Project Canterbury

Dawn in Swaziland

By Christopher Charles Watts, M.A.
Archdeacon of Swaziland

London: The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1922.

Chapter II. History of Swaziland

THE native name of Swaziland is Kwangwane, and that of the people Amangwane, which means the people of Ngwane. The word Swaziland was in vented about 1850, when European hunters and traders first came to the country. At that time the native king was Mswazi, and from his name the word was made up. Of the history of the natives of the country, or Swazis as they are now called, little is known, and probably there is little of interest, their record being merely the usual one in Africa, that of one small tribe gradually extending its influence over surrounding small tribes and absorbing them into itself. The Swazis are a stoutly built race, well set-up, with pleasing features and good manners, possessed of a good deal of physical courage, and with the ready good nature and absence of malice and vindictiveness which have characterised Africans all down the ages, and have made them the slaves of other races. They belong to the Bantu group of nations, and are nearly allied in appearance, customs, and language to the Zulu, Tonga, Shangane, Amakosi, and Basutu. The tribe migrated south in company with other tribes from the Zambesi region, driving out the Hottentots, bushmen, and original inhabitants of the land. Like all the Bantu peoples, they are of negro origin, but with an admixture of Arab or other Asiatic blood. This is shown most clearly in the shape of their skulls, which are much shorter and have a loftier and squarer forehead than those of the negro, and by the teeth, lips, and nose, which are often of distinctly Arab type. Indeed, it is no unusual thing to find a Swazi who might be a woolly- haired Arab, while some of them are copper-coloured, and others are jet-black. Many of their customs are Semitic in origin, and might be described in language taken from the pages of the Old Testament. Before the coming of the white men, their habits were very primitive, and though they knew how to smelt and work iron, they were completely ignorant of any other civilised arts. Their language, which abounds in idioms and is full of imagery, contains over 20,000 words, and gives the impression that they have degenerated from a higher plane of civilisation. This may be accounted for by their intense belief in the existence and power of witchcraft, which caused them to kill off the more intelligent representatives of their race. Should a man acquire more wealth in cattle than his neighbour, or live in any new or better way, he would at once be smelt out as a "witch" and killed. This custom, carried out during many generations, would have secured the survival of the least enterprising and the most foolish, and must have gradually deteriorated the mental power of the race.

In the gravel-pits of Mbabane large quantities of stone axes, arrow heads, and scrapers are found, but these are probably not more than six hundred years old. Bushmen paintings are common in the caves and rocks on the eastern border of the country, but these, again, do not date back for more than a hundred years. The remains of stone cattle kraals and of rough stone fortifications and villages are fairly frequent on the mountains, but the Bapedi builders were exterminated by the Swazis almost within living memory, and a kloof in the Hora district of Swaziland is still white with the bones of the men, women, and children of this unfortunate tribe.

There is, of course, no written history of any kind and it is no easy matter to collate, or even collect, the traditions of the Swazi tribe. About the year 1750, a few clans of Bantu people seem to have been living scattered about on the mountain ranges of the southern part of the country, and these were being constantly added to by refugees from the cruelties and massacres of chiefs in Zululand and on the northern side of the Lebombo mountains. In the caves in which the country abounds these people were able to hide themselves and their cattle from the raiders of warlike and bloodthirsty tribes around. The Bapedi lived in scattered villages in and around what are now known as the Mbabane and the Hora districts, and a few bushmen still lived in the kloofs in the mountains, hunting the wild game with which the land teemed. The Swazis still say: "When you meet a little Bushman; and he asks you how far off it was that you first caught sight of him, it is well to say, 'I saw you a long way off.' Then the Bushman will be pleased and do you no harm. But should you say, 'I have but just caught sight of you!' he will be angry and shoot a poisoned arrow at you, thinking that you are mocking at his small stature and insignificant size, and pretending that his presence made no difference to the landscape."

About 1800, the chief of a small clan, named Ndugunya, began to conquer and attach to himself the clans in his immediate neighbourhood, and was able to leave to his son, Lopuza, the foundation on which the Swazi nation was built. Lopuza had the lust of conquest strongly developed, and rapidly extended his sway until all southern Swaziland owned him as king. But Tshaka, the Terrible, was now ruling in Zululand, and had begun his wars of extermination against the neighbouring tribes. An expedition was sent from Zululand against Lopuza, who was worsted in battle, and as he retired to the central part of the country, where the royal kraal of Zambodi now stands, he wiped out those who opposed his progress. Here he established himself in a fertile valley, with a mountain range full of large caves at his back, into which he could retire in case of danger. His son Mswazi, who has given his name to the tribe, was a ruthless tyrant of the tribe of Tshaka, but on a smaller scale. Under his father, Lopuza, the tribe had increased very much in numbers and in cohesion, and it is probable that Mswazi had a fighting force of at least 10,000 men at his disposal. He organised raids in all directions, devastated the Kaap Valley near Barberton, on the one side, and laid siege to the Portuguese fort at Delagoa Bay on the other.

