Nehanda and Gender Victimhood in the Central Mashonaland 1896-97 Rebellions: Revisiting the Evidence*

Article excerpt

I

In 1998 David N. Beach revisited the 1896-97 central MaShonaland rising in colonial Zimbabwe in an article titled "An Innocent Woman Unjustly Accused? Charwe, Medium of the Nehanda Mhondoro Spirit, and the 1896-97 Central Shona Rising in Zimbabwe."1 Beach's main thesis was that, contrary to conventional wisdom that placed Nehanda-Charwe (and other leaders) at the center of those anti-European settler rebellions, Nehanda-Charwe might have been "an innocent woman unjustly accused." For Beach, upstart Kaguvi-Gumboreshumba (a male spiritual leader) might have been the real hero, for he was to be found in all the sources and his tracks were better traceable than Nehanda-Charwe, who had a sporadic presence in the same sources.

Since Beach's 1998 study, I have not come across any other original study that has extended or disputed his arguments; to that end, I consider this study a response to Beach's study and an invitation to revisit the historiography of early colonial Zimbabwe through feminist lenses.2 My main aim is to revisit two major issues Beach raised in his study, and to look at them through a feminist lens in order to understand whether Nehanda-Charwe was indeed an "innocent woman unjustly accused" or whether something else was at play. After giving a brief background to the rebellion in MaShonaland, I will look at the issue of the credibility of evidence given by Africans to colonial officials about those who were up in arms against the colonial authority, the British South Africa Company (BSAC), with a focus on women's testimonies. In particular, I will analyze how evidence was collected and handled when given by men and by women. The spotlight will be on "the Zambezi" woman whose report was deemed unreliable at face value, in stark contrast to similar reports given by men and women who were seen as "friendlies" by the colonial officials.

Secondly, I will focus on the arrest and trial of Nehanda and Kaguvi (both spiritual leaders in MaShonaland), with an emphasis on Beach's argument that witnesses against Nehanda-Charwe were men, and those sitting on the court bench were men, and so she was a scapegoat for colonial (i.e., BSAC) inefficiency. It is important to mention here that I do share Beach's sentiments about the political misuses of history, and especially of the figure of Nehanda in contemporary Zimbabwe. Where we differ is in the interpretation of sources and of Nehanda-Charwe's historical importance in telling a gendered history of the central MaShonaland rebellions in 1896-97.

In my assessment of the evidence, I find that the biggest hole in Beach's argument about Nehanda-Charwe being a "victim" of gender bias lies in the fact that he did not consider the larger canvas of women's and gender history before and during the uprisings to articulate Nehanda-Charwe's actions better. His study does not provide the milieu in which Nehanda-Charwe operated-what other women were like in that time period-so that we can better assess her actions and Beach's assertions thereof. I look at the events of the 1896-97 uprisings from a feminist standpoint and give a gendered analysis of the power dynamics between the colonizers and the colonized, the women and the men. Thus, instead of focusing only on Nehanda-Charwe as the sole woman in a sea of men, where she unsurprisingly appears a victim, I revisit the evidence to find other women's voices, so that hers gets a woman's and gendered context through which we can better understand her actions in that colonial frontier.

II

Before June 1896, the Mazoe district in central MaShonaland was a gold field of high potential in colonial minds. In the Rhodesia Herald, the major newspaper at the time, news reports on the district often appeared under a column titled: "Mining Intelligence." Syndicates with digs in the area were numerous, and were of different European origins. Companies in the Mazoe included the French South Africa Development (FSAD), the Anglo-French Syndicate, as well as varied German, American, and Portuguese interests. …