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