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Journal of World History 12.2 (2001) 512-514

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Book Review

Terrific Majesty: The Powers of Shaka Zulu and the Limits of Historical Invention

Terrific Majesty: The Powers of Shaka Zulu and the Limits of Historical Invention. By CAROLYN HAMILTON. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. Pp. x + 278. $39.95 (cloth).

In the early nineteenth century, Southeastern Africa was characterized by environmental and socio-political disorder. Drought in the 1820s adversely affected already limited sources of arable land, intensifying the level of disparity within and between communities and contributing to widespread famine in the region. At the same time, wars of expansion and conquest near Delagoa Bay on the coast of southeast Africa displaced massive numbers of people, and brought about the disintegration of some communities and the formation of other new ones. Known as the mfecane, this period of suffering and displacement is commonly attributed to the military innovation and expansionist rule of Shaka Zulu, founder of the Zulu people. Of paramount significance in African history, the mfecane and the identity of Shaka Zulu are the subject of heated, historiographical contention.

Sparked by historian Julian Cobbing, the debate over the mfecane addresses general notions of African agency and the nature of interchange between Africans and white settlers and traders in the Delagoa Bay area. Moreover, the debate challenges the very meaning of Zulu ethnicity and identity, as well as the nature and legitimacy of Shakan rule (and calls into question the historical accuracy and significance of the man known as the father of the Zulu people). The mfecane debate is part of a larger conversation about the multiple identities and applications of Shaka in African history and popular culture.

Indeed, the image of Shaka Zulu is frequently reinvented and reinvoked, both inside and outside the academy. In Terrific Majesty, Carolyn Hamilton has crafted an astute history of the construction of Shaka that considers the multitude of representations while putting them in their very particular places. In doing so, Hamilton addresses the limits of historical invention, while illuminating the ways in which these limits in turn legitimize the power of history.

One of Hamilton's primary assertions is that the historically constructed images of Shaka cannot be polarized into perspectives of the colonized and the colonizer; rather, there is a dialogic process at play that informs the sources that have come out of both the British colonial administration and the Zulu kingdom. In an effort to draw out the historical cross-pollination of conceptual models, she takes on the difficult task of critiquing and deconstructing the diverse body of work that has been established as both the expert knowledge and popular culture body of the Shakan canon. Furthermore, and perhaps most [End Page 512] importantly, Hamilton accentuates the intimate relationship between politics and historical invention. She contends that the relationship is not contained within the twentieth century, late-Apartheid-era debate over the mfecane, but extends back to the beginnings of contact between the British and the Zulu. She asserts that the writing and telling of history is in itself a political act, and one of her goals in Terrific Majesty is to draw out that relationship and examine the ways in which it has informed the construction of Shaka. These are not necessarily revolutionary claims on the part of Hamilton, but they are assertions that remain underdeveloped in history and anthropology.

The bulk of Hamilton's analysis begins in Chapter 2 with a discussion of the origins of the constructed image of Shaka that were developed during his reign and soon after his assassination. Hamilton contends that the image of Shaka first projected by British traders in Port Natal was that of a benevolent patriarch, and that the first significantly negative portrayal of the Zulu king was coeval with the financial misfortunes of the first trading party. She draws this conclusion mainly from the correspondence that occurred between the traders and the settlement on the Cape. This perspective is enhanced by the Zulu oral histories from the same period that...


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