Sending out his impis over the high table-land on his western border, he reached Carolina and even Machadodorp, and destroyed the entire native population. When, in 1870, Scots and Dutch farmers began to settle and take up land on this side of Swaziland, which is now known as the Lake Chrissie district, they found the whole country teeming with eland, wildebeest, buffalo, and antelope of every kind. Elephants, lions, and even giraffes were occasionally seen, but except for a few little Bushmen in the kloofs of the mountains, not a sign of a kraal or human settlement was visible. This was the re suit of Mswazi's efforts. A very old woman, who was one of Mswazi's younger wives, is still alive in Swaziland. She is shrivelled-up and inexpressibly dirty, and resembles an animated bundle of goat-skins and rags, as she hobbles along with the aid of a stick. A little white wool still crowns the top of her head, and her face is one mass of dirt-begrimed wrinkles. Her eyes, though rheumy and bleared by age, can still light up with energy and intelligence as, sitting on a stone near the kraal which she rules, she tells with dramatic power the story of the fights and raids and massacres of other days. And as she sinks exhausted at the end of her narrative, she exclaims, "Au, Nkosi 'mpela" (He was a king, indeed!)

It was during his reign that Dingaan, after his defeat by the Boers, fled into Swaziland and was murdered. The Zulus say that he escaped with but one impi of warriors, but with all his wives and half his cattle, and established himself in a kraal on the Lebombo mountain. After a few days he sent back his warriors to try to collect and bring the remainder of his vast herd of cattle. Spies told the Swazi king that his men were gone, and a royal impi was sent to blot him out. But when the wives of the fallen despot heard the noise of their coming, they ran to meet them, and cried out words of mockery: "Come up to us and we will eat you up. All our men are hidden in the kraal waiting for you. Come up and they will show you a thing." The Swazis believed these words, and did not come that day. Twice was this repeated, and for the second time the Swazis went back again. But on the third day, screwing up their courage, they rushed the kraal, and having slaughtered Dingaan, who was very old and fat, they took away his wives.

The true story, as related by a living eye-witness to Mr. Honey, the Resident Commissioner of Swaziland, who is preparing for publication a full and accurate history of the tribe, is, however, this "Dingaan escaped to Swaziland with a few faithful followers, and having sent his men back--they were but a handful at best--to collect some cattle, he entered a kraal of three poor Swazi huts, in order to rest. The owner of the kraal, a poor man of no standing in the Swazi tribe, went to fetch him some water, and, returl1ing a few minutes later, found that Dingaan had been stabbed in the back and side by an unknown hand--perhaps by some straggler of his own following. He left the dying man, and went off to tell the men of the royal kraal of Swaziland."

Upon the death of Mswazi, his son Ludonga became king, but he was poisoned after a reign of six years. Then followed a terrible period of civil war, and for some months the country was drenched in blood. However, some older chiefs, with the help of a Boer commando, eventually managed to establish one of Mswazi's younger sons upon the throne. This king, Mbandine, proved to be a peaceable and wise ruler, and preferred to arrange matters by tact and common sense rather than by violence. He kept a few of the younger men under arms, and indulged in a few raids against weaker tribes, and killed those whom he feared, or who were suspected of witchcraft, but there was none of the wholesale slaughter of entire populations practised by his predecessors. Although the Bantu people are not as a whole a slave-owning race, yet here and there in their kraals is to be found an occasional slave taken from neighbouring tribes in Mbandine's time.

Such an one lives near Empolonjeni. As he was old and unmarried, he was employed to look after the cattle, and in various menial occupations, but when he became useless through increasing infirmity, he was driven from the kraal, and sat down on the rocks in the rain to await death. The boys at St. Mark's Coloured School at Empolonjeni were much distressed, and wished him to be brought to the school. However, a native Christian woman, who was connected with the owners of the kraal, made it her business to see that he was taken back and cared for. She was genuinely shocked at the callousness of the poor man's owners.

