South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 14 February 2013 was fellow-member Mr Alan Mountain whose topic was Death of the Old [Zulu] Order - the sequel to the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, the last talk in a series of three talks on the rise and fall of the Zulu nation.

Our speaker started by explaining the reasons for the war. In the mid-1870's there was strong political pressure on the Disraeli Government in Britain to rationalize the administration of its colonies, to reduce the costs of administering and controlling these. The Colonial Secretary, Lord Carnarvon, wished to form a confederation of southern African states. This would include the existing political and administrative structures in Southern Africa within a single state. This would be accorded self-government and Dominion status within the British Empire. Britain would have ultimate control over South Africa at much lower cost to the British taxpayer.

The most immediate obstacle to this was the Zulu kingdom, independent and powerful. Then there were the Boers, Britain's traditional bete noire in Southern Africa, who founded the two independent Boer Republics - the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (Z.A.R., which later became the Transvaal) and the Oranje Vrij Staat (which later became the Orange Free State). The Boer Republics abutted the British colonies of the Cape and Natal and were located centrally in the interior of Southern Africa - another obstacle that needed to be overcome before the imperial dream of confederation could be realised. Chief Sekhukhune also wanted independence for his BaPedi people.

The Natal Colony feared Zulu power and distrusted Cetshwayo while the commercial farmers coveted the lush virgin agricultural land in Zululand - wanting to extend their farming and sugar cane interests. They had vested interests which would be well served by the proposed Federation. So the first priority was to remove the Zulu obstacle.

Cetshwayo had other ideas. He wanted to re-establish the old Zulu empire, stretching from the Drakensberg escarpment to Delagoa Bay, created by his Uncle King Shaka. Much of this had been lost through compromise and conquest as the white settlers moved north from the Cape.

Lord Carnarvon appointed Sir Bartle Frere as Governor of the Cape, High Commissioner for South Africa and C-in-C of British forces in Southern Africa, tasking him to bring about the Confederation. Frere was a competent administrator, but single-minded and personally ambitious. He was not a political realist and so did not brook opposing views. Frere, encouraged by his Natal advisors, held the view that there could be no negotiated settlement with Cetshwayo, who was represented as wanting to re-affirm the Old Zulu Order, and that war was the only solution. A war would break up the old Zulu order and:

So a war was necessary.

Previous talks in this series have dealt with Isandhlwana and Rorkes Drift. Cetshwayo was overruled by his generals on the day before the final battle at Ulundi. The king advocated the use of guerrilla tactics so they could fight the British in the rugged hills, valleys and bush that surround Ulundi. This would have given them the advantage of ambush, mobility and speedy action against their ponderous enemy. Also the British would be denied the advantage of the flexibility and lethal mobility of their mounted troops in that terrain. This applied especially to the killing capacity of the British Lancers.

The Zulu generals, however, argued that on the flat Mhlabatini plain they would have an advantage of fighting the British in the open as the enemy would not be able to set up a defensive laager from which to fight, as they had done previously at Gingindlovu and Khambula. The British would be exposed to the traditional Zulu tactic of encircling and then destroying their enemy.

But the British had planned to form themselves into a mobile hollow rectangle which would march to a selected position on the Mhlabatini Plain where they would settle into a very well-armed and lethal human laager. Cetshwayo could not dissuade his generals from what proved to be a suicidal strategy and retired to a spot sixteen km (ten miles) away from the battlefield. He did not witness the resulting slaughter of his army. The king tried to rally the remnants of his army but they melted away to return to their traditional homesteads. The king made his way to the homestead of his Prime Minister Mnyamana, where he remained for the best part of a month.

After the battle of Ulundi, Chelmsford considered his job done. He wanted to return to England as quickly as possible so he could claim victory and to try and salvage his dented reputation. Capturing Cetshwayo was a job for his successor Sir Garnet Wolseley.

