Reference Entry

Nguni Southern African ethnic groups that speak related Bantu languages and inhabit southeast Africa from Cape Province to southern Mozambique.

Ari Nave

in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition

Published in print January 2005 | ISBN: 9780195170559
Nguni Southern African ethnic groups that speak related Bantu languages and inhabit southeast Africa from Cape Province to southern Mozambique.

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Historians believe that the ancestors of contemporary Nguni were the first Bantu speakers to arrive in southeastern Africa, some time after the second century c.e.. Linguists point to the use of “clicks” in Nguni languages as evidence of not only the antiquity of the migration but also of the early migrants’ likely assimilation of Khoisan speakers, whose languages use similar phonemes. No other Bantu languages use “clicks.” The large number of cognates between Nguni languages and Swahili also suggests that the Bantu migrants traveled south via Africa’s east coast. Today most Nguni languages are not mutually intelligible. Some of the more prominent Nguni ethnic groups include the Xhosa and the Zulu of South Africa, the Swazi of Swaziland, the Ndebele of Zimbabwe and the Ngoni of Malawi. For centuries the Nguni peoples are thought to have lived in scattered patrilineal chiefdoms, cultivating cereal crops such as millet and raising cattle. The current geographic distribution of Nguni peoples largely reflects the turbulent political developments and population movements of the nineteenth century. In the 1820s the cattle-herding Zulu, led by their king Shaka, embarked on an aggressive campaign of conquest and expansion known as the Mfecane. Shaka’s large and well-armed armies conquered a number of neighboring peoples and sent others fleeing. Some Nguni groups adopted the Zulu’s methods of warfare and used them to subjugate the peoples in whose territory they ultimately settled. The Ndebele of Zimbabwe are one such group; the Soshangane of Mozambique are another. The Swazi kingdom was also established during this period. Even before the mfecane, trade and colonialism made their mark on the regions inhabited by Nguni peoples. From the sixteenth century onwards, European merchant vessels frequented trading posts on the coast of present-day southern Mozambique, seeking goods such as gold, ivory, and slaves. The Portuguese, in particular, brought maize from the New World, which soon became a staple crop in much of southeastern Africa and which some historians argue contributed to both population growth and the eventual rise of complex states in the region. Nguni cattle-herding groups such as the Xhosa also traded their livestock for the guns and tobacco of European settlers from the Cape Colony (in present-day South Africa). During the nineteenth century, European expansionism brought the Xhosa and other Nguni groups into conflicts with both migrating Afrikaners and British troops. Many communities lost both land and cattle. The discovery of diamonds in the 1860s and gold in the 1880s provided an even greater motive for European conquest of Nguni-occupied lands. By the turn of the century, many men from Nguni communities were migrating to work in the gold mines near Witwatersrand. In rural areas many Nguni peoples still herd cattle and cultivate cereal crops as well as a variety of cash crops. But a significant proportion of many Nguni groups’ populations now either live in cities or depend upon earnings from seasonal migrant labor in the mines. In the late twentieth century, many Nguni-speaking people were born in urban areas, removing the connection to their ancestral rural areas; Nguni is becoming more of a linguistic term because of the cultural erosion.See also Bantu: Dispersion and Settlement; Gold Trade; Ivory trade.

Reference Entry.  550 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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