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Among the Wild Ngoni
Chapter I. Political History of the Ngoni


IN order to understand the present character of the Ngoni it is necessary to go back to the dawn of the present century and to South Africa, the cradle of these people. The mighty movements of barbarous fanatics in recent times, such as those in the Soudan and elsewheie, sink into insignificance when compared with those that give rise to the presence of the Ngoni in British Central Africa and in German East Africa, not to speak of the Matabele who gave so much trouble to the British, or the other branches of the same race which had to be proceeded against by Portuguese arms.

In a district somewhere on, or near, the Tugela river, which now forms the northern boundary of the colony of Natal, there was born, as the century dawned, a child with a reputed miraculous origin but fathered by Senzangakona, chief of the then insignificant Zulu tribe. His mother, fearing for his life, fled with him to the court of a neighbouring and more powerful chief, named Dingiswayo, ruling the Amatetwa. Here he was received and cared for until he attained to manhood. Umnandi (i.e. the pleasant one) the mother of Chaka, as the child was named, remained with him. Dingiswayo was at that time the most powerful chief in the district stretching from Natal to Delagoa Bay. He had, in the early part of his life, been compelled to flee into what is now part of Cape Colony, and while exiled is supposed to have come into some knowledge of carrying on war by organised regiments and companies.

Thus through Europeans came the impulse which, as we shall see, was destined to have such awful results in the life and history of individuals and tribes over nearly half the length of Africa. On gaining the chieftainship of his tribe Dingiswayo organised his army in regiments, and otherwise improved its means of carrying desolation over a wide area. Chaka, during his stay with Dingiswayo, had no doubt ample opportunity for studying the art of war and seems to have done so successfully. He even improved on Dingiswayo’s methods, and was not satisfied that conquered tribes should be so generously treated as they were by being incorporated as vassals of the paramount chief. Chaka saw in this a source of insecurity and formed the idea of so disorganising or crushing them that they would be incapable of rising against the chief. No doubt it was his education in war and bloodshed that bore its fruits when, as a young man, he ascended the throne of his father by causing the death of his brother, to supplant whom he had returned to the Zulu tribe against the wish of Dingiswayo. As Dingiswayo had opposed his pretensions to rule he had him “removed” soon after.

With this Chaka our history of the Ngoni begins. His brief reign of seven or eight years was a period in which more blood was shed, and greater upheaval among native tribes induced, than in any other country in the world. As a writer says, “War poisoned all enjoyment, cut off all that sustains life, turned thousands of square miles into literally a howling wilderness, shed rivers of blood, annihilated whole communities, turned the members of others into cannibals, and caused miseries and sufferings, the full extent of which can never now be known, and which, if ever known, could not be told." These words were written on the death of Chaka in 1828, and although it is estimated that over a million human beings owed their death either directly or indirectly to Chaka, it is not improbable that over the region which the wave of war and bloodshed travelled, even more than that number were slain in battle, massacred in their villages, or driven into the wilds to die of starvation.

The last of the chiefs to be conquered by Chaka was Zwide, under whom Zongandaba and other chiefs (formerly independent) ruled over districts and acted as commanders of divisions of his army. In a great battle with Zwide and all his chiefs Chaka was victorious, as the proud Ngoni are careful to state, through the deception of a man named Noluju, who was a political prisoner with Zwide and who desired to “pay out” Zwide for some wrong done him. This Noluju went to Chaka and arranged that, on the attack being made, he would mislead the army of Zwide. Arranging that Chaka’s army should camp by some favourable watering-place, he guided Zwide’s force to a barren place and left it there, under pretence of going to spy out Chaka’s position. When they were faint from thirst he guided them to where the water was, but Chaka attacked them, killing many and putting the rest to flight. The different chiefs who had thus been united under Zwide again sought independence by leaving the country, and the Ngoni who are now in British Central Africa then began their wanderings, every step of which is marked by blood as we shall see. Of Noluju it is related that, having returned home to get his wives, he set out for another place in which to live. Lying at night in his booth in the forest and evidently congratulating himself on having paid out Zwide for his treatment of him, he put his thoughts in song, native-wise, and sang, “He forgets who did the wrong, but he forgets not who was wronged.” Zwide’s spies, sent to chase him, heard the song and fell on him and killed them all. The life and fate of this unit illustrates the life and fate of many tribes. Noluju’s song was a paean and a prophecy, and he himself the subject.

Although the Ngoni lived under Zwide they were not in entire subjection to him, and on occasion, as their own tributaries have done since, they rose in rebellion. As illustrating how, even in those dark days, right principle was not without a witness, and was found in the heart of a woman, and how the superstitions of the people enter into and influence every act of their life, the following native narrative may be given.

