African Roots of ‘Wokery’: the dangerous production of ‘usable history’

African Roots
Gwythian Prins
Written by Gwythian Prins

There is always something new out of Africa: ex Africa semper aliquid novo. Playing with history for ideological purposes – making it ‘usable’ – is a dangerous and sometimes a deadly game. Sometimes words can kill -literally. But honest and thorough historical research can cure the disease.

Both sides, now

In the course of my fieldwork in western Zambia, over several years I drove my Landrover many thousands of miles in the deep bush: on sandy tracks in the dry season and through tricky mud during the rains, fording dambos and rivers and across the Zambezi floodplain in pursuit of informants – all in an area three hundred and fifty miles from the nearest tarred road. Joni Mitchell’s haunting song about looking at both sides of clouds, love and life was one of my favourite driving tapes – which dates me – but its message is apt for setting our scene.

At that time in the 1970s, we in Bulozi were surrounded by war. We had guerrilla war to the north (southern Zaire in the Pedicle), to the west (the MPLA in Angola), to the south-west (SWAPO in the Caprivi Strip) and latterly, to the south and east, in Rhodesia. By and large one got used to the guerrilla groups who had very different character.

Bulozi was by geography a rear area to which SWAPO brought their wounded from the Caprivi Strip; and our Mission and District hospitals rendered such aid as they could. I happened to arrive at one such hospital after a South African helicopter gunship had caught a SWAPO group in the open. The scene on that truck was like a grotesque modern re-enactment of Géricault’s painting of The Raft of the Medusa.

I helped first with triage and then as an orderly while the doctors operated flat out. The small operating room was overwhelmed. Necessity became the mother of invention. I swiftly improvised a surgical use for my Landrover because the surgeons were arm-deep in bloody wounds. Parked next to the OR, I removed the air filter from the carburettor – luckily it was a petrol engine – and attached instead a long flexible hose that led in through a window terminating in a hollow stainless steel probe. Start up the car and the surgeon had instant sterile suction plus immediate incineration of the extracted blood and other fluids.  The following day the SWAPO commander sent up a supply of drugs that the hospital needed, as a gift of thanks; and later there was a football match with the hospital staff.

The MPLA were quite different. Truly terrorists.  They terrorised Zambian villagers, raping women, stealing cattle along the border villages north of Shangombo, until the Zambian Army intervened to stop them. I recall a meeting one day with our shaken airfield manager at Mongu Airport. I had gone to collect from our ‘milk run’ Zambia Airways plane a Cambridge archaeologist colleague who was visiting us to conduct a short research project. What’s wrong, I asked? He pointed to a Russian-built Zambia Air Force helicopter parked away from the civilian terminal. “They asked me to get it refuelled. I asked for the load weight. The pilot said go check for yourself. The load bay is full of MPLA body parts.”  The MPLA also conducted a massive bush-meat trade by massacring the migrations across the Angolan savannah on the west bank with the twin machine guns mounted on their jeeps. The animals are often the first victims in African bush wars.

I must declare an interest. They also, or rather their Cuban escorts, full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard, once chased me and tried to kill me. So there is another debt to the versatility of my Landrover, this time driven flat out in extreme conditions (low ratio; third gear; engine screaming; adrenaline pumping; I can never forget), which out performed the Russian counterpart that got stuck in a stream bed.

I later found that as Eleanor (from her number-plate EL 6824) and I maintained traction and escaped over the brow of the sandy bank and I, in my rear view mirror, had seen Kalashnikovs being unslung, a bullet fired from the dambo had actually grazed the top of the aluminium tropical roof. I was lucky that it was not three feet lower.

Likewise, one dusk when we were there, from across the river the Rhodesians shot up a farm on the banks of the Zambezi near Livingstone that my wife and I were house-sitting for a Zambian friend when I was attached to the Rhodes-Livingstone Museum in 1977. We hit the floor. The bullets went high. Nothing personal I guess, in either incident. In the MPLA case it was really my own fault. I was overconfident, knowing the tracks and villages in the area well; and I should have stopped as I had done on previous encounters, to let them sniff around me, as dogs do in a park, rather than cockily peeling off the main track as I did.

The point of these anecdotes is simply to establish that unlike many who have opined about those wars, I was an involuntary witness close up and personal and – nearly – a victim, twice. Therefore, as a young person I knew both how different the different groups were but also how horrible and similar the back-wash of these wars was for innocent by-standers like our maLozi friends and neighbours. I saw quite a lot of death in those years. It was a constant grim shadow. Guerrilla warfare is terrifying and is not to be trifled with lightly.

