Alan Webster: Unmasking the Fingo

Alan Webster expanded on a facet of Julian Cobbing’s ‘alibi’ argument in a 1995 book chapter based on a conference paper. The conference paper had in turn drawn on his 1991 MA thesis. According to the conventional take on events, British forces were called on by white settlers into the area between the Fish and Kei Rivers in December 1834 following increasing resistance by isiXhosa-speaking groups to settler expansionism in the region. After the British forces had subdued the resistance, many of the Africans collectively referred to as ‘Fingo’ opted to resettle in the Cape Colony. Webster, on the other hand, argued that a cover-up had taken place: many of the so-called Fingo groups who had settled in the Cape Colony were actually British captives. According to Webster, these Fingo were seized and sold into slavery on white farms. He further argued that the war fought in 1835 was a fabrication largely orchestrated by the politician Robert Godlonton’s coverage of the conflict. Godlonton was also the editor of the popular newspaper the Grahamstown Journal.  Webster’s argument, although influential, has attracted criticism from Jeff Peires and more recently, from Nomalanga Mkhize.

Relevant Works

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

Fry, Poppy. “Siyamfenguza: The Creation of Fingo-ness in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, 1800-1835.” Journal of Southern African Studies 36, no. 1 (2010), 25-40.

Mkhize, Nomalanga. “In Search of Native Dissidence: RT Kawa’s Mfecane Historiography in Ibali lamaMfengu (1929)”. International Journal of African Renaissance Studies – Multi-, Inter- and Transdisciplinarity 13, no. 2 (2018), 92-111.

Peires, Jeff. “’Fellows With Big Holes in their Ears’: The Ethnic Origins of the amaMfengu’. Quarterly Bulletin of the National Library of South Africa 65, no. 3 and 4 (2011), 55-64.

Stapleton, Timothy J. “Oral Evidence in a Pseudo-Ethnicity: The Fingo Debate.” History in Africa 22 (1995), 359-68.

Stapleton, Timothy J. “Valuable, Gallant And Faithful Assistants”: The Fingo (Or Mfengu) As Colonial Military Allies During The Cape-Xhosa Wars, 1835–1881.” In Soldiers and Settlers in Africa, 1850-1918, edited by Miller, Stephen, 13-47.

Webster, Alan. “Unmasking the Fingo: The War of 1835 Revisited”. In The Mfecane Aftermath: Reconstructive Debates in Southern African History, edited by Hamilton, Carolyn, 241-276. Witwatersrand University Press, 1995.

Online from: 16 Jul 2021