The Ultimatum Tree: No Trace of British Fair-Play.

This historic photograph shows King Cetshwayo’s envoys sitting under a wild fig tree with Her Majesty’s commissioners seated in the shade of a large canvas awning. The figures on the right are watching soldiers.
Zululand is on the far side of the Thukela River.
Campbell Collections, University of KwaZulu-Natal C03-022

The drought had broken and the Thukela was flowing fast. A small party of sailors ferried the unarmed Zulus across the river. The commissioners received them under a white canvas awning spread in the shade of an immense sycamore fig, ever afterwards known as the ‘Ultimatum Tree’. A table and chairs had been placed for the British commissioners; the Zulus squatted on the ground in a semi-circle.

First on the morning’s agenda was the sugar coating: the decision regarding the boundary award on the Boer claim to the land east of the Ncome (Blood) River. John Shepstone announced the results to the Zulu delegation with Fred Fynney carefully translating.

The terms of the award made it clear that King Cetshwayo had title to the territory that he claimed. Visibly relieved that a difficult dispute had reached such a satisfactory conclusion, the Zulu emissaries gathered in the noonday heat to feast on an ox while everybody else adjourned to the marquee for lunch.

The brutal hour had come. On resuming the conference, John Shepstone delivered a rambling harangue against King Cetshwayo. Then, disregarding the boundary report, he announced: “Notwithstanding the recognition of Zulu sovereignty, the Boers who have settled in the region are to be allowed to stay on their lands. Furthermore, I am obliged to present to you the terms of the ultimatum formulated by Sir Bartle Frere, the High Commissioner of South Africa, which must be transmitted to King Cetshwayo. This consists of ten conditions, four of which have to be met by 31st December 1878 and six by 10th January 1879.” He stared fixedly down at his paper, his expression curtained by his walrus moustache as he lugubriously specified the conditions of Frere’s ultimatum.

The first condition dealt with compensation for several border incidents concerning a notorious renegade Swazi prince named Mbilini who while under Cetshwayo’s protection had been pillaging along the northern border of the Disputed Territory. “Mbilini must be handed over for trial and the King must pay a fine of five hundred cattle for not giving up the culprit when requested.”

The second outrage requiring redress involved Chief Sihayo, King Cetshwayo’s best friend. Two of Sihayo’s wives had been caught committing adultery while their husband was away at the Zulu capital. Knowing they had committed an offence for which they would be put to death, the women fled. Sihayo’s son Mehlokazulu, his brother and an uncle followed them on horseback seeking to restore the family honour. They crossed the river, caught one wife, proceeded downstream, caught the other and dragged them both back into Zululand where they put them to death.

“We demand that the sons of Sihayo be handed over for trial on a charge of murder and a fine of five hundred cattle be paid.”

“The killing of those women took place on our soil. According to our law, Mehlokazulu behaved correctly,” protested Muwundula.

“Let us listen quietly,” Vumandaba admonished.

The third outrage concerned some Royal Engineer surveyors who had been in charge of building a road for military purposes that required a ford across the Thukela at Middle Drift near Kranskop. Having completed the approach on the Natal side, they had crossed to the Zululand side without receiving Zulu permission. There, some warriors had manhandled them.

“A fine of one hundred head of cattle is to be paid for molesting the surveyors,” pronounced Misjan.

Then he read out the remaining demands, which were of far greater significance. “The Zulu administration shall be reformed. Accused persons shall have a personal trial. A British resident magistrate shall be stationed at the Zulu capital. The missionaries and native converts who have been expelled shall be readmitted to the mission stations. In future, if a missionary or other European becomes involved in a dispute, the Zulu king shall hear the matter in the presence of the magistrate and any sentence of expulsion from Zululand must receive his approval.”

And there sat the commissioners with legs crossed like pink flamingos poised on one leg, twisting their necks deep into their tight shirts while Misjan’s voice droned on concerning the flawed rule of King Cetshwayo.

But no, oh no, that was not the end. It descended to its final fatal resolution. “Enforced celibacy shall cease,” Misjan intoned. “Every Zulu on achieving manhood shall be allowed to marry without the need to blood a spear in battle, the King’s permission being no longer required. The Zulu army shall be disbanded. The King is to observe the coronation laws of 1873. He has thirty days to comply with the conditions of the terms given, failing which British forces will invade the Zulu kingdom.”

Frere’s decisiveness had neatly transferred itself to his ultimatum and Misjan had ended his long tirade.

And there sat Frere’s agents whose bodies could be seen to fill the spaces of their chairs and whose bewhiskered faces no longer hid their designs. They lounged back languidly and stared out above the heads of the Zulus while the volunteers watched them, alert for any action.

But, if Misjan’s speech was meant to play any part in stirring Zulu emotions, it failed to have the desired effect since, notwithstanding all the allusions to Cetshwayo’s unsoundness as a king, the Zulus remained as still as stones; though at one word of command from Vumandaba, they would have leapt at that forest of bearded white throats.

