Tales From Africa

Once upon a time (in August 1871 to be precise) the German Karl Mauch explored southern Africa and found what he thought were King Solomon’s Mines and one of the homes of the Queen of Sheba. Having landed on the east coast in 1865, his original intention was to explore and map the territory. He did indeed produce the first complete map of the Transvaal and in 1866 was one of the first white men to discover gold. However he decided to forego prospecting to continue exploration “to add honour to the name of the German nation”.

When, after many dangers and delays he reached the impressive walls and ruins of the ancient fort of Great Zimbabwe he was, based on old chronicles and knowledge at the time, entitled to think he had indeed found them. Later visitors to the site confirmed, admittedly with scant evidence to back them up, that although possibly not King Solomon’s Mines or the home of the Queen of Sheba, the ruins had definitely not been built by black people.

In 1902 R. M. Hall cleared the site of undergrowth and started digging. He found many items which, because, unlike previous explorers, he was a local resident, he recognised to be of African origin and similar to those still in regular use. Nevertheless he put the evidence aside also to claim non-African origins.

Shortly after Hall, David Randall-MacIver, a young archaeologist, one of the first to be properly so called, worked on the site. In the trenches he dug up he found many layers of artefacts of definite African origin and wrote: “It is impossible to resist the conclusion that the people who inhabited the ‘Elliptical Temple’ when it was being built belonged to tribes whose arts and manufactures were indistinguishable from those of the modern Makalanga (Shona) . . . These dwellings are unquestionably African in every detail”. Digging in 1929, Gertrude Caton-Thompson found the layout and remains were so similar to those of still existing villages as to leave no doubt about the African origins of Great Zimbabwe.

These conclusions did not suit white settler politicians who had argued that the “proof” that white people had lived and traded there hundreds of years ago entitled them to their current superior colonial position. The myth continued to be taught as history in Rhodesian schools and Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines was required reading. Tourist posters featured the Queen of Sheba at Great Zimbabwe and films depicted white “superior” beings performing strange ceremonies in front of suitably prostrated blacks.

As late as the 1970s, shortly before a backward capitalist state changed from white to black rulers, broadcasts and television, while admitting that Great Zimbabwe had possibly not been built by whites, would not concede to the evidence that it had been built by indigenous blacks. It would not do to admit that supposedly inferior people had, so long ago, been able to build every bit as skilfully as those in “civilised” parts of the world.

Of course this is not an isolated example of the shading, if not total fabrication of history. Stories of Belgian babies impaled on German bayonets were concocted to encourage men to kill and be killed in the 1914-18 war; misinformation now admitted to have been given out daily in World War II; patriotic claptrap for the Falklands; biased history taught in almost every secondary school throughout Europe. Unemployment figures are massaged before being issued by the government. Those representing the ruling class will always try to bamboozle the rest of us into accepting conditions favourable to the rulers’ minority interests. Forewarned is forearmed: it behoves us to regard with utmost scepticism information put about by those whose interest it is to maintain the status quo.

Eva Goodman

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