Penny describes how she started The Zulu Kings

Let me just give you the barest bit of personal background.

In the bright 1960s my home was in White River, a country town near the Kruger National Park, South Africa. In those days, I was a teacher at Uplands Primary School, to which destination my VW ‘Beetle’ racketed every day packed with children, including Andrew, the young son of neighbours Hugh and Dorothy Hall.

In the way kids do, one of mine informed Andrew, “Our Mum is writing a book on the Zulu War.”

“Am not.”

“Are too!”


The next day a stranger strolled over. “I’m Hugh Hall’s brother Darryl,” he introduced himself. “I hear you are writing a book on the Zulu War.”

“I’m just gathering information,” I confessed. “Two of my great uncles fought at Isandlwana, but the facts are confusing.”

“Well, have you got this?” he asked, and held out an old book.

My eyes widened. It was the Narrative of the Field Operations Connected with the Zulu War of 1879, published by the War Office in 1881.

“I have two copies,” he added with unexpected generosity. “Keep it.”

That book, the official military history, set me on a road that had no short cuts. Truth be told, it served me well while I set about gathering the facts. But I still needed to visit Isandlwana to get acquainted with the geography and soak myself in the atmosphere – only I had four children and teaching commitments; it just didn’t seem possible. But when I told headmaster Tom Walmsley of my wish to visit the Natal battlefields, he said something as unprecedented as some conjured genie:

“As it happens, I’ve been invited on a history tour of the battlefields. I can’t go, so you can go in my place. Your children can board here until you get back. I’ll tell Mr Chadwick you’ll meet him in Dundee.”

My first view of Isandlwana was on an afternoon in September 1970 when that grand old man of Natal, Mr George Chadwick, Inspector of Education, took me, a young teacher, to view the battlefield. He was an active member of the Historical Monuments Commission who had been busy assessing all the places where the soldiers had fallen at Isandlwana and along the Fugitives’ Trail and supervising the rebuilding of the little cairns over each spot. He had just finished painting them white so they would show up.

Few people went there in those days and grass grew over buttons, buckles, old cartridges, bent screws, old bottles and little horseshoe-shaped metal pieces off boot heels. Since then, the area has become a popular tourist attraction and people looking for mementos have denuded the battlefield, so these days it is carefully guarded and only archaeologists are permitted to dig.

We stood near the drift where James Rorke used to moor his ferryboat on the far side of the river the Zulus call the Mzinyathi and the colonists translated as the Buffalo. In colonial days, it was the boundary between Natal and Zululand. The water was running low and the afternoon sun gave the grass on the hills a pale golden glow. Isandlwana was clearly visible about seven miles away breaking the line between land and sky like a legend’s illustration.

We got into the car and took the road that climbs towards Chief Sihayo’s old stronghold Sokhexe, dodged the western ramparts of the Nqutu range and turned towards Isandlwana. Mr Chadwick pulled up the brakes and switched off the engine. “You’ll get a good view from here,” he said.

There is something immutable and eternal about Isandlwana. It is at once a thing of silence and solitude, mysterious and furtive. A little taller than it is broad, it looms over the stony plain like the walls of a ruined castle and yet it is no higher than the hills behind it. Thus, it is not a mountain but it is more than a hill; it is nature’s own monument to a tragic event. I was silent, looking beyond my companion and down the side of the hill to the great patch of plain interspersed with dongas where so much of the battle had taken place. Uncannily, I saw like after-images on a closed eyelid the Zulu army advancing, dividing and increasing, flames shooting from the defending line of redcoats, gun-smoke rolling outwards and the irresistible course of the Zulu advance. I could almost count the dead that overflow these hills and valleys, feel them coming back to life, hear their shadows breathe; know what their voices said.

“This place feels haunted,” I said, hushed.

Mr Chadwick took a more measured view. “Nothing can cast a longer shadow than this mountain,” he said, and paused to look out over the battlefield he had come to know so well as if he were gathering it all up in his mind. “We don’t know what makes us so receptive to the memories that flourish around Isandlwana or why it makes the sense of desolation seem so great. Something terrible happened here, but I think perhaps the landscape serves to excite the emotions.”

