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Zulu Warriors: The Battle for the South African Frontier

Zulu Warriors: The Battle for the South African Frontier

by John Laband

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Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the British embarked on a concerted series of campaigns in South Africa. Within three years they waged five wars against African states with the intent of destroying their military might and political independence and unifying southern Africa under imperial control. This is the first work to tell the story of this cluster


Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the British embarked on a concerted series of campaigns in South Africa. Within three years they waged five wars against African states with the intent of destroying their military might and political independence and unifying southern Africa under imperial control. This is the first work to tell the story of this cluster of conflicts as a single whole and to narrate the experiences of the militarily outmatched African societies.
Deftly fusing the widely differing European and African perspectives on events, John Laband details the fateful decisions of individual leaders and generals and explores why many Africans chose to join the British and colonial forces. The Xhosa, Zulu, and other African military cultures are brought to vivid life, showing how varying notions of warrior honor and manliness influenced the outcomes for African fighting men and their societies.

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Yale University Press
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6.00(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.70(d)

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Copyright © 2014 John Laband
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-18031-2


The Shadow of Isandlwana

When I first approached Isandlwana Mountain forty-five years ago, it was with depleted enthusiasm. We had been bumping and sliding interminably in an antique Landrover along the snaking tracks which in those days passed for roads in Zululand, and had been chugging precariously across streams swollen by the summer rains. The undulating grassy plain, punctuated by the occasional flat-topped hill with its rocky coronet, swept unimpeded to the far horizon. Only the rare sight of a ragged herd boy, desultorily driving a few scrawny cattle or goats towards a distant huddle of thatched huts, persuaded me we were not entirely alone under the enormous sky. I regretted the back-jarring journey and anticipated little of interest at our destination. At the time I knew next to nothing of the desperate battle the amaZulu and British had fought ninety years before in the dry I dongas, and among the tumbled rocks at the foot of Isandlwana, and eroded water courses, or was prepared to care rather less.

A thoroughly conventional colonial education had directed my historical concerns to the great battlefields of Europe where, we had been firmly instructed, the future of the world had been decided. Of what importance, or even interest, could some inaccessible African battlefield possibly be? Besides, like so many of my fellows, I assumed as a matter of upbringing that the technological superiority of European weaponry in the hands of professional soldiers guaranteed that they always prevailed over primitively armed warriors. The Zulu victory at Isandlwana in 1879 was consequently only some peculiar fluke, the unremarkable exception that proved the rule.

Yet, despite myself, once we had rattled to a stop under the sphinx-shaped mountain that lours over the site of the stricken British camp, and begun to clamber among the low, scattered cairns of tumbled stone that mark the graves of the British dead, quite a different mood overtook me. I succumbed completely to that atmosphere of acute melancholy and disquiet that pervades a battlefield when left undisturbed to its ghosts and the keening wind.

For when the spurious glamour of ancient wars is brushed aside, battlefields are revealed as the terrible places they really are, killing grounds where men suffered insupportable wounds and died in desperate agony. There soldiers experienced intense exhilaration or paralysing fear as they put their mettle to the test before their comrades, drawing out of their churning guts courage, fortitude and powers of leadership or, despite themselves, succumbing abjectly to terror and panic. Perhaps we all wonder in our hearts how we would carry ourselves under fire, whether we would pass the test with honour and manhood intact. And as we tramp the terrain where men once fought, trying to determine where the line of battle stood, and by what route the vanquished fled, we ponder the urgent decisions individuals made in the furious heat of battle, and how these shaped their fate and the destiny of kingdoms.

I realize now how fortunate I was to walk the desolate field of Isandlwana that afternoon, long before the bustling tourism industry insensitively transformed the site into a sanitized and over-commercialized open-air museum, all fenced and gated. Because, loitering all but alone on the battlefield and already prey to its forlorn mystique, I was unexpectedly swept up by fresh emotions. I was taken hold by a visceral intimation (for so it seemed) of the ancient, soaringly immense African landscape that embraced me, combined with a sense of marvel at the courage of those Zulu warriors—those sons of Africa—who had thrown down their lives to preserve their land and kin against would-be conquerors from across the seas.

My attempt to account for such heroism was to lie behind several books I later wrote about the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. Yet I always felt that the explanation was escaping me, that somehow I was failing to locate the crucial thread. Then it finally dawned on me that to draw out that elusive Zulu strand was not in itself sufficient if I wished to unravel the puzzle. I had first to recognize its significance as part of a larger, interwoven pattern of African resistance to colonial conquest.

