Author: Walton Golightly
Publisher: Kwela Books
Publication Date: 9 April 2007
Amazulu retells the story of Shaka's rise to power. It is not meant to be an academic history of the life and times of Shaka Zulu. It is a popular history. As do all writers of their books, Golightly wants his book to be read, and in the course of the process of reading he leaves it up to the reader to decide on what the book is about. This might seem strange, but this is what Golightly said he wanted when asked about his first published novel.
The book is a fascinating combination of the personal history, myths and fiction that surround Shaka, King of the Zulus, of the neighbouring chief Zwide of the Ndwandwe and of the Mthetwas and the Khumalos, all leading clans of the time. Then there are the English ivory traders, Stanley Boyd and Oliver De la Vere, who have with them their interpreter, Jacob.
These and many more characters interact to build an exhilarating account of what might have happened when the mighty Shaka came to power on the south-east coast of Southern Africa in the early 1800s. Golightly weaves fact and fiction, history and myth, warfare, culture, personal hate and collective, love and passion, and a lot more, into just over 600 pages.
The dialogue is carried through by the Induna and his udibi in the time of Shaka. The induna is the veteran captain of the Zulu army and the udibi is the young apprentice, learning from the experienced general. Golightly adds, "The Induna is a sceptic, a debunker."
Golightly has chosen this approach since he feels "we need to "showcase" critical thought as we enter this New Dark Age of credulity and pseudoscience". This is a heavy statement but it is essential towards an understanding of Golightly's writing. He is out to provide a divergence from the serious side of the life that we live in; to entertain; to give the reader her/his money's worth!
The prose is exciting and refreshing and the reader never tires of reading. There are five parts to the book, each part with its introductory description of the "historical" background scene to follow, so this technique makes it all the more easy for the reader.
Golightly begins the novel by quoting the words of the Victorian writer Arthur Canon Doyle from “How the Brigadier Came To The Castle of Doom” in The Exploits Of Brigadier Gerard. The words are important for understanding the role of the Induna:
In me you see one of the last of those wonderful men, the men who were veterans when they were yet boys, who learned to use a sword earlier than a razor, and who during a hundred battles had never once let the enemy see the colour of their knapsacks.
It is an interesting choice, the quote from Doyle. Brigadier Gerard was a Hussar in the French Army during the time of Napoleon, and through his vanity is convinced he is the bravest of all the soldiers. The reference to Gerard in the Golightly novel enables the reader to identify somehow with the way the Induna tells the stories, he himself an old man able to view events with the benefit of experience, wisdom and "historical" hindsight.
In the Prelude to the novel there is a further clue to what is to come. It reads:
These are my stories, Of long ago and faraway. If I have lied, I have lied the truth. If this is not the way things were, it's the way they should have been.
From this interesting choice of words uttered by the Induna we get a glimpse of how Golightly is going to show the great Zulu leader, Shaka. It will be finally up to the reader to make that decision, but Golightly would certainly value a decision, given the sometimes harsh way in which history has portrayed Shaka.
Golightly says that it is his wish that "the reader will come away with a reasonably accurate picture of Zulu Society". He wants to convey the image of Shaka not as a terrible despot but as a leader who created an empire as powerful and revered as Napoleon's France and Caesar's Rome.
On the plains there is a fortress built of large and heavy stones. It is very curious and well-constructed, as according to reports no lime to join the stones can be seen. One of the structures is a tower twelve fathoms high …
One of the problems with early Zulu history (and therefore a problem for Golightly) lies with the sources. There are two lots of sources from eyewitnesses. The first is Nathaniel Isaacs, an English adventurer, who arrived in Natal in 1824 to search for associates that had gone astray, including Francis Fynn (the second eyewitness). In the search, Isaacs and his companions were shipwrecked and while the crew was busy building a vessel to resume the journey, Isaacs decided to explore the land.
He managed to reach the royal kraal of the Zulu. As a result of this adventure he wrote Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa in 1836 in which he recorded what he could make of the Zulus and their customs. In addition there is an account of Zulu life in the form of The Diary of Henry Francis Fynn, compiled from original sources and edited by James Stuart and D McK Malcolm. Henry Francis Fynn actually learnt to speak Zulu during the time of the last four years of Shaka's reign.
