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The Zulu War grabs attention in a way that no other of Queen Victoria's "Little Wars" does. It is a story rich in the extremes of human experience: gallantry, cowardice, savagery, hubris, and sheer, stark terror amongst others. The way the campaign unfolded was a consequence of the actions of Britain's commander in the field, Lord Chelmsford, who thought that the outcome would be a foregone conclusion, but then found himself faced with one of the most shocking disasters in British military history. This book looks at events through Chelmsford's eyes, examining contemporary correspondence to tell the tale. Forced to cope with the catastrophe of Isandlwana, only slightly offset by the heroic defense of Rorke's Drift, he then had to win the war as quickly as possible, before the man who had been chosen to replace him arrived in South Africa. Full of drama, this is the story of Lord Chelmsford's war, one of the most turbulent campaigns ever fought in Africa.
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Queen Victoria's Most Famous Little War
By W.B. Bartlett
The History PressCopyright © 2010 W.B. Bartlett
All rights reserved.
A CLASH OF EMPIRES
The Rise of the Zulus
For millennia, Africa – with the exception of the regions in the north – was an almost completely unknown entity to Europeans. Then in the fifteenth century a great age of exploration began most famously when Columbus journeyed west in search of a route to the riches of the Orient. It was a brave move, a leap into the dark, but there were others equally bold who looked for a route the other way round, travelling to the east. They too had little idea where they were going or what they would find when they got there. The only route possible, they soon found, was to travel far to the south for thousands of miles before then heading east into an ocean that was entirely new to them.
One of these valiant explorers was a Portuguese mariner by the name of Vasco da Gama. He made his way down the coast of Africa and then, in simplistic landlubber terms, turned left. He turned the corner and started to make his way north, up the eastern coast of the continent. It was on Christmas Day 1497 that he spied a previously unknown land. It did not offer an easy harbour anywhere so he was unable to land. However, in honour of the festival of the nativity he called it Natalia. Thus was Natal introduced to Europe.
At the same time, unknown to Vasco da Gama or anyone else in Europe, a group of black tribes were journeying south down the eastern side of Africa. They were Bantu people, hunter-gatherers, and in their own way they themselves were empire-builders as much as the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch or British were. Their tactics were somewhat different from the Europeans, progressing by land rather than sea. So too was the stage of technological development that they had reached. But they also wanted land, though more for survival than mere exploitation.
The Bantu people eventually stopped in the south-eastern corner of Africa, almost as far as they could go. The Europeans, in the meantime, had shown little interest in the country there. It was harsh terrain with little attraction for mercenary-minded adventurers other than as a staging-post on the long voyage east to much richer climes. It was not until well into the seventeenth century that a European settlement was established anywhere in the region and then it was at Cape Town, in the far south-west corner of Africa. Its sole use was as a place for ships to stop on the journeys to and from India and the Far East. It was a remote settlement, of interest only to extreme adventurers or ne'er-do-wells; every bit a place on the frontiers of civilisation and, indeed, at the very edge of the world.
The hinterland beyond this tiny corner these Europeans largely left untouched. It was a place where savage tribes lived: dangerous, barbaric and uncivilised, as they saw it. Therefore the two groups, a tiny number of whites on the coast and a mass of black tribes everywhere else, largely lived in ignorance of each other. Just occasionally a ship would be wrecked on the treacherous coastline of Natal and a small group of survivors would be swallowed up by the tribes living in the area. Apart from this, there was no contact at all.
The Europeans were therefore initially largely unaware of the rise of a major new power in the region which took place at the end of the eighteenth century. The Zulus were a minor clan of no major importance until the emergence of an extraordinary leader by the name of Shaka. Like many other great warriors – Alexander or Genghis Khan, for example – his upbringing had been difficult. His mother Nandi was a proud and spirited woman, the daughter of a chief, and his father Senzangakhona was a prominent if feckless Zulu who was destined to be chief of the tribe. Unfortunately, his father and mother were not married to each other and his conception was an accident.
It was a great humiliation in Bantu society to be born out of wedlock and Nandi and her son were subject to scorn and abuse during Shaka's formative years. Senzangakhona grudgingly married Nandi but threw her out a few years later. Shaka and his mother therefore suffered the bitter taste of rejection and his subsequent adolescence was extremely unpleasant. The boys whom he grew up with teased him mercilessly, in particular remarking on his underdeveloped genitalia. As such, he reached maturity with a burning desire to succeed and a passionate hatred of those who had made his early years such a misery. They were to suffer for it.
Nandi and Shaka later found sanctuary with another tribe, the Mthethwa, after being effectively thrown out by their own people. The Mthethwa were at least a rising power and their chief, Dingiswayo, was an astute leader. However, no special status was afforded Shaka or his mother despite their prominent background and the young man's sense of resentment continued to grow.