After Chelmsford left, Wolseley decided to reoccupy Ulunldi and capture Cetshwayo. The latter took a while but, on 28 August 1879, the king was tracked down in the Ngome forest and captured. He refused the use of a horse and walked back to Ulundi with his remaining followers. He arrived there on 31 August 1879 and his arrival and the British victory were celebrated with an impressive parade.

After the parade, Cetshwayo was taken to Port Durnford and boarded the ship Natal which took him to Cape Town, arriving on 15 September 1879. Here he was taken to the Castle, being cheered by the curious Capetonian spectators to his amusement. He was placed under the charge of Capt Poole, assisted by a man named Longcast who had spent 20 years in Zululand, spoke the language fluently and had a wide understanding of Zulu customs and their way of life. He had access to the ramparts of the castle with its splendid view of Table Mountain and the waters of Table Bay lapping at the foundation of the castle. Here Cetshwayo spent most of his time with his Induna Umkosana.

Cetshwayo was not happy in captivity but, when Richard Samuelson was appointed as his interpreter, he found someone more sympathetic to the Zulus and who knew Bishop Colenso, who had opposed the Anglo-Zulu War and understood the damage it had caused. He also had powerful connections in England. Slowly a groundswell of the British sense of fair play began to grow. The rigid obstructionism of bureaucracy started to give way and Queen Victoria finally agreed to meet the Zulu king.

Eventually Cetshwayo left for England on the Union Company's steamer Arab, arriving in Portsmouth on 5 August 1882 after an uneventful voyage much enjoyed by the king. He was accompanied by three senior chiefs, Umkosana, Umgobazana and Ngcongcwana, and two attendants. His new interpreters, Robert Dunn and Henrique Shepstone (son of Sir Theophilus Shepstone), also travelled with the king. Cetshwayo understood the importance of appearance and insisted on wearing European clothes and on being treated with the deference befitting a head of state. His straightforward and respectful use of language was to win him many friends in England, including Queen Victoria. His was not the picture of the bloodthirsty ogre Bartle Frere, Shepstone and Chelmsford had painted him to be.

When the Arab arrived in Portsmouth, the king told the many newspaper reporters that there would never have been an Anglo-Zulu War had it not been for that grey-haired little man called Frere. He stated that there would be civil war in Zululand which would spell ruin for the country and cause immense havoc in Natal if the status quo post bellum were to remain. But he also said that he had full confidence that, once he had stated his case directly to the British Government, justice would be done and would return to his rightful place as Zulu king. He also acknowledged Queen Victoria as "his mother". All of this was widely reported. For someone who had never read a newspaper, he had an uncanny awareness of the importance and power of the press.

There people in London were very keen to see the king of the nation which had inflicted such a disastrous defeat on British arms. Wherever he went, crowds gathered and cheered him as he passed by, while he regally acknowledged their presence.

He met the Prince and Princess of Wales at Marlborough House, where he was graciously received. He presented them with two sticks made of umzimbithi wood in remembrance of a visit by the Princes Albert and George when he was living at Oude Molen. They had given him a silver-headed stick during their visit. He was taken to Cowes on the Isle of Wight by the new Secretary of state for the Colonies, Lord Kimberley. Queen Victoria was in residence at Osbourne House there, this being her summer home and rural retreat. The Zulu King was cordially received by the Queen and the two conversed freely through Cetshwayo's interpreter. The atmosphere warmed after an initial formality. The Queen showed the King around the house and gardens. This was followed by lunch and thereafter the king and Lord Kimberley returned to London. In the following two weeks there were three meetings between Lord Kimberley and the king.

We need now to consider Sir Garnet Wolseley's plan for the governance of Zululand. The British policy of divide and rule was ardently supported by Wolseley.

So he informed a meeting with Zululand's 200 political leaders that their king was the problem. Crowned six years earlier by Sir Theophilus Shepstone, there had been great rejoicing in Zululand, but the official view was that the king had not fulfilled his promises and had violated the laws he had promised to keep. His kingdom had thus been taken from him and he was now in permanent exile, never to return to Zululand. The general went on to say that the Queen had no intention of depriving the Zulu people of their land or of annexing any of it.

