Mystery of the Mahalaseela Elephant Riders in Southern Africa

An open-ended mystery left unsolved in my 2019 book “Giants of the Monsoon Forest” concerns the question of whether human cultures of elephant riding existed in southern Africa prior to 19th century colonization of the region. While doing research for the book’s Africa chapter, I found one tantalizing, but tenuous piece of evidence suggesting one place where such a culture may very well have existed.

The evidence comes from John Campbell, an English missionary writing about his travels in South Africa in the 1810s. Traveling among the Tswana peoples, he heard about (but did not directly meet) a neighboring, trading group called the Mahalaseela (alternatively spelled as Mahalatsela, Magalatzinas, Mahhalatseelay, Mahalasley, Mahalasely, Mahalatyela, Mahalasilas, in subsequent geographic and encyclopedic records). In his published journals, he mentions at several points that this group was reputed to ride upon elephants.

Detail of map included in WD Cooley’s 1833 article “The Tribes Near Delagoa Bay." Delagoa (Dalagoa) is modern-day Maputo, Mozambique. Cooley’s map may be the only one from the period to mention and provide a location for the Mahalaseela (Mahalasely). Cooley’s only source about the Mahalaseela seems to have been Campbell.

John Campbell, Travels in South Africa First Journey, 1815:
“Beyond the Makquanas, are the Magalatzinas, from whom the former and other tribes obtain articles of clothing, and beads of European manufacture. They ride upon elephants, and use buffaloes to draw carriages.” (297)

John Campbell, Travels in South Africa Second Journey, 1822:
“[The informant] had heard of a nation to the N.E. called the Mahalaseela, who use elephants as beasts of burden.” (240)

“The Regent [Campbell’s Tswana informant] informed me that they obtained matter for inoculation from the Mahalatsela, a nation to the N.E., who wear clothes, ride upon elephants…They give them the matter [for inoculation] but will not tell them how or from whence they obtain it.” [in footnote, Campbell suggests the Mahalatsela live adjacent to coastal Portuguese settlers]. (256-7)

(“Inoculation” in the above quote refers to inoculation for smallpox. If this group was indeed distributing smallpox inoculation to surrounding groups, that itself is very intriguing.)

“The [Mahhalatseelay] ride upon elephants; and…they climb up their houses as a person would ascend a cliff.” [Campbell suggests this is referring to construction of stairs to elevated houses] (308)

An 1833 map (above) based on Campbell’s descriptions placed the Mahalaseela just north of Delagoa Bay (modern Maputo Bay, Mozambique). See WD Cooley, “The Tribes Near Delagoa Bay,” Journal of the Royal Geographical Society 1833.

If we assume that Campbell understood his informants properly, and that they were providing him with accurate information, and that this neighboring group, the Mahalaseela, really did exist and really did ride on elephants, then it also seems very possible that the Mahalaseela were destroyed soon thereafter. Right after Campbell’s expeditions, the whole region became consumed in the violent Mfcane (forced migration) wars which lasted through the 1830s. If the Mahalaseela were destroyed or forcibly scattered, this could explain why Campbell’s reportage about the group was never verified by colonial writing from the region later in the 19th century (or, as far as I know, by later ethnographic writing gathering local oral histories).

It’s also possible that the Mahalaseela practices described to Campbell by his informants (practices like elephant riding and disease inoculation) came from South Asians, who arrived in the region by way of the Portuguese and Arab Indian Ocean trade systems—that is, that the Mahalaseela were a kind of creole people, a mixture of local Tsonga people, South Asians, and perhaps others. If that’s the case, then their situation was not exactly “pre-colonial”, though colonialism as a system of political control wasn’t to come to their interior region until later.

The Mahalaseela’s presence beyond Delagoa Bay may also pre-date any such Portuguese- or Arab-mediated contacts from South Asia. And it is of course also very possible that Campbell misunderstood his informants, or that they provided bad information, or had themselves misunderstood second-hand information they heard, and that no group resembling Campbell’s description ever existed at all.

Campbell’s mention of elevated houses, occupied by the tamers of elephants, makes me think of scenes I saw at an elephant logging village in the central Burmese teak forests in the mid 2010s.

Central Burma. Photo by Jacob Shell, 2016.

I touch upon the Mahalaseela mystery in Chapter 4 of “Giants of the Monsoon Forest,” which also discusses elephant domestication in North Africa during ancient Greek, Carthaginian and Roman times, and also colonial-era efforts at elephant domestication in the Congo in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Mahalaseela are also mentioned in these academic sources:

-- Elizabeth Eldridge, 1994, “The Delagoa Bay Hinterland,” in Slavery in South Africa (University of Natal Press), 162 note 93.

-- Euguenia Herbert, 1975, "Smallpox Inoculation in Africa," Journal of African History 16 (4).

-- Neil Parsons, 1997, "Makgowa, Mahaletsela, and Maburu: traders and travellers before c.1820," PULA Journal of African Studies 11 (1).

-- Neil Parsons, 2001, “Prelude to Difaqaane,” in The Mfcane Aftermath (Witwatersrand Press), 346 note 69.