“Two of my great-uncles fought here,” I told him.

“Oh,” he said, immediately alert with interest. “Who were they? I’m checking all the names of those killed in action.”

“Lieutenants Hayden and Lonsdale Young. One died; the other escaped.”

“Hang on! I’ve got a list here about those who fell in action.”

He unzipped the well-worn leather attaché case he was carrying and fished among his notes. “Aha! Here it is!” He took out a sheaf of papers and flipped over a page, scanning through, holding the pages with one hand and impatiently smoothing the fluttering paper with the other.

“He’s not on my list!” he exclaimed. “What regiment were they in?”

“My father said his uncles came from Edinburgh and had seen service with the Natal garrison. Hayden was twenty-five and Lonsdale was twenty-one when the Zulu War began and they both received commissions in the Natal Native Contingent. Hayden was in the 1st Battalion/3rd Regiment and Lonsdale was in the 2nd Battalion/3rd Regiment.”

Mr Chadwick looked pensive. “Hmm . . . Interesting . . . There were several men with the name Lonsdale at Isandlwana. Perhaps your great-uncle was confused with another. Rupert Lonsdale was the commandant of the Ist Battalion/3rd Regiment NNC and a James Lonsdale is noted on my list as killed in action, but no Lonsdale Young. I’ll check up on this.”

He returned the list to his attaché case and straightened up, the breeze lifting strands of wispy hair.

“Hayden had been wounded at the skirmish against Sihayo’s people on 12th January and he was sent to recuperate at Sand Spruit,” I said. “Lonsdale was with the wagon transport.”

“That fits. Some of the men of the 2nd Battalion NNC had been stationed at Rorke’s Drift to handle transport and other duties. . .”

“. . . But by coincidence on the day of the battle they were both with the wagons at Isandlwana. My grandmother had a newspaper cutting about Lonsdale’s death and Hayden’s escape and she gave it to my father.”

“I’d like a copy of that!” he said eagerly.

But I did not have one.

“I have some notes at home that will interest you. I’ll send them on to you,” he said. “I’ll send you copies of the accounts written by some of the survivors too. And I’ll see that your great-uncle’s name is on the list.”

And from that moment, he fanned my fascination with this place.

Even when we climbed the outcrop and came at last to the very edge, the view of the battlefield created an eerie atmosphere. I stood unable to do anything but stare down. There, spread out below us, were the scattered heaps of white stones marking the final resting-places of many brave men. I was acutely aware of the solitude of faraway battlefields and felt overwhelmed with a sadness that was not my own.

We climbed down the crag and he showed me where the wagons had been parked. I tried to imagine what my great-uncles had felt as they watched the fighting coming ever closer to the wagons.

Then we wandered along the slope. “This is where Colonel Durnford and others died fighting to the last. And over there ⎯ that’s where Captain George Shepstone and his men fell. Come on, I’ll show you.”

“Any search to integrate the past is open to many questions, I suppose,” I said reflectively as we walked.

“Yes,” he said. “Whatever it was these men did in life, their actions here launched a thousand ships of controversy and the storm of debate has never lost its fervour. Anyhow, most accounts were the harrowing experiences of young subalterns who had no way of understanding the sweep of the battle and could only relate what they themselves had experienced. King Cetshwayo was able to provide a survey of the Zulu strategy of the war based on his own orders. Zulu veterans have added new dimensions to the battle. Their reminiscences have a spontaneity and detail that cannot be brushed aside, and they have brought into question the official British military account, Narrative of the Field Operations.”

“Oh, really? I didn’t know that! And how did the press handle it?”

He stopped in his tracks. “Ha! The press was caught napping! The outcome of the sideshow in Zululand seemed so certain that only one London daily newspaper sent out a special correspondent, Charles Norris-Newman, who wrote for the Standard. British reverses had occurred from time to time, but not since the Indian Mutiny had such mortifying losses been reported. To suddenly learn that an intrepid Zulu impi had outflanked Lord Chelmsford, proving that the strategies of barefoot savages could be superior to the world’s most modern military force with its much-vaunted firepower, was simply astounding.”