It was during the time of Mbandine that what may be called the European invasion of the country began. Boer farmers in the Transvaal and in Natal, who were pushing up nearer and nearer to its borders, heard from elephant-hunters that the grass in Swaziland was green during the dry winter months, when there was no pasturage on their own farms, and they came to the king to ask for permission to graze their cattle and sheep in his fertile valleys. As these hunters brought guns, horses, and greyhounds, which are much valued for hunting, and as they made themselves as agreeable as possible, their requests were granted readily enough; and every winter many farmers and flocks and herds trekked down into Swaziland, returning to their own homes as soon as the rain and heat began. Mbandine valued the friendship of these men, and punished with death anyone who stole their goods, or interfered with them in any way. The Swazis also sold them native children whom they had captured in their raids against neighbouring tribes, and who became serfs or slave-servants to the farmers.

On the highlands on the border of Swaziland, towards Piet Retief, some Boer farmers wished to buy farms and make a permanent settlement. Mbandine, who always liked and respected white men, made them a considerable grant of land, and encouraged the scheme. The dread of his life was lest the Zulus should invade his country, and he knew well enough that a "white belt of farmers along his most exposed border would give him protection against his savage foes. For a time, these Boers took their land and other disputes to Mbandine to settle, and recognised him as their chief, but Mbandine himself pointed out that it was not reason able for a native chief to settle European matters, and suggested they should elect one of themselves as president, and make their little settlement self-contained. This was done, and what was called "The Little Free State," or a tiny Boer republic, was formed in the Piet Retief district.

About the same time, an enterprising Scotsman named Macorkindale went to President Kruger, of the Transvaal, and asked for a large grant of land. His plan was to form a powerful company in Glasgow, import Scotch settlers of the crofter type, and form a "New Scotland settlement," where farming and other industries should be started on a large scale. Kruger, however, was wary of introducing the thrifty Scot amongst his leisurely Boers, and, after some consideration, decided to establish them on the Transvaal border of Swaziland. By this he achieved a double object. The land would cost him nothing, as he would take it from the Swazis, and the Scotch farmers would form a useful buffer and take off the edge of any trouble or raids from the Swazis, of whom the Boers have always been a little afraid. Macorkindale bought this land, and Kruger came down personally with a commando to establish his right to it. Mbandine made no objection, partly, no doubt, because this large tract of land, having been laid waste by Mswazi, seemed to him to be but a barren country occupied solely by wild beasts and a few Bushmen; partly because he foresaw that these farmers would need to buy pasture from him in the winter. Also, no doubt, because he had sense to know the strength of the white men, and his policy towards them was one of friendship. Macorkindale saw at once the future possibilities of the vast tract of land which he had acquired. But he saw also that a railway must be built through Swaziland to Delagoa Bay if anything were to be done in the immediate future. He hastened to Scotland to secure the necessary settlers, and the money to carry out his large projects. In both of these objects he was successful, but unfortunately he died just as his plans for the railway were reaching completion, and part of the necessary material had arrived at Delagoa Bay. There was no one then to take the lead, and the whole scheme fell into confusion. A considerable number of settlers of a good type were already on the land, having trekked up in waggons from Natal, but there was no means of getting supplies except by waggon, and at vast expenditure of time and money. There was, moreover, no market for any thing they produced, the land was treeless, cold and barren, and no native servants could be obtained, except a few stray refugees from Swaziland.

The idea of a railway, which had been the mainstay of their hopes, had ceased to exist. These pioneers were, however, hardy and determined men, and semi- starvation, isolation, and other difficulties failed to dismay them. Hence, after a long and uphill battle, they have turned what was a wilderness into a prosperous farming district, full of cattle, and with large plantations of good trees, and some of their children are to-day wealthy and prosperous men. It was from the "New Scotland," or western border of Swaziland, that the main European invasion took place. The necessity of finding the nearest road to the sea caused the Scotch settlers to send out parties to explore, and finally to cut, a road through the heart of Swaziland and over the Lebombo mountains to Delagoa Bay. The road was much used both for bringing supplies to the New Scotland settlers and for purposes of trade with the Swazis. Gin always commanded a ready sale, and no small profit could be made by exchanging it, and blankets, beads, or iron tools with the Swazis for some of their herds of cattle. These cattle commanded a ready sale in the Transvaal and Natal, or even in Delagoa Bay, and trading stations and stores were rapidly opened along and around this road. Later on, the discovery of gold in the Barherton district, along the north-western border, brought an enormous rush of Europeans to this district. Again, Lorenço Marques was the nearest port, and a road was cut through Swaziland at an angle to the first one, and joining it before it crossed the Lebombo mountains. Along this road--which is the one described in Jock of the Bushveld--a constant stream of waggons containing machinery and supplies for the mining camp, creaked and bumped and struggled along. An undesirable class of Europeans soon began to arrive, though fortunately not in large numbers. Swaziland was still under a native ruler, and as European law did not exist between its borders, it became a Cave of Adullam for outlaws from Natal, and the civilised parts of the country. In Swaziland these could do much as they pleased, and they could trade upon the ignorance of the native. Most of them were simply rogues whom dishonesty, drunkenness, idleness, or an incompetent disposition had driven from other places. The Swaziland of those days provided them with a veritable paradise. A few--fortunately a very few, for South East Africa has never been the home of violent crime--were of the criminal type, and these established themselves as freebooters, especially on the Lebombo border, and made a living by holding up and robbing natives as they returned from the mines with their wages, and by selling gin and, looting cattle.

