Paramount Chief of the Mthethwa and leader of various northern Nguni groups who lived in the Zululand area before Shaka brought them under his rule.
Little is known about Dingiswayo's (also known as Godongwana or Ngodongwa) life. But as far as we know, towards the end of the eighteenth century Godongwana (Dingiswayo's name before he took a new name) and his brother Mawewe became rivals for the chieftainship. Impatient of his father's rule, Godongwana conspired against the old chief's life. The plot was discovered and he was lucky to escape. Although severely wounded, he managed to make his way to relatives who nursed him back to health. When his father learned he was still alive, he sought revenge. Thereafter the youth led a fugitive's life.
Tradition has long insisted that while journeying in a south-westerly direction, he encountered an armed European on horseback who told him he was trying to make his way to Delagoa Bay (now Maputo). The white traveller was possibly Dr Cowan, a Scottish explorer, who travelled from Cape Town in a north-easterly direction in about 1806. Godongwana offered to serve as a guide and European skills and commodities aroused his interest. He travelled with the stranger until they arrived in sight of the sea at the Thukela River. Here, they separated as Godongwana wished to proceed to the land of the Mthethwa because he had learned of his father's death and planned to dethrone his brother, Mawewe.
The story goes that soon afterwards tribesmen killed the white stranger and Godongwana somehow acquired his horse and gun. The Mthethwa were so impressed by the horse and gun they became certain Godongwana was a wizard and began to plot the ousting of their chief, who was easily routed. Godongwana's first act as chief was to change his name to Dingiswayo, meaning ‘one in distress,' an allusion to the hard times he had experienced as a wandering outcast.
Soon afterwards, seeking to open trade with the Portuguese at Delagoa Bay, Dingiswayo sent them presents of cattle and ivory. Delighted at the prospect of opening up the ivory trade, the Portuguese sent a company to assist him put down the Qabe. Their musketry caused widespread terror among the people, enhancing Dingiswayo's standing. Determined to procure for himself some European goods, he encouraged his subjects to travel and trade. Consequently, a great development in crafts occurred. Milk dishes, pillows, ladles of cane and wood, and snuff spoons were all produced, and a kaross factory was established.
Competition for the hunting grounds and trade routes set the scene for conflict as the northern Nguni groups were increasingly drawn into ivory trading networks with the Portuguese at Delagoa Bay. From this time, the most powerful chiefs resorted to frequent grand-scale fighting.
At about this time the northern Nguni began to give up the ceremonies of circumcision and ritual seclusion, probably because the practice diminished their warrior strength and left them vulnerable. Instead, young men were assembled into amabutho or age regiments, subdivided into companies, and assigned to a royal household.
The introduction of age regiments is often attributed to Dingiswayo because of the surprising strides his people made, but the Ndwandwe under Zwide north of the Mfolozi, and Sobhuza's people on the upper Phongolo River incorporated age regiments at about the same time. All opponents assembled their armies on the eve of war equipped with the traditional weapons of the long-handled throwing spear and the battle-axe, and for protection, they held a small cowhide shield. Dingiswayo's regiments were each distinguished by a name and by the colour of the shields carried by the men, and his warriors wore very imposing wardress. He trained his forces to fight in close formations that resembled the European regimental system and taught them new tactics. Sir Theophilus Shepstone, in a paper read in 1875, speculated that Dingiswayo acquired knowledge about standing armies, discipline, and training during a stay in the Cape Colony. This story was widely accepted by Natal colonists, but it is most likely that it was through contact with the Portuguese that Dingiswayo learned a new and tough form of military warfare.
Such was their success that Dingiswayo was able to declare war in a regular manner and his conquests raised the Mthethwa above all the other clans along the coast. Zwide, the turbulent Ndwandwe chief, was twice subjugated but was not intimidated. He built up his army and struck at his neighbours taking all the cattle of the conquered, stripping their fields and putting whole populations to flight. At about this time, Zwide and Sobhuza quarrelled over possession of land and in the ensuing battle, Sobhuza's people were defeated and migrated inland to the central area of modern Swaziland. Sobhuza's departure left Zwide and Dingiswayo on a collision course for the Nguni paramountcy.
While these developments were taking place, a young princeling was growing up under Dingiswayo's protective wing. His name was Shaka. He was the son of Senzangakhona, chief of a small clan known as Zulu. Dingiswayo encouraged Shaka to try and overcome his half-brother, Sigujana, who had meanwhile established himself as Zulu chief. In 1816, Dingiswayo lent Shaka a regiment and with this support, Shaka was able to overcome Sigujana and kill him, and the Zulu recognized Dingiswayo's appointment of Shaka as their chief.
Dingiswayo disclosed to Shaka his plan to conquer Matiwane, chief of the Ngwane. In about June 1817, Dingiswayo and Shaka crossed the White Mfolozi River with their regiments and forced Matiwane into submission. But no sooner had Dingiswayo's forces departed than Zwide's Ndwandwe swept down on the Ngwane too. Matiwane and his people departed hastily. Without warning, they fell on the Hlubi, who fled over the Drakensberg and came into conflict with the Tlokwa. These widespread depredations probably began the Difaqane (Mfecane or Lifaqane), a chain-reaction of bloodshed and devastation.
Towards the end of 1817 or early 1818, Dingiswayo's fortunes suffered a sudden reverse, but it is not known precisely why. Tradition has it that Zwide's people killed Malusi, who was married to Dingiswayo's sister, and this so inflamed Dingiswayo against Zwide that the Mthethwa and Ndwandwe clashed. It is said that Dingiswayo summoned Shaka to his support but the Zulu regiments took no part in the battle. Another view was that Shaka deliberately betrayed Dingiswayo as Shaka was anxious to rid himself of his overlord; another made out that Shaka had not been given time to complete his arrangements for joining the precipitate expedition and missed the battle altogether.
During the battle, informers betrayed Dingiswayo's position to the Ndwandwe who surrounded him and took him in captivity to the homestead of Zwide where he was put to death. Afterwards his skull was taken to augment the collection adorning the hut of Ntombazi, Zwide's mother. With the death of Dingiswayo great numbers of Mthethwa warriors joined Shaka, and Mthethwa power collapsed. Towards the end of 1818, Shaka conquered Zwide. The death of Dingiswayo and the defeat of Zwide enabled Shaka to turn his attentions to forging a new kind of state.