Certainly, in 1879 the Zulu kingdom under the leadership of King Cetshwayo kaMpande might have been the most powerful African state in southern Africa. But it was only one among several kingdoms clinging to their independence when faced by the accelerating British determination to unify southern Africa in a confederation of states under imperial control. To this end it was essential for the British to neuter the military capabilities of the residual independent black states of southern Africa, disarm them, and break their political power. The British accordingly embarked on a concerted, interrelated and sometimes overlapping series of campaigns which some historians now regard as the First War for South African Unification. Within the concentrated span of three years the British finally crushed the Ngqika and Gcaleka amaXhosa in the Ninth Cape Frontier War of 1877–1878, subjugated the Griqua, Batlhaping, Prieska amaXhosa, Korana and Khoesan in the Northern Border War of 1878, shattered the Zulu kingdom in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, and extinguished Bapedi independence in the First and Second Anglo-Pedi Wars of 1878 and 1879.

In a sense, what happened in southern Africa during those three bruising years of warfare was a classic case of what some historians refer to as the 'closing' of the frontier. A frontier is said to 'open' when the first foreign settlers arrive and begin to interact with the indigenous people. At first—and this could be over a prolonged period—the new arrivals have neither the will nor the means to establish their dominance and there is a rough, unstable balance of power between them and the local people. Flexible alliances are made and broken that do not necessarily follow racial lines. The frontier closes when (as happened in southern Africa) the intruders finally conquer the indigenous peoples and incorporate them into their own political and economic system. This phase could be considerably drawn out, as it was in the intermittent and interminable 'Hundred Years War' on the Cape Eastern Frontier between 1779 and 1878. Or it could be startlingly abrupt, as it was in the case of Zululand in 1879.

What then struck me was that during the closing of the frontier from 1877 to 1879, when several African polities all decided to resist the British by force of arms, they each did so in isolation, allowing the British the luxury of picking them off one by one. Why, I wondered, were these African states fatally incapable of banding together to resist the common enemy? The answer, I believe, is that their rulers, in common with most other kings right across Sub-Saharan Africa, had little or no experience in nailing together broadly based military alliances. Moreover, their festering suspicions of each other, their deeply rooted animosities, jealousies and rivalries, all precluded effective cooperation. Indeed, experience during the 'open frontier' phase in southern Africa had taught some rulers with a prescient eye to the future that while whites could be useful short-term allies against their own current African enemies, in the long term loyally collaborating with them earned their good will and, along with it, material rewards and security.

The realization that African states in southern Africa were not necessarily united in their resistance to colonial conquest is unsettling. Perhaps even more disappointing is the uncomfortable knowledge that some kingdoms were not united in themselves in facing up to the colonial aggressors. African states were by their nature loose agglomerations of subjects brought together through political convenience, self-preservation or conquest. That meant revolts by overmighty regional chiefs, vicious succession disputes within royal houses and destructive civil wars were dishearteningly common. Astute Boer or British policy-makers were very much alive to these many cleavages. They were eager to exploit them to prise antagonistic factions further apart, fragment resistance and secure allies from among the disaffected in a kingdom with which they were at war. Nor was it uncommon for the exiled losers in a civil war to join a colonial invasion in the hope of regaining their lost homes and power.

Starkly put, a significant proportion of the African warriors who fought in the wars of 1877–1879 did so on the side of the British. That the European conquest of Africa would never have been possible without African auxiliaries has become a truism, but it is also an embarrassment for many post-colonial Africans today. Yet the fact is, these African auxiliaries provided essential logistical support for every imperial field force operating in Africa, whether British, French, Portuguese, Italian, German or Belgian. They served as wagon-drivers, herdsmen for draught-animals and captured livestock, boatmen, porters, cooks, sanitary-men and servants. As scouts, guides and interpreters they were vital for intelligence-gathering. Levies bearing arms undertook guard and reconnaissance duties, patrolled, raided, skirmished and sometimes even served in the front line of battle.

It was nothing less than essential for the British to secure African fighting men such as these for their South African campaigns of 1877–1879. The British knew they enjoyed a clear, overwhelming military advantage through the technological superiority of their machine-tooled breech-loading rifles, artillery and machine guns, as well as through their sophisticated military organization. But British regular troops in South Africa were always in perilously short supply, and had no option but to campaign in conjunction with locally raised formations. Many of these were small, exclusively white volunteer colonial units, primarily irregular horse, but the overwhelming majority in terms of numbers were African levies and auxiliaries. It is true that in southern Africa, Africans were less freely incorporated into white armed forces than elsewhere in the continent because the heavily outnumbered white settlers distrusted their loyalty. Nevertheless, sheer military necessity had always overridden these apprehensions. In the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, 7,000 of the 17,000 British and colonial troops serving in Zululand were African, besides a further 8,000 black levies raised to guard the border of Natal. Some African levies built up an extensive service record, none more so than the Mfengu (or Fingo) of the Eastern Cape who for over forty-five years loyally turned out time and again. In return for their loyal service, all expected rewards in the form of plunder, and usually land on which to settle.