About the year 1885 began what might be called the "Concession boom" in Swaziland. The stock belonging to the European farmers on the borders were rapidly increasing, and each season Mbandine had to deal with more and more applications for winter grazing. Many of the applicants persuaded him to put his mark to papers, which ceded to them the ownership of great tracts of land. The news that gold was found in Barberton fired men's imagina tions with the idea that Swaziland, just over the mountains, was a veritable Eldorado. The finding of a few small reefs and some alluvial tin sufficed to send adventurers into the country in swarms, and there was a constant stream of potential concessionaries going and returning from the royal kraal--some wealthy and carrying large bags of gold, some poor and out at heel, but all fired with the one idea that a fortune beyond the dreams of avarice awaited them in Swaziland. In the royal kraal sat Mbandine, who was a savage, even if a wise and well-disposed one, surrounded by his foolish headmen and his wives. Daily a stream of Europeans sought his presence, all bearing presents, and all offering him money for things the value of which he did not understand. In those days he was in failing health, but the visitors could not be kept away. They bribed all and sundry about the kraal, the door-keeper, the snuff-bearer, even the man who pared the king's nails. Money was of no account in those days, and sovereigns were as plentiful as stones around the royal kraal. The tales of those wild days told by the old Swazilanders are at once astounding and true.

Mbandine stood the ordeal well. He drank the white man's spirits, and accepted all his flatteries and gifts, but did not really blind his eyes to what was going forward. He secured the services of a European as his secretary, thinking that if he paid him well he would be honest and guide him in his dealings in matters he did not understand, and would protect him from the machinations of the Europeans. He formed a sort of committee of Europeans, whom he knew and trusted, to deal with all disputes and matters affecting Europeans, as he himself knew that he could not decide what should be done in such matters. He knew that the white civilisation in Natal and the Transvaal was pressing upon his borders, and that neither he nor his people could resist its force. Personally, he was well disposed to the white people, and he gave strict orders that they and theirs were to be strictly respected within his territory--a line of conduct which has been pursued by the Swazi native even to this day. He knew that he could not keep the European from his country, but he thought by diplomacy and gentle guile, and by setting one against the other, he could delay their advent.

In this view of the matter, he was right, for, owing to the confusion of the European interests, Swaziland remained a native State in substance if not in fact for thirty years after his death. Meanwhile, he and his little barbaric court "spoiled the Egyptians," or rather took from them all the money they were prepared to waste. Soon all the land was sold, but the adventurers wanted more, and were prepared to pay for it. Mbandine, the secretary, and the courtiers wanted money. He determined to sell it again in such a way that the buyers would not know. This was easily done in a country that had not been surveyed, and where the boundaries of concessions were only natural landmarks.

But the adventurers had other aims. They asked for a monopoly to import gin, to print, to sell farming tools, even to establish billiard-tables in the territory, concessions to trade without competition over certain areas, grazing concessions, the sale of timber and water-rights,' permission to mine and ownership of the minerals beneath the soil upon land which in some cases had been sold three times over! These requests brought gold to Mbandine and his followers, whilst, to use Lord Selborne's words, "they made the affairs of Swaziland a nightmare of confusion." But now other and more important considerations began to come to the fore. Relations between England and the Transvaal were getting rather strained, and Swaziland became one of the pawns in the game. President Kruger formed the idea of building a railway through Swaziland and Tongaland to the coast, so as to secure a port of entry for the Transvaal free from British control. One of the concessionaires had purchased from Mbandine the right to tax his people on condition of payment of £1000 a month in gold to his private pocket. By the purchase of this concession and others of a somewhat similar kind, Kruger gained a strong footing in the country for the Dutch republic. England, having in the meantime established a protectorate over Tonga land, was contented to have countered his main plan--that of a railway to the coast under his own control.

