Since his assassination in 1828, King Shaka Zulu—founder of the powerful Zulu kingdom and leader of the army that nearly toppled British colonial rule in South Africa—has made his empire in popular imaginations throughout Africa and the West. Shaka is today the hero of Zulu nationalism, the centerpiece of Inkatha ideology, a demon of apartheid, the namesake of a South African theme park, even the subject of a major TV film.
Terrific Majesty explores the reasons for the potency of Shaka’s image, examining the ways it has changed over time—from colonial legend, through Africanist idealization, to modern cultural icon. This study suggests that “tradition” cannot be freely invented, either by European observers who recorded it or by subsequent African ideologues. There are particular historical limits and constraints that operate on the activities of invention and imagination and give the various images of Shaka their power. These insights are illustrated with subtlety and authority in a series of highly original analyses.
Terrific Majesty is an exceptional work whose special contribution lies in the methodological lessons it delivers; above all its sophisticated rehabilitation of colonial sources for the precolonial period, through the demonstration that colonial texts were critically shaped by indigenous African discourse. With its sensitivity to recent critical studies, the book will also have a wider resonance in the fields of history, anthropology, cultural studies, and postcolonial literature.
Carolyn Hamilton’s new book is not a history of Shaka; it is rather a history of the histories of Shaka, an attempt to understand [its] changing presentations. This might, at first glance, seem a thoroughly postmodern kind of project, hinting at a fascination with history as representation rather than a concern with what actually happened in the past. But at its best it is more than this, as Hamilton presents very real debates about what did happen, and she does so in the face of a profound, bitter and not infrequently violent historical controversy.
As the title suggests, Hamilton’s book is not a biography of Shaka, but rather an exploration of his evolution as an icon of African ‘tribalism’ and Zulu nationalism… Hamilton spends little time on Shaka the man, devoting her attention instead to the different ways in which South African communities have chosen to remember him… Hamilton’s study is extremely erudite, and her argument is well-grounded in the relevant literatures of history, anthropology, and cultural studies… The book makes an important contribution to the field of Southern African Studies, while drawing conclusions that have implications outside of Africa.
She reveals the various ways in which the image of Shaka has been used in political struggles in eastern South Africa, from his lifetime right up to the present day. Her work has real relevance to contemporary politics, addressing the extreme bloodshed in Natal in the late 1980s, and the possibilities of drawing on the region’s ‘heritage’ to create the reconciled ‘rainbow nation’ in the early 1990s… Hamilton’s argument has significance well beyond the confines of Southern African studies. Her emphasis on the historical dynamics of invented traditions is salutary. Her insistence that local politics and cultural systems place limits on the invention of tradition carries lessons for all those who, following Edward Thompson, aim to rescue their subjects from ‘the enormous condescension of posterity.’ Her methodology, too, has wider application… Hamilton’s book is inspiring, not least, because it suggests a life beyond post-modernist relativism.
The book is both a thoughtful disquisition on the irreducible ambiguity of knowing the past, and a work of rigorous deductive empiricism, in which the reliability of particular historical voices is interrogated. Hamilton shows the way elements of precolonial African authority were tendentiously apprehended by colonial officials, and contested by Africans, as a ‘Shaka’ tradition. She rejects the idea that historical meaning is produced moment by moment; instead she shows how all reinterpretations of the Zulu kingdom have been constrained by popular traditions rooted in genuine historical experience… As a piece of scholarship, Terrific Majesty will be indispensable reading for students of the sources for Zulu history. More than this, and almost alone in recent Africanist scholarship, it is an effortless read.
Hamilton’s thought-provoking monograph on the persistence of Shaka as a metaphor in South African history and politics and the changing representations of the famous Zulu king over time constitutes a subtle excursion in philosophy of history and discourse analysis. Her major argument challenges most postmodernist interpretations of the Shakan legend by suggesting that Shaka was not simply a colonial invention… Hamilton deftly analyzes the construction of the Zulu past through a variety of discourses.
There is absolutely no doubt that this material deserves a wide audience. I am sure that on her central point Carolyn Hamilton is correct. That central point seems to me a commonsensical one, one that is only striking in the current moment in which it has been influentially denied: namely, that African (in this case, both Zulu and non-Zulu) representations shaped what V. Y. Mudimbe calls ‘the colonial library.’
The great originality of the book is that it demonstrates the way in which later representations of Shaka remain broadly true to the original discourse, formulated during Shaka’s reign. This book also challenges post-modernist historiography, not by a lot of positivist tub-thumping, but by using the methods of discourse analysis to bring out the historical constraints on the various images of Shaka, and their roots in the actual situation of his reign. This book has no competitors: it is the first of its kind, certainly in precolonial and colonial studies.
Hamilton has brilliantly and with great clarity used the literary methodology of deconstruction to counter those who would see in colonial writing simply inventions of the ‘other.’ What Hamilton says has far wider implications for the possibilities of writing the history of preliterate peoples.There are historical constraints and limits attached to the metaphorical use of Shaka and of ‘Zuluness’ which leave it open to different interpretations, but which have an irreducible core recoverable through careful sifting. The great value of Hamilton’s work is that she shows how this can be done by actually doing it herself.
- 294 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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