Based on research by Dr Alex Couts and condensed from his original document of October 2018.

There is evidence that, during times of famine, as occurred from 1802 to 1804 (known as the madlathule, or “eat and be silent”), cannibalism became endemic in Zululand and parts of Natal.

This devastating famine occurred several years before the rise to power of Shaka, whose rule threw the tribes of Zululand and Natal into chaos. It brought with it tremendous social pressures.

When someone died from famine, the body might be consumed out of the sheer necessity to survive.

In times of war, dead enemies were eaten, perhaps because the victors were often far from home without supplies, but also in order to gain strength through magic, from the deceased warriors’ body parts.

Matiwane, chief of the AmaNgwane, was believed to have cut out and sucked the gallbladders of dying victims. He wanted to absorb the strength of the foe before that individual succumbed to the disembowelment. Matiwane, can bear some of the responsibility for the cannibalism that was rife in Natal, the highveld and mountainous regions of Lesotho during the time of Shaka.

The Zulu Kings Shaka and Dingane, during whose reign’s cannibalism flourished, never sanctioned the practice and endeavored to stamp it out.

The rise of Shaka brought great migrations of tribes fleeing from the eruptions in Zululand.

While many clans were drawn together by conquest to form the Zulu ‘State’, others fought each other as they made for safer regions.

Some fled to Mozambique or even Malawi, others to the Transvaal or the Cape, yet others to Lesotho. Within Natal the chaos was complete. The Zulu, Mthetwa, Ndwandwe, AmaNgwane, AmaHlubi, AmaZizi and many other clans were drawn into bloody conflicts that sent tribes seeking shelter in remote valleys and broken country where they could hide in forests or caves.

Cannibalism spread in the wake of the chaos.

Without livestock, and faced by the raids of the AmaNgwane and others that made agriculture precarious, the Bele tribe living to the west around Jobe’s Kop was caught up in the maelstrom. Many turned to cannibalism.

The Ntulis and other clans joined them.

Cannibals also lived along the lower reaches of the Umgeni, as well as at the Cannibalism also occurred in the foothills of the Drakensberg, with Sidinane active in the Cavern area. He used the great caves of the region as a source of refuge.

To the north much of the area of the Biggarsberg, from Newcastle down to Ladysmith and Helpmekaar, was ravaged by cannibals during the time of Shaka and for a decade after his death. It was the area around Jobe’s Kop that had the worst reputation for cannibalism.


Cannibalism also occurred in the foothills of the Drakensberg, with Sidinane active in the Cavern area. He used the great caves of the region as a source of refuge.
To the north much of the area of the Biggarsberg, from Newcastle down to Ladysmith and Helpmekaar, was ravaged by cannibals during the time of Shaka and for a decade after his death. It was the area around Jobe’s Kop that had the worst reputation for cannibalism.

The Zulus, living largely to the east of this area across the Buffalo River and aware of the presence of the man-eaters to the west, said that when the sun went down: “Oh! Again, tonight it will to be devoured by cannibals”.

Mhlapahlapa, was believed to have been the chief of the Ntuli offshoot of the Bhele, and is identified with the area around Jobe’s Kop, as well as with the Sundays (Ndaka), Mzinyathi and Washbank Rivers. Hlupalule was one of the most fearsome of all the cannibal chiefs.

Hlupalule had three villages or kraals (umuzis); one of which was on the farm Freiburg overlooking the Pomeroy Valley. Another was near the upper reaches of the Isibindi Valley, looking east towards the Buffalo River, while the third was somewhere beneath the ridge of the farm Kalwerfontein. Hlupalule, like any chief of the time, expected tribute. But he did not demand cattle or goats. The tribute was paid in people. Anyone passing through the lands of the Bhele in the Wasbank or Toleni Valley, or around Jobe’s kop or in the Isibindi Valley was in grave danger of being captured and eaten on the spot, or taken to Hlupalule.

Recorded in the Stuart Archives, Mangathi testifies emphatically: “Whilst at Elenge (Jobe’s Kop) our people were cannibals. This is a well-established fact.”

Hlupalule’s lair on the farm Freiburg has a huge sandstone rock on it; or more correctly, two rocks since the original had split with a deep cleft in it. The feature was known as the itshe Lama Zimu or “Rock of the cannibals”.

The captives would be taken to the top of the rock where they would be hamstrung by having their Achilles tendons severed to prevent escape. While they were awaiting their fate the children of the tribesmen would taunt them by hurling stones at them.

A large, flat rock twenty metres down the slope was used as a cutting block, and until recently the grooves worn into the rock where knives and assegais were sharpened were clearly visible.

Jobe Sithole, a petty chief with a small band of followers, had fled from Shaka. Realizing that he would always be vulnerable to retaliation, he had returned and surrendered to the Zulu king. Shaka was magnanimous and spared Jobe’s life.

As he sometimes did with subordinate clans, he decided to allocate Jobe outlying lands to govern on his behalf.

Jobe’s situation was rather unusual, however, because he had married one of Shaka’s “sisters”. He was accordingly favoured, although the task given him was not easy. Jobe was instructed to drive part of the royal herds to the lands around the southern Biggarsberg, with the mission of subjugating the cannibals there.

