The ‘discovery’ by New Millennium scientists of a so-called ‘dream drug for dieters’ once again highlighted the contemporary importance of our Zulu Kingdom’s fascinating history – these experts acknowledging that the ‘magic potion’ in question is derived from a rare succulent known to our indigenous inhabitants for thousands of years. Anthropologists, in turn, were quick to point out the value of continuing to unlock the secrets of antiquity, in particular of a people who carried to their collective grave an intimate wisdom of this environment.

A Free Reign

These original caretakers of our natural wonders were the ancient San people, labelled ‘pygmies’ then ‘bushmen’ by successive generations of European historians. The San instinctively understood the need to tread softly among the life-sustaining bounties contained within breathtaking boundary landmarks. The vast majority of these are today protected within our enviable network of sanctuaries where visitors revel among timeless beauty. Fossil beds dating back some 90 million years offer underwater dreamlands to snorkellers and scuba divers at the Trafalgar Marine Reserve along our lower South Coast and Zululand’s Greater St Lucia Wetland Park and World Heritage Site. The latter made modern natural history at the dawn of the 21st Century when ‘living fossils’ – coelacanths – were discovered off its warm Indian Ocean shoreline. Yet further north beyond St Lucia and a little inland, the Lebombo Mountains present fascinating geological evidence of a continent ‘shape-shifting’, plus meaningful insights into the evolution of humankind. More of this particular region shortly, along with our natural and anthropological piece de resistance – the mighty Drakensberg mountain range encapsulated within our most recently proclaimed World Heritage Site, the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park.


It was, then, within a spectacular arena teeming with wildlife that the San evolved from Early Stone Age beginnings around one-and-a-half million years ago. The small-framed, ochre-skinned hunter-gatherers were ‘organised’ into clans and loosely connected family groups, following seasonal game migrations between mountains and coast. While the San are best known for the Drakensberg rock paintings of their Later Stone Age period beginning some 30 000 years ago, the Border Caves found in the aforementioned Lebombo Mountains show evidence of continuous human occupation for some 150 000 years. These are among the oldest Homo sapiens remains on earth, and one school of thought further suggests that our Border Caves witnessed humankind’s first use of fire and burial of the dead!

Life on the Range

When not spending summers based in cool mountain caves, the San chose to ‘overnight’ beneath rocky overhangs or in temporary shelters of branches and antelope skins, tracking their plentiful prey en route to warmer winters oceanside. These nomadic people neither domesticated animals nor cultivated crops – the need had never arisen – but their knowledge of both flora and fauna was nonetheless encyclopedic. The San ‘classified’ thousands of plants and their uses, from nutritional to medicinal, mystical to recreational and lethal. The ‘slimming potion’ promulgated by today’s scientists once served as an appetite-suppressant for San hunting-parties, who believed it inappropriate to eat before returning bounty-laden to the women, children and elderly of their clan or family unit.

Art Imitates Life

Tribute to the life-sustaining environment was paid via the rock paintings that currently attract thousands of visitors annually to our Drakensberg mountains. These formerly threatened treasures, now impeccably preserved for future generations, further show how antelope and various other creatures came to permeate the San’s spirit world, their presence representing the difference between life and death in the earthly sphere. Highlight of the Drakensberg ‘San- experience’ is undoubtedly the Main Caves Museum, where audio- visual and standing displays depict the ‘home-life’ of these tragic nomads, although more than 500 caves have thus far been extensively surveyed, and some 30 000 paintings catalogued and their meanings deduced. The series of disastrous developments that first impinged upon, then overtook and finally drove to extinction the San of this region are frighteningly vivid among these.

Beginning of the End

The arrival in their uncontested realm of black peoples from east- central Africa was the San’s first harbinger of doom – recounted in greater detail within our History of the Zulu Nation. When the Iron Age dawned in the Great Lakes region around two thousand years ago, it ushered in a time of plenty for the black races labelled ‘Bantu’ by early European anthropologists. This term, derived from the Zulu collective noun for ‘people’, became used in scholarly circles to differentiate black languages from the click- tongues of light brown hunter-gatherers to the south. Among the Bantu tribes were our Zulu ancestors – the Nguni people – named after the charismatic figure who in a previous epoch had led a migration from Egypt to the Great Lakes via the Red Sea corridor and Ethiopia. The new Iron Age sophistication bred a population explosion of both people and livestock, leading to the inevitable quest for expanded territory. Heading south and southeast, the first Iron Age ‘invaders’ collided with Later Stone Age San by at least the 3rd Century of our Common Era.