Zwide, who had attacked Zongandaba, was taken prisoner, and on being released after some months was sent home under escort with a gift of many cattle. His pride was wounded by this insult from one of his vassals, and he determined on revenge. His mother opposed it, but to her he would not give heed. She devised a plan to strike fear into the hearts of the soldiers. In the words of a native, it is stated that his mother reasoned with him, saying, ‘My child, shall the Ngoni perish? Did they not send you back, giving you many fat cattle with you 'Is it right to go out to war against them?’ But Zwide gave no heed to his mother’s words, and called together his soldiers. On the day when they were being reviewed, the mother of Zwide, having planned to make the soldiers afraid, went into the cattle-fold (it was not permissible for women to do so) where the soldiers were. Standing in their midst she unloosed her skirt and stood exposed among them. The soldiers seeing her thus wondered greatly, and Zwide also wondered. The soldiers declared that it was an omen, that perhaps an ancestral spirit had prompted her to do thus, and they, being afraid to go out, were disbanded forthwith. So Lowawa, Zwide’s mother, prevailed.”

On the breaking up of Zwide’s combined force, Zongandaba and other petty chiefs led off sections of the tribe in quest of new lands, as they could not retain their old country against the growing power of Chaka. They had been conquered, but they had evidently been impressed by Chaka’s methods, and resolved to follow them. No doubt also they appropriated the fame of Chaka and would be looked upon with fear by the weaker tribes they resolved on attacking. They passed through the Swazi country, attacking the people, impressing many to join them and capturing many cattle. Not many of the Swazi tribe lived to settle with the Ngoni west of Nyasa, but the oldest person in the country, probably, is a Swazi woman whose husband was a contemporary of Zongandaba, and afterwards a sub-chief of Mombera’s. Having increased their strength and wealth by this attack on the Swazis, the horde then entered Tongaland to the west of Delagoa Bay, and settled for a time on the lower reaches of the Limpopo river. They crossed the Nkomati river near where there is now a station of the Basel Mission. Here a petty chief of Chaka, named Nqaba, with a following came upon them and there was a battle. Nqaba was driven back, but Zongandaba did not feel safe even there from an attack by Chaka. Having added to their force and their wealth by annexing many Tonga and their cattle, they went towards the west and attacked the Karanga tribe. Here, as among the Tonga, they instructed them in their methods of warfare and were gaining in power by these additions. After a short residence among the Karanga another move was made towards the north, and they arrived in June 1825 at the Zambezi somewhere between Zumbo and Tette.

Here it may be of interest to turn aside and complete our narrative of the waves of bloodshed set rolling by Chaka, by glancing at the rise of two kingdoms south of the Zambezi, under two chiefs driven out by him about the time that the Ngoni began their wanderings. The first is that of Gazaland, first occupied by Sotshangane who fought with Zongandaba under Zwide against Chaka, and fled at the same time. We may safely infer that his progress northward was marked by blood, and that he and his successor Umzila did not organise their vast kingdom, before then composed of many small tribes, without much more bloodshed. But who can tell what suffering and death resulted ? When Umzila died, his son Gungunhana succeeded, and in the recent opening up of Africa he has given as much trouble to the Portuguese as the Matabele have given to the British.

The other great power for evil springing up at this time was Umziligazi, who fled from the tyranny of Chaka and settled in the north of the Transvaal. His name inspired terror through a vast region, as he completely subjugated or destroyed every tribe from whose opposition he had anything to dread. Readers of “Robert and Mary Moffat” will remember that this is “the scourge of the Bechuanas,” “the Napoleon of South Africa,” to whom Dr Moffat went first in 1829. Afterwards, when he had removed further north, Dr Moffat travelled 700 miles to see him and seek his salvation. Umziligazi formed a strong attachment to Dr Moffat, which was continued for thirty-nine years, until he died in 1868. The accounts given by Dr Moffat of these visits should be read by every one, but I cannot help quoting from his biography by his son, referred to above. It describes Dr Moffat’s farewell to the great chief in 1860, when the veteran laid down his work at Inyati where the Mission had been planted. “On Sunday morning, the 17th June, he walked up to the chief’s kraal, for the purpose of speaking to Umziligazi and his people for the last time on the great themes of life, death, and eternity. As we followed him along the narrow path, from our camp to the town about a mile distant, winding through fields and around patches of uncleared primeval forest, no step was more elastic and no frame more upright than his. In spite of unceasing toil and tropical heats and miasmatic exhalations, in spite of cares and disappointments, his wonderful energy seemed unabated. The old chief was as usual in his large court-yard, and gave kindly greeting. They were a strange contrast as they sat side by side—the Matabele tyrant and his friend the messenger of peace. The word of command was given; the warriors filed in and arranged themselves in a great semicircle, sitting on the ground, the women crept as near as they could, behind huts and other points of concealment, and all listened in breathless silence to the last words of ‘ Moshete.’ He himself knew that they were his last words, and that his work in Matabeleland was now given over to younger hands. It was a solemn service, and closed the long series of such, in which the friend of Umziligazi had striven to pierce the dense darkness of soul which covered him and his people. On the morrow there was the last leave-taking, and Moffat started for his distant home.”