His son Sandlovu and some of the other followers, together with their families moved to the area ahead of Jobe. Sandlovu, a powerful man, was given a free hand to act on behalf of his father. Driving a great herd of cattle across the Umzinyathi River near present Elandskraal, they settled not far from Hlupalule.

The cannibal clans resented their presence, but realised the danger of confronting emissaries of the powerful Zulu king. Gradually Sandlovu and his band moved their villages closer to the Biggarsberg, eventually building on the Nyonyone hills between Jobe’s Kop and the area around the present town of Helpmekaar. They began to graze their cattle on the plains around the Toleni River.

Tensions increased and Hlupalule moved to his homestead (umuzi) beneath the escarpment where the higher ground of Kalwerfontein falls away to the Toleni catchment far below. The site was across the valley from Sandhlovu’s village.

In September 1828, matters came to a head. Several of the herders, increasingly contemptuous of the cannibals and probably aware of their immunity under the shadow of the mighty Shaka, began to insult them. The insult took the form of a beating with the butt ends of assegais. Threatening to settle accounts, the cannibals retired for the night in rage.

On the following day eight of the herders were collecting honey on land that presently comprises the farm Vermaakskraal in the valley of the Toleni, when the cannibals began to encircle the. A fight broke out.

At first, Jobe’s clansmen gained the upper hand, but lost ground in the face of larger numbers. Six of them were killed and two who fled, were hunted down by dogs and killed. The cannibals began to cook and eat some of the bodies. Onlookers reported the matter to Sandhlovu, who could only recover parts of the dismembered bodies. He was furious.

A message was sent by runners to Shaka. Unknown to Jobe, Shaka was dead and Dingane was now King. The new Zulu monarch decided to avenge the loss of the herders, which had made his cattle herds vulnerable, and in due course dispatched several regiments of the army to settle accounts.

Two regiments were sent in a great sweeping arc that reached as far north as Wakkerstroom. This force, in typical Zulu military fashion, comprised the right horn of fit young warriors. The left horn of a further two younger regiments dispatched from Mgungundlovu travelled south, crossing the Tugela at Kranskop and coming up around present Mooi River. The two horns were instructed to meet on the Drakensberg escarpment and to co-ordinate their action before making a raid from the west on the cannibals’ nests in the Biggarsberg.

To make the vast ‘pincer’ movement complete, a regiment of older, experienced and disciplined warriors forming a inyathi (buffalo) ‘chest’ was sent directly from Mgungundlovu to the Mzinyathi (Buffalo) River to threaten the cannibals and their families from that quarter. Jobe’s followers were warned to get their herds and families out of the way in the face of the onslaught. They did so by relocating near Jobe’s Kop Mountain.

The Zulu army set its trap into operation with a brutal show of power. Many cannibals were slaughtered on the farm Vermaakskraal. The bones were collected by the Vermaak family years later and buried in a donga (gully) that came to be called the Umtakhati (bewitched).

Those living in the vicinity of Itshe Lama Zimu appear to have been chased into the dense bush on the hillside above the sandstone rock and slaughtered there. Bones were found in the forest until the 1880’s. Others were chased into caves and even crevices in the fractured dolerite rocks on the farm Steinthal as well as in the Isibindi Valley. In some cases the caves were walled up with stones to starve the cannibals.

Some cannibals escaped, because the legend persisted that many of them had crept through long fissures from one side of the mountain to the other as they fled! Local Africans refuse to disclose information about the caves because of superstitions about the dead.

It was only after these events that Jobe himself came to live in the area, establishing his homesteads in the Inhlanyanga Valley close to Jobe’s Kop. Sandlovu became an induna under him. Jobe died in about 1845. Nearly all of the Sitholes of the district are said to be descended from him.

The only detailed account remains that recorded by Otto Klingenberg. Yet further corroboration can be found in a letter sent by John Vermaak, who lived in the area, to the recipient Tarlie, in 1951. It also gives a very broad outline of events. Although the records might differ in detail, the main events are recorded in a number of documents.

In 1961 members of the Helpmekaar Jackal Club entered a cave in the Isibindi Valley in pursuit of a jackal. The Natal Mercury reported how they found several human remains, including skulls, as well as cooking pots. The cooking pots are said to be identical to one identified with Hlupalule, given to the Natal Museum some years before the Mercury article was written.

These remains and artifacts are in the Talana museum, including three skulls.

The Talana Museum is a good starting point for any trip to the area. Exhibits on cannibalism can be seen. Tours of the area are done on request

However ghoulish the subject might be, cannibalism remains a part of our heritage in KwaZulu-Natal. The oral evidence for the practice is compelling.

Should you wish to visit any of these sites there are qualified registered guides available to show you around. Another focal point of your visit could be Kalwerfontein farm. This includes the likely site of the third of Hlupalule’s kraals.

From the rim of the escarpment one can look out over Vermaakskraal far below, where the massacre of the herders occurred and where the Zulu army killed a number of the cannibals before going on to ferret them out of the caves and bush of the Biggarsberg escarpment.

Contact the Talana Museum or the Tourism Dundee office for details.