AoH Book Club – Saul David on Zulu

Our editor met up with him recently to discuss the history of the Anglo-Zulu War, also available on the podcast.
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Saul David’s Zulu was widely acclaimed when it was published in 2004. With such rich subject-matter it’s no surprise, but coming after The Indian Mutiny and The Homicidal Earl, the title cemented David’s place as the historian of the 19th century. Our editor met up with him recently to discuss the history of the Anglo-Zulu War.

Saul, this book deals with the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, but what was the state of play in Southern Africa at the time?

You have to go back to understand the British connection to southern Africa, to 1806, when the British arrived in the Cape Colony, and their first move was to muscle out the Boers, who’d been there from a couple of centuries earlier, and the Boers gradually moved to the north. This had a knock-on effect to a lot of the African tribes and nations that they were going to bump up against. Slowly but surely, the Brits expanded their footprint in southern Africa to include the Natal Colony in 1843. So you’ve now got two Crown Colonies, you’ve got two Boer republics, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, and you’ve got a number of quite powerful African kingdoms, one of which is Zululand. Now, Zululand is far and away the most powerful African kingdom of that time.

At one stage, it encompassed 250,000 Africans and it had been created by conquest towards the end of the 18th century. The Zulu tribe was really very small. It was only about 1500 strong. You can see that partly down to the military genius of the Zulu king Shaka, and the revolutionary means of warfare that he introduced. You had this massive expansion of Zulu land, not only subsuming tribes that it had conquered, but also influencing a lot of tribes further afield. So the actual spread of the Zulu kingdom was probably twice as far as its actual territorial borders. Now, if you move on to the late 1870s, you’ve got a situation where the British are getting more interested in confederating southern Africa. Now, the reason they want to do that, interestingly enough, is not because they are interested in expanding the empire per se. They want to make the empire more affordable. They want it to be self-supporting. So they want to create a system down there where the white settlers really are going to get some form of self-rule, which, of course, has just been given to Canada and will eventually be given to Australia and New Zealand.

Looking through your book again, this Zulu culture is highly militaristic. It’s reminiscent of ancient Sparta, which I wonder is maybe one of the reasons why the British were quite fascinated by the Zulus in the Victorian period?

It is indeed. In fact, they were known as the Black Spartans. And you’re right, the analogy is a very good one. There’s also another analogy, which is that their tactics were very similar to the tactics the Romans used. So there’s this extraordinary link with ancient warfare, and yet there is absolutely no evidence that they ever understood or ever knew anything about Greek warfare, or indeed Roman warfare. The young boys in Spartan culture were brought up to be warriors. They were famously sent out when they were very young and forced to live in really tough conditions. For the Zulu boys, it was very similar. They were taken away from their families at a very young age and effectively put into mini-regiments. When they came of age, they would join the regiments proper, and the society was incredibly militarised. The young men in Zululand could not marry without permission, and once they married, they would then move on to a separate married regiment. So it was all incredibly ordered and wives were chosen for them.

The great Zulu victory is at Isandlwana. Do you mind talking about the battle?

The Battle of Isandlwana by Charles Edwin Fripp

The British move is pretty aggressive. There’s an invasion of Zululand on three axes. Three forces invade and it’s the central one that we’re most interested in, because that was the biggest one, the Central Column, as it was known. It crossed at Rorke’s Drift into Zululand and its intention was to bring the Zulus to battle. There was an assumption among the commander, Lord Chelmsford, who hugely underestimated the power of the Zulus, that they wouldn’t fight and therefore he would have to find them and bring them to the battle. Now, this is a complete misunderstanding of Zulu culture and Zulu battle tactics, which are incredibly aggressive. They’ve developed this short, stabbing spear that can only be used at close quarters. The whole system of their battlefield tactic is to close with the enemy, surround the enemy and then fight at close quarters. Chelmsford has hopelessly misunderstood what’s likely to happen and of course, as a result, is not taking as much care on the line of march as he should have done, because he’s thinking, “I’ve got to find the Zulus” whereas in actual fact, they’re coming towards him.

He goes in with an army of 5000 strong. He fatally weakens it by dividing it not once but twice, so that by the morning of the 22 January 1879, the camp at Islandlwana, which is the base, is just one of the camps along the way – they are heading towards the Zulu capital of Ulundi. The camp at Isandlwana is left with just 1700 men and only about 900 of those are British soldiers. The rest are African militia levies. It’s a strong force, but it’s not impregnable, as they’re going to discover. And it is up against an army, as it turns out, of 20,000 disciplined, veteran Zulu warriors.

And Isandlwana is a perfect example of the famous tactic?

The horns of the buffalo, as it was known. They advance the main body or the chest of the buffalo, so you have a series of regiments that are assigned to the chest part of the formation, and their job is to fix the enemy. In other words, to engage the enemy and keep it fixed in a steady position. Meanwhile, the two horns of the buffalo go out on either side and they fully envelop the enemy, so they go all the way around the side. Now, again, this goes back to ancient warfare because it’s the Battle of Cannae, basically. This is Carthage, this is Hannibal against the Romans in ancient times.

