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The Boiling Cauldron; Utrecht District and the Anglo-Zulu War 1879

Author: Huw M. Jones
Publisher: Shermershill Press (2006)
ISBN-10: 0955384109

Just before dawn on the morning of 28 March 1879, to the accompaniment of a dramatic electrical storm, British troops, consisting largely of Irregular horsemen and African auxiliaries, launched an attack on the Zulu stronghold of Hlobane Mountain.

What was to happen next would account for the second largest British butcher's bill of the entire Zulu campaign - dwarfed only, but inevitably, by Isandlwana - for after a running fight which spluttered on for much of the day the British were driven off the mountain leaving 200 dead behind them, including no less than fifteen officers. The exact number of African auxiliaries killed in the battle was never determined, and many of the dead were only sought out and buried months later; some never were. A good deal of the blame for the failure of the expedition can be laid at the door of the senior commander of the Left Flank Column, Sir Evelyn Wood, who embarked upon it with inadequate intelligence, uncertain objectives, and despite warnings that a major Zulu army was about to enter the theatre en route from Ondini (Ulundi). Nor did the battle go well for Wood personally; at one point his escort came under fire, and two of his staff were shot dead in front of his eyes.

Yet the degree to which Wood was culpable for the disaster has largely escaped the searching eye of history until quite recently. He did, of course, redeem himself by his comprehensive defeat of the main Zulu army at Khambula the following day, against which success his failure at Hlobane was seen as no more than an embarrassing aberration. Wood was, moreover, an adroit politician, adept at distancing himself from errors -whether his own or those of others - and it is only recently that his accounts of Hlobane, upon which almost all subsequent interpretations have been based, have been challenged.

Among those first to challenge them was Huw Jones - in SOTQ and Natalia -who has now expanded his view of the battle into a thumping 380-page study. Central to the author's thesis is that, unlike almost every other engagement in the war, Hlobane reflected not only the broader strategy of the war but was the culmination of decades of local and personal rivalry and that its character was shaped not by events in Natal but by the by the tangled history of Zululand's north- western border. In the 1820s the Zulu kingdom had expanded its influence up the valleys of the Mzinyathi and Ncome rivers, dislodging the groups who had lived there, but although by 1879 the Zulu kingdom was undoubtedly the dominant power in the region, the author argues that Zulu control was never as complete as the Zulu Royal House claimed. Many of the groups who remained living in the region merely gave tribute to their powerful neighbours as an insurance, changing allegiance as the need dictated. Indeed, one of the ironies of the story lies in the fact that it was precisely because the area was on the periphery of his territory that King Mpande gave republican Boers, reeling from the recent annexation of Natal by the British, permission to settle between the Mzinyathi and Ncome - in what became the Utrecht district - in the 1840s. This was the genesis of the infamous 'border dispute' which was a cause of conflict in 1879, and its rights and wrongs - and the hostilities it engendered, which made Utrecht the 'boiling cauldron' of the title - take up a good deal of the book, framing the later military action.

What makes Huw Jones's highly detailed and meticulously researched account of these proceedings both fresh and to some extent challenging is his support for the Utrecht burghers' position. He goes to considerable length to identify the specifics of their discussions with various Zulu person¬alities - which burghers held negotiations with which Zulu dignitaries, when, and about which tracts of land bounded by which landmarks - and makes no bones about his opinion that their position has been consistently misrepresented, not least by the Natal Boundary Commission in 1878 and by most historians ever since. For him, it is Cetshwayo who is the villain of the piece, offering concessions to the burghers when it suited his political and territorial ambitions and reneging on them when called upon to carry them into effect.

If our understanding of the battle of Hlobane itself remains confused -because of the significant loss of British officers, because it was a running fight fought over difficult terrain, and because Wood's official report was self-serving -the author is particularly keen to tie specific incidents to physical locations, and this is one of the strengths of his account. He is, for example, scornful of previous historians who have, he says, 'manufactured a dilemma' about the truewhereabouts of Zungwini Nek, to where Wood ordered Lt. Col. J.C. Russell on the day, with disastrous results - whilst at the same time acknowledging that this particular paper-trail can be traced to Wood himself, who claimed that Russell mistook 'the position of Zunguin Nek [and] trotted five miles to the west'. Indeed, the illustrations in the book largely consist of topographical sketches made in September 1881, and which largely illustrate the point. Wood's wilful misrepresentation of the facts - in this regard, and in connection with the circumstances surrounding the death of his Staff Officer, Captain Campbell - is laid bare here, and it is difficult to avoid the impression that the colonial horsemen who made up the bulk of the attacking forces were made the scapegoats, afterwards, for the failings of their senior officers.

Huw Jones has given us a hugely important study of a neglected theatre of the war, and a perceptive re-appraisal of its defining battle. More than that, The Boiling Cauldron is that increasingly rare thing - a thoroughly researched, original and worthwhile contribution to the literature of the Anglo-Zulu War.

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