Instead it had been decided that their kingdom should be split up into thirteen separate districts with a government appointed chief in each of these. The chief was expected to keep the piece, and rule with justice and mercy, as set out in guiding principles and rules set by the British. These were the rules laid down in Frere's ultimatum issued to Cetshwayo and rejected by him in 1879. The objective of this was to take Zululand back to the days before Shaka's rule when Zululand consisted of many small and autonomous tribes of more or less equal size. So the old order would be removed and the British Colonial objective of divide and rule(1) would be achieved.

This settlement plan was unworkable as events soon proved. It was flawed as the selection of chiefs was opportunistic and careless. Hereditary Chiefs whom the Zulus would have respected, trusted and obeyed were ignored. The allocation of land was skewed in favour of those appointed chiefs with close commercial ties with Natal. Some of the chosen chiefs had opposed Cetshwayo or were opportunistic, like one John Dunn, both an English gentleman and Zulu chief with 48 wives and 117 children. He was a devious schemer interested only in his own personal gains. Most of the senior chiefs had been uSuthu, men of the Royal faction only just below the king in status and authority. They were relegated to virtual serfdom. This caused dangerous anger and hatred among the traditionally powerful uSuthu. Wolseley also deprived them of land in the "new Zululand" and sowed the seeds of a civil war.

Wolseley appointed Melmouth Osborne as commissioner but gave him no troops to enforce the new dispensation. He was the wrong person for the job as he hated Cetshwayo. The more powerful district chiefs, i.e. uHamu, John Dunn and Zibhebhu, began a systematic plundering and slaughtering of the smaller and weaker factions, especially aiming at Cetshwayo's uSuthu faction. The foundations for civil war were laid.

Wolseley ignored the extreme reluctance of the Zulus to move from their traditional places of residence. The creation of 13 districts meant that many people had to move from one area to another. This caused bitterness as they were reluctant to move from where their ancestors were buried and they felt alienated in their new areas which they regarded as a foreign place.

The shameful treatment meted out to members of the Royal Household was deeply offensive to the Zulu people. Cetshwayo's son Dinizulu and his two closest brothers were held hostage by Zibhebhu and severely maltreated by him. Zulu royal blood is deeply venerated by the Zulus but Wolseley did not know this, did not care, or did it on purpose to further destabilize the already unbalanced Zulu society. The treatment of the royal family just added more fuel to gathering fires of discontent.

Wolseley's plan was unworkable and contentious, sowing the seeds of deep division and hatred between factions in the Zulu community. It added dramatically to the spreading fires of discontent raging in Zululand and strengthened the foundations for internecine strife and eventually civil war.

The Colonial Office was well aware that Wolseley's plan was failing badly and that the House of Shaka could not simply be destroyed, as Frere thought. How to accommodate the Zulu king without losing control was the problem Lord Kimberley had to solve. In his last meeting with Cetshwayo on 17 August 1882, Kimberley told the king that the British Government would consider allowing him to return to Zululand, land would be set aside for those Zulus not wishing to be ruled by him in future, a Resident Commissioner would be appointed to act as his advisor and he would have to sign a declaration similar to those signed by the thirteen chieftains.

Cetshwayo agreed to these conditions except for the one reserving land. He did not want his territory reduced further. Some of his land, the Disputed Territory given him by the Bulwer Commission, had been given to the Boers by Wolseley as a reward for their support in the Anglo-Zulu War. Kimberley advised the king to remain within his borders and to keep the peace and he could rest assured that the British were his friends. The king left for South Africa, trusting in the fairness of the British Government. He had been presented with a silver cup and a photograph of the Queen with the inscription "I respect you as a brave enemy who will, I trust, become a firm future friend". But colonial fidelity is not that easily assured!

