Last Outpost on the Zulu Frontier: Fort Napier and the British Imperial Garrison

Last Outpost on the Zulu Frontier: Fort Napier and the British Imperial Garrison

by Graham Dominy


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252040047
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 04/15/2016
Series: History of Military Occupation Series
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Graham Dominy is a Research Fellow of the University of South Africa, former National Archivist of South Africa, and former editor of Natalia: Journal of the Natal Society .

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Last Outpost on the Zulu Frontiers

Fort Napier and the British Imperial Garrison

By Graham Dominy


Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-04004-7


Fort napier

A Garrison among Garrisons

The social history of the imperial garrison in Natal provides an opportunity to examine the reproduction, adaptation, and modification of Victorian British society on southern African soil. Although historians have treated colonizers as a "homogeneous class — in and for itself," this was not a monolithic process. A military garrison, according to Jeff Hearn, provides a model of masculinity that is harmful and threatening and that structures "relations of state violence." Analysis of a military garrison, ostensibly a homogeneous group, can reveal class, racial, and gender divisions that differentiate its impact on a divided society, thus giving the colonized indigenous inhabitants opportunities for self-assertion, adaptation, and confrontation. Internal divisions in colonial power structures provide the colonized with opportunities to "insert their own definitions of themselves into the colonial situation." It is therefore, the divisions in colonial society and the influence of the garrison in shaping those division that are, in large measure, the subject of this investigation.

The term "garrison" will be used to refer to the elements of the regular British army — infantry, cavalry, artillery, engineers, and support troops, the Ordnance and Commissariat sections providing administrative, logistical, transport, provisioning, and medical services — stationed in Natal between 1842 and 1914. Their headquarters was at Fort Napier in the colonial capital Pietermaritzburg, or Maritzburg, as it is often abbreviated. The garrison occupied the fort for seventy-one years, more than a biblical lifetime, and it outlasted the Colony of Natal by four years.

Over these seventy-one years of its existence, the garrison took part in active wartime campaigning on four occasions, totaling less than four years. The occupation began with the conflict between Capt. Thomas Smith and the Trekkers under Andries Pretorius (May to June 1842). The Anglo-Zulu War lasted seven months in 1879, and the First Anglo-Boer War (or Anglo-Transvaal War) was a brief campaign of about three months between December 1880 and February 1881. Detachments from Fort Napier also served in the campaigns against the Mashona and Ndebele in 1896 in what is now Zimbabwe. The main (or second) Anglo-Boer War was the most protracted, beginning in October 1899 and ending in May 1902. The imperial forces were not involved in the Bambatha Rebellion in 1906. The main focus of this study is what happened to the garrison for the sixty-seven years when it was not at war.

It is a truism that the role of military force, in securing control over a country and its inhabitants, is normally considered in the context of battles, campaigns, and overt oppression. It is a somewhat inaccurate cliché that, in Africa, colonial conquest and occupation was completed thanks to the Maxim gun, but it makes the point that, in a broader context, imperialism itself was possible because of the technical superiority of European armies over Asian and African societies. However, there are many other subtle and enduring ways in which the presence of a military force can be used to achieve political objectives and mold social, caste, and class transformations.

As the nineteenth-century wars in southeastern Africa have generated their own extensive, even voluminous, literature, this work will not focus on the well-studied battles and campaigns but on the behind-the-lines work that expanded out of Fort Napier. The extended patrolling and deployments, such as those that took place in Zululand in the 1880s, will be considered as part of the role of the garrison because they had a profound effect on events at Fort Napier and in Pietermaritzburg itself. These will illuminate the subtle and sometimes hidden social pressures resulting from the long-term presence of the garrison.

The imperial garrison arrived in Natal when the southern African frontier was "open," the situation was fluid, and the garrison was a major agent in the processes of conflict, development, and conquest. By the time the garrison left, the frontier was well and truly colonized, so the garrison's impact on an industrializing South Africa, fraught with racial and class conflicts, differed from its influence in the early Victorian era. The functions of the garrison may have remained defense and policing, but these functions were no longer undertaken in a frontier zone but in a well-embedded conquest state.

In considering the nonwarlike impact of the imperial garrison on an emerging colony, several issues need to be examined. The first is the nature of the society from which the troops came, and how the garrison was structured and organized. This necessitates examining the Victorian army as a social organization, with its hierarchical divisions between officers and other ranks, and how this influenced Natal society. The influence was largely ideological, as the class-based Victorian society replicated itself on southern African soil through cultural productions and rituals, political pageantry, sport, hunting, and the contracting of marriage alliances.

Furthermore, the garrison had a long-term stabilizing effect on the colonial economy. It providing technical support and labor and a market for farmers and traders. This also had an impact across color lines. The emerging state structures were bolstered by the garrison through the reliance on military officers for administrative and technical services. As the colony developed, the garrison provided more psychological than material support. The material and the psychological factors weighed heavily upon settler minds and led to conflict between colonial and imperial authorities over threats to withdraw the garrison.

