Historically, the Zulu did not have a permanent capital. Instead, each king in turn had one or more royal amakhanda, or homesteads, between which he would divide his time. Usually, one of these would be the grandest and would be the king’s main home. One of the most famous and well-documented of these homesteads was uMgungundlovu1, or “place that encloses the elephant2”, built for Dingane in 1829. uMgungundlovu did not last long. In 1838, a defensive Dingane had the homestead burned to the ground rather than allow it to be looted by Andries Pretorius’s aptly named Wenkommando after the battle at Blood River. Shortly afterwards he created a smaller version of the great ikhanda further northeast, but the new uMgungundlovu existed mere months before Dingane’s utter defeat. But during the time the original uMgungundlovu functioned, numerous impressions of it were recorded by both Zulu and European visitors, and it can be taken as a model for most amakhanda, although most of them were built on a smaller scale.
Built in the heart of Zulu territory on the northern slope of Singonyama Hill between two streams that flow into the White Mfolozi River, uMgungundlovu was an ovoid compound surrounded by a strong palisade, with the main entrance on the northern end. Another palisade, lower and not as sturdily built, was built about 70 metres further in. The people of uMgungundlovu lived between the two palisades, while the central space was used as a parade ground, meeting place and pasture. Five cattle enclosures encircled this space, built up against the inner palisade.
At peak occupancy, uMgungundlovu was home to roughly 5000-7000 people and about 900 head of cattle. Eight amabutho were based in uMgungundlovu, although at most times at least one or two of them would be fielded on various missions for the king. In addition to the amabutho, about 500 women lived in the king’s isigodlo, along with another 300-500 servants, craftsmen, advisors and other members of the court.
The amabutho lived in huts spread along the eastern and western sides of the ikhanda, in between the strong outer palisade and the weaker inner one. Fences divided each wing, or uhlangoti, into a number of sections. The eastern wing housed the four amabutho commanded by Ndlela, whose hut was found at the southern end, built up against the walls of the isigodlo described below. The western uhlangoti housed the warriors led by Nzobo.
At the southern end of the ikhanda, closest to the peak of the hill, was the isigodlo, or royal enclosure. This area was divided into two sections. The outer area, or white isigodlo, housed roughly 400 women. Most of these were servants and women of fairly low rank, including most of the young women. The 100 or so more favoured women, including the widows of the king’s father and the royal concubines, lived in the black isigodlo, an area which was strictly forbidden to all outsiders except on the king’s invitation. The king’s huts were part of the black isigodlo, and he was the only male allowed within its premises after sundown.
Three more small homesteads were located further to the south, outside the walls of the ikhanda on the slopes of the hill. These housed coppersmiths and a separate enclosure which supported the isigodlo - the women’s food was cooked there, and it was considered a private area where the women could relax away from the eyes of the men. This is where the king’s children, had he had any, would have been housed as infants3.
For the most part, uMgungundlovu was built like any other ikhanda, although on a grander scale. The construction, in keeping with the military nature of the ikhanda, was fairly simple. The 1400-1700 dwellings were mostly domed huts built of curved saplings interwoven and tied together with grass. A single pole supported the roof, which was covered with a thatch of long grass. The basic huts were about three meters in diameter, with a single low doorway that usually faced the center of the compound. The floors of the huts were made of a mixture of cowdung and earth from anthills; this mixture was compressed and polished to a dark green gloss described by many Europeans as resembling marble.
Most of the huts were grouped into threes and fours, separated from other areas by hedges or reed fences about two meters high. The inner palisade was a similar reed construction, but slightly taller.
The king’s “great hut” was larger than any other, with three separate entrances and ten pillars to support its roof. It could contain as many as fifty people. Dingane’s actual dwelling was a smaller hut located nearby. These and other huts within the isigodlo were adorned with intricate beadwork wrapped around the pillars. Other huts seem to have had no decorations or distinguishing features, being essentially barracks for the king’s warriors.
- Also transliterated as em-Gungundhlovu.
- One of the king’s honorifics was “the Elephant”, so uMgungundlovu can also be translated as “the King’s place”, or more loosely “The Capital”.
- Having taken the throne over the bodies of two brothers, Dingane was more afraid of his own family than any external threat. He never married or had any children, and he had most of his own brothers assassinated within the first months of his reign.