Saturday, 2 March 2019

History of the Ngoni People

by Walter Angus Elmslie of the Livingstonia Mission, 1891.

The history of the Ngoni people is full of interest. They are a branch of the Zulu race living in the far south. Various other branches are found scattered over the central lake districts, all of which have at one time of the other been connected with the Zulus, as their habits and language show.

The members of that branch, to which Mombera's people belong , were originally conquered by Shaka when living as an independent tribe on the banks of the Tugela and Umpisi rivers in what is now the colony of Natal. Their tribal name was Amahlongwa. They were allowed by Shaka to retain their own lands , and Zwangendaba, the chief, was placed over them under Shaka.

They united with a tribe living in Zululand whose name was Xumalo. The chief of this tribe was named Umkotshwa.(The Rev. G.A. Wilder, of the American Mission in Natal, in a letter to the author.) He had two sons named Manukusa and Umhlabawadabuka. The former is probably the person who appears as the leader of the migratory Zulus as "Manikusse" or "Manikoos", as the name is variously spelt.

Manukusa was the early name of Umzila, and as his people are called Nguni or Ngoni it is probably through the Hlongwa people's connection with them that they now call themselves Ngoni. Manukusa drove out and away to the north Umhlabawadabuka and his following, from among whom the Ngoni under Zwangendaba journeyed further north.

The Ngoni say that they revolted from the tyrannical rule of Shaka and were not sent north by him to fight the Portuguese as Sofala, and that rather than return after defeat chose a new home in the north, as has been by some considered to be the case. As they brought their wives, children, and cattle with them, ti is clear that they were not sent out to war and deserted. Besides, none of the Ngoni have ever seen the sea, which they must have done had they been at war on the Sofala coast. The Zulu warriors referred to are probably the Matabele.

The Ngoni crossed the Zambezi in 1825, led by Zwangendaba, the father of Mombera. They crossed near Zumbo, and moved northward on the high land between Lakes Nyasa and Bangweolo, crossed the Tshambeze, and entered Fipa country on the south east of Lake Tanganyika.

Note: When crossing the Zambezi there was an almost total eclipse of the sun. There was no eclipse near the point where the Ngoni crossed between December, 1759, and November, 1835, except one on 16th June,1825, so that we may safely infer the last mentioned is the eclipse to which the Ngoni refer, other circumstances corroborating it.

In the Fipa district they settled for a time, and enslaved part of a tribe there whose name was "Jeri." Their own clan name was "Phakati" and they impressed this name on the subjugated people and took their name of "Jeri", by which name the original Ngoni living in Mombera's are now known. As to this day the Ngoni do not care to speak of their history, fearing their former tyrannical master, Shaka, they changed their name with the desire of breaking off all trace of their former position.

The Ngoni must have been a numerous people when they came north. When living among the Fipa mountains they made raids into the countries lying north and north eastward, being at times successful and at other times defeated.

They have now become broken up into several sections. When Zwangendaba died in the Fipa country there was war over the appointment of a successor. One party put forward a chief whose policy was for a renewal of their northward journey. The sons of Zwangendaba, who were mere youths, joined together and advocated remaining where they were. Mthwalo (recently dead) was proclaimed chief, being the son named as his successor by Zwangendaba, but, unwilling to bear rule, he placed his brother Mombera in power. Two other sons of Zwangendaba (but not full brothers of Mombera and Mthwalo) disputed the chieftainship of Mombera, after that section which decided to move northward had broken off. The only way of settling the dispute was by a further disunion, and Mpherembe decided to remain behind while Mombera and his following proceeded eastward.

The party under Mombera reached the north end of Nyasa, where they had severe fighting with the natives of the district. They then proceeded southward and settled on the plateau where they now are. Sometime after settling in their present locality they were joined by Mpherembe and his people who came from the Fipa district, and they are again united in upholding the Ngoni kingdom.

After settling in their present locality there were several internal quarrels which on each occasion led to a separation of a section of the tribe. Though Mombera was, and still is, paramount chief, each district is ruled by a sub-chief. Mombera's brothers already referred to, and another named Mpezeni, acted as chiefs over certain districts. Mpezeni disagreed and led off a large section of the tribe, and is now settled between the south end of Nyasa and the Loangwa. Chiwere, a headman of a district, led off another section, and is now settled on the hills south west from Nkhotakota.

The so-called Ngoni under Chikuse at the south west of Lake Nyasa were not an offshoot from the party which migrated under Zwangendaba. There are now no Ngoni among them and their language is Nyanja. (Here Dr Elmslie is wrong as the Ngoni people under Chikusi are real Ngonis and their history is well documented. While Ngoni language died earlier among them they still have Ngoni language songs. For more about all the Ngoni groups please visit ngonipeople.com )

The Gwangwara on the east side of Lake Nyasa are evidently of an earlier disruption than we have referred to, and Mombera's Ngoni deny any knowledge of them.

The various names by which the Ngoni are known may be referred to. The Tumbuka called them Mazitu, with reference to their migratory habits. This name is not now in use. The Nyanja people called them Maviti, which name also probably refers to the same characteristic of the Ngoni.

The name by which they call themselves should be in all cases in English writing chosen, and a convenient method of such use of it is found in dropping the personal prefix (aba) and designating them Ngoni, just as we drop the ama, and write Zulu both for the Zulu nation and language.

The Ngoni tribe under Mombera, as now existing, is made up of people belonging to various tribes, which have been taken captive and incorporated with the original constituents.

When the tribe was on its march northwards they fought with the following tribes - Amatonga, Abakalanga (Abakalaka) and Abisenga (on the Zambezi). The principal men of these tribes were put into positions of trust by Zwangendaba, and afterwards mande councillors of state. In this way he tried to consolidate the tribe and unite their interests. Even at this date the chief's counsellors almost all belong to the Tonga, Kalanga, and Senga tribes who lived to the south. When any children were born to these incorporated peoples they were given free born rights and privileges equal to those of Ngoni children.

Dr Elmslie on a journey in Northern Nyasaland


Several of Zwangendaba's headmen, by attaining to considerable wealth and power as sub-chiefs in the tribe, were considered dangerous and put to death. In Mombera's reign such things have occurred also, but Mombera is a more merciful and righteous ruler, not delighting in wholesale murder as did his father.

Of tribes met with north of the Zambezi, there are representatives, such as Senga Bisa, and Rungu, while the inhabitants of the district in which the Ngoni now live are represented by the Tumbuka, Tonga, and Chewa.

The position of the slaves is not devoid of comfort. They have their wives and houses and gardens; are allowed to choose their own masters, and have security which their friends struggling for an independent position do not possess. They are well treated, and as no slaves are sold, they enjoy the fruit of their own labours and live in peace. It is only occasional service that their masters require of them, such as help in cultivating the ground, and gathering in the crops.

Walter Angus Elmslie, 1891


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