These sources remain, and Golightly makes use of them in his novel. In Part Five, entitled The Ring of The Lords, there is Fynn's account of his first meeting with Shaka, which must have been around 1824. He describes Shaka's dress:
Round the waist there was a kilt or petticoat made of skins of monkeys and genets … He had a white shield and a single black spot, and one assegai …
Was this the assegai Shaka is famous for having introduced as the short stabbing spear, one wonders?
… but even the White Man's medicine couldn't help Nandi. Fynn could see …
straight away that it was dysentery and the Queen Mother was unlikely to live through the day.
The account of how Shaka was moved at his mother's death is sentimental but powerful. The presence of extant texts covering these events is thus useful in giving the reader a better understanding of what happened at the time, and Golightly employs them well where he wants to and where he can.
However, Isaacs's and Fynn's views of Shaka were all but praiseworthy. Shaka was seen as a "degenerate and pathological monster". The accounts of both Isaacs and Fynn can thus be questioned, because "(b)oth men were disreputable charlatans who ran guns, fought as mercenaries, murdered in cold blood, and tried to trade in slaves".
Asked what gave him such a different view of Shaka – one that pays tribute to his power and might – Golightly admitted using Eileen Krige's The Social System of the Zulus (Shuter & Shooter, 1965) and LH Samuelson's Zululand: Its Traditions, Legends, Customs and Folklore (TW Griggs & Co, 1974). These books made valuable sources and it was felt that they portrayed a reliable account of detail about Zulu culture of the nineteenth century as it might have been in Shaka's time. Furthermore, they covered a great deal of the traditions, legends, customs and folklore of the Zulu of the time.
Golightly did, however, admit that "there was a gap (in the sources), and therefore the account is still speculation". He continued: "In Shaka's time, no one was writing. Some people say that some of the events such as Gqokli Hill did not happen. The sources are problematic."
The Battle of Gqokli Hill took place in 1818, the start to the Civil War between Shaka and Zwide of the Ndwandwe. It was Shaka's first battle with his southern neighbour, and one he had to fight hard to win, especially seeing he was in the minority when it came to numbers. The reader will enjoy reading about the masterful tactics employed by Shaka.
A big question is how Golightly sees his book alongside EA Ritter's Shaka Zulu. He said that Ritter was a key source for the novel, especially regarding Shaka's campaigns against one of the opposing tribes, namely the Ndwandwe. Golighly enjoyed the way that Ritter cast Shaka as a warrior-king in the Arthurian mould, although this can be annoying. He emphasises that "the fact remains writing in the 1950s, amid the birth pangs of Apartheid, he (Ritter) was flying in the face of contemporary ideology."
Ritter's book was re-edited by a Longman's ghostwriter to present more of a history than it was originally meant to be, namely a "potboiling romance". It cannot be regarded as an accurate historical source in any way – not that Golightly is purporting to present his work as historical.
I don't want to be seen as a defender of Ritter. It's just that his "mythmaking" is woven into the text, along with Credo Mutwa's, in the way oral storytellers draw upon and retell older stories, repeating, but also embellishing. And that's the crucial point, here. If anything, I'd say my take is also revisionist in that it provides differing interpretations.
Where the sources are scant we have to rely on the stories, and these come down to us in the oral tradition. Thus, telling the stories, even revising them, is what Golightly says he is at liberty to do, obviously within the framework of the existing sources.
It is important to pursue the Ritter connection a bit further, because Golightly admits that despite the shortcomings (in the way he tried to portray Shaka), referring to Ritter he says "he succeeds in presenting us with a vivid portrait, an alternative history, if you like, of how things might have been." Referring to his own work, Golightly says, "This work of fiction is unashamedly located in that world" (meaning the mythmaking world of Ritter).
When asked in an interview why the Select Bibliography did not include academic historians such as Dan Wylie, Julian Cobbing and AT Bryant, Golightly said he wanted to refer to the older works such as Ritter, which were more anecdotal. He was, however, currently researching AT Bryant, which is a work portraying Zulu history with a more Zulu-centred picture of the historical events.
As for Wylie and Cobbing, they are academic historians more suitable for more serious students of history wanting to learn about the composite theories that caused the rise of Shaka, referred to as the mfecane, meaning "scattering", or "hammering". This is not the terrain Golightly wishes to enter.
