Zuluness on Trial: Re-Reading John W. Colenso's 1874 Langalibalele and the Amahlubi Tribe: Being Remarks Upon the Official Record

Publication Type:

Journal Article


The Journal of African History, Volume 60, Number 1, p.67–85 (2019)




Although John W. Colenso thought that he was merely acting as amicus curiae — a friend of the court — in compiling evidence to explain Langalibalele's supposed rebellion in 1873, the Bishop of Natal ended up writing a damning anti-colonial tract. This paper will attempt to show how this report — written for the Queen and Colenso's House of Lord peers — is not just an achievement in legal refutation and forensic analysis but that it was a linguistic and cultural statement about the working and limits of Zulu law as Colenso understood it through his interactions with his Natal converts. Although it is obvious that Colenso's audience was not moved by his supplications on Langalibelele's behalf, it is less obvious why those who thought of Colenso as a maverick and heretic should have ignored his thorough repudiation of cultural chauvinism. The paper will suggest that Colenso's Remarks were ignored precisely because to take them seriously would have meant abandoning the authoritarian underpinnings of the late 19th century colonial project.


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