Jonathan Hyslop – Zulu Seafarers in the Age of Steam: The Voyage Narratives of George Magodini and Fulunge Mpofu 1916-1924

Writing the Empire: Scribblings from Below

An international & interdisciplinary conference

Phillipe de Vigors, ‘Convicts letter writing at Cockatoo Island, New South Wales, 1849’
Reproduced by kind permission of the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney

 

Event Dates: 24 June 2010
Bristol, UK

Jonathan Hyslop (University of the Witwatersrand)
Zulu Seafarers in the Age of Steam: The Voyage Narratives of George Magodini and Fulunge Mpofu 1916-1924

In the early 1920s, James Stuart, formerly an important Natal administrator and notable historian of Zululand, then living in London, transcribed the voyage narratives of two Zulu-speaking men working as stokers on steamships, George Magodini and Fulunge Mpofu. Magodini’s testimony was published in one of the Zulu school readers edited by Stuart, while Mpofu’s testimony exists only in Stuart’s notebooks.

As a potential source for the history of South Africans at sea, these are exciting texts. The history of South African sailors remains largely unwritten and there is little awareness amongst the social historians of the country that African people played a role as ocean-going seafarers.

Magodini’s voyages largely took place during World War One, and his text provides remarkable accounts of convoys facing submarine attacks in the Atlantic. More importantly though, the two texts provide access to the social world of these sailors. Their accounts of ship-board life, their responses to different cities, their experience of unemployment in UK ports and the semi-criminalised world of sailors’ boarding houses will be analysed. Especially fascinating is the racial discourse of the two sailors. Complex paternalistic relations between white officers and black sailors emerge, while the two men experience extremely authoritarian treatment in British ports. There is a considerable amount of material on Somali sailors, who are regarded with a certain detached curiosity. On the other hand the Zulu sailors are deeply hostile to Asian seafarers who they characterize as undercutting them by working for lower wages. The logics of these racial constructions will be analysed in detail.

Of course the ‘reliability’ of these texts is highly problematic. There must be an assumption that the power relations between Stuart and his interviewees shaped them. But this clearly did not work in any simple way: for example Mpofu provided Stuart with detailed information about his buying and circulating illegal drugs in European ports, which suggests a high level of trust. And the texts do not seem to fit in any obvious way into Stuart’s project of developing a highly traditionalist view of Zulu history. The modernity of these narratives in fact goes rather against the grain of Stuart’s work, which suggests that his curiosity and industry as a researcher to some extent counter-weighted his ideological agendas.

The paper will seek to probe what the texts can tell us about the way in which sailors constructed their world. Using the texts in combination with archival and secondary sources it will investigate what Magodini and Mpofu add to our knowledge of the world of the social order of the steamship and how our view of Zulu workers in the early twentieth century might be changed by their stories.

Jonathan Hyslop, University of the Witwatersrand, email
Jonathan Hyslop is Professor of Sociology and History at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. He is also Deputy Director of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER). Hyslop has published widely on South African social history and on transnational approaches to British Empire history.

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