Remembering the Rebellion

Author: Jeff Guy
Publisher: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press (2006)
ISBN-10: 9781869141172

IN 1914, THE NOVELIST SIR HENRY Rider Haggard visited Zululand. Despite the fact that he had served on Theophilus Shepstone's staff during the annexation of the Transvaal, and that his literary success owed much to his fascination with Zulu history, it was the first time Haggard had actually visited Zululand, and he found the Zulus generally at that time to be in a fragile state, unsettled by the gradual destruction of their political institutions, by the appropriation of their land, and by the harshness of the Government response to the recent 1906 disturbances.

"I had an interesting conversation with Sir Charles [Saunders] about the Zulus, a race in which he takes the deepest and most sympathetic interest. He spoke feelingly of the harsh treatment they have received and are receiving and declared that the 'constant pin-pricks' such as land-snatching and the poll-tax were the direct cause of the 1906 'Rebellion'. He added that this was suppressed with great cruelty notably in the last affair in the Insimba valley- Mome I think the place was called, where all quarter seems to have been refused even to those who threw down their arms and pleaded for mercy, as did the old chief Mehlokazulu, who held up his hands and said ‘please' before they shot him. In that fight, if so it can be called, 547 Zulus were slain and one white man received a scratch on the wrist..."

Haggard was, of course, a committed Imperialist, and he failed to recognise and essential truth - that the 1906 Rebellion was but the logical consequence of British intervention which dated not merely to 1879 but arguably to the advent of the first white settlement in Natal in 1824. Nevertheless, his judgement of recent events was sound enough. The 1906 Rebellion - variously known, according to the politics of the historian, as the Bhambatha Rebellion, Zulu Uprising or, with more gentility than it deserves, the Poll Tax Disturbances - is largely unknown outside South Africa, at least in part because no British troops officially took part. Keen to prove its political maturity, the colonial administration in Natal was determined to handle the crisis without intervention from London - and in so doing, incidentally, aroused the disdain of the young Winston Churchill, then under-Secretary of State for the Colonies in the Liberal administration, who was deeply scathing about Natal's ferocious response. This involved deposing and exiling all those amakhosi they suspected of collusion in the rebellion, destroying the homes of thousands of ordinary Africans, and sentencing as many as 7,000 men to floggings, imprisonment and hard labour, often on the flimsiest of evidence.

Jeff Guy's Remembering the Rebellion is the first comprehensive modem history of the rebellion, a neat paperback drawing on the history from both sides and profusely illustrated with contemporary photographs, fascinating colour studies of the terrain today, and maps. The title is deliberately chosen, too, for it is not merely about the events of 1906 but about their consequences, the way they are remembered today in a country in which the control of history has often been an expression of political power.

This book is a perfect introduction to the rebellion in all its complexities, and one which should be read by anyone who thinks the struggle for control of KwaZulu-Natal began and ended in 1879.

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