Once or twice a year I would drive up to Lusaka for a spell of intensive work in the National Archives of Zambia. When in town, I used to stay with close Danish friends. He was a classical Gold Medallist architect in Copenhagen who pioneered an amazing and enduring form of ‘fusion’ architecture in Zambia where he was also the Danish Consul. She, an innovative potter who, with Zambian women potters, developed luminous new glazes (we still cherish her ‘hash dishes’ decorated with the imprint of marijuana leaves) and was a central moving force in the Zambian art scene.  Erhard and Bente Lorenz were voluntary immigrants to Zambia from Rhodesia which they quit when the Smith regime declared UDI in 1965.

They opened their home generously and made it one of Lusaka’s leading political salons, which therefore I was privileged to attend from time to time when I was in town. I remember evenings of sparkling conversation with many of the driving forces in Zambian politics; and it was also there that I met Herbert Chitepo, with whom I struck up a friendship. He was founding chairman of ZANU and at the time that I knew him, chairman of the War Council. We would sit in a window-seat of an evening overlooking the quiet garden discussing history, philosophy, law and justice (he was a barrister of eminence and had been Tanzania’s Director of Public Prosecutions) and, once, the nature of friendship.

That conversation was on the night of 17 March 1975. Herbert turned up tired and dispirited from a day of nugatory political discussions in Kenneth Kaunda’s efforts for a negotiated settlement, which Herbert opposed, and in need of company, supper and whisky. His question to me that evening, over whisky after dinner, was prompted by his day of smiles and smiles and hidden daggers. How many real friends – foul weather friends – is it possible for a person to have over a lifetime? I was half his age and had never thought about this before. He was pensive, reflecting on his several careers. We concluded that it was probably far fewer than many people claim. Herbert left us late, more cheerful in himself and taking the last of the whisky bottle with him. It was his last conversation there or anywhere because he was assassinated by a bomb placed under his little blue VW Beetle early the next morning. We heard the detonation and saw the plume of smoke.

No-one has ever firmly proven who was responsible, although many parties have claimed responsibility. But it is a fact that Robert Mugabe was the direct beneficiary of the death of the man who was Zimbabwe’s Mandela, and who, had he lived, would have highly likely become Zimbabwe’s first President – and a very different president to Mugabe. In  my opinion, that bomb destroyed Zimbabwe’s best hope. And, of course, Herbert and I had discussed politics and war.

Herbert Chitepo was the best sort of guerrilla leader. A reluctant one. Unlike some of his subordinates, he hated what he had to do and therefore, like any good military commander, he applied his very considerable intellect remorselessly to the task of securing victory, with greatest guile and at least cost of blood. He knew his Sun Tzu. This made him formidable; and while one  theory of his assassination is that it was ordered by Ken Flowers, Director of the Rhodesian Central Intelligence Organisation, presumably for that reason of his skilful generalship, I must say that at the time and thereafter my Zambian friends (and I) could never quite buy it. Win or – as it happened – lose, the Rhodesians would have known that the end-game would go better for them dealing with Rhodesia’s Mandela than with his successor Robert Mugabe. At the time, the consensus in my circle was that the likely perpetrator was the greatest beneficiary. Occam’s Razor pointed that way.[1]

Faced with the task of planning a successful ‘hearts and minds’ campaign, on a previous evening during a previous trip to the Archives, he and I had discussed questions of mobilisation and agency. I had told him about my foolish MPLA mishap to his wry amusement and a gentle scolding. Herbert told me that naturally he had read what he could lay his hands on about social organisation and political mobilisation in Zimbabwe’s colonial history; and as is well known, ZANU/ZANLA followed the Maoist model of ‘fish in the water’ social mobilisation.  In exile in Dar-es-Salaam he had known Professor Terence Ranger, newly expelled from the University College of Rhodesia. Therefore he had attended carefully to the social mobilisation thesis in Ranger’s Revolt in Southern Rhodesia, fresh from the press as the bush war escalated. He had found it persuasive. If spirit mediums had been pivotal organisers once before then, maybe, they could be so again?

Therefore, on Herbert’s instructions during their night-time forays into North Eastern Rhodesia, ZANLA field commanders were briefed to seek out spirit mediums, to recruit them to the independence cause and to seek to use them as agents of wider mobilisation.

