Finding Shaka Zulu in the Attic
New Horizons in Leadership Studies series
A note about source material
The search for authenticity concerning Shaka Zulu poses a challenge, because it is based on (1) the imagery of Shaka available within African society, a blending of oral and written tradition, and (2) perceptions of traders and colonial officials. Over time Shaka’s image has become mythopoetic, its details contested between white and black historians. Many writers have demonized him, creating a figure of inhuman qualities, a symbol of violence and terror. European writers with this perspective have been accused of reinventing Shaka as a monster as justification for stealing African land. (It should be noted, however, that many of the most horrendous stories drew on tales already in existence before the arrival of whites.) Shaka’s early life is remembered through oral tradition, which was the way traditional Zulu society kept records. Separating first-hand accounts from hearsay leads to problems of intepretation. In contrast, many facts of his later life are based on the written accounts of the first white adventurers, who established a settlement at Port Natal – modern-day Durban – in 1824. Predominantly British, they thrived under Shaka’s protection, hunting for ivory and trading with the Zulu kingdom. The main source of written information, not only for me but for researchers generally, is the detailed eyewitness accounts of Nathaniel Isaacs (1836) and Henry Francis Fynn (1833/1950), both of whom had personal contact with Shaka. These two traders wrote accounts of their interactions with the African king that smack of sensationalism, probably in order to capture the attention of their audience. Analysis...