Before the nineteenth century, the authority of Venda chiefs was demonstrated through the provision of security for their followers and patriarchal control over the hunters who supplied ivory to the flourishing Indian Ocean trade. Increased demand for ivory in Europe intensified competition among neighboring polities of the Southern African interior. Thus, in the first half of the nineteenth century Ndebele, Tsonga and Swazi states each launched incursions against the Venda, with the intention of acquiring land, cattle, women, and unfettered access to commercial opportunities. In response, patrimonial chiefs reconstituted the basis of their authority in the rugged Zoutpansberg Mountains.
The defensive strategies that protected the Venda against predacious African neighbors were a remarkably durable source of insulation against European encroachment during the second half of the nineteenth century. Both the British and the independent Boer state sought more direct control over profitable resources after the mineral revolution of the 1860s-70s. The defeat of the mighty Zulu empire in 1879 accelerated the powerful currents of imperial expansion into the southern African frontier. Thus, by the eve of the twentieth century, all that remained of African political independence in Southern Africa or the mutually autonomous Venda chiefs.
The long era of Venda independence is marginalized in South African historiography. The lack of research into Venda defensive strategies is a function of the colonial era bias against the military culture of those Africans who emphasized defensive tactics. To an extent, colonial era ethnographers shared sympathies with their military counterparts. The historical record is replete with effusive praise for those brave but noble ‘savages’ who confronted imperial armies in set piece battles and charged headlong into the strafing fire of machine guns. Indeed, the relevant literature privileges the military culture of those Africans whose marshal traditions resemble those of the Zulus. In the case of Venda, the adoption of asymmetric fighting tactics was inextricably linked to the ability of patrimonial chiefs to protect their adherents. It is therefore a paradox of history that the military success of Venda chiefs also explains why they have received so little attention from scholars.
This first section traces the historiography of Venda military culture
This first section establishes the archives of European missionary societies as critical sources of ethnographic information. By virtue of their work, which required many years or even a lifetime of intimate contact, missionaries were uniquely positioned to gather useful information about the lifeways of African people. In a 1931 article, Diedrich Westermann notes that the missionaries’ ecclesiastical responsibilities were intimately linked to the preservation of E ethnographic data for practical and scientific reasons. The conceptual basis for a “new religious, moral, and social order” in Africa was to be fashioned from preexisting customs and traditions. This profound transformation obliged the “missionary to destroy much that belongs to native life,” Westermann was reticent to avoid extremities. He notes the condition “in some parts of Africa” where “the break with the old has been so complete that the present generation knows practically nothing of the past, or of the life of its ancestors.” Such an outcome, was less than desirable for Westermann, who spent much of his own career as a missionary in Central and West Africa. A more meaningful conversion process required missionaries to “forge links between the old and the new” so that “new ideas developed naturally from old ways of thought.”  The most tenuous and delicate component of missionary work was therefore, the rigorous and conscientious study of “old customs…to see if there is not imbedded in them something that can be incorporated into the new order, or something that has to be transformed.” Among the greatest missionaries then, were those who endeavored to “understand the natives’ point of view” by virtue of experience “gained in the course of their work” while also observing their “duty to the science of ethnography” by “making this knowledge available to what a wider circle.”
Westermann offers the work of Henri Junod (1863-1934.) as illustrative of the finest tradition in missionary ethnography. As the child of a Swiss Protestant missionaries, Junod’s two volume opus, The Life of a South African Tribe, reflected a lifetime’s worth experience with the Tsonga people of the northern Transvaal. In the third quarter of the nineteenth century, Junod’s Missionary order struck an agreement with the Lutherans of the Berlin Missionary Society (BMS) to divide the catechistic labor in the Zoutpanbserg district. Under the terms of the agreement, Swiss Protestants were be responsible for spreading Christianity among the Tsonga, while the religious education of the Venda was to be the sole preserve of the Lutherans.
The BMS began to proselytize to the Venda in 1870. This first generation of missionaries’ produced a number of monographs and pamphlets based on their observations of Venda culture. This first generation of Lutheran missionaries published several ethnographic style accounts of a personal and professional experiences. Though the Germans were no less diligent than the Swiss, none of their published materials rivaled Junod’s study of the Tsonga in terms of broad acceptance among the anthropological mainstream. One possible explanation is the contempt for Venda customs and traditions that is expressed in the unofficial notes and station reports prepared by this first generation of Lutheran missionaries. Westernmann’s writing reflected a profound liberalization in missionary thinking that was well underway by the 1930s. He was critical of the impulse to condemn “everything pagan” as the “the devils work which should be exterminated a vote and branch.” The writings of this first generation of Lutherans reflect a hostility too was indigenous African traditions that had become anachronistic among anthropologically minded missionaries like Westermann. Their writings were still valuable source of information for formally trained anthropologists. Hugh Stayt cites heavily form these materials published by missionaries with long experience from Venda and accepts that biases uncritically.
Hugh Stayt: The Bavenda and Roots Of The Myth (excerpts)
“The Bavenda are not a tribe of particular military talent like the Zulus of the Maasai, and they do not have a highly organized system for carrying on the warfare of the bold, attacking type.”
“Their campaigns were more in the nature of plundering rates, generally on a comparatively small scale, for stealing cattle or for revenge. The usual tactics were to one surprise attacks at the enemy, under the cover of darkness, capture the cattle, women, and children, to kill as many men as possible, burned the kraal, and beat a hasty retreat to their own territory.”
