Julian Cobbing: Mfecane as Alibi

In a series of papers produced in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Julian Cobbing, a historian based at Rhodes University, developed a controversial argument challenging the long-established notion of the Mfecane (also called the ‘Difaqane’ or ‘Lifaqane’). For over 150 years, historians had regarded the history of south-east Africa from roughly 1810-1840 as a period of extensive turbulence; an era of warfare and mass dislocation. It was long accepted that the formation of the Zulu kingdom, led by King Shaka, was central to this turbulence. In particular, John Omer-Cooper’s 1966 book The Zulu Aftermath had brought this perception to the fore. Cobbing’s argument initiated a striking counter-claim: the Mfecane was a conspiratorial ‘alibi’ created by white writers to cover up responsibility for the region-wide ‘devastations. The true cause of the Mfecane, Cobbing argued, was colonial expansion into the region. Aside from the pressures this wrought, two destabilising slaving networks – one in Delagoa Bay, the other across the Cape Colony frontier – had a devastating impact on numerous African groups.

While Cobbing’s argument drew extensive criticism, both for ignoring African perspectives and for its dubious use of evidence, it had a profound impact.  In September 1991, a conference initiated by Carolyn Hamilton at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg brought scores of scholars together to debate the merits and the impact of Cobbing’s argument.  By the mid-1990s, the Mfecane Debate had expanded into a far larger epistemological dispute. Having challenged the evidential basis of colonial-era histories, Cobbing’s argument had drawn the credibility of colonial-era sources and their underlying suitability for the production of history into question.

Relevant Works

Cobbing, Julian. “Grasping the nettle: the slave trade and the early Zulu”. Workshop paper, University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, 1990.

Cobbing, Julian. “Jettisoning the Mfecane (with Perestroika)”.  African Studies Seminar Paper, Rhodes University, 1988.

Cobbing, Julian. “Ousting the Mfecane: Reply to Elizabeth Eldredge”.  Paper prepared for “The ‘Mfecane’ Aftermath: towards a new paradigm” workshop. University of the Witwatersrand, 6 – 9 September, 1991.

Cobbing, Julian. “The Case Against the Mfecane”.  Seminar Paper, Rhodes University, 1983.

Cobbing, Julian. “The Mfecane as Alibi: Thoughts on Dithakong and Mbolompo”. The Journal of African History 29, no. 3 (1988), 487-519.

Cobbing, Julian. “The Myth of the Mfecane”. Seminar paper, University of Durban-Westville, 1987.

Online from: 16 Jul 2021