Later in 1975 I learned at first hand that Herbert and his colleagues had not been alone in attending carefully to Ranger’s thesis. As one could in those strange times,  I made my way circuitously (in ways that I won’t explain) from Zambia to Salisbury, stayed with dissident friends at the University and every morning cycled over to work in the National Archives of Rhodesia, which, as Ranger declared rightly in a short annex to his book, are superb. Indeed the NAR (as they were) are the only archive I have ever used where at the sound of a gong at 11.00, all the researchers gathered next to a preserved Fowler steam traction engine under an external alcove for coffee and cakes, courtesy of the management.  (In Lusaka we were less formal. We had an enterprising and jolly lady who sold rib-sticking maize porridge and various sorts of very indeterminate meats to all comers in her chow bus.)

The chimurenga bush war was aflame, especially in the north-east in the first operational area which was code-named HURRICANE by the Rhodesian forces. Faced with the ZANU/ZANLA shift to Maoist attacks followed by melting away into invisibility leaving no tracks, in response they had adapted and refined their tactics. At the core of Rhodesian counter-insurgency was so-called ‘vertical envelopment’ adapted from the Malayan Emergency.

‘Vertical envelopment’ employed specialist French Alouette III helicopters to deny insurgents the advantage of time for escape. These machines were capable of flying ‘high and hot,’ of sustaining considerable battle damage and in an emergency of flying on diesel, even petrol for short spells, in the absence of aviation kerosene. The Rhodesian Air Force used two variants: command gun-ships (K-Cars), which were the first in action anywhere in modern warfare to deploy machine guns hydraulically slaved to helmet-mounted gun sights, and troop transporters (G-Cars).

‘Vertical envelopment’ involved the integrated use of ground spotters like the Selous Scouts (stood up in November 1973, operational from January 1974) and the horse-mounted Grey’s Scouts (stood up in July 1975) who would call in airborne helicopter troops of the RLI (Rhodesian Light Infantry) and RAR (Rhodesian African Rifles) called ‘Fireforce’ units. In large engagements, paratroopers dropped as ‘stops’ from Dakotas to bottle up the guerrillas. The aircraft gave speed of response. Intelligence was therefore key. The multi-racial Selous Scouts had a Special Forces mode of operation and included ‘turned’ ZANLA fighters in their ranks. They were the front-life unit for this task and they had a reputation and record of great ferocity. In terms of professional military art, Rhodesian ‘Fireforce’ helicopter counter-insurgency operations commanded by seasoned officers like Major Nigel Henson had achieved terrible deadliness by 1979.[2] It was not by victory on the battlefield that Mugabe came to power.

At a dinner party one evening in Salisbury, I met a young Rhodesian-born professional who had been conscripted, had just completed the RLI induction course and was planning to skip the country. He showed me the reading list for officer training. It covered all the expected areas for counter-insurgency war, prominently Frank Kitson’s Low Intensity Operations first published in 1971 which draws on his Malayan Emergency experiences. The last Rhodesian Chief of Staff General Peter Walls had learned his trade as one of Kitson’s men. And there – on the compulsory list – was Ranger’s Revolt in Southern Rhodesia. The RLI and Rhodesian Special Forces were very interested in social mobilisation too.

What this meant was that during that phase of ‘the second chimurenga’ in 1972-75, during the night Herbert’s guerrillas were seeking out spirit mediums to recruit and to use to spread support for ZANU; while during the day, Rhodesian forces were seeking out spirit mediums to turn to their side or to kill.  And all this was directly a result of Ranger’s 1967 thesis on how spirit mediums had been instrumental in creating proto-nationalist trans-tribal co-operation during the 1896 Risings incorporated into the Zimbabwean nationalist story as ‘the first chimurenga‘.  The Encyclopaedia Britannica entry is pure Ranger précis.

Plainly Professor Ranger cannot be held responsible, especially posthumously, for the uses to which his book was later put in the bush wars. Books published are bread upon the waters. If this is what actually happened in 1896, then that is what happened.  Good historians are hunting hounds whose art and duty is to follow in full cry wherever the scent of the evidence leads. But in the case of Professor Ranger, there are two problems.