“I suppose everyone was paralyzed with astonishment?”

“For a moment! Then special correspondents who revelled in imperial wars as a means to further the glory of Britain raced to capitalise on the disaster. Authorities of the period also grabbed attention with outlandish descriptions in the reading material of the day. Famous writers ⎯ who should have known better ⎯ described the Zulu as cruel, thievish, murderous savages addicted to grease, entrails and beastly customs. This turgid mass of inventiveness turned the British public into avid readers and transformed the Zulu into a legend that endures to this day.”

He paused to take breath.

“Go on,” I said.

“Admittedly, a few British newspapers and periodicals didn’t habitually play to the gallery. The Graphic, for example, was moderate and accurate in its descriptions. But facts were scarce. In most newspapers fulsome details were often added because Victorian journalists favoured the heroic and they inserted imaginative particulars intended to stir up the emotions, which is what the public preferred.” He broke off his narrative and looked at me, expecting a reaction.

“I can picture it,” I said.

“Yes, imagine it! The Royal Navy sailing off to guard its sea routes, British regiments taking part in wars that added irresistible images of Empire, maps on classroom walls proudly coloured an imperial pink, and the newspapers full of distant campaigns that didn’t put the people at home in the slightest danger.”

When he had finished describing how the camps had been laid out, we walked down the slope, got into the car and drove up the hill. At the top of the rise, he stopped the car and we walked a little until we had a good view of the battlefield.

Mr Chadwick waved a hand gesturing out at the plain. “To understand why the British were here, some historical background is necessary . . .”

I interrupted. “But people say no thanks, history doesn’t relate to our lives today. It’s nothing but dull stuff about preliminaries, conventions and analyses written down by the winners to the disadvantage of the losers.”

“I understand that. They want murders, assassinations, battles, and lots of blood and pursuit ― they want entertainment.”

“Well, why can’t we just dive straight into the action?”

“We can. We could. But we’re looking for the truth. There’s a build-up to it every bit as important as the action. There were underlying causes and there were immediate causes.” He paused, as if examining the contents of his mind and then went on. “The intrigues of the politicians and the military men who set out to destroy the Zulu kingdom were all part of what we would today call ‘imperialism’, a term that hadn’t even been coined during the colonial wars. Victorians referred to it as the ‘Forward Policy’ and writers termed it the ‘Romance of Empire’. We know it as the terrible irony that is the failure of reality to live up to expectation.”

Lit up in the last rays of the sun, Isandlwana’s gaunt cliffs glowed in reflected shades of salmon and light yellow, until its long shadows joined in darkness and only the distant plain retained the light. We fell silent, reflecting on why these instruments of the Queen had been in this backwater with their icons and their emblems and their regimental colours; thinking about the soldiers and warriors lying at the base of the outcrop where the Union Jack had fluttered and where now only the wind sighed with a paper rustling through the tufted grasses.

Thus prepared, typewriter, books, and the accounts of the fugitives that Mr Chadwick had sent me, this would-be writer set out to transform the foggy areas of the Zulu War into the kind of clarity that would set the record straight.

But the dreary truth was that it was just a collection of notes, short of facts, short of background. Glum and disheartened, I buried it in a cupboard.

That was a long time ago. But the past claws its way out. Twenty-eight years later, I started again, climbing mountains of sources in a story that by its very nature opened into an ever-widening terrain.

I cannot deny that you may have a point in asking, however rhetorically, whether another brick should be added to the already extensive wall of books on the Anglo-Zulu War. And I would have to reply that most of the older books were written in a century that painted the world red and from a point of view that made me uneasy. And I would have to say that uncritical repetition has led to the acceptance of a number of errors and downright lies. And I would have to add that I have never got on with the idea that Cetshwayo was a bloodthirsty savage.

Has theatrical casting been at work here? It begins to look that way.

