Academic journal article African Studies Review

Myth of Iron: Shaka in History

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Myth of Iron: Shaka in History

Article excerpt

Dan Wylie. Myth of Iron: Shaka in History. Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2006. Distributed by International Specialized Book Services, Portland, Ore. xviii + 615 pp. Maps. Boxes. Charts. Notes. Select Bibliography. Index. $69.95. Cloth.

Dan Wylie calls Myth of Iron an "anti-biography" of Shaka because "it's scarcely possible to write a biography of Shaka at all" (3). By this Wylie means that, despite all the historical works that discuss Shaka, there are very few undisputed facts about his personal life and actions. "Shaka" seems to exist as a collection of historical contradictions supporting the contending agendas of those who have written about him.

A reader can approach Myth of Iron at two different levels: one is as a detailed discussion of various historical accounts about both Shaka and the broader region in the early 1800s; the second is as the most recent sortie in the historiographical debate concerning the motivating forces behind the construction of the Zulu state.

On the first level, Wylie has combed the collected oral histories of Zuluspeakers contained in the published James Stuart Archives for stories relating to Shaka's childhood, his early adulthood, his rise to power, and the conduct of his rule as well as the aftermath of that rule. He has also gone through the numerous memoirs written by white traders, missionaries, officials, and adventurers who had contact with Shaka or who were living in southern Africa at the time. Wylie is sensitive to the various issues of fact and bias raised by the sources, as well as ways in which popularizers of the Shaka legend have sometimes replaced historical fact with anything, true or not, that might make the story livelier. Wylie is somewhat disingenuously shocked (shocked!) at the contradictions contained in these documents and accounts, but they are the reason that he insists that a true biography of Shaka is not possible. Despite the problems with the sources, however, he writes something that looks very much like a comprehensive biography (no "anti-" required). …

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