Researching for an article or a histfic novel teaches you a lot. Not just about a period, a person or a society, about yourself.
Because I was doing a small piece on Shaka and Robert Mugabe, I rediscovered a book about the rise of the Zulu Empire by E A Ritter. I’d read it over 40 years ago and it had stayed with me longer than anything by Rider Haggard. Intellectually but unfortunately not physically. So I bought a 1960 edition from The Book Depository and it now sits next to a book I’ve devoured many times but never used as a research source: a comprehensive history of native American tribes by Alvin M Josephy Jr. entitled ‘500 Nations ‘.
The juxtaposition made me think about how racist I was and how that affected my work.
There’s no doubt that I’m a racist. I was born in pre-‘Empire Windrush‘ Britain to the chant of ‘Remember, Remember Empire Day, the 24th of May’. It was quite a few years before my birthday degenerated into the PC nonentity of Commonwealth Day. My thesis was on the British in East and Central Africa. The best I can claim is that I grew up an enlightened colonial imperialist, aka pink racist.
The strange thing is I never put the Zulu, Ndebele (aka Matabele), Masai and Kikuyu in the same box as the Apache, Shoshone, Cree and Cheyenne. My built-in racist attitudes, forgivable or not, were reassembled by American cultural imperialism not by historical study.
There is no more simplistic and unworthy characterisation of good and evil than Hollywood’s early depiction of cowboys versus Indians. Even non native Americans accept that now, in a mealy-mouthed sort of way. The USA hadn’t even begun to struggle with the concept of conscience during my mindforming days. In the absurd way that the British, imperialists par excellence, claim affection for the underdog, I rooted for the Hollywood Indians. Their savage courage had a desperate nobility in the Rousseau mould. I’ve been to Wounded Knee, I’ve drunk First Nation wine (not bad at all), I wear moccasins around the house. Tinged with British condescension, I admire native Americans.
I’ve turned into a selective racist. I don’t like admitting it, but I don’t see native Africans in the same light as the American Indians. Considering what I know about them, that doesn’t make sense.
Although there may be better comparisons, the Apache and the Zulu are the most emblematic tribes of their respective continents. Not that the Apaches were a tribe but a grouping of six different tribes in the South West of the USA. The Zulus were a Nguni clan and as such more on a par with the Apache tribe, the Chiricahua of Cochise and Goyathley (‘One who yawns’, more frighteningly known as Geronimo).
In savagery, the Apache did nothing that would make a Zulu shudder. Rectal impaling followed by exposure to the elements was among the more humane form s of Zulu execution. What Richard Harris had to put up with in ‘A man called horse‘ is mild in comparison. Legend has it otherwise, but the Apache were more scalped than scalpers. They had Mexican bounties on their heads. The Nguni were more likely to decapitate than scalp you and then use your head ornamentally (but then so did medieval Europeans).
In war, the Apache were accomplished guerrilla fighters. The Zulus had their raiding parties but were masters of the pitched battle, using regimental formations to great strategic effect. At Isandlwana, their iron spears humiliated a British force equipped with Martini-Henry rifles and 7 pounder artillery pieces. There were many great Apache warriors besides Cochise and Geronimo, including Eskiminzin, Victorio, Nachez and Loco. I doubt that any of them, or perhaps all of them together, would walk away from the field if they faced the incredible Mgobozi, the most famous of Shaka’s generals, a man born to kill.
In their attitudes to women, the Apache and the Zulu were not that far apart. In both cultures the women were allowed to fight as well as nurture. Lozen, Victorio’s sister, was not the only accomplished female Apache warrior. The Zulus, however, took the female capacity for aggression more seriously and formed complete regiments of fighting maidens. The Apache woman, Lozen, was particularly feared not only because of her violent streak but also because she was a shaman. Queen Ntomazi, a sorceress who collected the skulls of more than 30 rival Nguni chiefs, was made from an even more fearsome mould. She used hyenas as mediums for her witchcraft and fittingly died at the jaws of one (Zulu executions often had a poetic ring).
In their sexual sophistication, the Zulus outpace the Japanese let alone the Apache. When hormonally charged, I remember reading, rather sweatily, about their puberty and ‘wiping the axe’ rituals. The Zulus are very grown up about sex. As Ritter put it, Zulu women ‘believed in hearty cooperation with their spouses and never allowed the cult of Venus to degenerate into an act of dignified acquiescence’.
If I’d thought about it, I would very likely have concluded that the Apache weren’t a patch on the Zulus. Yet it was the Apache not the Zulu who took hold of my imagination.
If only Zulus had taken to that most cinematic of beasts, the horse, or trekked nearer to that perverse institution called Hollywood, my racist attitudes would have been more inclusive.
The boring but frighteningly obvious conclusion is that racism isn’t rational. You ‘re infected by everything you see, read and watch. In no small way, historical fiction spreads its virulence. Most historical fiction is centred on white history, suggesting that there isn’t really much black history. Yet the oral folklore of the Nguni, and many similar African tribes, is as rich in story and metaphor as pre-Homeric Greece. Yes, Shaka’s had the odd film made about him but as far as I’ve noticed he’s in a minority of one.
I’m not advocating more books about Mary Seacole or more tv programmes like ‘Merlin’, which turns Queen Guinevere of Camelot coloured. All I’m saying is be aware, and own up to your influences. They’re not wrong, just you.