First, Ranger made much of his ‘usable history’ thesis. That cannot but erode professional confidence. Second, do we have methodological confidence – are we sure, on the basis of what he published in that first and most important book of his lifetime oeuvre – that this is what actually happened? We know for a fact that he used his archival research selectively, as will be illustrated below. For if we are not, then both Herbert Chitepo on the one side and Major Reid-Daly of the Selous Scouts on the other were misdirected in the early 1970s and innocent lives were lost in direct consequence of the Ranger thesis on the Risings.

A one-legged pot

In an earlier essay for History Reclaimed, I explained and showed how dangerous it is to rely on unsupported inference from cross-checking in archival materials alone to deduce motive from actions in African and, by extension, in any colonial grass-roots history. What is needed, I suggested, is the methodological equivalent of a three-legged cooking pot. Three legs to stand sturdily above the fire beneath: oral evidence; archival evidence; evidence from the marks upon and in the land, and from the weather: the book of those who can read the land. Under his guidance and following Professor Jan Vansina’s example, in my own work I provided a fairly extensive account of my research conduct in the field, and an account of how and where my sources cross-cut.[3] How my pot stood upright.

In Revolt, Professor Ranger provides a two and a half page account of which reference series and documents in the NAR he used, ending by mentioning that “in the few cases where I have cited oral evidence, I have given the name of the informant and the date of the interview.” (p.389). His research methodology was quite traditional for literate, document creating societies where it is fair to assume that most of what matters lies in the papers: the cross-verification of facts in documents. But then he adds a curious Appendix. It describes an Honours Seminar paper given by Mr C.G. Chavinda, which came to his attention “at a late stage in the production of this book”, i.e. after the formative analyses were long done and dusted but which, by the fact of inclusion, implied an awareness of something, possibly, missing. It described some incomplete oral research on the risings in Mr Chavinda’s home area of Mazoe which is said to confirm the main Ranger thesis of the animating roles of the spirit mediums. (The Mazoe area was the home area of the female medium Charwe/Nehanda, of whom much more below and who, more than the Kaguvi medium, has become the iconographic symbol of the Risings, celebrated not only with a statue and on postage stamps but in street names, a hospital, poems – even a film.) And that’s it.  Will this do?

Actually no.  “…the reasoning of the crosschecking-is-enough crowd ignores the whole documentary context,” wrote Jan Vansina is a retrospective essay on the achievements of History in Africa: a Journal of Method, which was launched by another Vansinite, David Henige, in 1974, expressly because that was “…a time when scholars often cut corners in their rush to construct a history of Africa, and disregarded rules of evidence, thereby running the risk that many of their reconstructions would prove to be unsound.”[4]

Vansina’s conclusion in 2009 was that the need was still acute. The onset of wokeishness makes it now, if anything, more critically important than ever because they, the wokeish, retail pre-cooked conclusions with a relentlessness that far exceeds even that of their ‘usable history’ predecessors.

In “Remembering our Future,” Lord Chartres has restated the centrality of controlled methodology to accurate remembering in a magnificent essay published on History Reclaimed: “Memory involves an effort after meaning.” [emphasis added], he writes.  “That is why the writing of history is always in the end an art rather than a science although it is an art which must be practised with proper discipline…. Any refusal of the responsibility to remember wisely and creatively will have malign consequences.” This is the very nub of story that follows.

From what he has told us, we can see that in 1963-67 Ranger was defenceless against his NAR sources. They told the sort of story that somebody with a colonial policeman’s mentality would tell and, indeed, did tell. Its embodiment was to be found in H.M. Hole, the Civil Commissioner in Salisbury. His October 1896 report sought to explain to his superiors in the BSACo (British South Africa Company) what the heck had gone wrong. Put crudely, Hole’s view was that the natives were basically happy – and if not happy then devious – but passive unless stirred up by troublemakers: “[Hole] dodged the entire issue of [BSA] Company maladministration and placed the blame squarely upon the ingratitude of the Shona themselves: ‘With true Kaffir deceit they have beguiled the Administration into the idea that they were content with the government of the country … but at a given signal they cast all pretence aside and simultaneously set in motion the whole of the machinery which they had been preparing'”.[5]  A sort of ‘night of the long knives.’ There is trouble. So where are the trouble-makers? Seek them out.

What happens in Revolt, as the leading modern historian of the Shona, the late David Beach (a three-legged pot historian with a vengeance) relates, is that the narrative is inverted. Hole’s villains in Mashonaland become the heroes of Ranger’s piece. But it is still a story of key mobilisers. We see the wider communities but dimly through Hole’s/Ranger’s eyes.

