Thursday, August 5, 2010


The Date of The Crossing of the Zambezi by the Ngoni

  • Thursday, August 5, 2010
  • Samuel Albert
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  • E.H. Poole
    Journal of the Royal African Society, Vol. 29, No. 115 (Apr., 1930)

    THE crossing of the Zambezi River by the Ngoni, a tribe of Zulu descent, on their northern migration after their dispersion by Chaka, has a certain historical interest on account of its far-reaching consequences. Geographically, this migration extended as far north as the Victoria Nyanza; ethnologically it introduced into that part of Central Africa, which they finally occupied, a tribe of patrilineal descent and pastoral customs among peoples matrilineal and agricultural by occupation; historically it led to the extermination or reduction to servitude of a population computed to be a million in number.

    The exact narrative of this migration is, therefore, not without interest. The best-known authorities give as the date of the crossing of the Zambezi the year 1825. It is determined by the Ngoni tradition that the crossing, under the leadership of their Chief Zongwendaba, coincided with a total eclipse of the sun. There is no reason to cast any doubt upon this tradition: it obtains both among the Ngoni of Mombera occupying the highlands of Nyasaland, and among the Ngoni of Mpeseni in the south-east corer of Northern Rhodesia. The occasion, moreover, has been recalled by the Ngoni at subsequent and recent solar eclipses.

    The first published statement, known to me, in which the date 1825 appears is found in an early copy of the Aurora, a publication of the Livingstonia Mission, under, I believe, the signature of Dr. Elmslie. The only material point, so far as this article is concerned, in an interesting and detailed account of Zongwendaba's biography and itinerary, is the date 1825.1 His account was substantially reproduced in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, in I897, by a member of the Rhodesia Concessions Company who had previously visited Dr. Elmslie at Hora in Nyasaland.2 The late Sir Harry Johnston, in his work which has since become a standard authority on Central Africa, adheres to this date.3 Miss AliceWerner, in her book The Natives of British Central Africa, repeats it.4 In an Occasional Paper published by the Royal Anthropological Institute the author states in the text that the Ngoni crossed the Zambezi about sixty years ago, or about I854 (the paper bears the date I914), a mistake which is corrected in a footnote, where "less than a century ago " is sustituted, a phrase indicating his agreement with the accepted date 1825.5 In a more recent and valuable contribution to Bantu history, Mr. Cullen Young retains the same date.6

    The only apparent departure from the general consensus of opinion is to be found in a book by Dr. Fraser of the Livingstonia Mission, published in 1914, who, avoiding the difficulties of too great precision, writes that the Ngoni appeared on the banks of the Zambezi nearly eighty years ago, or about I834.7

    There is then with one exception unanimity in assigning the date of the crossing of the Zambezi by the Ngoni to the year 1825. But for a number of reasons, of which the chief are given below, the date is unsatisfactory.

    In the first place, the eclipse of I825 occurred in the month of June. The crossing is known to have been made near the seventeenth-century Portuguese outpost of Zumbo, at the confluence of the Luangwa River with the Zambezi in Long. 30.27 E., Lat. 15.37 S. According to tradition it was effected not in boats, but on foot.8

    Now, the Zambezi reaches its highest flood level at this point about March, the actual date varying with the seasonal rainfall, and its lowest ebb about October or the beginning of November.In June there is still a great volume of water coming down, and it can be affirmed with some certainty that the Zambezi could not have been forded at that place and in that month on foot.9

    Secondly, the Ngoni, who, like all pastoral tribes, employ a chronological division of the years, months and days far more precise than the agricultural tribes among whom they settled, give the month or moon in which the river was crossed as Chiganganyani. This moon derives its name from the forest tree Chiganganyani, the fruit of which ripens in the month of extreme heat immediately preceding the rains, and corresponds with the latter part of October and the early part of November.

    There are further problems connected with the chronology of Zongwendaba's itinerary and the ages of his sons, which raise the doubt whether the accepted date is not too early. Both these problems would be solved by postdating the crossing to a later year.10 Now on the afternoon of the 18th November, 1835, there was a total eclipse of the sun, the path of which passed directly over the traditional place of crossing at Zumbo. I am indebted to Prof. H. H. Turner, Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford University, for his assistance in plotting the path of this eclipse from the data supplied by the nautical almanac of that year.

    The identification of this eclipse with the eclipse of native tradition at once dispels the foregoing difficulties. If the 1835 eclipse be accepted, the Zambezi was crossed in November or approximately at its lowest ebb, just before the precipitation of the rains.11 The month of November, moreover, corresponds with the Ngoni moon Chiganganyani. If the native tradition of the eclipse be credited at all, then that of the year 1835 can best be reconciled with the other known facts of the crossing.


    1. I am unable to verify this, as I have no access to a copy, but the main facts are to be found in Dr. Elmslie's book, Among the Wild Angoni, I901, p. 20 et seq.

    2. Money, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, August I897.

    3. Sir Harry H. Johnston, British Central Africa, 1897, pp. 62,63 and 392, note

    4. A. Werner, The Natives of British Central Africa, I906, p. 279. [This was on the authority of Dr. Elmslie.-A.W.]

    5. J. C. C. Coxhead, The Native Tribes of Northern Rhodesia, Occasional Paper, No. 5, published by the Royal Anthropological Institute, I914, p. 20.

    6. Rev. T. Cullen Young, Notes on the Speech and History of the Tumbuka- Henga Peoples, 1923, p. I94. [Mr. Cullen Young-if here correctly quoted- must have subsequently seen reason to change his opinion. In a letter dated January 7th of this year he says: " The Astronomer Royal at the Cape has put the date of the Zambezi crossing beyond doubt. The only eclipse visible at or near Zumbo was that at midday on November 20th, 1835. Further, this is at the height of the dry season, and we know that the bulk of the Ngoni crossed at a shallow place. The 1825 eclipse was in April, and, even if it had been visible at the right place, the Zambezi would have been at top flood and no such crossing possible.-A.W.]

    7.Donald Fraser, Wiinning a Primitive People, 1914, p. 28.

    8.Cullen Young, loc. cit., p. I94, records that they crossed on a sandy causeway in five feet of water.

    9.The gauging of the water level of the Zambezi at this point has only recently been undertaken. The records, however, show that high-water level was reached in 1925 on I2th February, in 1926 on 15th March, with gaugings of 24*33 and 25'93 feet above zero respectively. In June the level of the Zambezi at the Luangwa-Zambezi confluence was 9'67 above zero in 1925 and 10o83 in I926.

    10. The only detailed account of the itinerary of the Ngoni after the crossing of the Zambezi is to be found in Cullen Young's book, already quoted.

    11. The Zambezi at this point subsided to its lowest level on 3lst October, 1925, when its actual level above zero was o'oo, and it remained the same throughout the month of November. Vide Northern Rhodesia Meteoro- logical Report, No. 3, 1925-26.

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