The Slave Trade Arguments

According to Julian Cobbing’s ‘alibi’ argument, extensive slave-raiding by white settlers and their allies beyond the Cape Colony frontier during the Mfecane years (between roughly 1810 and 1840) contributed greatly to the unrest and dislocation which took place across the wider region. The thrust of Cobbing’s argument centred on two battles – both of which he controversially claimed were actually slave raids initiated by British colonists. The first is was fought between Griqua and a group of ‘Mantatees’ at Dithakong (in what is now the Northern Cape) in June 1823. The battle was witnessed by a trio of Europeans whom Cobbing claimed published misleading accounts of the battle to conceal their own involvement. The second battle was fought between British forces (supported by Khoi, Thembu, Gcaleka) and Matiwane’s Ngwane near Mbholompo (in the present-day Eastern Cape). Conventionally, the battle is understood to have taken place to halt ‘Fetcani’ (referring in this instance to the Ngwane) raids on the Thembu and Gcaleka.

Cobbing further argued that Delagoa Bay (Maputo) was a site of a major trade in slaves. Drawing on evidence collected by Patrick Harries, Cobbing argued that historians Alan Smith and David Hedges had overlooked the scale of the Portuguese slaving operations, which he claimed was significant enough to have been one of the true underlying causes of the Mfecane, which had conventionally been blamed on the Zulu kingdom’s expansionism.  Cobbing’s argument was controversial because it lacked substantial evidence. In particular, his claim was subjected to scrutiny by Elizabeth Eldredge. More recently, in a 2020 paper, Linell Chewins and Peter Delius have built on Cobbing’s argument by drawing on previously unexamined evidence sourced from archives in Lisbon.

Relevant Works

Chewins, Linell. “Trade at Delagoa Bay: the influence of trade on political structures, 1721-1799”. Master’s dissertation, University of the Witwatersrand, 2015.

Chewins, Linell and Peter Delius. “The Northeastern Factor in South African History: Reevaluating the Volume of the Slave Trade out of Delagoa Bay and its Impact on its Hinterland in the Early Nineteenth-Century.” Journal of African History 61, no. 1 (2020), 89-110.

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

Eldredge, Elizabeth. Slave Raiding Across the Cape Frontier. Milton: Routledge, 1994.

Eldredge, Elizabeth. “Delagoa Bay and the Hinterland in the Early Nineteenth Century: Politics, Trade, Slaves and Slave Raiding”. Slavery in South Africa: Captive Labor on the Dutch Frontier, edited by Eldredge, Elizabeth and Fred Morton, 127-165. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994.

Gewald, Jan-Bart. ‘Mountaineers’ as Mantatees: A Critical Assessment of the Events Leading up to the Battle of Dithakong.

Harries, Patrick. “Slavery, Social Incorporation and Surplus Extraction; The Nature of Free and Unfree Labour in South-East Africa”. The Journal of African History 22, no. 3 (1981), 309-330.

Liesegang, Gerhard. “Dingane’s Attack on Lourenco Marques in 1833”. The Journal of African History 10, no. 4 (1969), 565-579.

Online from: 16 Jul 2021