In later years, after the publication of Ranger’s potent piece of ‘usable’ history, other researchers who were invested in the ‘usable history’ mission did collect oral testimony about the risings (for example David Lan in Guns and Rain or Paul Berliner’s, The Soul of Mbira: Music and Traditions of the Shona People of Zimbabwe); and sure enough the Ranger thesis came back from the lips of illiterate or non-English reading informants. It had indeed proved its usefulness to the ZANU regime.  Professor Ranger cited such work as vindication of his hypotheses in face of the detailed demolition of his work to which I will shortly turn; and to the best of my knowledge he always doubled down on his 1967 theory and never entertained seriously that it might be entirely misled. The difficulty is self-evidently circular and self-confirmatory. Could this circle be broken? In fact it could and it was and the results tell a quite different story.

The perils of ‘usable history’: a useful salutary tale

The pith of the problem with the Ranger theory about the 1896 risings as history-writing is that it was systematically overdetermined and methodologically defective, just as the modern successor wokeishness fails basic tests of professional historical research.  The modern ‘wokeish’ iteration seeks to ram everything through a grid shaped by slavery, exploitation and race.  The ‘usable history’ precursor in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe sought to ram everything though a grid of strategic co-ordination and proto-nationalism.  Ranger’s theory has become inseparable from the foundation myths of contemporary Zimbabwe. The analysis of how this came about in the Zimbabwean context is now beyond reasonable doubt complete. Therefore it can serve as a worked example of the risks that are run at larger scale by the wokeishness assaults, today.

The two principal and very different African populations of Rhodesia had often and recently been violently skirmishing rivals before 1896. The Ndebele (Matabele) to the west and south still possessed autonomous royal structures in fairly good shape after the 1893 war with the BSACo (albeit in an interregnum but with a legitimate successor to Lobengula in his favourite son Nyamanda: “the only possible claimant in that rising year”); and the more fissiparous Shona to the east had different but nevertheless patent indigenous governance. Yet Ranger argued that another level – a secret history – was needed to make sense of events. His contention was that during 1896-97 the previously warring Ndebele and Shona achieved a proto-nationalist co-ordination of high order through the intelligent and highly political anti-whiteman agency of spirit mediums led by the Mwari rainmaker cult as a sort of honest broker among them, a cult which (he thought incorrectly) harked back to the Rozvi empire in the days of the ruins of Great Zimbabwe.

I have already visited both sides of the bush war to show readers how this ‘usable’ history was, as a matter of history itself, used. Now we must look at it in situ. Was this theory from ‘secret history’ necessary to explain what happened during the 1896-7 risings? Was it actually true?  In the age cohorts of historians, Ranger was a contemporary of Jan Vansina although similar in no other way. In the next age cohort (mine), Zimbabwe was fortunate to have two exceptional ‘three legged pot’ historians who published new research findings in the late 1970s.

Professor Julian Cobbing wrote for the Ndebele. His PhD had explored that society under the Kumalo dynasty across the 19th century and he was able to provide properly sourced and well stood-up accounts of the social structure of these peoples and most especially a grounded account from oral and archival sources, working together, of the Ndebele amabutho (age regiments). This corrected the presumption of a visiting British Army officer called Maund on a brief visit to Matabeleland in 1885, after the Zulu wars of 1879, that the age regiments were – what a surprise -just like the Victorian post-Cardwell reforms Guards regiments.  Maund’s hyper-militarised account was written after approximately a fortnight’s acquaintance with the Ndebele. It then retransmitted into the minds of BSACo administrators. In 1898 the Matabeleland  Administrator (Lawley), channelling Maund, actually lectured to the assembled Ndebele chiefs on their own social structure;[6] and in 1919 F.W.D. Posselt had ‘confirmed’ in a learned article that Ndebele provinces equated to army ‘divisions’ each divided into ‘regiments’, just like the British Army.  Cobbing found that there is no good evidence for any of this; yet it echoed and indeed was amplified down the years to the 1970s as a received but nonetheless false wisdom.[7]  Maund and his story are a good warning in wokeist days. Just because it’s written down, has footnotes and is in some published book or journal doesn’t mean that it’s true – even at all.

After this tour de force, in a second article entitled “The absent priesthood,” which stands out as one of the bravest and most remarkable of the most active period of we, the second generation of modern Africanists, Cobbing simultaneously displayed two things.

