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Africa during the Scramble: Zulus, Thousands of them

By Gary Oswald


Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville's depiction of the Anglo-Zulu War

In 1951, the word to indicate Z in the phonetic alphabet for radio communication was changed from Zebra to the more distinct sound of Zulu. In 1964, the film 'Zulu' about the Battle of Rorke's Drift would be released and it would become one of the biggest box-office hits of all time in the British market and launch the career of Michael Caine. In 1979, a big-budget American film called 'Zulu Dawn' starring Peter O'Toole and Burt Lancaster would be released about the Battle of Isandlwana. In 1991, Bruce Shelvey and Sid Meier created the Video Game 'Civilisation' in which the player attempted to conquer a map as one of 15 historic empires and one of those empires, the only one from sub-Saharan Africa, was the Zulu Kingdom. In 2008, the American series 'Deadly Warrior' devoted its eighth episode to a hypothetical fight between a Zulu Warrior and a Scottish Highlander. And in 2015, the Youtube series 'Epic Rap Battles of History' pitted Shaka, the first Zulu King and, to date, the only Black African to be featured in the series, against Julius Caesar.


These examples indicate the way in which the Zulu Kingdom, almost uniquely among the pre-colonial states of 19th century Africa, is still remembered in Anglophone pop-culture. The Zulu warrior, with his spear and shield, is what most people think of when they think of Africans during the Scramble. The reason the Zulu Kingdom is remembered whereas hundreds of other African states conquered during this time period are not is largely due to the 1879 Anglo-Zulu war in which the Zulu army, though ultimately defeated, inflicted severe losses on the British. But could they have done better still so that the 1879 conquest was avoided, and the Zulus were never defeated at all? And if so what would have happened instead?


Shaka as drawn by James King

The Zulu Kingdom emerged in the 1810s from the chaos of the collapse of the Mthethwa Paramountcy. Their first ruler Shaka has become a mythologised blank slate, due to a lack of primary sources, in which various people years afterwards have projected opinions and qualities onto him. The extent that the innovations and death tolls attributed to him were down to him as opposed to other leaders is an open question. We do know that the region was a centre of military innovation because Soshangane and Mzilikazi, founders of Empires in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, were both veterans of the wars between the Ndwandwe and the Zulu who used that knowledge to build Kingdoms elsewhere. To an extent the important thing is not how innovative or brutal Shaka actually was but rather how much the Zulu kingdom under him gained a reputation for military prowess and brutality. The Anglo-Zulu war happened largely because of this reputation.


Shaka's successor, his half-brother Dingane, was less successful militarily but further enhanced the Zulus reputation for brutality. In the early 1830s he and the Zulu were in regular conflict in southern Mozambique both with the Portuguese and with other African peoples, culminating in the 1833 sacking of Lourenço Marques, modern day Maputo, by the Zulu. The year after, in 1834, the Portuguese made peace with the Zulu by paying a tribute to Dingane. This was, however, the peak of Zulu control of the North. In either 1835 or 1836 the Swazi would break away in rebellion and wars between the Zulu and Swazi would continue until the early 1850s when British pressure would lead to the Zulu recognising the Swazi's independence and agreeing a peace. During this period, the Zulus would withdraw from modern Mozambique and Eswatini entirely.


And the Zulus would be defeated again between 1838 and 1840 when Dingane came into conflict with the Trekboers leaving British territory in the Cape. Their leader, Piet Retief, hoped to buy Zulu land in order to set up a Boer State known as the Natalia Republic. Dingane killed 100 delegates of the Boers at what was meant to be a peaceful conference to sign over the territory then attacked the Boers' camp and massacred the women, children and slaves left there. Later that year, the Zulu Army attacked a fortified wagon camp at Blood River. 464 Boers and 200 Black slaves, armed with guns and cannons, successfully defeated a Zulu army more than 10,000 strong without suffering a single fatality. This lopsided victory showed the weaknesses of spears and shields when attacking a strong defensive point where the defenders are armed with firearms that can be reloaded quickly. Two years later, the Boers overthrew Dingane, annexed a huge amount of his land for the new Republic of Natalia and placed his, more pliable, half-brother Mpande on the throne.


It was Mpande who agreed the peace with the Swazi in 1852 and, after a battle between his sons in 1856 over who would succeed him, the Zulu Kingdom would remain at peace for the rest of his rule and that of his son Cetshwayo until the British invasion in 1879. Over the same period of 1856 to 1879 the British Empire would be involved in around 25 wars, including those with the Xhosa, Griqua and Bapedi which had been fought with local forces in the Cape and Natal. The result was that one army was full of blooded veterans who knew how to fight and what combat felt like and the other was full of farmers and hunters who had no first-hand experience of war and who had often not handled guns at all until they were given out from the Royal Armouries to the new recruits on the very eve of the 1879 campaign. Cetshwayo undoubtedly knew this, he did everything possible to maintain peace between him and the British.