“The BaVenda are scattered over the greater part of the range. Their kopjes and spurs, precipitous slopes and general unapproachable character, had played an important part in protecting them from their enemies, and account for their being the last tribe in the Transvaal to submit to white domination.”
“the Bavenda have been able to maintain their supremacy in the Zoutpansberg, and on many occasions have been saved from annihilation by their mountains. In the past they were subjected to constant rates from the outside, and although there was never a combined effort against the raiders, each independent chiefs have read the enemies from his mountain stronghold and let him pass onto the next, where he was similarly treated, so making settlement impossible except by peaceful arrangement.”
Reinhold Wessmann, The Bawenda of Spelonken (excerpts)
The African Way of War
“the Bawenda do not make wars in the ordinary meaning of the word. They only take on treacherous raids for the purposes of revenge and plunder. Spies find out the ways and the most suitable place for scaling the wall during the night; but the raiding party always keeps a retreat open, and should the enemy happened to get behind them and us cut them off, they will lose their sense into the body will vote away, only cared to save his own life. When firing a rifle they keep their eyes tightly shut and are no shots whatsoever. They could not stand in open battle, but only try to get near the enemy by cunning.” Hit it and occasionally a killed enemies taken home by the victors and used as medicine, and they think of at least in the flesh will make them strong and give them advantages. Usually the flesh is mixed with beef. Cowardly as they are, they are also cool, and often helpless women and children are there only targets.
- Confederation/Annexation and the Politics or Myth Making (1870s)
Shepstone characterized the Venda as passive “non-war like” as part of a propaganda campaign to justify the annexation of the Transvaal in 1877. The logic of Shepstone’s argument was the weakness of the ZAR was a threat to white dominion over Southern Africa in general, and Natal in particular. The fact that the Boers were unable to subjugate even the Venda, serves as evidence to substantiate this point. The reports that Fred Fynney sent back to England contradicted this assertion. I contend Shepstone willfully misinterpreted Fynney’s reports and then pressured Fynney manipulate his own findings justify the annexation.
Fred Fynney met with Makhado in July 1876 in order to recruit labour for a railway project. In his notes, Fynney estimates Venda fighting strength at about 20,000 well-armed fighters.
In sharp contrast with representation of an efficient and disciplined Venda fighting force described in his classified reports, Fynney completely change is a story in remarks delivered to the geographic society of London delivered several months after Shepstone proclaimed the annexation of Transvaal in 1877.
- Link to the published transcripts of Fynney remarks for Royal Geographic Society Wanted
- Venda independence was interpreted as a threat to the British, the Boers, and the Portuguese. A paranoia about gun running and ability of the Venda to acquire new firearms is the subject of dozens of diplomatic cables in the 1890s. This disrupts the conventional narrative.
Concern in 1898 that Makhado has acquired a maxim gun before his death
- Link To primary source (PRO)
Cannon’s in Makhado’s Country 1898
- Link to primary source
Concern that Makhadop could support Lobengula 1893
Venda Support to Malaboch and the Bagananwa (1894-1895)
The Baganawa people occupied Blouberg Mountains, situated just to the east of the Zoutpansberg. The ZAR declared war against them in May of 1894. This section of my paper traces the efforts of missionaries, and politicians to prevent the Venda from intervening on behalf of Malaboch, the Bagananwa chief.
Interview with Thovhele Makhado, Chief of the Ramabulana Venda in the Pretoria Press June 9, 1894
- Link to the original (Western Cape Provincial Archives)
Pretoria 18 May 1894
To the chieftain Magato head of the Mapulana Tribe
Letter signed by the Minister of the different churches a picture of Jesus Christ now present in Pretoria is being sent to the chief Magoto for the purpose of pointing out to him a great danger of allowing himself or his people to take part in trouble which has arisen between the Malaboch and the Government of the Republic. And in the spirit of the trusted friendship warning him of the serious consequences which must follow any resistance of the law.
Magato has shown himself able in the past to control his people and as the father of the people should do all in his power to prevent them from…To send a report of the true state of affairs to the governor and to save his people from the consequences of a fierce and bloody struggle.
H.B Prison XX Bishop Pretoria
W.J. Underwood Baptist minister
- Semell Zulu missionary
F.H Fisher canon of Church of England
Janiss Dunvas clergyman of Church of England
 Diedrich Westermann, “The Missionary as an Anthropological Field-Worker,” Africa 4, (1931) 163-4
 Westermann, “The Missionary,” 163-4
 Westermann, “The Missionary,” 163-4
 Westermann, “The Missionary,” 166, see Henri Junod, The Life Of An South African Tribe, (New York, 1962). For more on Junods in the work Swiss missionaries in Nineteenth Century South Africa, see Patrick .Harries, Butterflies & Barbarians: Swiss Missionaries & Systems of Knowledge in South-East Africa, (Oxford, 2007)
 Stayt, The Bavenda, 70-71
 Hugh Stayt, The BaVenda, (London, 1931) 2
 Stayt, The Bavenda, 18
 Reinhold Wessman, The Bawenda of the Spelonken (Transvaal): A Contribution Towards The Psychology And Folklore Of African Peoples, (London, 1908) 112-13