First, he documented the enduring coherence, legitimacy and strength of Ndebele royal institutions, battered but not beaten in 1893, also extending into Shona-speaking tributary areas, This was all happening in the context of the cruelty, the cattle-stealing and general misrule of the whites which gave ample motive for wishing to see them gone, as well of a desire to have revenge on those Shona groups such as the Hwata who had sided with the whites.

Second, in a display of courteous and scholarly dissection which is famous in modern African historiography, layer by layer his article showed both where and why Ranger got his major and minor theses fundamentally wrong. This was something for which Ranger never forgave him.

“The question intrudes: is it necessary to postulate this ‘co-ordinating factor’, or to rummage for a ‘secret history’ of the wars (one of the main themes of the book), when in most respects the nature of the risings and the manner in which Africans fought reflected very closely the structures of participating political units?”[8]

Why indeed? The motive to rise was plain, the means of organisation were already to hand and no extra level was needed to explain why the Matabele rose. Occam’s Razor once more. What, in summary, did Cobbing discover?

The pervasive co-ordinating role of the Mwari cult in the Rhodesian risings of 1896-7 is illusory.  The cult does not appear to have been linked with the Rozvi empire…The priests were Venda from south of the Limpopo…and were for the most part out of action during the risings. The Ndebele did not succumb to cult influence… They were led by their own chiefs who, in June 1896, made Nyamanda king in succession to Lobengula. This and the wish to drive the Europeans away were the inspiration behind the Ndebele rising. The Shona and Sotho groups who rose with the Ndebele in March came in as allies of the kingdom rather than as minions of the cult. The Shona who rose in June did so not in answer to cult bidding, but in response to European pressures… They were also led by their chiefs. A major theme of the risings is of disunity and fragmentation, with the Ndebele fighting a civil war and some important Shona chiefs collaborating with the British South Africa Company. The Ndebele fell short of a united strategy, as to an even greater extend did the Shona: there was certainly no strategic linkage of the two risings…. Both the Ndebele and the Shona fought to preserve existing institutions and alliance structures. It is above all fallacious to seek in the events of these years a surge of Zimbabwean nationalism or proto-nationalism….  (p.84)

The Shona for their part were fortunate in the late Professor David Beach, a fabulously gifted field researcher of startling range whose history of Mashonaland from the deep past to and through the events of the 1890s, provided from the east the other wing to Cobbing’s from the west, enveloping Ranger’s over-determined and under-researched hypothesis.

Beach’s main views on the Risings were as follows. 1895 had been a hard year agriculturally. Indeed the 1890s were tough across the region, weather-wise. There had been irregular rains and plagues of locusts and Shona had come to mediums, as logically they would, in search of anti-locust medicine. There was an economic more than there was any political tie-in with these religious practitioners. If anything they were conspicuously less political than others in the community: the opposite of the Hole/Ranger thesis. As to the brutality of white exploitation this is not in question, copiously documented not least in court cases. In part it was, ironically, a consequence of the success of earlier generations of Shona in extracting alluvial gold. Finding only thin pickings, the whites turned to cattle rustling and crop theft to enrich themselves which, in hard times was hard for the Shona to bear. It was amplified by the extremely oppressive conduct of H.H. Pollard, a Mazoe region Native Commissioner (who recruited his heavies and enforcers from among the Hwata) who was murdered and for which murder a local woman, the “Nehanda medium” Charwe, was tried and hanged. In short there was no shortage of motive in Mashonaland either.

Beach then performed his own forensic dissection of Ranger’s evidence and argument through a very specific sort of historian’s microscope, higher in magnification than Cobbing’s, focussed expressly on one person, Charwe – she of the bronze statue and postage stamps –  to whom the Rhodesians at the time and Ranger later came to ascribe, along with the Kaguvi medium, prime organising power in the Risings.[9]

Interrogation transcripts have proven their ability to carry sustained ‘micro-histories’ – histoire des mentalités – in quite other contexts. In sixteenth century northern Italy, the Inquisition records allowed the otherwise invisible and voiceless heretic miller Menocchio to stand up and explain his cosmos to posterity. Carlo Ginsberg took this chance not only to bring him to us but to share an important lesson in historical methodology: to show how intensive primary research of this type can be used to cut through broad and tough generalisations at larger scale.[10]  Of what is this a case?