Dingiswayo in many ways looked after them well and Shaka grew in stature, both in a physical and a metaphorical sense. He became an outstanding military tactician and introduced a number of innovations including the development of a regimental system which would later form the basis of the Zulu military organisation. When he eventually had enough men under his command, the regiments – known as amabutho – were formed of men of similar ages who therefore bonded strongly together. His tactics were also a revelation in Bantu warfare, previously a formalised affair with normally limited casualties. Shaka introduced a different concept into warcraft, that of attempting to obliterate your enemy.
Shaka became a prominent warrior in one of the Mthethwa regiments, the iziCwe. He developed a reputation for both his strength and ingenuity, and, although the stories told of him may have lost nothing in the telling, there seems to have been more than a grain of truth in them. Eventually, a reconciliation of sorts with Senzangakhona, his natural father, was achieved and Shaka was recognised as the heir to the Zulu chiefdom. When his father died, Shaka's half-brother, Sigujana, attempted to grab the throne for himself. He died a painful death as a result (though Shaka himself avoided killing him in person as this would result in a severe stigma in Bantu society). Shaka had introduced himself to the wider world.
When Shaka took over as leader of the Zulus, his inheritance was a mediocre one. There were just a few thousand members of his tribe and they had no great heritage to look back on. His first task was to take over the military organisation of his warriors, allocating them into regiments. Crucially, he also decided that the assegai should no longer be a throwing weapon, but used for stabbing at close range instead. He also ordered his soldiers to remove their sandals to help them move more quickly – not an easy option in the broken terrain that characterised Zululand. To help them to adapt to this change, he ordered his warriors to dance barefoot on a carpet of thorns. Drums beat out a rhythmic pulse; any man who was not dancing in time to the music was executed.
Shaka also changed the tribe's battle tactics, building on what he had already learned when fighting for Dingiswayo. His warriors were given specific roles in the battle formation, which was organised in four sections: the chest, the loins and two horns. The chest led the attack, launching itself in a headlong assault, whilst the horns deployed either side in an encircling movement. They would then surround the enemy whilst the loins hung back in reserve (the men here were supposed to look away from the fighting in case they became overexcited and rushed to join in). When an attack was launched there would be no mercy shown. It was a very different approach to what had previously been seen in local warfare and it was often devastating.
Shaka and his men started to conquer all before them. In a further move to maintain discipline, Shaka decreed that his warriors would no longer be able to marry without his permission. They would in effect be married to his army and would only be allowed to take a wife when he gave permission for a whole regiment to do so. This was a privilege he did not grant lightly.
Women were similarly organised in amabutho though not for the purposes of fighting, but rather to organise them for mass marriages when the king did give a group of his warriors' permission to marry. They had a crucial role in Zulu society, as they were required to tend the crops (looking after the herds and hunting being a man's job). When they were married, the family of these women would each receive a dowry (ilobolo), inevitably in the form of cattle.
But these changes were not possible without the strong arm of the king. Shaka was cruel and ruthless, as a result of which he made many enemies. Amongst them was his half-brother, Dingane. Blood-relationships were no bar to a violent death; in fact, if a man felt threatened because of them then a gruesome end was more likely. Living in fear as a result of Shaka's violent temper, and feeling that it was only a matter of time before they too died a horrible death, some of those threatened decided to take matters into their own hands.
On 23 September 1828 Shaka was holding court, dressed for a delegation of emissaries that, annoyingly, was late. When they arrived, the angered chief laid into them, berating them for their poor punctuality. Then, out of nowhere, the mood changed. The hour was late and it was dark. The army was away and there were therefore few guards around the king. From the shadows assassins emerged, armed with assegais, the short, stabbing-spear that Shaka had introduced. They thrust at him repeatedly and Shaka fell, dying, to the ground. As his life ebbed away, he could see Dingane standing over him. Realising that there were just seconds remaining before the spark of life was extinguished, Shaka made a poignant peroration: 'The whole land will be white with the stars, and it will be overrun with swallows.'
Perhaps there were those who thought even at the time that this ominous, if cryptic, prediction referred to a development that had occurred in the last years of Shaka's reign. In 1824, a small group of white men, British adventurers, had put ashore at a place that became known as Port Natal with the intention to stay there, unlike previous visitors to the region. Nevertheless, they were respectfulness personified in their actions and approached Shaka reverentially to ask for his permission to do so. They were granted it and the first hesitant steps in the colonisation of Natal began; the swallows had taken nest in Shaka's kingdom.
Shaka generally treated the tiny group of white men well. Dingane, however, proved less accommodating. He did not trust them but he did not seem to trust many of his own people either. The opening days of the new reign were characterised by a bloodbath as a number of prominent potential opponents were ruthlessly removed – his own brothers included. Only one individual of note survived, another son of Senzangakhona called Mpande, a simple-minded man who seemed to provide no threat and was allowed to live. It was a significant blunder on Dingane's part.
But then a major threat started to emerge from further afield. The whites, Dingane came to realise, were not one homogeneous grouping. The Boers, Dutch settlers in southern Africa, were a different breed than the British and, when the latter abandoned slavery and attempted to impose other changes on the Boer way of life, the former started to look for somewhere else to live.
