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  • Ndukwana kaMbengwana as an Interlocutor on the History of the Zulu Kingdom, 1897–1903
  • John Wright


In the six years from October 1897 to October 1903, Ndukwana kaMbengwana engaged in scores of conversations in numerous different locations with magistrate James Stuart about the history and culture of the nineteenth-century Zulu kingdom.1 In the 1880s Ndukwana had been a low-ranking official in the native administration of Zululand; at an unknown date before late 1900 he seems to have become Stuart’s personal induna or “headman,” to give a common English translation. Stuart’s handwritten notes of these conversations, as archived in the James Stuart Collection, come to a total of 65,000 to 70,000 words. As rendered in volume 4 of the James Stuart Archive, published in 1986, these notes fill 120 printed pages, far more than the testimonies of any other of Stuart’s interlocutors except Socwatsha kaPhaphu.2 From 1900, Ndukwana was also present during many of Stuart’s conversations with other individuals. [End Page 343]

In the editors’ preface to volume 4 of the James Stuart Archive, after drawing attention to the length of Ndukwana’s testimony, Colin Webb and I wrote as follows:

Since these were the early years of Stuart’s collecting career, it is probable that Ndukwana exercised a considerable influence on the presuppositions about Zulu society and history which Stuart took with him into his interviews. No less likely, however, is the reverse possibility that Ndukwana in turn became a repository of much of the testimony he heard while working with Stuart, and that, increasingly over the years, the information which he supplied would have been a fusion of data and traditions from a variety of sources.3

As I go on to discuss below, I would now be chary of seeing Ndukwana unproblematically as a “supplier of information,” and of seeing the testimonies which Stuart recorded from him as consisting mainly of “traditions.” But the point about the reciprocal influence on each other of Ndukwana and Stuart remains valid. If we want to understand more about the factors which shaped Stuart’s thinking about Zulu history and custom in the earliest stages of his career as a recorder of oral history, and if we want to understand more about how African intellectuals in rurally based communities in Natal and Zululand in the early twentieth century expressed themselves on the past, the point needs to be explored in more detail.

The importance of the Stuart Collection and of the volumes of the James Stuart Archive as a source of information on the history of what is now the KwaZulu-Natal region in the period from the mid-eighteenth to the early twentieth century has long been recognized.4 Stuart’s career as a recorder of oral histories over the period from the late 1890s to the early 1920s has been outlined in a probing study by Carolyn Hamilton.5 From her researches we [End Page 344] get a clear idea of when and why he began to engage in this work, of what his particular interests in the African past were, and of the assumptions about African culture and history that shaped his work. What we need now are detailed studies of the successive phases of his career and also of his engagements with particular interlocutors in the changing contexts of the times in which he and they lived.

This article seeks to examine, as far as the evidence allows, Ndukwana’s own background as an informed commentator on the history of the Zulu kingdom, together with the nature of his engagements with Stuart during the six years they discussed matters historical. For information on Ndukwana’s life we depend entirely on notes made by Stuart, partly of Ndukwana’s answers to specific questions on the subject, and partly of passing references made by Ndukwana when speaking of other topics. To understand Ndukwana, then, we need to understand Stuart in an early stage of his recording career; to understand Stuart, we need to understand Ndukwana. Discussion of their respective careers as thinkers about the past in the period under discussion cannot be separated, hence the degree to which Stuart...


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