A "respectable" colonial society was the intended outcome of these activities, but paradoxically, the garrison, with its problems of boredom, indiscipline, lust, and drunkenness, added to social tensions through involvement in crime, random violence, and the encouragement of prostitution. These "rough" activities undermined and even subverted the official racial, class, and gender barriers.

And there were always women with the army, in legally recognized and in less formal relationships across all racial, class, and gender barriers. Some feminist writers argue, with validity, that the military's preoccupation with concepts of masculinity makes it impossible to consider the role of women in isolation from men. This argument will be explored in chapter 10. In the case of the Natal garrison, women marched up from the Cape in 1842 with Captain Smith and were still at Fort Napier when the South Staffordshire Regiment left in 1914. The army defined their roles, but sometimes women challenged these roles, and sometimes men would challenge the military hierarchy because of women — or, to put matters more sentimentally, for love. Gender issues, in the sense of male-female relationships and in the development and maintenance of male bonding or comradeship, were not only intrinsic to the social functioning of the garrison; these values were transmitted to and reinforced in the wider colonial society over a sustained period. Nevertheless, the themes are interlinked: class and gender, hierarchy and discipline, race and labor, pageantry and government all intersect at many points and in various ways. There is also the major issue of the economic impact of garrisons and their costs. So that these themes can be properly contextualized and the particular and distinctive role of Fort Napier as a garrison center understood, the Natal garrison will be first considered in relation to other garrisons.

Garrisons across the Globe

Hannah Weiss Muller has described British imperial garrisons as dotting the landscape, where they were "intended to stake claims or to protect fledgling encampments of pioneers," similar to outposts of the Roman Empire or Portuguese coastal forts in India. She describes their purpose as practical and symbolic: they were intended to "protect the soldiers and settlers of empire from peril" and were conceived of as "bulwarks of state strength," separating those "who did not belong from those who did."

Fortresses such as Gibraltar and Halifax were indeed "bulwarks of state strength," but they were also naval bases, and as the security of the empire depended primarily on the Royal Navy, they were critical posts for imperial defense. Fort Napier, which was an inland garrison, depended on bluff to project the image of a bulwark of strength in an unsettled but strategically important region. The Australian garrisons guarded convict settlements and acted as frontier police, but they did not have a strategic military purpose. While the Fort Napier troops did not guard any convicts, they did act as a frontier police force and had a strategic military purpose.

In New Zealand the situation was more complex, as New Zealand began as an unruly oceanic settlement with a large indigenous Maori population. The garrison initially attempted to police both settler and Maori communities and provide security against a perceived threat of French expansion into the southwestern Pacific; it ended up fighting the Maori. In the case of Fort Napier, there was an equally unruly but more diverse settler population to be policed, and a large indigenous population of considerable military potential to be deterred. Furthermore, the Natal garrison could project imperial influence into areas occupied by the Boers and other transfrontier societies at the time of the scramble for mineral resources.

Scrambles for mineral resources and land grabs are two points of the same pick, and the westward expansion of the United States is perhaps the prime example of this. During and after the American Civil War, the U.S. Army wielded enormous authority in the defeated southern states and in western territories. For many, freed slaves and western Indians included, the army was their first experience of government authority. Early colonial Natal was a far smaller political theater than the United States, but the same dynamic operated: expanding civil authority relied on military personnel and processes to begin operating.

There are also other parallels between military garrisons in the American West and British garrisons in Australia and South Africa. Adam Davis quotes Zachary Taylor, later the president of the United States, as stating that "the ax, pick, saw and trowel, has become more the implement of the American soldier than the cannon, musket or sword." Davis uses Taylor's remarks to highlight the critical role of the army in constructing infrastructure as the frontier moved westward. Robert M. Utley describes a complaint to Congress by disenchanted troops, disgruntled at having to perform "fatigues" including logging trees, brickwork, repairing wagons, and hay-making. Perhaps the men of the 45th Regiment at Fort Napier would have agreed!

A detailed history of the garrisons in Canada, Gibraltar, Australia, and New Zealand is beyond the scope of this work. The purpose here is to explore the differences and similarities between them and Fort Napier as examples of that strange and often emotive entity known as a "garrison" and why the differences and similarities make Fort Napier unique.

Gibraltar, the "impregnable" Fortress

Gibraltar is the first example to be considered for two main reasons: It is not only the earliest example of a colonial garrison; it is the longest lasting, as it is still British territory with a garrison and a strategic purpose. It also has a place in the popular imagination, as Hannah Weiss Muller points out: "Gibraltar was arguably the most famous of the British garrisons, so much so that the word itself has come to connote an invincible, impregnable stronghold." She continues: "In folklore and literature, men who died protecting their garrisons from attack became heroes, and fortresses appealed to romantic notions of national strength and of dying for one's country. Gibraltar, then, was merely one of many British garrisons that figured centrally in imperial history and captured the popular imagination."