Because the British never once marched to war in nineteenth-century southern Africa without African allies, auxiliaries or levies, I had to concede that not one of the wars of 1877–1879 which I was investigating could be described as a simple black-on-white conflict, and that any romantic notion of racially unified African resistance had to be firmly set aside. But determined resistance there nevertheless was in this period, steadfast even in the face of inevitable defeat. The question (which first had occurred to me at Isandlwana so long ago) still remained: how to account for it?

In the 1870s, after intermittent, piecemeal colonial encroachment which had begun in the Western Cape in the mid-seventeenth century, and which tough and often skilful African resistance had frequently delayed or even staved off, African rulers were unprepared for the unrelenting determination with which the British set about slamming the South African frontier closed. In this crisis, all the indigenous armies of the subcontinent, vary as they might in everything from size to customary tactics, faced the same urgent challenge. How were they to adapt their traditional ways of war (honed effectively enough for combat against each other) to the ever-growing European military threat?

Successful resistance seemed to call for the acquisition of firearms to counter the superior colonial weapons system. Yet firearms—even the most modern—were not enough in themselves. It was essential to be properly trained in handling them and to adopt new tactics and styles of military organization to exploit their effectiveness. The amaXhosa, Bapedi, and above all the Basotho, increasingly learned how to make dangerously effective use of firearms against the whites. By contrast, the amaSwazi and amaZulu did not.

Over the years I have continued to wonder why the amaZulu in particular seemed so unwilling—or possibly unable—to adapt to the rapidly changing military landscape, while other African societies were so much more flexible. It does seem that most ordinary Zulu warriors continued to rely on traditional weapons rather than on firearms not simply as a matter of supply, but also of choice. Why were they so hidebound by established military thinking that they could not accept that their old ways were no longer suitable for fighting modern colonial armies? Why did they stick to conventional warfare and the hazardous pitched battle that could decide a kingdom's fate in an afternoon? Why, unlike the amaXhosa, Basotho, Bapedi and the amaSwazi too, would they not adopt a strategy of prolonged guerrilla struggle based on impregnable fastnesses, a strategy so ideally designed to wear down the resources and resolve of the colonial forces? Could the reason have lain (I have pondered) in the pervasive world-view of the Zulu warrior that required him to prove his prowess in honourable hand-to-hand combat ill-suited to modern warfare? Or was it that traditional military systems, such as that of the amaZulu, were so integral to the very structure of African society, religion and sovereignty that to tamper with them would be to risk demolishing its entire framework?

Worrying away at these questions, I came to realize that I was back where I had started that afternoon in the shadow of Isandlwana, when I had first puzzled over the superb Zulu resolve to charge the lethal British firing-line. I saw at last that the vital connecting thread that ran through the broad weave of African resistance to colonial conquest was that of military culture. As Michael Howard put it nearly thirty years ago, wars are self-evidently 'conflicts of societies, and they can be fully understood only if one understands the nature of the society fighting them'. And essential to that understanding is an empathetic grasp of how people made sense of the world in which they lived. Thus, when thinking in terms of military culture, soldiers' choices concerning seemly behaviour, rituals, dress, weaponry and tactics may well depend upon nebulous preferences and prejudices rather than upon concrete advantages.

Admittedly, the concept of military culture can be unhelpfully opaque, but I shall endeavour to give it substance as I spool it out as the interpretative thread that holds this book together. What is certain is that military cultures can be sharply alien to each other—even when they share much the same arms technology—because they have mismatched conceptions of how warfare should ideally be conducted and value different notions of soldierly codes of honour and fair fight. As the armed encounters between Africans and Europeans in southeastern Africa in the years 1877–1879 tragically demonstrated, when each side flouted the other's conventional rules of war it served to infuriate and justify merciless ferocity and unrestrained violence which encompassed not only enemy soldiers, but non-combatants too.

My intention in this book, then, is to examine and attempt to explain the wars whites unleashed against African states in southern Africa between 1877 and 1879 primarily in terms of African military culture. I shall apply this approach to African warriors defending their lands as well as to African levies and auxiliaries in British and Boer service.

Although African military culture differed in detail from society to society, a generally accepted, continent-wide system of military values defined the warrior's place in the social order and legitimized aggressive masculinity and the violence of war. Admittedly, masculinity is a highly contested sub-field of gender studies, but for my purposes I have made my choice in the theoretical minefield. I essentially follow R.W. Connell's concept of 'hegemonic masculinity'. This term refers to the form of masculinity dominant in a society and sustained by its institutions. It defines the culturally constructed model of what it is to be a man, even if it is an unattainable ideal. Crucially, it subordinates or silences alternative visions of masculinity. In the African societies I am concerned with in this book, masculine virtue and honour (as in many other parts of the world) were closely bound up with the prowess of military heroes, and were the binding myths of the state itself, the cultural focus around which the community adhered.


Excerpted from ZULU WARRIORS by JOHN LABAND. Copyright © 2014 John Laband. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

John Laband is professor, Department of History, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, and the author or editor of many books on Africa.

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