Mbandine fenced cleverly with both countries, while loyal British and Dutch subjects tried to persuade him to put himself under their respective Governments. At last, seeing that a definite step must be taken, the Swazis decided to appeal to England, as the power they feared the least, and sent a deputation to Downing Street. They asked to be put under the protection of the British Empire on the same terms as Basutoland, and offered to submit to any conditions that might be imposed upon them. This request was refused, and in 1895 the Transvaal, with the consent of England, took over the country. In the meantime, Mbandine died, and his son, Mbunu, came to the throne.

After the Boer War England took over the country, and forming it into a Crown Colony, sent a Resident Commissioner and staff to administer it. These were the palmy days for the Swazis, who enjoyed sympathetic administration, justice for all, freedom from fear of enemies, low taxation, and no more interference with their customs than was necessary in the interests of humanity. But the concessionaires now came forward in shoals to demand their rights. As the whole country had been ceded, and a great deal of it several times over, as the monopolies made legitimate trade impossible, and as many of the documents were obscure or doubtful in meaning and in authenticity, the position was a difficult one. In granting land-concessions, Mbandine had always been under the impression that he granted the land only for the lifetime of the actual petitioner.

The idea of a "grant in perpetuity" was one quite beyond his comprehension. "He is an old man, and will soon be dead, then we shall get the land back," was a remark often on his lips. In every land-con cession, except two which were granted to personal friends, whom by native custom he had made "blood-brothers," he had insisted that the clause, "saving the rights of my people," be put in. This meant that the Swazis were to be allowed to live, hunt, burn grass, and generally conduct themselves as they pleased on the ceded land. Such a condition made European farming quite impossible, and in fact meant, what Mbandine understood by granting a land concession, that the European could live and graze his cattle on the land undisturbed, but should not have the power to claim it for his own in the sense that he could control it or turn any one else off. The Swazis themselves maintained that all the concessions were illegal, as the land belonged to the nation and not to the king, and that he could not sell it for his own private profit without their consent. Lord Mimer and Lord Selborne afterwards wrestled with the problem of what was to be done. Finally, the matter passed into the hands of Mr. George Grey, a man of character and ability, who was appointed special Commissioner, with full powers to deal with the whole question. He was afterwards killed by a lion in West Africa. A few of the trading monopolies were recognised as valid and their owners bought out by the British Government, whilst the rest were rejected as being absurd. All documents were examined, and only those which were undoubtedly genuine were allowed to stand.

Where there were several claimants to one piece of land, the earliest concession was accepted as valid. Mineral rights were given precedence of all others, but, most important of all, the land concessionaires were induced to return one-third of their concessions--and that third good land--to the Government, on condition that their titles were turned into free hold titles for perpetuity, and that they were allowed full control of any natives living on their lands. The Swazis received one-third of their country back again, and that good land, and the concessionaires obtained good titles and full control over the area belonging to them. The settlement was undoubtedly a just one, and was carried out with great skill and ability. The one-third belonging to the Swazis was distributed in such a way as to include the site of royal kraals, and any lands to which they attached any special importance.

In the near future, it is almost certain that Swaziland will be incorporated into the Union of South Africa, and a new chapter in its history will be opened, but it is to be hoped that this will not be done until the Union has decided upon some definite native policy. In South Africa at the present day the native question is the question that is exercising the minds of all. It is the labour question of older countries. Every day it becomes more puzzling, and the delay in dealing with it is becoming more dangerous. It is inevitable that native populations, such as those of Swaziland, should pass under European control. The natives of the country ask the question, "Why have the white people taken our land?"

One answer is that the Swazis themselves only obtained the country by invasion, and by the slaughter of the previous inhabitants.

For three hundred years they filled the land with slaughter and cruelties unspeakable. They destroyed the trees and planted none, and under their régime the land produced almost nothing, while many of the tribe ran away from their own people to be servants to the white people, in order to obtain protection and food. The land has, for the time being, been taken from a people who had abused it, and placed under the control of another people. Now there is peace, and men can sleep without fear at night; there is justice for all; vast herds of cattle fill the land; and starvation is known no more. But God rules the white man as well as the black. Should the white man use his power solely for his own selfish interest, and exploit the native for his own private advantage, as not infrequently he does, God will remove him from the seat of judgment and his place will know him no more.

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