There is another reason why I avoided more modern texts. I wanted to be free to answer the question "What if?" in my own way. And I felt justified in doing this because there are no written records from this time (Zulu records, that is),
While there is a great deal of debt to Ritter, John Laband's Rope of Sand helped Golightly with the finer detail of Zulu society and an account of the Zulu army, and provided a good antidote to Ritter. Furthermore, he used JD Omer-Cooper's The Zulu Aftermath: A Nineteenth-Century Revolution in Bantu Africa (Longman, 1984), a valuable source and an opportune means to debunk the primitivity of the Zulu. Omer-Cooper is a very reliable and highly respected historian, providing the reader of his books with solid insights into Zulu warrior society as it was in the 1800s.
Added to Golightly's Select Bibliography is Donald R Morris's Washing of the Spears (1965). From the Acknowledgements in Golightly's book we read of his fascination with the way in which Morris, a decorated officer in the US Navy during WW II, pursued the idea of writing a book on the Zulu as a result of a chance encounter with Ernest Hemingway in Cuba in 1955. The project of writing the book took Morris eight years, and most of the writing took place in Berlin, with the research done by correspondence through libraries in South Africa and Britain. To date, the book has appeared in 17 different languages, and has never been out of print. While the book centres on the Anglo-Zulu Wars of 1879, it does discuss the rise of the Zulu, and this assists Golightly in his own writing.
Furthermore, Morris's work served as an important impulse for further interest in amateur history around the story of the Zulu, hence Golightly's acknowledgement to Morris:
Although the focus in Morris is the War of 1879, the first section sifts through the myths and attempts to present a scholarly history of the Zulu nation. And it provided a good starting point in my own investigations.
In Golightly's Acknowledgements there is an interesting reference to PA Stuart's An African Attila (Shuter & Shooter, 1927), which are tales of terror of the Zulu, now translated as uNkosigomvu in Zulu. Its powerful appeal to the native reader is a suitable testimony to what Golightly is trying to achieve, and by his own admission:
Here was a writer, who more than 70 years ago, was attempting something similar to my own endeavours – and doing so in the first-person narrative.
Peter Becker appears in Golightly's Select Bibliography, to serve as a suitable counterpoise, for presenting “black history”, and to tell the “other side of the story”. Golightly feels that Bekker's works, especially Path of Blood (the story about one of Shaka's generals, Mzilikazi, who defied the great king), Rule of Fear (about Shaka's half-brother, Dingane), and Hill of Destiny (about the leader of the Sotho, King Moshesh)"are a lot more balanced and insightful than many contemporary critics seem to realise". Although Becker never wrote about Shaka per se, the three works of important characters are vital towards an understanding of the Golightly novel.
Indaba My Children, African Folktales by Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa was used for the creation of some of the characters, mythological, as intended, and is a very important source alongside Ritter for "mythmaking" in the novel. This statement is powerful because of the role played by the myth, in Zulu history and in the novel itself. Telling stories is a tradition in Zulu society, and thus the inclusion of this source is fitting.
Golightly feels very passionate about telling the story. He asks the question, "Who is out there writing them?" The answer is obvious: Golightly and people like Golightly, but I think he is saying more. Golightly is suggesting there are many more stories to be told and thus written.
He admits that apart from some emotional stuff, possibly through one or two of the characters, there is no emotional side to the novel. Says Golightly, "Technically it's an old writer's trick – write about someone totally different to you, it liberates you. In this case a Zulu Induna living in the 19th century."
And asked about this being his first book, an "epic" at that, Golightly responded: "It's my first published novel. I've wanted to write since I was 14. I've known I've wanted to write. I am not the world's most prolific writer, I write in fits and starts. This book was a change in pace for me, a form of escapism for me too, because being a South African writer, I do feel the need to record life as we are living it now."
Asked how the book does that, he replied, "It meant I could write about something in the past, in the midst of our difficult and complex society." Asked if this is a form of escapism, he replied that indeed it was.
Because escape also means going away, not only avoiding, and it can create the distance to come back to. It reminded me that history is not all "sorg en verdriet". The stories in the book I wrote are about valour, acts of courage, so why should we leave them behind in footnotes, why not tell the story?