But this was not the perspective of the other inhabitants of Southern Africa. The Boers, despite their great victory over Dingane, were frightened of a sudden attack by the Zulu Kingdom due to their reputation and size and ultimately made nice with the British until the Zulus were defeated. The Xhosa apparently told the British that the Zulus would avenge the defeats of other Africans. And the British imagined that the Zulus, rather than a peaceful kingdom, were at the centre of a web of black resistance. In truth the Zulus had little communication with any other tribes and no ambitions to stir up rebellions elsewhere. But by merely existing, unconquered and powerful, the Zulus had become a sign of black resistance in the minds of both other Africans and British Imperialists. They would be destroyed to show an example to the others.


Henry Bartle Frere as drawn by George Reid

Henry Bartle Frere, Commissioner for Southern Africa, was an especial believer in the idea that the Zulu Kingdom was at the centre of a native conspiracy. He would run an aggressive line against Cetshwayo, hoping to provoke him to war; eventually sending him an ultimatum that demanded he disband his entire Army. This was something everybody knew Cetshwayo could never do and, when he refused, the British Army invaded. In this, it must be said, Bartle Frere was working against both the plans of his masters in London, who repeatedly sent messages to him telling him not to start a new war as the Empire was already overstretched, and the settlers of Natal and the Cape Colony who were enjoying the benefits of peace with the Zulus. Bartle Frere therefore was risking his career in trying to provoke the Zulu, but he was convinced that victory would both be easy and worthwhile.


Part of the reason for this newly aggressive line was British advances elsewhere. The British would conquer the area of the Republic of Natalia from the Boers in 1843 but a lot of those Boers would make another Trek into the Transvaal. In 1877, this republic in the Transvaal would also be annexed by the British and would remain under British control until the First Boer War kicked off in 1880. This meant that ongoing tensions between the Boer Republics and the Zulu Kingdom over disputed land and border skirmishes became disputes between the British Empire and the Zulus and the British, unsurprisingly, found they now felt that the Boers definitely had the right of it whereas previously they had backed the Zulu position.


But to a large extent, the existence of the Zulus was a good thing for the British. It’s generally held that the Boers didn’t rebel prior to 1880 because they were worried about the threat from the Zulus, who were old Allies to the British. The threat of facing 35,000 African warriors on one side and 7,000 British soldiers on the other was enough to give the Boers pause. The Boers also thought, though it was untrue, that the Bapedi, who had bettered the Transvaal Boers and British both in guerrilla wars throughout the 1870s, were allies of the Zulu and would add local know-how and guides to Cetshwayo’s forces. The Bapedi were finally defeated months after the Zulu were and then, with those threats removed, the Boers rebelled and re-established their independence from the British.

Cetshwayo as photographed by Alex Bassano

If Bartle Frere had been convinced to listen to either London or Natal and agreed to Cetshwayo’s requests for peace, could the Boers' fears become reality and any equivalent to the First Boer War involve Zulu and British armies marching on the Transvaal as allies? Certainly the Zulus claimed territory held by the Boers and certainly they had good relations with the British. John Dunn, a white settler from the Natal, was one of Cetshwayo’s most important advisers.


And if this did happen, regardless of if the result is victory or defeat, would this build enough good will to ensure that the Zulus, like the Tswana, become a protectorate of the British with their social structure left intact and so not annexed to South Africa? Well, possibly. It would require flexibility on the behalf of both the British and the Zulus.


On the British side, the policy at the time under Bartle Frere was the complete disarmament of all natives. This was quite obviously not something the Zulu would accept. But then by 1882 they had dropped this demand in order to end the Sotho Gun War and reconcile the Sotho to British overlordship, so it is not an unmovable line. The Tswana kings were allowed to keep both their armies and their thrones, intact.


On the other hand, an advantage the Tswana had but the Zulu didn’t was religion. It was missionaries who primarily argued the case for the Christian Tswana and European missionaries were banned from the Zulu Kingdom in 1877. The demand that missionaries could return was one of the pretexts that led to war. The Bishop of Natal, John Colenso, was still an ardent opponent of the war but it undoubtedly weakened his case that the Zulu were pagan.


And, of course, the historical protectorate established over the Tswana happened during a time period where the newly independent Boers were a threat to British hegemony and moving increasingly into the lands of Black Africans, including that of the defeated Zulu. If the Boers are defeated, and this threat removed, it's entirely possible that the voices calling for a Unified Southern Africa Colony are stronger and so even the Tswana and the Swazi aren't offered self government let alone the Zulu.