He arrived back in Cape Town on 24 September 1882 and returned to Oude Molen. He expected to stay there for only a short time. But weeks passed. The Natal Government did not want him back at all and certainly not on Lord Kimberley's terms. The Natalians reported that most of the Zulus did not want him back but the Colonial Secretary was receiving other information from Bishop Colenso. The reality was that Wolseley's divide and rule plan was unworkable as brother increasingly turned against brother. Open rebellion broke out in different parts of Zululand and the British Resident was powerless. Two factions began to crystallize into a hard core of support for those who wanted Cetshwayo back as their leader and those who wanted Zibhebhu of the Mandlakazi as their leader.

The Natal government saw an opportunity in this situation and proposed to the British Government that only two of the chiefs should be retained - Zibhebhu in the north and John Dunn with his already large district, which they wanted, extended right up to the Buffalo River, in the west. Cetshwayo could return and be sandwiched between the two with the White Umfolozi River as his southern border. The colonial Secretary moved this to the Umhlatuze River. The area was to be the Zulu Native Reserve for those Zulus who did not want to be ruled by Cetshwayo. The king was given no choice but to accept these conditions or remain in Cape Town in permanent exile. He returned to Port Durnford on 10 February 1883.

He was met by his old friend and new enemy Sir Theophilus Shepstone who was to install him as chief of the uSuthu. The installation took place on a gloomy day on the emThonajeni Heights overlooking Ulundi in an atmosphere of distrust and mutual animosity. Expedience, couched in threats and false hopes were made into intolerable law. The Natal plan would leave the Zulu kingdom emasculated and in danger from its increasingly powerful neighbours. As implemented, three competing, separate and mutually antagonistic entities were created. There was no chance for peace.

Cetswayo's kingdom was strife-torn and impoverished - hunger was prevalent, crops had not been planted for three years, the cattle were vulnerable and rustling common with Zulu wealth exhausted. His kingdom was surrounded by enemies - Zibebhu's Mandlakazi to the north-east, uHamu's Ngenetsheni to the north-west and the Zululand Native Reserve to the south. The Resident Commissioner was a Natalian, Melmouth Osborn, and no friend of the king.

Sporadic raids took place in the area between the Mkuzi and Pongola rivers, newly granted to the Mandlakazi, an area populated by many uSuthu. Zibhebhu was evicting everyone who did not recognize his authority, regardless of their rank or status. Cetshwayo realized that the time for talking had passed and the time to invade Zibhebhu's territory had come.

Cetshwayo decided to attack while the situation was still fluid. He had 5,000 men and Zibhebhu only 1,500 but Zibhebhu was a very shrewd man who had learnt much from the Zulu war. He had obtained many rifles from his white trader friends and had trained his men in their use. He also had mounted tribesmen and no longer fought in the traditional Zulu way. His spies were well-placed.

By 28 March 1883, Cetshwayo's army had penetrated deep into Zibhebhu's territory. Small parties of Mandlakazi horsemen were seen. The uSuthu chased these into the umSebe River valley into a well-laid ambush. Mounted warriors attacked the left flank and rifle fire poured into the uSuthu ranks. A slaughter began to take place, they tried to retreat but they were soon cut off by Zibhebhu's infantry. By evening the Mandhlakazi withdrew and a ragged bunch of uSuthu survivors managed to reach Nongoma, leaving a trail of bodies in their wake. Zibhebhu emerged victorious and was considered the most powerful leader in the land. He had lost only a few men and Natalians regarded him as loyal ally, championing the cause of civilization and order. Alas, an overstatement.

While the uSuthu Royalists in the North had been routed, Cetshwayo had remained in Ulundi rallying his people and preparing another all-out attack. Thousands of soldiers were training and undergoing military purification ceremonies. The drums of war began to roll across the Mahlabathini plains.

