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King Shaka, the diviners and colonialism

Weir, J. (2008) King Shaka, the diviners and colonialism. In: Limb, P., (ed.) Orb and Sceptre: Studies in British Imperialism and Its Legacies, in Honour of Norman Etherington. Monash University ePress, Melbourne, Vic.

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The often-told tale of Zulu King Shaka and his diviners may tell us more about colonial religion and politics in the nineteenth century than it does about Zulu religion and politics. The tale unfolds in various nineteenth-century books, popular and contemporary histories, and in oral traditions. Writers have frequently portrayed it as a key point in King Shaka’s leadership, most especially E A Ritter in the 1950s, some 100 years after the earliest accounts. King Shaka is said to have secretly sprinkled blood in the doorway of his isigodlo (pl. izigodlo, the king’s private enclosure consisting of the huts of his women and children), then ‘innocently’ proclaimed it to be an evil omen, and called on his diviners to ‘smell out’, or reveal, the culprit/s. Most of the numerous references to the tale explain it as a test devised by Shaka to expose diviners as frauds. This chapter examines various accounts of the story, including similar tales relating to other chiefs, and highlights discrepancies between them. The main players are usually Shaka and the diviners, and they are wholly African. The chapter also adds other dimensions, notably the colonial role in manufacturing some of these accounts, and the significance of the relationship between African politics and religion.

Item Type: Book Chapter
Publisher: Monash University ePress
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Notes: "This material has been published by Monash University ePress in Orb and Sceptre: Studies on British Imperialism and Its Legacies, in Honour of Norman Etherington (Monash University ePress, 2008). Monash University ePress is the definitive repository of this material. DOI: 10.2104/os080005".
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