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Zulu rising — book review

15 January 2013

Zulu Rising: The Epic Story of iSandlwana and Rorke's DriftZulu Rising: The Epic Story of iSandlwana and Rorke’s Drift by Ian Knight

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a 700-page history book that reads like, and is as gripping as a novel. It covers the first battle of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, the battle of Isandlwana, when the British invaded Zululand, and retreated with a bloodied nose.

The term “history book” needs to be qualified, of course. Many historians believe that detailed descriptions of battles are not real history. For real historians, they might say, the actual battle is not important, only the causes and the results.

This book is not even about the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 as such. It is just about the opening battles, or to be strictly accurate, the opening battle, the Battle of Isandlwana. The Battle of Rorke’s Drift was a mere side-show, boosted by the British war propaganda machine to divert attention from their defeat at Isandlwana.

Having said that, however, Ian Knight describes the causes of the war at some length, and it is interesting to compare it with other books on the same topic. There was a flurry of books on the Anglo-Zulu War around the time of its centenary in 1879.

I became interested in the topic when I learned that my great grandfather had fought in the war. My grandmother had died three years before we became seriously interested in family history, but I talked to her cousin, whose mother’s birthday book had an entry for Captain Richard Wyatt Vause VC. The VC bit sounded rather unlikely to me, but I asked other members of the family, and one cousin had my great grandfather’s diary of the Anglo-Zulu War. He wasn’t a VC, and he wasn’t a captain, but he was a Lieutenant in the Natal Native Horse, and he was one of the few on the British side who escaped alive after the Battle of Isandlwana. I’m glad he did, because if he hadn’t I wouldn’t be here.

A second reason for my interest was that I was living in Zululand at the time of the centenary of the war, and we visited the battlefield both on the centenary itself, and for the centenary celebrations four months later. On the actual centenary there were some overweight people marching up and down wearing British redcoat uniforms, no doubt left over costumes from the filming of Zulu Dawn. At the celebrations there were some descendants of members of the Zulu army running up and down, also overweight, and quite exhausted by their exertions. I suspect their great grandfathers would have been quite amused.

When I first became interested in the Anglo-Zulu War the most up-to-date account was The washing of the spears by Donald R. Morris, so I read it. Now, forty years later, Ian Knight has produced a new account, and it is quite interesting to compare them. Both are very readable accounts, and well written.

In the intervening period there has been a lot of effort to collect more primary source material and make it more accessible to researchers, so Knight had access to a lot more source material than Morris did, and he quotes from it quite extensively. So Knight’s book has some first-hand accounts from both sides (including excerpts from my great grandfather’s diary). This makes the story come alive more, so that on reading it, one almost feels that one has been there.

This also means that Knight can fill in some gaps, and answer some of the questions that could not be answered in Morris’s account. Morris, for example, mentions a 12-year-old drummer boy, who was strung up by the heels and had his throat cut. Knight mentions that there were rumours of such things in the press, and stories to that effect later told by soldiers to frighten new recruits, but there was no evidence that any such thing happened, or that there was anyone younger than 17 in the British army, and the drummers were mostly middle-aged men. There may have been a few that young on the Zulu side, but they were not actually soldiers, but rather camp followers, perhaps come to help carry equipment for an older brother, and to catch a glimpse of the excitement.

There are some curious differences in the accounts of the lead-up to the war.

Morris and Knight emphasise different points, and each includes some things that the other omits. Morris’s account, with fewer sources available, is sometimes contradictory. He appears to accept the British propaganda line that Zululand, with its large army was a threat to Natal, and that the British therefore had no choice but to invade Zululand to deal with this perceived threat, but at the same time he acknowledges that King Cetshwayo of Zululand had no hostile intentions towards Natal, and simply wanted to live in peace.

Both books deal with the confederation policy of Lord Carnarvon, the British Colonial Secretary, which was the real cause of the war. Carnarvon wanted to unite the various colonies, republics and independent kingdoms of southern Africa under British rule. Both books mention that the invasion of Zululand was preceded by the British annexation of the Transvaal by the erstwhile Natal secretary for Native Affairs, Theophilus Shepstone. Knight, however, comes up with the explanation, which was new to me (or else I simply hadn’t appreciated it before) that Shepstone introduced the whole confederation scheme in conversations with Carnarvon, and convinced him that it could work in South Africa as it had in Canada in 1867.

Knight, however, omits all mention of James Anthony Froude, Carnarvon’s spin doctor for confederation, who was sent to convince everyone of its benefits. He does mention that the Cape Colony was brought around to the idea by the simple expedient of sacking its prime minister, but omits a description of the way in which the same object was achieved in Natal, where Sir Garnet Wolseley was sent to “drown the liberties” of the colonists in sherry and champagne.

