Zulu: The Heroism and Tragedy of the Zulu War of 1879 by Saul David - review by Frank McLynn

Frank McLynn

What Really Happened At Rorke’s Drift

Zulu: The Heroism and Tragedy of the Zulu War of 1879


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THE SUPERPOWERS OF the day always and inevitably act like bullies. We see this today in the 'war against terror', but it was ever thus, and in this respect Sad David is correct to draw attention to the analogy with the gross aggression committed by British Imperial authorities in 1879 against the Zulu nation. Sir Henry Bartle Frere, governor of Cape Colony, and the commander-in-chief of British forces in South Africa, Lord Chelmsford, provoked a bloody and unnecessary war for ‘empire-building’ reasons for their own, even though the project of annexing Zululand to the Crown had been at least tacitly approved in London. Frere precipitated the 1879 war by delivering an impossible ultimatum to the Zulu king Cetshwayo, including the demand that he disband the entire Zulu army, then made clear he intended to go to war by imposing an equally impossible deadline and refusing to consider an extension. The invasion of Zululand began on 11 January, but eleven days later the Zulus wiped out Chelmsford's Central Column at Isandhlwana. Of 922 white troops and 840 black auxiliaries, only 55 Europeans and some 350 auxiliaries survived. There followed the famous action at Rorke's Drift on the night of 22-23 January when 140 British troops held off some 4,000 Zulus in a ten-hour engagement. More disasters and bloody battles followed before the lack lustre Chelmsford was finally able to crush the Zulu impis at Ulundi in July. Zululand was annexed, with dire consequences for the inhabitants. Chief Buthelezi famously lamented one hundred years later that, but for British aggression in 1879, his nation could have enjoyed the independent status of Lesotho or Swaziland.

The Zulu war of 1879 has already been the subject of a famous narrative history (Donald Morris's The Washing of the Spears), so at first sight David's project looks foolhardy. He starts cautiously, failing to cite Norman Etherington's recent major work on the early Zulu conflicts with the Boers, doubtless

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