Unique among military pieces, Isandlwana evokes a column on the move almost like a troupe of street performers with its players along for the show. A strong element of its power is the breadth of its human ensemble, its emblematic tableau. Here are the Zulu multitudes eager to defend their country to the last man. Here is the impulsive hero, keen to rescue the regimental flag. Here is the no-nonsense commandant, peppery and laconic, and the salt-of-the-earth sergeant major getting on with the job, and the drummer boys and the bandsmen, and all the lowly shooters dressed in the colours of their militia who make the ultimate sacrifice.

And here is the uppercrust commander with his snooty officers, gossipy and waspish, desperate to find a scapegoat.

And there he is!

Durnford, the personification of the star-crossed hero, becomes the victim of a tragedy in which the characters are linked by the shared sentiments of hurt, dispossession, and death in all its many forms: the death of childhood, the death of love, the death of honour, the death of a state.

Contrary to what most people believe, Isandlwana is not just about a gathering of redcoats set down in an unforgettably surreal landscape engaged in dramatic confrontations with a terrible fate. It is also about the nature of the colonial and the ill-trained, poorly armed tribesman who fought alongside them. And it is as much about their stalwart endurance as it is about the extraordinary conceit of well-bred British officers whose contemptuous indifference to the opinions of rough-hewn colonials ensured the doom of that ill-fated camp.

It seemed to me essential that the reader should know more about the part that the Natal Native Contingent and Natal Native Horse played against their great adversaries, the Zulu. Few ask why the southern Zulus preferred to serve the British queen so far away, rather than the Zulu king on the other side of the Thukela River. But the Zulu army had decimated the southern Zulu clans and chiefdoms for decades. And so the southern Zulus sided with the British who had brought stability to their lives.

They were men who had few pretensions anyhow, and they soon learned they would get nothing out of it. Though many did outstanding deeds and deserved the highest awards, they were denied that recognition because of the prejudice that reigned at the time.

This crucial snubbing of men of colour and colonials was part of the inevitable Victorian reaction to social values of race and class. Such vanity contrasted with the selflessness of the unknown soldiers who stayed to fight and die is a record of those ideals of noble conduct against which men gauge worth. In confronting them, we confront ourselves.

Isandlwana was a watershed for Chelmsford and for Britain, unprepared for the determination of the Zulu. But wars are fought one battle at a time. There were other important battles: Rorke’s Drift, Gingindhlovu, Hlobane, Khambula, and Ulundi ⎯ a fatal conjunction of events that lifted the veil for an instant on sheer naked terror. How many owed their lives to some individual who coolly assessed the danger and quietly kept faith? How many would labour, suffer and die, being moved like cogs submissively moved by greater cogs, their very being destroyed as inexorably as their nonentity?

All these considerations persuaded me that the ones whom history forgot should not be cast into the limbo of forgotten things. Look on it as an acknowledgment of their need for credit for their actions. See it as an attempt to bring back their spirit to their kith and kin. Hear it as a praise-song to honour them, which in their day would have been a great novelty.

Finally, it is a test of the competence of the critic that mention of the harsh element of King Cetshwayo’s character should entail reference to rest.

The Zulu regarded their sovereign as a man who gave bounteously to his underlings, one who supported with generosity; and there was too an undertone of deep affection for him, which was linked to his qualities of heart, mind, courage and pride.

There is a sense of darkness in the Zulu mood when British forces capture Cetshwayo and bring him back to face exile. But within the confines of Cape Town Castle, there seems to be a pause as he gathers control and becomes stoically philosophical. “Letters are my only assegais,” he says with gravity.

Restored to his shrunken kingdom, he seems to be a Lear in an endless losing battle against the fates: a strong man, a warrior-king who typifies the powerlessness to evade the utter devastation of his kingdom and yet withstands it as he sinks ever deeper into the blood-red waters of civil war. It is by the terms of this hostile arena that he walks the tightrope of power until he slips.

His downfall is as monumental as that of a bull brought down by hounds. In final defeat, he is a wanderer, a forlorn fugitive who speaks out to a succession of empty dawns. He reflects with bewildered anguish on lost days and vanished companions.

The stark sincerity of his personal grief exemplifies every man in isolation and all human loss.

By Penny Howcroft.                          Posted by Captain Kirk

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