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The royal kraal - Umgungundlovu ('the place of the Great Elephant') - was built on a gently sloping hillside bounded on two sides by two streams. The kraal was surrounded by a palisade fence over two miles in circumference and contained nearly 1500 huts, each capable of holding 20 warriors.
The king's hut was far bigger than the rest and located at the highest point of the kraal in an area known as the isigodlo - the area where he and his ninety wives lived.
Dingane at this time was in his forties and gaining some weight. He was still however capable of joining his warriors in dances and very light on his feet. He was also artistic and spent much time decorating his wives and even composing songs. Having several rotten front teeth, he would put his hand over his mouth to hide them when talking.
The Royal kraal showing the isigodlo or kings family quarters and harem
at the top and at the very top, the military kraals of the amabutho
or king's regiments. Also in this area was the
Reverend Owen's camp.
More on Umgungundlovu
After assassinating his brother Shaka in 1828, Dingane became king of the Zulus and established his capital at Mgungundlovu in the Valley of the Kings. Extensive information of this most impressive of Zulu royal residences exists and is based on the detailed observations and drawings of white traders and missionaries who visited King Dingane.
In its layout, Mgungundlovu was oval in shape and consisted of between 1 400 and 1 700 traditional grass huts. These stood in rows six to eight deep, enclosing a huge open area known as the large cattle kraal or parade ground where the king inspected his army and cattle and officiated during rituals and festivals. A strong palisade of stout timbers protected the sweep of huts on the outside, though the inner palisade was not as robust and would have consisted in part of reeds or thatching grass.
Directly opposite the main entrance about 600m away on the higher slope was the isigodlo - the highly protected Royal Enclosure. Here King Dingane kept about 500 women, divided into two groups. About 100 women formed the black isigodlo and they consisted of the women in the Royal Family - step-mothers, favoured maids-of-honour and concubines. If the king had any wives, they too would have lived in the black isigodlo. The only outsider who could freely enter the black isigodlo was the king - anyone who entered without being summoned was executed. The remainder of the women - those who had not caught the eye of the king or who were servants - lived in the white isigodlo. Should there have been royal children, they too would have lived in the white isigodlo.
All the gates to the isigodlo were shut tight at night, and the king was the only male to sleep within its precincts. King Dingane's Great Hut where he held audience stood in this area and was unusually large and lofty with 10 pillars to support it.
The Great Hut could accommodate as many as 50 people and was a supreme example of the hut-builder's art. The king also had a smaller, more private 'bachelor' hut where he normally ate and slept. It had one pillar, decorated by maids-of-honour who entwined it from top to bottom with intricate patterns of red and white beads. The maids-of-honour wore nothing except a few strings of opaque red and amber beads and wristlets of pure white beads. When they left the isigodlo to bathe in the stream, they were always accompanied by armed men. Anyone who met them on the path had to move aside quickly and fall face down in the grass lest he should look at them and be killed for his temerity. Similarly, people summoned into the isigodlo, including servants, kept their eyes carefully averted.
The women themselves - secluded and pampered since servant girls and widows did all the domestic chores - grew exceedingly fat and unfit, perspiring heavily onto the mats where they spent their days, anointing themselves with fat from the heavy tails of sheep. King Dingane particularly favoured the fat young women with pretty faces, and of an evening he especially enjoyed laying near the entrance to his hut with about 100 women singing loudly to him, their animated songs filling the air for many kilometres around.
Because of their corpulence they did not stand or dance as did other women when they sang, but sat on the ground and went through the usual movements with their arms only, becoming increasingly exhausted as the King demanded one song after another.
An artist's impression of the interior of Dingane's Great Hut with the King relaxing while his maids-of-honour sing for him.
When the Boers returned in late 1838 to exact revenge for the massacre of Pieter Retief and his followers as well as the subsequent attacks on Boer camps at Bloukrans and Weenen, King Dingane fled Mgungundlovu after ordering that the capital be burnt down.
In recent years, parts of the massive royal enclosure and military barracks which housed about 7 000 people, have been reconstructed. Archaeological excavations have uncovered the charcoal remains of the enclosure's outer palisade and have also revealed many of the dwellings' original mud-and-dung floors which had been baked hard by the fire.
One of the uncovered floors has a diameter of about 10m and was surrounded by the charred remains of 22 structural posts. The sheer size of the structure - thought to be the biggest ever built in traditional Zulu style - as well as the remains of a unique butterfly-shaped hearth (much like the one mentioned by early visitors to Mgungundlovu) indicate that this was, indeed, the king's residence.
Dingane becomes a Tyrant
Having killed his half brother Shaka some nine years previously, he had come to the throne to end the bloodshed that had characterized Shaka's reign of terror. Soon, however, he became paranoid and killed large numbers of his own subjects, either by sending out his top indunas ('generals') to lay waste to some vassal chief who had offended him or by execution for such trifles as a comment or a cough or for some imagined slight
Those killed at Umgungundlovu were not executed in the kraal but dragged by the king's execution squad to a nearby hill and either beaten to death with stones or knobkerries or impaled.