I suppose maybe we’re just talking about kind of universal principles of warfare here and maybe we shouldn’t be that surprised, but, yes, the battle was a perfect example of that. It didn’t go as simply, of course, as the Zulus would have wished it to, because in the course of fixing the camp, that is the main body of the defenders in one position, they took enormous casualties – thousands of casualties, because, of course, those breach loading weapons were incredibly effective. But while that battle was going on at the front of the camp, these two horns were racing rounds at the back of the camp. And, of course, when they finally meet and they’ve trapped any retreat from the camp. Some do get out, but most are trapped. Then it’s just a fight to the death. And as the afternoon wears on, the butchery continues until not a single living soul is left. That is about 1300 corpses and they’ve been killed with sharp edged weapons. So you can imagine it was a pretty gruesome sight.

We can’t mention the war without mentioning Rorke’s Drift and the film starring Stanley Baker and Michael Caine. The battle takes place on the same day, doesn’t it? You’ve got the British outnumbered, being attacked, but this time they are in a secure position and there is certainly not a slaughter. I guess it is a victory, but it’s one of the great battles in 19th century history.

It’s certainly known as one of the iconic battles. The question is, was it ever as significant as was made out? My belief it wasn’t. That’s not to belittle the courage of the people who fought that battle. They were, as Lord Wolesley puts it, and Wolesley comes out shortly after these battles to take command from Chelmsford, “they were caught like rats in a trap and they fought, as you would expect people to do in that situation.”

It was an extraordinary battle and it was fought because the bit of the Zulu army that had missed out on the plunder and the killing at Isandlwana, the reserve. It’s been given orders to go to Rorke’s Drift, but not actually to attack the Drift itself, because the Drift is in Natal, and that would have been seen to be a very aggressive act.

Cetschwayo, the Zulu king, had given his commanders orders not to cross the Tugela River and attack the Drift, but just to check it out as a show of force. Well, they disobey those orders mainly because they want a bit of glory. They also see the Drift, which is effectively a supply depot defended by just 100 soldiers and another 39 guys in hospital, as a soft touch.

The initial instinct of the two officers there, Chard and Bromhead, is to leave. In fact, an order is given to put the wounded in the wagons and they’re going to set off. But luckily for them, they’re dissuaded from doing it by Commissary, who’s a senior NCO type figure called James Dalton, who says, “Well, I wouldn’t recommend that, sir, because if we do that, the Zulus are very fast moving, they’ll catch us on the way to the next town and we’ll all be butchered. So we’ve got more chance of surviving if we stay here.” So the decision is taken to create a mini-fortress out of the two main buildings at the Drift, which is the hospital and the main building, and fortify them with mealy bags and wagons and various other things. If you’ve seen the film Zulu, you’ll know exactly what it looks like. It’s a really accurate depiction of what they did there and how they tried to defend that position.

The battle begins as evening is falling on the afternoon of the 22nd, and it goes on all the way through the night to the early hours of the 23rd. During that time, there is wave after wave of attacks against the outer perimeter. At one stage, the Zulus break into the hospital, which, of course, is one of the keystones of the perimeter. They then have to withdraw to what they’ve called an inner perimeter, which has all been pre-planned in advance. Not by Chard, who takes the credit for all of this, but actually by Dalton, who’s made all these suggestions as to how to construct the defence. Dalton is an ex-engineer, so he had the understanding, and they managed to hold out against attack after attack. It is incredibly dramatic. And again, the film Zulu is very accurate on this, until finally in the morning, the Zulus have had enough and they withdraw.

The nature of empire is that you inevitably have conflicts such as this where a larger aggressor is keen to take over a perceived threat. But what’s interesting in this is that the British Empire, the government, didn’t want the invasion to happen – and it’s cooked up by one general and one colonial administrator.

The imperial government were no shrinking violets themselves. They very much understood the power politics at play in southern Africa. They wanted eventually to create a confederation of southern Africa. They hoped to do it bloodlessly, but of course probably realised that certainly in the case of the Zulus, a war would have to be fought. So it was really a timing issue, rather than the fact that they were against fighting that war per se. The ultimate aim is not to create a bigger British Empire, it is eventually to create a white-run, white-ruled political system that is Southern Africa or South Africa as it became, as a client of Britain’s. We would keep our naval bases and our strategic relevance to that part of the world, too. It was pretty cynical what they were trying to do, but the idea that they were trying to expand the empire per se, no, that’s a misunderstanding, if anyone ever imagines that is the case.

And in fact, most of the expansion of the empire in the 19th century is not a deliberate intention by the home government to expand the empire, because, frankly, most people felt that empire was expensive, which indeed it was, it had to be policed. And very few places in the empire actually produced money for the home country, as opposed to money going the other way.

Saul David is a historian and author of Zulu: The Heroism & Tragedy of the Zulu War 1879 which is highly recommended. His latest book is Devil Dogs. You can listen to an extended interview with Saul on the Aspects of History Podcast.