The bigger problems however are on the Zulu side. There is a tendency to assume all the wars in the Scramble for Africa were started by the Europeans. But a significant number were started by African leaders who would rather die attacking the Europeans than wait meekly for their turn to come. Indeed the Zulu refusal of the ultimatum came out of a similar desire for war over surrender. Yes the worst elements of that ultimatum, the demand to disband the Zulu army and break the bonds of martial fidelity between the King and his subjects, could be removed but Cetshwayo’s answer might not change. Unlike the Sotho, the Swazi and the Tswana, the Zulu had not really been battered to the extent that accepting British overlordship was seen as the lesser of two evils. So, having defeated the Boers, would they then meekly surrender to the British? And if a King did agree for the Zulu to become a princely state and obey a white Resident would his family and subjects accept that or would he be overthrown?


To an extent any internal strife only plays further into British hands, during the OTL war they attempted to recruit and use Zulu rebels against Cetshwayo, but intervention against rebels also gives them excuses to annex Zululand entirely. After all in the aftermath of the OTL War, there were attempts to keep some sort of much reduced independent Zulu protectorate around. It wasn't until 1897 that it was instead partitioned between British Natal and the Boer Transvaal Republic and this was a result of the Europeans taking advantage of Zulu civil strife. It is possible a protectorate established by peaceful means would still go the same way.


And if the Zulu do keep their red lines clear and say firmly that they offer the British friendship but not fealty then the British, especially if they're fresh from crushing the Boers, are unlikely to accept that. The most plausible result of avoiding the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 is an Anglo-Zulu war instead happening in the 1880s or 1890s.


There is, of course, a third option; as well as the Zulus being conquered by the British as they were in OTl and the Zulus accepting British overlordship peacefully. They could win the war and remain independent.

The Battle of Isandhlwana as drawn by Charles Edwin Fripp

The best evidence that this could have happened was the events of the 22nd of January 1879 when the Zulus out manoeuvred the first British invasion, drawing off most of the invading armies on wild goose chases and then falling on the badly defended British camp with their main army. At Isandlwana the Zulus destroyed the camp entirely, killing over 1,300 British soldiers. This was a significant victory. That same evening the Zulu army followed it up by attacking the British fortification of Rorke’s Drift, despite this being against the orders of Cetshwayo who wanted keep all the fighting within Zulu lands so they could not be painted as aggressors.


Much like at Blood River, the Zulus struggled against a properly fortified camp and were defeated by the defenders. But it was a close run thing, due to how few defenders there were, and if they had won, and destroyed Rorke's Drift, it would have forced the British invaders to pull back entirely to defend Natal against a possible attack. It would have also damaged British morale further and encouraged their enemies among the Boers and other natives to launch their own anti British rebellions. Given that London had never actually wanted the war, would a second crushing defeat in one day be enough to discredit Bartle Frere entirely and mean that one of the peace offers Cetshwayo was desperately sending out would be accepted? If so would London be ready to sign a peace that maintained Zulu independence?


It’s possible, they were, after all, willing to do so in the First Anglo-Afghan, and First Anglo-Boer wars. But I think the scale of the victory at Isandlwana actually counts against the Zulus in this scenario. Such a disaster would need to be avenged for the sake of British pride. And, unlike the Afghans, the Zulus had hurt the British but not damaged them. The British still had sizeable armies in the field and the Zulus were unable to keep their own army, made up of pretty much every adult male they had, campaigning for too long while still being able to feed them. Time was on the British side and once more British reinforcements, this time with more respect for Zulu power and so careful to properly fortify their camps even if this slowed them down, arrived the war would be won by the British.


The Zulus, unused to handling guns, tended to shoot high on the basis that, like spears, bullets would arc and in close combat tended to drop them in order to use their more familiar spears. Against the loose defence of the camp at Isandlwana, superior Zulu numbers and leadership overcame this. Against proper fortifications they would not. Moreover the inexperience of the Zulus meant they often attacked piece meal or went home after battle. Rorke’s Drift was the only first of a string of British victories in OTL that resulted in the partitioning and annexation of the Zulu Kingdom. Even a Zulu victory at Rorke’s Drift is unlikely to change the balance of power by so much that the fate is different.


The best result for the Zulus post Isandlwana is perhaps that war exhaustion plus a change of leadership causes the British to fight only for one major victory and then a victorious peace rather than the taking of the Zulu Capital. In this way perhaps both the British and the Zulus will be humbled enough to accept either the Tswana option, in which the Zulu Army and Monarchy remained intact but a white resident such as John Dunn decided foreign policy, or even an independent, if reduced and subservient, Zulu Kingdom. But it’s a long shot and it relies on the British recognising, perhaps due to an early Boer rebellion, that the Zulus are less of a threat to them than the Boers.


The exact nature of the relationship between the British and the Boers during the twilight years of the 19th century and the effect that relationship had on the native Kingdoms is the topic of the next article in this series by guest writer Charlton Cussans.

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