Harmony at First

The initial impact on the hunter-gatherers was not altogether devastating, for although the black clans established fairly large villages, cultivated crops and demarcated grazing areas for their domesticated livestock, there remained land aplenty for the San to pursue their timeless traditions. These ancient ways actually received some benefit from the arrowheads and harvesting tools born of the Iron Age mining and metalworking skills. Harmony prevailed as trade relations were set in place, and even the blood relations of inter-marriage, but the relatively idyllic compromise was destined to last no more than 200 years.

Sheer Weight of Numbers

Nguni people now infiltrated seaward of the Lebombo Mountains in ever- increasing numbers, placing the San’s delicately balanced lifestyle under extreme pressure. Many black clans put down roots in our lush northeastern quadrant and were united under the king who lent the region its enduring name – Maputaland. The first San to be displaced were thus the millennia-long inhabitants of the earlier-mentioned Border Caves…
There was, at this point, not even a family named ‘Zulu’ among the Nguni-speakers, let alone all-conquering empire builders, but the San were nevertheless forced to retreat further and further towards their Drakensberg mountain fastness. Driven to thieving stock from their Nguni ‘neighbours’ by this loss of animal migration grounds, the San soon witnessed black attitudes towards them deteriorate from a grudging tolerance to outright hostility and a xenophobia that belittled their ‘primitive’ language and was suspicious of their perceived ‘sorcery’.

The Christening and Heaven

By the time Portugal’s ship-borne explorer Vasco da Gama sighted our coastline on Christmas Day, 1497, and duly named it Natal, the first clan to bear the title ‘Zulu’ would only recently have come into existence. The son of Malandela, and bearing a name that translates as ‘Heaven’, Zulu had followed the traditional path of marrying and leaving home to establish his own clan soon after coming of age. His settlement thus became the first kwaZulu – ‘Place of Heaven’ – and its inhabitants the amaZulu – ‘People of Heaven’. Zulu’s most famous descendant, Shaka, was destined to impact on this land as profoundly as the European and British adventurers who followed in Vasco da Gama’s path-finding wake.

Bad News Travels Fast

Portugal itself began colonising only to the north of our eventual border, but word-of-mouth accounts of these incursions and the havoc they’d wreaked soon drifted south to become common knowledge among the Nguni. The future Zulu nation’s first encounters with white people were thus stranded Portuguese nationals with a ‘bad reputation’, whose ships began sinking along our coast en route to Portugal’s new territories stretching from East Africa to India. As a result, these sailors and passengers found no warm welcome on our shores, and their diaries speak of ‘unimaginable privations and sorrows’ and ‘dying in the Faith despite humiliation and agony’. The St. Lucia region of today’s Zululand was thus named after their Patron Saint of Light by hapless Portuguese desperate to find a clear path north to relative safety. News of these grim encounters spread throughout seafaring Europe and across the Channel, and the first English mariners to be shipwrecked here would surely have recalled them and been filled with dread.

Attitudes Change

These terrified Englishmen were aboard the Good Hope, driven ashore at Port Natal-Durban on 6 May, 1685. After making camp on our prominent headland known as the Bluff, the crew travelled far inland and to their immense relief ‘found the people everywhere both friendly and hospitable’. Historians have suggested that by this time the ‘novelty and accompanying fear’ of white men had worn off. Two more ships were wrecked in close proximity within a year, and crews of the English vessel Bonaventura and Dutch merchantman Stavenisse joined forces with the Good Hope’s complement to build their safe passage to Cape Town. Logbooks record that local inhabitants ‘vied with each other in offering the white sailors food, drink and their habitations for lodging’. The master of a second Dutch ship, the Noord, was pleased to report a similar experience after visiting the port in January 1689, and later that year, a Captain Rogers of England encountered ‘an extraordinary civility towards strangers’.

Pleasant Enough to Purchase

Port Natal-Durban and its potentially strategic value plus new, welcoming reputation, were becoming increasingly well known, suggesting to owners of the Dutch East India Company that the time was now ripe to acquire it. They ordered the Noord to return with instructions to buy the port for goods to the nominal value of between 19- and 20-thousand guilders. These ‘goods’ were the trinkets deemed almost worthless by European standards, yet proffered as highly valuable currency throughout the history of ‘bartering’ with indigenous peoples. Records later proved that local headman, Chief Inyangesi, ceded Port Natal-Durban to the Noord’s master for baubles worth only one thousand guilders! The Dutch East India Company never followed up signing of the agreement with ‘effective occupation’ – necessary under international law of the time to claim ownership rights to the territory in question. They did, however, send the Postlooper on a reconnaissance mission in 1705, only to be told by Inyangesi’s son – who’d by now assumed the mantle of chief – that the deal was null and void as he was not responsible for his father’s word. While vociferously maintaining ownership of Port Natal-Durban to anyone who’d listen, the Dutch never pursued being ‘double- crossed’ by the new chief – perhaps because they were fully aware of the original transaction’s dubious nature.

Courtesy: Kwazulu Natal Tourism