The hinterland of the continent was still barely known by the Europeans and large numbers of Boer settlers set out in their wagons, leaving the Cape colony and British rule to try and find somewhere else to live. In what became known as the Great Trek, hundreds of families set out looking for a Promised Land. There was no initial unanimity about their ultimate destination, but a number of them had heard that Natal was a fecund and promising land, and it was towards here that some of the great wagon trains began to head.
Leading them was a man of rare talent, a Boer by the name of Piet Retief. Arriving in Natal, these trekkers first of all approached Port Natal, now renamed after its first governor Benjamin D'Urban. The people of Durban were still in an isolated outpost and further settlement in Natal had not taken root; representatives of the British government had shown no interest whatsoever in formally establishing a colony there. The Boers were a welcome addition to the settlers and were therefore greeted warmly.
However, they stayed there at Dingane's sufferance and it was from him that Retief and his followers really needed to obtain permission to remain. The Zulu king was terrified at the prospect, perceiving the Boers, who were good horsemen and excellent marksmen, as a great threat. They had not long before won a stunning victory against the Matabele tribes further west at a place called Vegkop. Hugely outnumbered, they had nevertheless massacred their enemy thanks to their firepower. Dingane would have heard of this one-sided triumph and was very nervous as a result.
Dingane wanted access to a supply of guns for his own people but the Boers, unsurprisingly, were unwilling to co-operate. They continued to negotiate with the king for lands to settle but they sustained their advance too despite the lack of any formal approval from Dingane. In an attempt to impress the chief, Retief decided to journey to his capital with a large delegation. It was a blatant attempt to intimidate but it was also a fatal miscalculation.
At the beginning of February 1838, the Boer delegation arrived at the king's dwelling. There were seventy-one of them. They were arrogant towards the Zulus, which only served to further anger the king and make him more unpredictable. On the morning of 6 February, the delegation made ready to leave. Entering the central enclosure of Dingane's capital they were first of all deprived of their firearms – a normal precautionary measure. Their suspicions not aroused, they sat themselves down before Dingane.
A dance started with hundreds of warriors moving around the delegation. They moved forward in an aggressive fashion but it was all part of the act, or so it was thought. But then Dingane suddenly rose to his feet and shouted a terrifying injunction: 'kill the wizards!' There was a fierce struggle but it was a one-sided fight. The unarmed Boers were overwhelmed, then one by one they were executed. In a cruel refinement, Retief was one of the last to die, having been forced to witness the slaughter of his own son.
This was only the beginning of the killing. Hundreds of Boer wagons were spread out across the veldt in isolated pockets. Dingane now sent his armies out to obliterate them. They were far away and received no word of the fate that had befallen Retief. They were therefore unprepared when, on the night of 17 February, the impis fell on them. The killing lasted for days. As the settlers became aware that they were under attack, some managed to organise themselves and fight off the enemy. However, when the spears of the Zulus had finally been washed, over 500 of the trekkers were dead, including a disproportionate number of women and children.
These events seared themselves into the souls of the Boers. A village that grew up on the site of one of the massacres later was simply called Weenen – 'weeping'. However, the Boers were not the only ones to suffer. The British settlers at Durban unwisely allied themselves with the Boers and their small expeditionary force was annihilated. Then the Zulus marched on Durban and sacked it for a week. Fortunately there was a ship in harbour at the time that managed to evacuate some of the citizens, for to stay ashore was a death sentence.
Dingane's crushing of the threat invited terrible retribution that would not be long in coming. The British were first to react: in December 1838 a party of Highland infantry landed at Durban to enforce the peace. The British then sought to stop the Boers from attacking the Zulus, not wanting further disturbance in what had now formally become a colony. They were too late.
On 15 December 1838, the Boer commando that had set out from the hinterland with the aim of avenging Piet Retief set up camp by the River Ncome. Under their leader Andries Pretorius, they had formed their sixty-four wagons into a fortified camp, a laager. It was a formidable position: the river was very deep on one side, precluding any approach from that direction. There was a deep ditch in front of the camp, ruling out an assault from there too, meaning that any attack would be funnelled into a very narrow channel.
At dawn on 16 December, a Zulu attack was launched in overwhelming force. However, their vastly superior numbers counted for nothing. The concentrated gunfire of the Boers, supported by several cannon, brought the warriors down in their droves. Then, with the impi on the point of exhaustion, Pretorius unleashed his cavalry. The victory turned into a massacre. The Boer triumph at what became known as Blood River assumed iconic status, which it retained into the modern era.
Excerpted from Zulu by W.B. Bartlett. Copyright © 2010 W.B. Bartlett. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
one A Clash of Empires,
two The Scene is Set,
three A Moral Victory?,
four The Day of the Dead Moon 75,
five Nowhere to Go 107,
six Under Siege 129,
seven Back to the Drawing Board 150,
eight The Turn of the Tide 166,
nine Chelmsford to the Rescue 191,
ten The Setting Sun of the Bonapartes 213,
eleven Race for Victory,