Our Story

A series collects and retells the story of the ancestors of all South Africans.

Ancestral Voices

A recently discovered collection of writing of South African culture and history.

Meeting Shaka: From the Diary of Henry Francis Fynn


Had a bored eighteen-year-old Londoner not sought adventure on the Dark Continent, the legend of Shaka may have remained shrouded by myth. He had heard about the powerful King of the Zulus and was determined to meet Shaka. After landing at Port Natal in 1824, Fynn set out on foot for Shaka’s kraal, but returned to port. He did eventually meet Shaka, staying with him as a friend for nine years during which he undertook research and extended his diary.


Meeting Shaka

Henry Francis Fynn was the first white man to meet Shaka, staying with him for nine years. He recorded their strange friendship in his diary, giving us a glimpse of Zulu life, culture, tradition and customs, as well as insights on the most powerful king in Africa. An Englishman, Fynn interacts with Shaka when the great Zulu king’s power is growing. In this extract, read how Fynn, together with a small party of traders, travels inland to Shaka’s kraal.

Mbikwana, with about a hundred followers, came to the port on behalf of Shaka, to say the king was now prepared to receive Fynn’s party. They accordingly made arrangements. Hoffman was to remain to superintend the buildings. The Farewell party that departed for Shaka’s kraal consisted of thirteen Europeans, four Hottentots, thirty Africans, and eight horses. The friendly Mbikwana, who Shaka had sent to befriend the English, accompanied them. Mbikwana’s men carried the presents intended for Shaka, and the group’s bedding, clothing, and so on.

The group saw many regiments of men and women passing them as well as droves of cattle being driven to Shaka’s kraal.

Farewell’s party travelled on horseback, using improvised saddles and bridles. They were treated with great hospitality and friendliness all along their route. The group was amazed at the order and discipline maintained in the country through which they travelled. The regimental kraals, and those of chiefs, showed that cleanliness was the custom, both inside and outside the huts. Neither dirt nor ashes could be seen in the whole area.

Fynn, having no idea how far it was, estimated that the distance from Port Natal to Shaka’s residence was about three hundred kilometres. (In fact it is only 115 kms from Eshowe, near where Shaka’s kraal was, to Durban). The group was delayed a few days while Farewell prospected for gold at the Umngeni River mouth. He was unsuccessful. Thereafter, the group’s progress was exceedingly slow, with Mbikwana arranging each day’s journey. They afterwards discovered that the old chief had not taken them by a direct route, but to kraals of minor chiefs and some of the barracks of Shaka’s regiments. Messengers passed three or four times a day between Shaka and Mbikwana. Shaka kept asking about the group’s progress so that his people could be prepared to receive the visitors. The party had thus dallied thirteen days on the road, when the locality of Shaka’s kraal was pointed out, from about twenty-five kilometres away.

That evening Fynn’s group were very excited by the thought of what would happen the next day.

While they were camped that night, the group saw much commotion going on in the neighbourhood. Droves of cattle were being driven in advance, while regiments passed nearby and on distant hills. These were interspersed with regiments of girls, decorated in beads and brass. The girls carried large jugs of beer, milk, and prepared food on their heads. That evening Fynn’s group were very excited by the thought of what would happen the next day.

At ten o’ clock next morning Fynn’s group left the camp. After about two hours the group arrived at a ridge from which they noticed a large and very picturesque basin ahead, with a river, the Umhlatuze, running through it. The party was asked to wait under a large euphorbia tree. From there they saw Shaka’s residence about two kilometres ahead of them. Shaka’s residence was a large kraal nearly three kilometres in circumference. While they were waiting, messengers went backwards and forwards between Mbikwana and Shaka. Finally, one came who asked Farewell and Fynn to advance with twenty of Mbikwana’s men, leaving the rest of the group camped under the tree.

When Fynn galloped around the circle a loud roar erupted from the crowd.

When Fynn and Farewell eventually arrived at kwaBulawayo in June of 1824, they were flabbergasted at the vast size of the capital. Its cleanliness, order, and discipline left an indelible impression in their minds. Shaka treated them to a spectacular demonstration of Zulu dancing. Fynn estimated that over 60 000 head of cattle filed past the place where they were to sit in honour with the Zulu king. What fascinated the visitors was the order that was maintained with this vast number of animals. They were divided into herds of approximately 5000, each distinguishable from the others by their colour and patterns.

a loud roar erupted from the whole crowd

On entering the great cattle kraal, Fynn noticed that there were about 80 000 people inside it, including about 12 000 men in war attire drawn in a circle to receive them. Mbikwana asked Fynn to gallop inside this circle. When he started, a loud roar erupted from the whole crowd, all of whom were pointing at him with sticks. He galloped around three times in the midst of tremendous shouting. After that, Mbikwana led Farewell and Fynn to the head of the kraal where a larger crowd of people stood. Shaka’s uncle addressed an unseen person in a long speech. During this speech Farewell, Fynn, and all the other people there answered ’Yebo’ to show that everything that the speaker had been saying was true. Of course Farewell and Fynn could not understand what was being said.

“Farewell, there is Shaka,” said Fynn, pointing out the king.

While the old chief was addressing the crowd, Fynn noticed a person in the background. Assuming that he was the king, Fynn turned to his companion, pointed and said “Farewell, there is Shaka.” In spite of the noise this exclamation was loud enough for the king to hear and know that Fynn had recognised him. Shaka immediately held up his hand, shaking his finger at Fynn approvingly.

You might also want to read about The Battle of Mhlatuze River, the historical battle in which Shaka defeated Zwide and his generals, Soshangane, Zwangedabe and Nxaba.

Additional information

Dimensions215 × 234 mm