Lobengula succeeded his father Umziligazi; the progress and end of his evil reign are fresh in the mind of everyone.

As soon as the Ngoni had crossed the Zambezi it is said they were in the country of the Senga. These are not the Senga now living on the Loangwa further north, of whom more hereafter. Their languages are quite distinct. The Senga tribe being an easy prey to the Ngoni (who must now have been very numerous, composed of the original stock, and the Swazi, Tonga, and Karanga additions by the way) at once submitted and were incorporated. They rested in this district, eating up the food of the country and initiating the Senga into the use of their weapons of war, the shield and spear.

Leaving the country of the Senga, considerably increased by the addition of that people, they journeyed north, evidently along the watershed of the Loangwa river, until they came into the district named Matshulu which was inhabited by Tumbuka, who went under the name of Amamatshulu. The Tumbuka tribe had evidently covered a wide area, but as they lived in small villages of two or three huts they may not have been so very numerous. The Tumbuka are a very industrious agricultural people, and having been unable to resist the Ngoni horde they submitted, and laboured to supply the needs of their conquerors. The Ngoni are said to have lived for a comparatively long period in the Matshulu district, and here began a condition of things in Zongandaba’s following which may have delayed their northward progress for three or ten years, as it is variously estimated by natives. It was at any rate a “killing time,” which has impressed itself on the minds of the people to this day. Zongandaba had no doubt conceived that he could best conserve the interests and combine the influence of those he had conquered and incorporated, by appointing certain of each tribe as his advisers. He had a council composed of Tonga principally, and his original followers began to be jealous of them, and of Zongandaba’s evident love for them. The Tumbuka, adepts at witchcraft practices, they impressed into their service. Charges of witchcraft were brought against the leading members of the Tonga tribe, and by the aid of the Tumbuka doctors and their incantations, Zongandaba was incited repeatedly to organize an army and destroy a whole village at a time. None in the village were spared, and during their stay in Matshulu nearly all the Tonga were massacred in this way. To this day to say “People were killed at Matshulu” is to emphasise a large number as quoted. It was evident that discontent and thirst for power had appeared to disorganize the hitherto united band, and it is said that, after this, Zongandaba became very despotic and approached to having the character of Chaka. Such a heterogeneous collection of men would doubtless produce a despotic ruler. Only one or two Tonga who had left their own country were spared to the end of the Ngoni wanderings, but some of their children are still living.

Having again taken their road northward they came to the district they name Mapupo, inhabited by the Sukuma. The district lies near the south end of Tanganyika and is now on the maps as the Fipa district. Here Zongandaba died, after which the tribe suffered several disruptions. While in this district, and combined, they carried war northward on the east of Tanganyika; eastward as far as the Nkonde tribes at the north end of Lake Nyasa, and south-eastward to the Henga, then living in the mountainous country near the Rukuru river, a few days’ journey from their present location, which was the country of the Tumbuka originally.

At the disruption the chief sections were: 1. That under Ntabeni which went northward on the west side of Tanganyika, where in 1879 they were heard of by the late Mr Stewart. 2. Ntutu led another section northward on the east side of Tanganyika; of these Stanley in his “ Through the Dark Continent” says, “No traveller has yet become acquainted with a wilder race in Equatorial Africa than that of the Mafitte (Maviti) or Watuta. They are the only true African Bedawi; and surely some African Ishmael must have fathered them, for their hands are against every man, and every man’s hand appears to be raised against them. . . . The Watuta became separated from the Mafitte (Maviti or Ngoni) by an advance in search of plunder and cattle.” They carried war and bloodshed over a vast extent of country, as may be seen by a glance at a map of Central Africa. Considering that they were only a sub-section of the Ngoni, the following graphic description of their expedition will indicate the tremendous wave which Chaka set rolling over twenty-six degrees of latitude. Mr Stanley continues: “The separation (i.e. of the section referred to above as led by Ntutu) occurred some thirty years ago (1840). On their incursion they encountered the Warori who possessed countless herds of cattle. They fought with them for two months at one place, and three months at another; and at last, perceiving that the Warori were too strong for them—many of them having been killed in the war, and a large number of them (now known as the Wahehe, and settled near Ugogo) having been cut off from the main body, —the Watuta skirted Urori, and advanced northwest through Ukonongo and Kawendi to Ujiji. It is in the memory of the oldest Arab residents at Ujiji how the Watuta suddenly appeared and drove them and the Wajiji to take refuge upon Bangwe Island.