David Beach’s study of Charwe, the Nehanda medium, is historical research of high quality in this discipline of micro-history, using court records interpreted within his own huge hinterland of knowledge of Shona history and culture.  His piece of historical forensic police-work is astonishing in several regards.

First, in its humility. The author reversed his earlier assumptions in his doctoral thesis and published papers which, he now had discovered on closer examination, to be untenable. Second he had found a way to pick through the tangle of generalised ex post facto oral recounting of the Risings, now permeated by the usable ‘Ranger thesis’ in modern Zimbabwean popular culture. Third, just as Cobbing had unpicked and demolished the general thesis of a secret history of spirit medium mediated co-ordination, so Beach’s scalpel revealed that not only quite probably poor Charwe/Nehanda was hanged for a murder in which – as she had protested at trial – she had had no part either in incitement or in execution, but that in the Mazoe/Hwata area where loyalties were split and collaboration with the whites occurred, she may originally have been opposed to the risings when news of the flames already alight in Matabeleland arrived. She later changed her mind and was in clear support. But with such high stakes, prevarication is hardly a surprise. Beach suggests that while there is some solid evidence of the Kaguvi medium having had a mobilising role – but no-where near what Hole & Ranger were to suggest – there is really no good evidence that Charwe had any role at all in the beginnings of the Risings in Mashonaland on the critical days, 17-18 June 1896. The Nehanda spirit who she channelled was in any case a rain spirit, not a war god.

As to the co-ordinating relationship of Charwe/Nehanda and Hwata/Kaguvi as part of a ramified hidden religious network with the Mwari cult proposed by Ranger, Beach cites a crucial passage from the preliminary evidence of the Kaguvi medium after his arrest. He had surrendered to the Rhodesians on 27th October and with Charwe still at large, on 29th in an attempt to save his own neck, he tried to implicate her. In a word, both Kaguvi and the BSACo had Charwe in their sights but for different reasons. Ranger cited this passage in Revolt but Beach restored the clauses that were inconvenient for his theory which Ranger omitted: the cardinal sin.

As I found also in my use of more modern colonial court records north of the Zambezi, Beach observed that, ethnographically and politically, the preliminary examinations are far more fruitful for the historian in revealing the background of suspects and context of actions; for these were not related in such detail in the formal trials.  But, he added that the Risings trials were no ‘kangaroo courts’ either; and the court records show plainly that someone was lying: either Kaguvi and his men or Charwe/Nehanda.  In the event, Kaguvi did save his neck from the noose by pleading that fear of Charwe impelled his actions. He died in prison shortly thereafter of other causes.  Throughout Charwe maintained her innocence in the Pollard murder but, her Irish defence counsel having thrown up the case, she failed to cross-examine in her own account – a lone woman in a context where all the black men and all the white men in the room were against her, maybe, Beach humanely suggests? Who could blame her for retreating into mystical keening and refusing to accept her fate to the very end, struggling on the scaffold? (p.41).

Put under intolerable pressure, surely human experience and logic both suggest that people reach for the relationships and the institutions that are familiar, that are most trusted and that work?  I saw the same danger of over-determination in the premature search for ‘worker consciousness’ which preoccupied the early research of social and industrial historians in Ranger’s circle including at that time a South African social historian, Charles van Onselen, who went on to write seminal work of brilliance.

Van Onselen’s Chibaro was an early and therefore influential account of the recruitment of African labour to Rhodesian mines. The Rhodesian Native Labour Bureau – the Chibaro of the title – was the recruitment, transport and management agency which supplied men to the mines. Most of his book is a detailed recital from the archives of the harsh and grim conditions which the migrant labourers experienced. This, he suggested in terms of the Marxist labour theory of value, was gross exploitation: for the trick in such enterprises was that a Pound was very differently valued in the eyes of a migrant labourer from the same Pound in the eyes of a mine proprietor who thus creamed off the bulk of the surplus value from the activity. With this I do not argue although I add that conversely the labour theory of value fails to appreciate the importance and consequences of the social value of the migrant labourers’ Pound relative to context. My problem came where he claimed in his book that the Wankie coal strike of 1911 – a response to appalling conditions – contained  evidence of supra-tribal ‘worker consciousness’.  It didn’t.