Vumandaba stood up. “We understand the meaning of what has been explained to us,” he said with dignity. Shortly afterwards, the sailors ferried the Zulus across the river.

An extract from The Zulu Kings: At Bay by Penny Howcroft.  Posted by Captain Kirk

Images of War: The Battle of Isandlwana

The Image:

The Heat of the Battle: Isandlwana

This is detail of an image published in the Illustrated London News, on 7 March, 1879,

The Words:

Soldiers were charging with their bayonets held before them skewering the nearest Zulu through the throat or chest. But, taking up the bodies of their dead comrades, the Zulu warriors were hurling them forward upon the points of British bayonets, bearing their victims down and then deliberately stabbing their way through the dwindling ranks. Tasting excess and consumed with the crazed exhilaration of violent conflict, the Zulus were slashing, smashing, and lunging upward with their stomach-ripping assegais and the harassment of battle was rising as the carnage spread thicker and denser where the slaughter was achieving its most savage concentration. Without doubt, the redcoats were being ‘eaten up’. The sky, the sun, the stars, the very world had ceased to be.

Extract from The Zulu Kings: At Bay by Penny Howcroft.  Posted by Captain Kirk



160 x 240mm. 352 pp. Maps and Photographs. Paperback, 1SBN 978-620-46869-5.


Behind the apparently familiar face of history lies an astonishing story of Zulu kings who influenced the future of Africa. It is the story of three brothers. The resolute Shaka forges the kingdom of the Zulu into the most powerful black state in Africa. He thrives on a reputation for inhumanity and bases his power on fear, strangling any offspring at birth and conquering all who oppose him in a reign of terror.

And yet he protects the first white men who come to hunt and trade in Zululand. Fynn, Farewell and King become his friends, his only friends. Willy-nilly these young adventurers adapt to life in Shaka’s court and they record the Zulu empire at its height.

Dingane, watching jealously from the sidelines, assassinates Shaka and usurps the Zulu kingship. Then he kills his brothers. Curiously, he spares Mpande. Fearing the encroaching whites, Dingane sends his regiments against the Boer trekkers and then turns against the Port Natal traders. The results are harrowing.

With the help of the trekkers, Mpande attacks Dingane who flees north to his terrible death. The trekkers confirm Mpande’s kingship and Zululand settles down to an uneasy peace. Mpande’s eldest son Cetshwayo is anxious to prove that he has the right to be the heir, but Mpande favours another son, Mbuyazi. In 1856, the rivals battle it out and Cetshwayo wins an undisputed victory. But the succession dispute is immediately replaced by the land dispute with the Boers. Hemmed in by white expansion on all sides, Cetshwayo finds it difficult to re-establish a powerful monarchy in Zululand.

Based on well-researched facts, the author powerfully evokes the mood of the times. 


Description of printed book:

160 X 240mm. 489 pp. Maps and photographs. Paperback, ISBN 978-0-620-48405-3

Based on meticulous research into the tragic decline of the Zulu kingdom, this is a riveting account about death in all its many forms: the death of childhood, the death of love, the death of honour, the death of a state.

The Zulu way of life is threatened when events suddenly propel Britain into the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. Here are the movements of armies and peoples, and here are the battles of Isandlwana, Rorke’s Drift, Hlobane, Khambula and Ulundi.

Here are the intrigues that make Colonel Anthony Durnford the scapegoat for the defeat of the British at Isandlwana, and here is a portrayal of Frances Ellen Colenso’s personal anguish as she passionately defends her lover.

The capture and exile of King Cetshwayo and his farcical restoration ensures the bitter Zulu civil war. His sudden death leaves many question marks. Who poisoned him? Why?

Harriette Colenso takes the lead on behalf of King Dinuzulu in crusading against colonial injustice and exploitation. But Zululand passes into the hands of its colonial masters and the embattled Zulu royal house faces an uncertain future under the ever more powerful clutches of a racist government.

Penny Howcroft powerfully evokes the mood of the times. There can be no doubt that readers will feel that they know old Zululand and Natal intimately after savouring these pages.


I was reading Chapter 5 of the third book in the Zulu Kings Trilogy, titled The Zulu Kings: At Bay, available for the Kindle from Amazon.   While Penny Howcroft’s descriptions of the terrain were clear and evocative, I found myself without a visual reference.  So I have produced two images, derived from Google Maps.  What I did was I overlaid the historical maps, and identified the key positions and geographic markers.

It wasn’t easy.  The hand drawn maps were created before the space age, and did not benefit from any form of aerial reconnaissance.

So here they are:

The main features mentioned in the descriptions of the Battle of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. The satellite photo is modern, the labels are old.

And in this next one, I have done the same thing.  I have overlaid the hand drawn maps with an up to date satellite photo.  The steepness of the hills that the Zulus charged down is clearly shown.

The British were accused of spreading their men too thinly, as can be seen in this image. The Zulu Horns and Body formation is clearly evident.