Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Anglo-Zulu War

by David Ebsworth

The subject of the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879 has been covered previously in articles posted on the English Historical Fiction Authors site.

But author David Ebsworth argues here that some of the more fascinating details have often been ignored, particularly by historical fiction writers:

The background story is familiar enough.

The Zulus had become a powerful military state only in the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century under the leadership of King Shaka. Before Shaka, they were simply one of the many clans among the Ngoni people who had been part of the Bantu migrations down the east coast of Africa for over a thousand years. And this particular clan was established in the early 1700s by a man called Zulu, son of an Ngoni chieftain, Ntombela. The word iZulu literally means 'sky' or 'heaven' so that the clan name, AmaZulu, implied both that they were the People of the Man called Zulu and also the People of Heaven. The creation of the Zulu Empire had been a violent one but by the 1870s they had fashioned a way of life that was economically stable and had established a strange affinity with the British. It had all started in 1824 with the personal relationship between Shaka and Lieutenant Francis Farewell (Royal Navy) who eventually founded Port Natal (Durban) along with the physician, Henry Francis Fynn. Farewell’s story became well-known back in Britain and Dickensian London frequently played host to troupes of Zulu singers and dancers who performed to huge crowds on the capital’s stages.

The British maintained their colony in Natal, and settlers grew sugar cane and other produce there alongside the Zulus. There was some conflict, mainly due to the Zulus’ reluctance to work for a pittance on the white plantations when they already enjoyed their own functioning cattle-based economy. So the British had to rely increasingly on immigrant labour normally shipped from the Indian Sub-Continent. And things may have remained that way if it had not been for the discovery of gold and diamonds in the neighbouring territories.

Suddenly it became clear that a very large workforce would be needed if these natural resources were going to be properly exploited – much larger than could be accommodated by immigrant labour – and besides, considerable deposits of this potential mineral wealth lay within the territories controlled by the region’s other major group of European settlers, the Dutch Boers.

So by the late 1870s the British had developed ambitions to create a federated dominion of South Africa. But there were two major obstacles that were, at the same time, two significant goals in the British hunger for gold and diamonds – the independent states of the Dutch Boer settlers for their land, and the Kingdom of Zululand for its labour supply possibilities. A pretext was needed to begin dismantling the obstacle elements and, as a start, the British High Commissioner, Sir Henry Bartle-Frere, seized upon the excuse of a relatively minor border incident to present an ultimatum to the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, requiring him to disband his armies – an ultimatum that could clearly never have been met. And thus, without any authority from the Crown, the British army already in Cape Colony under Lord Chelmsford launched an invasion of Zululand. The Anglo-Zulu War had begun.

Its first weeks are well-trodden. The invading army made camp on the slopes of the mountain called Isandlwana. Zulus today will either tell you that the mountain resembles in form a small house or grain hut, and eSandlwana is the isiZulu word for that thing, or they will each give you an entirely different explanation of the meaning. But on the morning of 22nd January 1879, Chelmsford divided his forces, marched off with his main column towards the Zulu capital at Ulundi, and left a force of 1,700 men to guard the camp. Later in the day the camp was quickly attacked by the Zulu army and entirely destroyed with few survivors. Part of the Zulu impi, 4,000 warriors, went on to attack the mission station at KwaJimu, Rorke’s Drift, where a handful of British defenders held off the continuous assaults until the following morning. Those defenders earned themselves no less than twelve Victoria Crosses as a result although only eleven were accepted, with Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne preferring to trade his VC for a commission.

Those two events at the very outset of the war have been commemorated many times by fiction authors and by film makers, most notably in the 1964 movie, Zulu, and then in the 1979 production of Zulu Dawn. It is hard to believe that fifty years have already passed since the release of Zulu, and subsequent generations continue to be drawn to this fascinating period of history by the wonderful Cy Endfield and Stanley Baker production. The film has flaws. Of course it does. Yet it remains a wonderful piece of cinematography.

But what about picking up the story of the Zulu War where Michael Caine left off?

