fry and territorial species congregate, a few seine netters still ply their trade. The result has been an incremental reduction of fish stocks, to the detriment of angling as a sport and, ultimately, fishing as a subsistence occupation.

Gone is the concentration of some territorial species, and the diversity of this form of life is now increasingly reduced. Only further north on the protected coastline of Maputaland is a wide range of species found in plenty. In one or two small, heavily protected locations, wild creatures of special interest still survive.

Enter the coelacanths

Of considerable interest are the coelacanths, a further unique life form that has a long history of habitation identified with KwaZulu-Natal and the East Coast of Africa, Indonesia and one or two other places. Dating has recorded many species of coelacanth from forty-seven genera and five families in the fossil records of several countries. Fossil specimens come from as early as 380 million years ago.

In earlier times Marine biologists thought the coelacanths had died out seventy million years ago along with the dinosaurs. In December 1938, however, to the astonishment of the scientific world, a fishnet off East London on the southeast coast of South Africa dredged a living specimen up. Prof J.L.B. Smith published a description in the international journal Nature and named it Latimeria Chalumnae. Smith spent fourteen years attempting to identify the home territory of the fish species, and finally in December 1952 identified a specimen off the Comoro Islands in the proximity of Madagascar. From that time interest in the species spread.

Modern research

Anglers have caught about 200 specimens since then and scientists have done initial studies of their appearance and habits. From the 1980’s to recent times, the Germans Hans Fricke and Jurgen Schauer have used a submersible in a search for further living specimens. Divers have recorded recent sightings in canyons off Sodwana Bay. The fish have proved fascinating. They are slow-swimming ambush predators that feed on unwary fish passing by their lairs. Live ‘pups’ are born after a year-long gestation.

On 28 October 2000, Pieter Venter and colleagues located a living specimen at approximately 100 metres in Jesser Canyon off the Maputaland coast. He then conducted several further dives, some with use of Jago, a German submersible. A number of sightings occurred, of coelacanths in the Jesser Caves that protect the fish from the strongest sea currents. Casual divers may no longer interfere with the species, although scientists are considering installation of a benign and non-intrusive camera, the ‘seacam’.

In honour of the coelacanth, I painted one in oils and donated the painting to the Durban Undersea Club, a body of people who formed the core of the later Durban Watersports Club. One trusts that the painting will never come to be amongst the only remaining records of these beautiful creatures. The painting is at the head of the present article.

Stranger than the coelacanth?

While the surprising and unusual coelacanth has substantial verified claims to reality within the realms of science, some other discoveries in our coastal waters have remained within the orbit of the bizarre and inexplicable … at least by usual biological or palaeontological standards.

The so-called ‘Margate monster’, encountered during 1922, is one such perplexing creature. T.V. Bulpin’s 1966 book Natal and the Zulu country describes the incident. In 1919, Hugh Ballance purchased land on the coast that was later to become Margate town. He divided the farm into properties for sale. With poor road and sea communications and no publicity, sales were poor. By 1922, Ballance was desperate. Then, fate took a hand.

He wrote to the newspapers and told of a most astonishing event that had occurred of the coast at Margate. He reported looking out to sea on 1 November 1922, to see two whales locked in combat with a creature resembling a polar bear, but ‘of truly mammoth proportions’. The battle raged no more than a kilometre from shore, and ended with the retreat of the whales and the death of the other extraordinary creature. It washed ashore at a place known as ‘Tragedy Hill’.

Ballance records the creature as forty feet (twelve metres) long, ten feet (three metres) wide and five feet (one and a half metres) high. It was ‘clothed in snow-white hair and seemed to be devoid of blood’. During the ten days that the decomposing carcase lay on the beach, a span of thirty-two oxen could not shift it. A spring tide then did so with embarrassing ease, sparing the world’s scientists a fruitless journey to study the thing.

It was no doubt a dead whale whose carcase had rotted into a stringy mess of stinking flesh; but the creature gave Margate much needed publicity, and a story that has endured sufficiently long for me to repeat it here. Still, it is by such tales that our precious natural heritage lingers in the minds of humanity.

Durban has recently been designated a top spot for world tourists to visit. If you come in summer, you’ll be able to bet on a particularly warm welcome. There is much to discover for yourself.