I happened to be in the NAR when I received the book for review and so called up the cited documents. What they showed me upon tabulation was what did not surprise me: a strike leadership composed of maLozi names and with the wider participation of many Lozi tributary peoples. The theme is thus similar to the Beach and Cobbing accounts of the 1896 risings. Even in circumstances of great strangeness, suffering and privation, people still are the captains of their souls.[11]

As I wrote at that time, “To imply that African culture was so shallow, so rootless that it could be decisively overlain at the crack of a sjambok [hippo-hide whip], or by hunger, however horrible, is patronising: it risks replacing the racist stereotype ‘Sambo’… with a new economic determinist one. It is suggested that it also misses the vital question about the colonial experience in Central Africa: the ways in which Africans strove to entrench and to defend their sense of identity.” (p.119)

The lessons for wokeishness and wokeists

The late David Beach ended his micro-history on the posthumous re-trial of Charwe, the ‘Nehanda medium’ with prophetic words.

…even the most sacred tenets of national and other history need to be examined afresh. It is not always, however, that they can be almost completely revised, as in the case here (p.54)

It is this that makes the Zimbabwean case study so useful as we contemplate the type of longer book, the far grander and empirically much less well grounded claims to re-write the history of the British empire for ‘usable’ modern political purposes, which Professor Gilley demolished in his review with which I started this essay.

In Terence Ranger’s case, we may now see with hindsight that the utility for the nationalist cause which he was so anxious to build into his work, and which he vaunted, went on to have unintended and dire consequences during the bush war; and that should stand as an urgent warning. Words can kill.

But the (also unintended) benefit of his pronouncements on social consciousness and political mobilisation in early Rhodesia, and their comprehensive demolition beyond reasonable doubt by Cobbing and Beach in the late 1970s,  is that it provides us with a case study model of what now needs to be done by professional historians, properly equipped, to the wokeist narratives on the British empire that owe in part their intellectual parentage to the ‘usable history’ school of African history almost half a century ago, even if they did not know it or, if they did, do not declare it.



In Memoriam, David Beach, Herbert Chitepo, Erhard and Bente Lorenz and Jan Vansina


[1] The assassination was the subject of multiple inquiries including a formal Zambian one initiated by President Kaunda and, strangely, many conflicting claims of responsibility, some quite complicated like the version which blamed the RCIO and also alleged that it ‘planted’ incriminating documents on ZANU protagonists. The episode has been best reviewed in L. White, The Assassination of Herbert Chitepo: texts and politics in Zimbabwe, Indiana Univ Press, 2003 which is rightly praised as a major contribution to textual analysis in an Africanist context.


[2] The technical military campaign narrative history seen from the Rhodesian side, including kill numbers and ratios, is to be found in J.R.T. Wood, Fire Force: Helicopter Warfare in Rhodesia: 1962-1980, 1996

[3] G.Prins, “Grist for the mill: on researching the history of Bulozi”, History in Africa, 5 (1978), pp. 311-25

[4] J.Vansina, “Is a journal of method still necessary?” History in Africa, 36 (2009), pp 421-438

[5] D.N. Beach “‘Chimurenga’: The Shona Rising of 1896-97” The Journal of African History, 20, 3 (1979), pp. 395-420


[6]‘ “As you know”, he said, “in the days of Lobengula there were five divisions which were each governed by five (sic) chiefs”‘ Cobbing, p.620


[7] J.Cobbing, “The evolution of the Ndebele amabutho”, The Journal of African History, 15,4, (1974), pp 607-31. The transmission of Maund’s views across the decades by Chinese whispers is documented at pp 619-20. source document is given at fn 57


[8] J. Cobbing,  “The Absent Priesthood: Another Look at the Rhodesian Risings of 1896-1897,” The Journal of African History, 18, 1 (1977), pp 61-84, quotation at p. 65


[9] D. Beach, “An innocent woman, unjustly accused?  Charwe, medium of the Nehanda mhondoro spirit and the 1896-97 central Shona Rising in Zimbabwe,”  History in Africa, 25 (1998), pp. 27-54


[10] C. Ginsberg, The Cheese and the Worms: the cosmos of a sixteenth century miller, (original in Italian published by Einaudi, 1976),  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976


[11] C.van Onselen, Chibaro: African mine labour in Southern Rhodesia, 1900-1933, Pluto, 1976;   G. Prins, Review of Chibaro, Social History, 3,1 (1978) pp.116-19. Reanalysis of the charge sheets following the Strike, p.119


About the author

Gwythian Prins

Gwythian Prins