The Journal of African History

More on the ‘Mfecane’

Sources of Conflict in Southern Africa, c. 1800–30: The ‘Mfecane’ Reconsidered*

Elizabeth A. Eldredgea1

a1 Michigan State University

The so-called ‘mfecane’ has been explained in many ways by historians, but never adequately. Julian Cobbing has absolved the Zulu of culpability for ongoing regional conflicts, but his work is severely flawed in its use of evidence. Cobbing is incorrect to argue that the Delagoa Bay slave trade existed on a large scale prior to the disruptions beginning in 1817, and European slaving therefore cannot have been a root cause of political turmoil and change, as he claims. Cobbing correctly identifies European-sponsored slave-raiding as a major cause of violence across the north-eastern Cape Frontier, but his accusations of missionary involvement are false. Jeff Guy's interpretation of the rise of the Zulu kingdom based on environmental factors is inadequate because he examined only stock-keeping and not arable land use, which led him to false conclusions about demography and politics. In this paper I argue that the socio-political changes and associated demographic turmoil and violence of the early nineteenth century in southern Africa were the result of a complex interaction between factors governed by the physical environment and local patterns of economic and political organization. Increasing inequalities within and between societies coupled with a series of environmental crises transformed long-standing competition over natural resources and trade in south-eastern Africa into violent struggles.


* I would like to thank James C. Armstrong, R. Hunt Davis Jr., Robert Edgar, John Mason, Alan K. Smith, and Rick Watson for their comments and suggestions on an earlier version of this paper.