He replied: "That's not up to me. It's part of a trilogy, it is meant to be a standalone novel, but it can go into a trilogy."
Asked, "Do you intend going forward in history, or forward and backwards, in time?" he answered, "The simple answer is we do not have Shaka's death here yet."
Golightly answered, "One of the challenges I enjoyed about writing the book was the fact that I had to concede that many people would know the story of Shaka, if only in broad outline. That means that the big twist in the novel cannot be the assassination."
"Don't believe everything you read, there are competing viewpoints on what happened. I characterise it as a tale of adventure with a historical setting more than a historical novel. I call it speculative history." For example, an interesting view of Zwide emerges: "Dingiswayo and Shaka weren't fighting for the survival of their own people against Zwide's lust for hegemony. It seems to me a case can be made they went to war with him to gain control of the trade routes with Lourenço Marques. Maybe!", explains Golightly.
But surely by reading more of Cobbing, who wrote theories about exactly this, we could get a more accurate picture?
Asked about the cultural detail in the book, describing Zulu military life of the early 19th century, how will the reader be able to take in so much detail?
His response was that it should be read as an epic, like a Western needs to be read. If writers of the Western are allowed to revel in the Old West, why not let there be room for revisionism in the myths in our country, allowing writers to play, and by that he means writing popular history.
In a sense Golightly is fulfilling the narratological role that Hayden White proposes, whereby he means that this is how history is constructed, through the narrative. In The Content of the Form, White "touched many nerves in the American historical profession". For White the "linguistic form is the primary carrier of content in historical writing, indeed, in historical knowledge".
Is it possible that Golightly has produced something along these lines, a narrative construct, braiding the history, filling it in, where there have been huge gaps in the historical knowledge of what happened during the reign of Shaka? He might very well have done so, judging by the number of secondary sources he consulted, as well as the (albeit problematic) primary ones. In the final analysis, according to the record, the characters he has used – Shaka, Nandi, Dingane, Mpande, Dingiswayo, Zwide, Mzilikazi and Soshangane – were real people. So was the Induna. The epic voyage through the sometimes historical, sometimes fictional, will nevertheless bring the reader somewhat closer to the story behind the myths and legends that surround our magnificent history, in this case the rise of one of the most famous names to emerge from South Africa – Shaka Ka Senzangakhona, King of the Zulu.
A question to Golightly: "How do you foresee the future of Zulu history?"
"Do you mean the future of the people? Or the future of the study of their history? If the former, who's to say? I like the fact that we live in a 'multicultural' society made up of 'language groups'. Such rhetoric is needed. Tribes have histories and animosities; let's rather talk of 'language groups'. But there's no reason why a Zulu (or Xhosa) could not remain proud of his/her heritage at the same time.
"As to the study of their history ... Consider William Webb Ellis! Every generation of historians has their own idea about the role he played in 'inventing' rugby. Currently, I believe he's in favour; that is, yes, he did exist and did do what legend has him doing. But that's likely to change. Robin Hood is someone else who's apparently out of favour - he's a myth with no counterpart in reality. For now."
So it could be that Ritter et al will be "fashionable" in a few years time.
Golightly was asked, "Why is there not the same fascination with Xhosa history as with Zulu?"
He answered, "Is that true? Who are the heroes of "the Struggle"? Predominantly Xhosa. I can think of at least one who has to be one of the greatest men who walked the planet, never mind South Africa; but still, the so-called study of history being what it is in academia – a matter of spite and a fight for tenure – the knives will doubtless come out one day.
"Perhaps one could say the 19th century was the time of the Zulu, whereas the 20th century and beyond is the time of the Xhosa. Perhaps, just as empires rise and fall, so do cultural groups have their moments of ascendancy.
"Then again, the Xhosa never had a Fynn or a Ritter. Or a Becker, for that matter. Or handed the British Empire a defeat on the scale of Isandlwana (although that was a pyrrhic victory if there ever was one)," reminds Golightly.
These are interesting thoughts from a writer who has made a great effort to reinvent the story, as he will no doubt be doing in other fields, and who provides the reader of Amazulu much food for thought about a saga in South African history that has received a great deal of attention in this country and abroad.