In military matters, though I am no expert in such things, I think Knight gives a more accurate picture. Morris speaks of Zululand as having a large “standing army”, which is not quite true. The Zulu military system at that time more closely resembled that of the Swiss, with all males of military age subject to call-up, and being called upon to attend the king at various times. They generally provided their own weapons (only the shields were government issue). It was the British empire that had a standing army, like the two battalions of the 24th regiment, who were full-time professional soldiers, armed, fed and paid by the government. That was why the British lost the battle of Isandlwana but won the war, because a standing army has a better chance in a drawn-out campaign.

Morris also, for some strange reason, plays down the fact that both sides used firearms. The blurb in the front of Morris’s book emphasises this even more:

In 1879, armed only with their spears, their rawhide shields, and their incredible courage, the Zulus challenged the might of Victorian England and, initially, inflicted on the British the worst defeat a modern army has ever suffered at the hands of men without guns.

It is true that the British infantry were better trained in the use of firearms, and had state-of-the-art Martini-Henry rifles, which had a longer range and were more accurate than most of the guns in the Zulu army, but until the fighting got to very close quarters, most of it was by exchanges of gunfire. In hand-to-hand fighting, the British used bayonets fixed to the end of their rifles, while the Zulus used short stabbing spears. The bayonets had a longer reach, but once someone got inside that reach, it was over. In this respect Knight gives a more accurate picture of what happend, and includes a contemporary sketch of the Zulu army deploying into battle order, armed with rifles as well as more traditional weapons.

Knight also makes it pretty clear that war was not the romantic and glorious affair that was pictured in contemporary Victorian paintings. It was brutal, vicious and messy. Both sides killed prisoners and unarmed civilians. Some, like George Hamilton-Browne, would probably today be described as war criminals. Browne and his troops seem to have behaved like Arkan’s Tigers in more recent times, though Hamilton-Brown treated his own troops pretty badly too.

Another thing that comes out in Knight’s account is the parallels between the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and the Iraqi-American War of 2003. There was the same spin-doctoring in search of a casus belli, the same scare tactics and bogus threats (weapons of mass destruction/the Zulu plan to invade Natal). The main difference is that the Zulus fought better than the Iraqis in defending their country against the aggressors.

There are a few rather odd defects in the book.

In view of the subject matter the title seems rather strange. Zulu rising suggests that it is about the growth of the Zulu kingdom, but in fact the battle of Isandlwana marks the end of that growth. It is more the story of decline and fall than rising. The name of the film, Zulu Dawn, is also a misnomer. “Zulu high noon” might have been a better title. The battle began about midday.

A slightly annoying feature is the conversion of roughly estimated distances in yards into precise measurements in metres, to two decimal places.  Another slightly annoying feature is the continued reference to the Zulu language as isiZulu. He writes of a “a Zulu”, rather than “umZulu” and “Zulus” rather than “amaZulu“, so why isiZulu? If a book is written in Zulu, then I would expect it to refer to the English language as isiNgisi, and not to use “English” – so why should an English book not refer to the Zulu language as “Zulu”? When we refer to the Russian language, we write “Russian”, not Russki yezik. We write “German”, not Deutch, so why this isiZulu? These things seem self-consciously pretentious, and seem to be saying to the reader, “Look, I can calculate yards as metres to two decimal places” or “Look, I know the Zulu word for the Zulu language.”

The centenary of the war in 1979 occurred at the height of the “revisionist” movement in South African historiography, and much of the writing at that time was of the Marxist school, in which a “rigid theoretical framework” and concentration on abstract economic forces made for dull reading. Learning that unnamed people who were in a position to “extract surpluses” and actually did so in unnamed places is dead boring to read.

Knight, I am glad to say, does not follow that trend. He tells the story of people and events, and his theoretical framework, if any, is less obtrusive.

And the impression that I get from Knight is that, if he has told the story accurately, Theophilus Shepstone was the villain of the piece, aided by his family, whether they extracted surpluses or not. Shepstone it was who worked himself into a position where he controlled much of the lives of the black people of Natal. It was Shepstone who urged the confederation policy on Lord Carnarvon. It was Shepstone who recommended to Garnet Wolseley that after the war Zululand be broken up into 13 statelets whose rulers fought, as a contemporary described it, like Kilkenny cats. In other words, Shepstone embodied the principle of “divide and rule” in his own person.

And Shepstone’s brother John “continued to dominate the Natal Native Affairs department throughout the 1880s, using his considerable influence to block any attempted resurgence of the Zulu royal house. As late as 1904 he provided evidence to the South African Native Affairs Commission arguing against allowing black Africans a right to vote in colonial elections” (Knight 2011:692) — an injustice that was only rectified 90 years later, in 1994.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 15 January 2013 1:28 pm

    Thank you very much. I have been reading Zulu history since a very young age, also having grown up in Natal. I aim to acquire this book as soon as possible.

  2. Grover Jones permalink
    30 January 2013 6:07 pm

    Faux-authentic pronunciation of foreign proper names, such as toponyms, drives me crazy. It’s like English speakers who are careful to pronounce “Niger” as if they’re speaking French, but then call Egypt “Egypt” instead of Miṣr or Japan “Japan” instead of Nippon.

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