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Companion to the Anglo-Zulu War

Author: Ian Knight
Publisher: Pen and Sword (October 2008)
ISBN-10: 1844158012

First comes the trader. Then the missionary. Then the Red Soldier.' Thus, King Cetshwayo summed up the history of the Zulu nation's interaction with the white man - a relationship with tragic consequences for the king and his people. Ian Knight is our leading authority on the Zulu War of 1879, a subject that he has approached in as even-handed a way as is possible for a British historian, providing a Zulu perspective on the war as much as a British one. His new Companion to the Anglo-Zulu War highlights the devastating impact of this brief but bloody conflict on Cetshwayo's nation, and explores aspects of the war that are seldom addressed.

For anyone who thinks that 'the last word' on this most heavily studied of 'Queen Victoria's little wars' must surely have been written already, Ian Knight has demonstrated that the subject can always be tackled afresh and new insights offered. This book is not, however, another general history of the war, nor does it attempt to offer yet another revisionist interpretation, as with Saul David's hugely disappointing Zulu, but is, in the author's own words, more 'a series of footnotes' - giving succinct summaries of the events, the opposing forces, the individuals and the issues involved. The focus is on 'the human aspects... [including] the quirky and absurd' and how the war was seen at the time - and since. With chapters ordered alphabetically by topic in the manner of an encyclopaedia, the Companion is a follow-up to Knight's 2007 two-volume Who's Who in the Anglo-Zulu War, his major collaboration with Adrian Greaves, also published by Pen & Sword.

Chapter headings range from 'Ammunition Boxes' and 'Brevet Ranks' to 'Wagons and Laagers' and 'Zulu Royal House', by way of such topics as 'Disease', 'Disembowelling', 'Irregular Troops', 'Liars, Fakes and Rogues', 'Religious Belief and Ritual' (both Zulu and British), 'Shields', 'Snakes' and 'Trophies', among many others. An introduction gives the context and chronology of the war, its causes and its aftermath. There is also a fairly thorough bibliography and the thirty contemporary photographs and illustrations -virtually all from private collections -are not, for the most part, the images of the war with which we are I most familiar but provide us with many new scenes and details.

The Companion is full of 'fascinating facts' about British Army life at the time of the Anglo-Zulu War. We learn, for example, that when Sir Garnet Wolseley arrived in South Africa to take over command from Lord Chelmsford at the end of the war he immediately asserted his own authority by ordering troops to 'smarten up' - and that included cleaning their white helmets and cross-belts (dyed buff by the troops with tea and coffee while on campaign) and to shave off their beards. The soldiers' habit of adopting dogs on active service is also covered - and the unresolved debate over whether or not it is Godwin-Austin's dog Pip (given to Bromhead to look after) that appears in the famous photograph of B Company, 2/24th. According to Knight, a number of dogs from Isandlwana camp, once their masters had been killed, went wild and began hunting as a pack.

Equally fascinating are the details of Zulu military life: for instance the system of awards and honours. Bravery in battle was recognised by the award of a distinctive necklace - the iziqu - made from small blocks of willow wood, while the king's favourites were presented with a heavy brass armband - the ingxotha. The metal from which this was made became so uncomfortably hot that a Zulu so honoured would keep an attendant close by to pour water on the armband at intervals to cool it down.

Knight also gives us a chapter on 'War Cries' - not just the Zulus' famous 'uSuthu!' but also such battle slogans as 'Ngqaka amatshe phezulu' ('Catch the hailstones' - a reference to deflecting bullets with the shield) and 'Inkomo ka baba' (literally 'My father's cow' - an allusion to the stabbing of cattle to appease ancestral spirits). By contrast, British soldiers just swore at their enemies!

The art of the Zulu War is also discussed, particularly the work of the war artists Melton Prior of the Illustrated London News and Charles E. Fripp of the Graphic whose sketches and paintings enabled readers back home in England to gain a broadly accurate picture of the campaign - at least from a British perspective. Fripp also gave us the ultimate icon not just of the Anglo-Zulu War but of the entire Victorian Empire -his hauntingly evocative painting, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1885, entitled 'The Last Stand at Isandula'. Ironically, Fripp's painting of Isandlwana aroused little interest at the time, perhaps because by the mid-1880s the British public were uneasy about the Zulu war and had become decidedly sympathetic towards the Zulus, thanks in large part to Cetshwayo's 1882 visit to England which helped enormously to 'recast the Zulus from savage enemies to noble warriors.'

If Fripp's painting of Isandlwana, now in the National Army Museum art gallery, is the most famous image of the Anglo-Zulu War, the picture of 'The Defence of Rorke's Drift' by the French artist Alphonse de Neuville (commissioned to paint the battle following his successful work on the Franco-Prussian War) is perhaps the next most recognisable. Yet it was not the first major painting of Rorke's Drift, as W.H. Dugan exhibited his version of the battle as early as May 1879, and went on to paint Melvill and Coghill 'saving the colours' at Isandlwana -though with no great accuracy, to the point of showing the Regimental Colour of the l/24th, instead of the Queen's Colour.

Queen Victoria's favourite military artist, Lady Elizabeth Butler, whose husband had served in Zululand on Wolseley's staff, was commissioned by the Queen to paint Rorke's Drift, and tackled her subject with meticulous attention to detail, studying photographs and sketches of the participants, and drawing both Chard and Bromhead from life. Among the present-day artists who have painted Isandlwana, Rorke's Drift and other scenes from the Anglo-Zulu War are Jason Askew and Chris Collingwood, who have produced very striking modern interpretations of these events. However, it is an 1890s painting of Rorke's Drift by an artist as yet unidentified that graces the dust-jacket of the Companion - and its significance (very much in keeping with Knight's approach) is that it shows the battle from the Zulu perspective.

As much as artists such as Fripp and de Neuville shaped the Victorian British view of the Zulu War, in the twentieth century it was the cinema that gave subsequent generations its impressions of the conflict. While Cy Endfield's 1964 film Zulu is the 'classic' version of the story of Rorke's Drift, it was by no means the first film on the subject, as the Edison film company produced a silent movie, Rorke's Drift, as early as 1914 - though it was filmed entirely in Florida. Nor was Zulu Dawn the only movie on Isandlwana - Symbol of Sacrifice covered that subject in 1918.

By discussing Victorian and present-day perceptions of the Anglo-Zulu War, and the treatment of the war by the mass media, as well as relating some of the extraordinary details of the events of 1879 and the people who took part, Ian Knight has given us a very broad picture of this campaign and its place in military and indeed cultural history. It is a pity, though, that Knight's book has no general section on the literature of the Zulu War - novels are hardly mentioned - but at least there is a good section on Rider Haggard and the part that his African stories played in shaping our view of the Zulus and their cause (while an ardent British Imperialist he was also intensely sympathetic toward the Zulus, and saw British colonial policy in Southern Africa as a failure of the British Empire to fulfil its true ideals and aspirations). Haggard's successful evocation of Africa in his writing - not least in King Solomon's Mines, The Witch's Head, and in his trilogy Marie, Child of the Storm and Finished - all owed much to the camp-fire tales of Shaka and Cetshwayo that he heard in South Africa in the 1870s and '80s.

As with Rider Haggard, it is evident from Ian Knight's prolific yet consistently impressive output on the subject of the Zulus that he is determined to be their champion as well as their principal British chronicler. Companion to the Anglo-Zulu War is essential reading for anyone with even the remotest interest in this subject.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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