The story of the Zulu kingdom is also the story of the colony of Natal, and so it includes much of the history of southern Africa. Onto the prickly threads of religion, politics and race, I have bolted the wars and battles of the South African past assuming (and hoping) that it would appeal to the reader who wants to know more about this extraordinary country, its people and their unquenchable spirit.
The ground thus delineated is extensive. Even so, the interlocking of time, place, people and events is as intriguing as a kaleidoscope: however ordinary each piece is an extraordinary pattern emerges.
It made me realise how much there is to learn about it, how great a need there is for education about it and how impossible it is to give more than a hint of it in one book, and so I have written three:
- With Assegai and Shield tells the story of those legendary kings, Shaka, Dingane and Mpande, and the way they handled white encroachment on the Zulu Kingdom.
- Bell, Book and Candle, is about the conflict of beliefs and values and the struggle for land – the origins of the Anglo-Zulu War.
- Zulu Kings at Bay tells about the battles of the Anglo-Zulu War that became synonymous with extraordinary courage, heroism and self-sacrifice.
When these writings are put together, they constitute, structurally, one book.
These stories are not intended for military boffins or academics who understand the glories and iniquities of the South African past. No, they are for a different audience. Firstly, they are intended for young people who are only dimly aware that the effects of the nineteenth century conflicts between black and white are still with us. Secondly, they are for the general reader: those who didn’t study history at school and wish they had, and those who did and didn’t listen and wish they had.
Bringing history to life
It is therefore with relief, as well as enthusiasm, that I now, these many years after my childhood among the Zulu people, relish this opportunity to introduce to a new spectrum of readers some aspects of this colonial conflict using the Zulu kings as the main players.
I particularly wanted the reader to witness the arrival of the missionaries, borne on a tide of goodwill and enthusiasm who became entangled in politics and ended up far more concerned with saving souls from hellfire than saving bodies from bullets.
And – of course – I wanted the reader’s eyes to run along the lines in the imagination tasting the excitement of battle as warriors pitched in with assegai and shield against the guns of the invaders. I wanted the reader to feel their fears, hear their voices and smell the burning powder.
In short, I wanted to bring them to life.
But the most difficult thing about writing history is to describe what life was really like. Most times history is short of life because the historical mind reduces actions to facts. And yet the heart goes beyond the facts to appreciate in histories their intrinsic flavour, and when we ask our whys and wherefores, we like to trace the hidden connections of human nature because this does not change with the passing of time.
I was familiar with the way Zulu storytellers convey their conception of their nation’s past. It is more akin to drama and the words and feelings of the protagonists. Accordingly, I concentrated all my energies on plumping out the bare bones provided by historical statements.
Now I would like to say that I succeeded. I can’t claim that.
I did not succeed because this story is not told in the Zulu way where the sounds and the dramatic action can be heard and seen. It is written prose intended for the reader who curls up in a corner and reads alone.
The printed word returned me to the key element, the fact.
The variable is the way the incident is described. I wanted to bring to life fascinating historical figures as well as their endeavours and challenges. This, I believe, requires an intense consciousness of scene and place to make it vivid in the mind of the reader. And so I elected to write my story with dialogue and description.
In some ways, this is like writing a novel where you need to be realistically inventive or it wouldn’t be readable. On the other hand, imagination can’t just dash away from its source like a salmon swimming up the waters. I had to study all the sources available and then try to reach a balance between what I had benefited from my inquiry – good and bad – and what I had benefited from others, and then decide on my own account.
Is it true?
But it is one thing to spill your own secrets and quite another to spill someone else’s. What frightened me was the writer’s risky position when imposing words on the thoughts and feelings of real people. Readers – I mean the genuine readers who want to be informed – like to look beneath the imaginative connections and descriptive embellishments that the novelist uses and when history is compiled as a story, they ask:
“Is it true? If it’s true, is it factually accurate?”
As these events happened long before my time, the incidents described are of necessity a novelized amalgam of known facts and reconstructed dialogue based on what my researches led me to feel was plausible.
The larger-than-life Zulu kings, the embattled prelates, the crafty political leaders and the military men were all enmeshed in a growing catastrophe. The conflict was between their opposing desires and values. The irony is that as their lives unwound they came to recognize the heart-breaking truth that nothing comes up to expectation. They were all strong willed and all were humbled by time and circumstance. Collectively, they influenced the period and their intertwined relationships and different interpretations of the same events provide something of the context in which they occurred.
However, I had to reach a compromise when it involved Zulu characters in speech for their idiom is metaphorical and filled with allusions that would baffle the ordinary reader. Moreover, as Zulu words and names can be confusing, the glossaries at the back of the book refer to the names of characters and give an indication of pronunciation.
Also, some scenes had to be visualized because they went unrecorded. In self-defence, I should add that I did not make them up. I have based them on the documented actions of the characters and their reactions to conditions at the time.
I must admit though, that because it is written something like a novel I was tempted to omit notations. I changed my mind because the reader may think I have purposely skewed the story to fit my view and other parts may arouse the suspicion that I have allowed my imagination to run riot.
‘How would she know that?’ the reader might say.
Or, ‘That’s not how I learned about it!’
My answer is that much recent research has turned upside down long-held opinions about the Zulu and the soldiers who fought against them. For this reason, alternative theories and speculative passages are annotated and all sources are listed in the bibliographies.