Did a Zulu King Massacre the British Army?

Zulu, hidden history

BY HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 84: Which Zulu king led his men to victory over British invaders and mounted warfare that killed a French “prince”?

“The distress, anxiety, and humiliation felt here are indescribable,” a correspondent for the Irish Times wrote from Cape Town, South Africa, on Jan. 24, 1879. Here’s the surprise: He wasn’t referring to the subjugation of the South African people by the powers of Europe, but to the British army, which two days earlier had suffered a stunning defeat at the hands of Zulu warriors on the borderland between the Zulu kingdom and Natal. However short-lived the Zulus’ victory was, the Battle of Isandlwana remains one of the all-time David versus Goliath stories.

The leader of the Zulus was King Cetshwayo, the nephew-successor of the legendary Shaka Zulu (ca. 1787-1828), who, early in the 19th century, had united scores of disparate chiefdoms to form his kingdom. Cetshwayo had inherited Shaka’s boldness, and the rout of the British at Isandlwana by his army at the start of the Anglo-Zulu War shocked the world. That it would soon prove to be only a temporary setback to the British, an aberrant prequel to an age of colonial conquest in southern Africa, makes it all the more fascinating and poignant.

Cetshwayo’s Early Years and Rise to the Zulu Throne

Cetshwayo kaMpande was born in emLambongwenya in South Africa around 1826. His uncle Shaka presided over the Zulu Kingdom from 1816 until his death in 1828. His father, Mpande kaSenzangakhona, was Shaka’s half-brother and became king of the Zulus in 1840, initially naming Cetshwayo his successor. Mpande, however, had 29 wives and, as time passed, considered naming a different wife, Monase, as “chief wife,” which would have made her son, Mublazi, his heir. That wasn’t all, as Michael Mahoney writes in the Dictionary of African Biography. Mpande also was jealous that Cetshwayo was becoming more popular than he. When it came to choosing sides, as John Laband writes in his 1995 book Rope of Sand: The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Kingdom in the Nineteenth Century, most stood with Cetshwayo, and at the 1856 battle of Ndondakusuka, his side triumphed and his rival heir, Mublazi, was killed. From then on, Cetshwayo’s father was a leader in name only, while Cetshwayo was regarded as the Zulus’ true king. In 1872, it became official.

Relations With the British

The British, already controlling nearby Natal, had intervened by recognizing Cetshwayo as heir to the throne. But the British weren’t exactly honest brokers. As Mahoney explains, they believed their endorsement had made Cetshwayo king and, thus, their puppet to be removed if and when they saw fit. It didn’t take long for conflicts to emerge. Cetshwayo resented the British for failing to defend the Zulus against the Dutch when the British annexed the Transvaal territory in 1877, and in response, the British began cataloging his offenses, including allowing Zulu raiders to cross the border into Natal.

Chief among Cetshwayo’s opponents was the British high commissioner, Sir Bartle Frere, who thought the British had an obligation to “civilize” the blacks of southern Africa. Really, Frere hoped to forge a confederation of all the southern African territories and then be named governor over them. This, of course, meant ousting Cetshwayo, whom Frere demonized as an “ ‘ignorant and blood-thirsty tyrant’ ” atop a “ ‘frightfully efficient manslaying war-machine,’ ” according to Laband.

In December 1878, the British gave Cetshwayo an ultimatum: Hand over his raiders, pay an indemnity of 600 cattle, disband his military and recognize Britain’s authority, or face invasion. When Cetshwayo refused, the British had the pretext they needed to invade the Zulu kingdom.

War With Britain

The invasion began Jan. 11, 1879, with the British crossing the Tugela River at Rorke’s Drift into northwest Zululand (another column of troops advanced along the Indian Ocean to the southeast). The British had fewer than 2,000 troops but superior firepower. The Zulu weapon was the assegai—essentially a spear—but they had more men, perhaps as many as 12,000, Saul David notes in his 2004 book Zulu: The Heroism and Tragedy of the Zulu War of 1879. Taking a defensive position, Cetshwayo ordered his warriors to stay on their side of the Natal border. But if attacked, he was ready.

Read more at The Root.

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