“Not glutted with conquest by their triumph at Ujiji, they attacked Urundi; but here they met different foes altogether from the negroes of the south. They next invaded Uhha, but the races which occupy the intra-lake regions had competent and worthy champions in the Wahha. Baffled at Uhha and Urundi, they fought their devastating path across Uvinza and entered Unyamwezi, penetrated Uzumbwa, Utambara, Urangwa, Uyofu, and so through Uzinja to the Victoria Nyanza, where they rested some years after their daring exploit. They ultimately returned and settled in Ugomba, between Uhha and Unyamwezi. They are called by the Nyam-wezi Ngoni.”

3. The third section is that over which Mombera was appointed chief. Mtwaro should have been chief, but he resigned in favour of Mombera, as being of a quiet disposition; he felt the burden of ruling such a jealous, discontented people as they had become would be too great for him. Under Mombera there were his brothers Mtwaro, Mperembe, Mpezeni and Maurau. This section moved eastward to a place called Tshidhlodhlo, the locality only being known now as somewhere about the north end of Nyasa. Here a great battle was fought, and the Gwangwara, overcoming the others under Mombera, drove them back in a southerly direction. The Gwangwara, in settling on the east side of Lake Nyasa, form the outmost ripple of the wave on that side, and they have carried fire and sword southward into Yaoland, and as far as Masasi, the station of the Universities’ Mission. Those under Mombera at this point suffered a disruption. Mperembe and Mpezeni broke off. Mperembe returned to attack the Bemba to the south of Tanganyika, and Mpezeni went south and settled where he now is, west of the southern extremity of Lake Nyasa. Chiwere, a head man, went off with a following, and settled west of Kotakota. Mombera’s division first settled in Henga (the lower reaches of the Rukuru river), and subjugated the Henga section of the Tumbuka tribe, ultimately entering the Tumbuka country proper, on the south-west of Choma mountain. Being joined again by Mperembe, they have continued to occupy the valleys of the Lunyangwa, Kasitu and Rukuru. They defeated and began to govern the Tumbuka and Tonga on their arriving there, and have only a few years ago given up their predatory habits.

What might not have happened had the dawn of this century witnessed the enthusiasm of the Christian Church in the cause of foreign missions which is a feature of its close! What achievements for Christ there might have been! Here we stand at the Zambezi and look back at the reigns of Dingiswayo, Chaka and Zwide, and see the rise and fall of kingdoms; rivers of blood shed; a million or more massacred, condemned to cannibalism, or to death by starvation ; fathers slaying their children, and children their fathers; and God’s fair earth made worse than hell—all for want of the Gospel. We see before us a horde of barbarians, their faces set to the north, who, over hundreds and hundreds of miles, are to spread death and desolation ere the Gospel comes to them to make them new men. Had the Gospel been brought to Dingiswayo’s kraal then, what a different history of South and Central Africa could have been written! There was then a more open door to these regions than there has been in these later days, according to the history of missions in Zululand, Matabeleland, Gazaland, the Upper Zambezi, Nyasaland, and away round Nyasa by the country dominated by the Gwangwara, who are Ngoni, down through Yaoland, for all were affected by the convulsions induced in Chaka’s time. We read of Dingiswayo in the beginning of this century opening a trade with the Portuguese at Delagoa Bay, giving liberal rewards to his people for inventive or imitative genius displayed in the production of things with which he might trade with the Portuguese, and having a karosse manufactory, in which a hundred men were employed. These were days of peace and industry such as have not been found anywhere else on the arrival of missionaries in those regions. Again, in the days of Chaka, over whom one or two Europeans (Messrs Fynn, Farewell, and Isaacs) seem to have had great influence, gained by fair dealing and medical skill, one of them wrote: “On one occasion, as I have before related, when we communicated to him our opinions on the existence of God, who made the world, and of a future state, and told them that by a knowledge of letters all our confidence of being immortal beings had arisen, he expressed surprise, and wished much that the doctors or missionaries would come to him, and teach him to acquire this knowledge. The greatest state of ignorance on this sublime subject pervaded him. But I have ever been impressed forcibly from the desire he manifested to have among his people missionaries whom, he said, he would protect and reward, that he might have been brought to some sense of reason on this important point, so necessary for the promoting of civilization.” But the Church of Christ was at the time ignorant of her duty, and was not impressed by the opportunity of extending her Lord's kingdom.


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