Described in a Victorian tome on heroic deeds of empire as undoubtedly the "greatest" fortress in the world, Gibraltar was captured by the British in 1704, legally transferred by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, and defended ever since against all comers. Known as "the Rock," its strategic value to a maritime empire was immense, as it controlled the western entrance to the Mediterranean Sea. Fort Napier, in contrast, was an inland garrison and only had an indirect strategic value in relation to the Indian Ocean.

Gibraltar (with a surface area of less than two and a half square miles) also faced a hostile Spain across a narrow isthmus and needed to remain alert in case of a surprise attack or a general conflict. The governor was an active military figure with defense issues as his priority, and civil issues were subordinated thereto. Gibraltar developed the quintessential "siege" or "garrison" mentality, complete with "wariness" for those deemed suspicious or "other."

The regiments in the Gibraltar garrison rotated on tours of duty across the empire, accompanied by their wives and families. One effect of this was that the families of the soldiers in the garrison had limited interaction with the civilian population of Gibraltar. The Gibraltar garrison ruled the social, cultural, and sporting life of the Rock even more intensely than the Fort Napier garrison dominated Natal colonial life.

The legal position underpinned some of the differences. Gibraltar was an imperial "fortress," and the title commander-in-chief that went with that of governor had meaning and substance. Gibraltar was ruled by military edict until late in the nineteenth century. Natal was a colony, and although the lieutenant governors and governors were styled "commanders-in-chief," it was in form rather than in substance. Conversely, when the Fort Napier garrison commanders acted as lieutenant governors and governors from time to time, they acted quite consciously in a civil capacity in terms of civil law.

Garrisoning the Open spaces of North America, 1749–1906

The contrasts between the geographical sizes of Gibraltar and of Canada could not be greater. Gibraltar was seized from Spain, but France was Britain's initial enemy in North America. Halifax was founded in 1749 and provided a secure base for the British forces that besieged and forced the reduction of the French fortress of Louisbourg a decade later. Halifax's strategic importance dervied from its role as a crucial naval base in conflicts against the French and the Americans. In the strategic sense, Halifax rivaled Gibraltar, although it was never atttacked. The Halifax garrison contributed significantly to the economy of the city and of Nova Scotia, but it also contributed to the social problems in the city.

The garrison served to protect the harbor, the settlers of Nova Scotia, and, critically, access to the St. Lawrence River. It was therefore of great strategic significance. The citadel, Fort George, was completed in 1856, and the British handed it over to Canadian forces in 1906. During World War I, it housed German internees, as did Fort Napier. In World War II it was a major command and communications center for the Royal Canadian Navy during the Battle of the Atlantic. Socially and culturally, the Halifax garrison imposed its influence on the city, as did the Fort Napier garrison in Pietermaritzburg. As with Gibraltar, the military influence in Halifax was partially diluted by the maritime influences emanating from the presence of the Royal Navy and a large-scale fishing and merchantile fleet.


Excerpted from Last Outpost on the Zulu Frontiers by Graham Dominy. Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Preface xi

Acknowledgments xxi

Technical Notes xxv

1 Fort Napier: A Garrison among Garrisons 1

2 From Whence They Came: An Overview of Queen Victoria's Army 10

3 Establishing an Imperial Presence: Bayside Battles, Diplomacy, Women's Revolts, and the Reluctant March on Maritzburg 23

4 Building a Fort: Plans, Impermanence, and Imperial Policies 34

5 Pageantry, Pioneers, Panics and Punitive Expeditions: The Pivotal Role of the Garrison in Creating a Colonial State, 1840s-1860s 44

6 Ceremonies and Crises: The Garrison in the Established Colony, 1860s-1890s 58

7 Soldiers in Garrison: Discipline, Indiscipline, and Mutiny 79

8 The Inniskilling Fusiliers: Bandits, Brawlers, or Mutineers? 93

9 The Garrison and the Wider Society: Placing the "Rough and the Respectable" in the Colonial Context 108

10 "For the Colonel's Lady and Judy O'Grady Are Sisters under Their Skins": Class and Gender Relationships in the Garrison 128

11 Spending the Queen's Shilling: The Economic Influence of the Natal Garrison 143

12 The Garrison and the State: Changing Relationships of Power 160

13 Recessional: The Last of the Garrison, the Fate of the Fort, and Its Place in Folk Memories 178

Appendix: List of Regiments in Garrison in Natal/Pietermaritzburg, 1842-1914 191

Note on Sources 195

Notes 199

Bibliography 235

Index 267

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