The disaster at Isandlwana forced the remains of Chelmsford’s column to retreat back into Natal leaving a smaller northern column at Khambula and an eastern column on the Zulus’ coast at Eshowe. The northern column suffered its own disaster on the mountain of Hlobane, and the survivors escaped only by feats of heroism that at least matched those of Rorke’s Drift. The garrison at Eshowe also found themselves besieged on 22nd January, but their defence lasted a little longer than the fifteen hours endured at Rorke’s Drift. Because at Eshowe a European army equipped with all the latest weaponry remained under siege by an enemy with little more than spears and shields until 3rd April.

Meanwhile, news had reached London about the Isandlwana massacre, and the response of the British public was very mixed. The newspapers, for example, demanded to know who had authorised this war. People asked difficult questions. Were the Zulus not our friends and allies? Had we not been present at Cetshwayo’s coronation just a few years earlier? But Queen Victoria and her Government could not ignore the disaster. Such a horrendous defeat of the Imperial army could not go unavenged. And therefore reinforcements were dispatched to the Cape. Large numbers of reinforcements. The Zulus must be punished.

Among the reinforcements was a particular young man, the son of the recently deposed and now deceased French Emperor, Napoleon III. Louis Napoleon (Bonaparte’s great-nephew) was therefore now the Crown Prince to the French Imperial throne, and it was widely understood that when the French had done with their current further flirtation with Republicanism, Louis would become Emperor in his turn. He had been living in exile in England for several years, had distinguished himself during military training, but as a Frenchman was unable to hold a commission in the British army. He therefore used his influence to persuade Victoria that he should be allowed to go to Zululand as an observer. The Queen reluctantly agreed, and Louis was sent off to Chelmsford in an administrative capacity. But once there, the Prince’s headstrong nature began to assert itself, and he was soon taking part in patrols as the second invasion of Zululand began at the end of May 1879.

On 1st June, Louis took part in a patrol to the Ityotyosi River along with a small escort and Lieutenant Jahleel Brenton Carey. They were ambushed while resting in an apparently deserted Zulu village, and Louis was killed along with several of the escort. It was a valiant death, but entirely futile and unnecessary. Naturally, somebody had to be responsible. And it could not possibly be Chelmsford. After all, he was only the Commander and under strict instruction about how Louis should be protected. So Carey was court-martialled, although the decision was later not upheld leaving Carey neither officially guilty nor officially acquitted. But he was sent back to England while Chelmsford continued a policy of burning every Zulu homestead he could find, systematically stealing the cattle upon which the Zulu economy was based and fighting skirmishes until, finally, he assembled his new army on the plain below Ulundi. He fought the Zulu army there for the final time, though this time there would be no mistakes, no disasters. And thus Chelmsford deployed gatling guns and artillery to rip through the Zulus’ cowhide shields, while those that survived were hunted down by British Lancers and speared like animals.

Cetshwayo was captured and imprisoned in Cape Town. Thousands of Zulus, driven from their destroyed lands, ended up working in the gold and diamond mines that two wars against the Dutch Boers had put into British hands. And the British Empire now, at last, had its federated dominion of South Africa. But the Empire could not hold it so that South Africa became self-governing in 1910 and fully independent in 1931. The country finally shook off the shackles of apartheid in 1994, and it seemed fitting that the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the ANC had enjoyed such strong support from so many ordinary people in Britain itself as part of the international community of campaigners. In truth, the affinity and mutual respect that had always existed between the British people (as opposed to some of their governments) and the Zulus had never really diminished, and it was almost as if those huge crowds that had filled the London theatres to cheer and applaud the Zulu performers, even in the immediate aftermath of Isandlwana, were the very same who flocked to Trafalgar Square and many other places to celebrate the ANC’s victory in 1994. As if, somehow, a debt had finally been paid.


David Ebsworth’s third novel, The Kraals of Ulundi, does indeed pick up the story of the Zulu War at the end of 1879 and uses the perspectives of three main characters to tell the rest of this astonishing story. They are the Zulu warrior, Shaba KaNdabuko; the English Lieutenant Jahleel Brenton Carey; and the renegade white trader, William McTeague. The catalyst that brings them together, of course, is the death of Louis Napoleon. But this is also the story of the women who link these disparate characters – Shaba’s sister, Amahle, and Carey’s long-suffering wife, Annie.

Dave McCall (David Ebsworth), September 2014

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting and I'm obviously happy to answer questions or chat in general. Dave


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