In June 1883 Cetshwayo suffered another irreparable loss when his irreplaceable ally Bishop Colenso died of overwork and a broken heart. He had tried so hard to promote understanding, truth, justice and compassion among the peoples of Natal. For this he was rebuked, vilified and rejected. He had grieved for the dead of all sides and could see no future peace and understanding between the people of Natal and Zululand unless they listened to one another and adjusted their aspirations accordingly. He did not die in peace. In later years, Africans spoke of Sobantu (his Zulu name) as "the last of the race of true white friends".

Zibhebhu knew that war was approaching. His spies had told him of the preparations for war and that Cetshwayo's troops were already advancing into Mandlakazi territory. So he decided to take the initiative and move against Cetshwayo at Ondini. On 20 July Zibhebhu led his forces along the flank of the Nqonqo hills towards the Black Umfolozi River where uHamu's Ngenetsheni joined him. They began a 50km/30 mile night march to Ondini and arrived just as it was getting light. The hapless uSuthu were caught totally off-guard. The capital was lightly defended as the main uSuthu army was 80 kms/50 miles away seeking a battle against Zibhebhu's forces in his own backyard.

The defenders of Ondini were few and while he tried to hold back the advancing Mandlikazi with rifle fire this proved ineffectual. The command structure was not effective and was caught off-guard by Zibhebhu's unstoppable forces. No stand against the attackers was possible. The remaining uSuthu fled towards the Umfolozi River and the rugged country beyond. Ondini was put to the torch and Zibhebhu's men began to slaughter every uSuthu they could find.

Cetshwayo had escaped with a small entourage. They were cornered and he was wounded in the right side. His group managed to escape and made their way to the Nkandla forest where they found refuge and the king had time to think. The uSuthu cause was in total disarray as most of the leadership had been slaughtered, their capital burnt and large numbers of ordinary tribesmen slaughtered.

The historian Jeff Guy notes that the attack on Ondini in 1883 did what Chelmsford failed to do at Ulundi in 1879 - Zibhebhu destroyed the old order - the Zulu empire. The British had left the political hierarchy virtually intact but Zibhebhu killed all of the great men of the uSuthus. There was no leadership structure left.

After the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879 the vanquished Zulus were able to return to their home kraals and prepare their lands for the sowing of crops, tending to their cattle and were able to go back to their old way of life. In 1883, the situation was totally different. They had lost their cattle and could not return to their normal agricultural cycle in time for the spring rains. They were forced to seek refuge beyond their borders or were driven further into the forests, caves and mountain strongholds. Throughout Zululand the uSuthu were in retreat and those associated with Zibhebhu and uHamu as well as those who had co-operated with the authorities in the Zulu Native Reserve, such as Dunn and Hlubi, emerged as the heirs to the ravaged kingdom. This suited the colonial settlers as the smoking embers of the Old Order were steadily dying out and the homeless Zulus had little alternative but to seek work on the farms of Natal. Zibhebhu had completed the job started by Frere. Cetshwayo and his bedraggled entourage sought refuge deep in the recesses of the Nkandla forest. From here he sent messages to "his mother" Queen Victoria to no avail. He also sent messages of hope to his followers and tried to rally support for the uSuthu cause. But the noose was tightening and, if his people were to survive, a solution had to be reached. So, on 17 October 1883 he placed himself under the protection of the Resident Commissioner at Eshowe. He was lodged in a small homestead near the Residency. Access to him was severely restricted so he was visited only by family and close friends. His time there was wretched with only bad news and the knowledge that he was now powerless. In February 1884, he collapsed in his house and died. The actual cause of death was never established but the Zulus believe that he was poisoned by Zibhebhu's agents. After a long dispute between the British Resident, Melmoth Osborn, and the Abantwana (Princes of the Royal House) his body was buried in accordance with Zulu custom deep in the Nkandla forest. With him died the last flicker of the Old Zulu Order.

The burial site is today an important Zulu Heritage site. Our speaker explained some of the effects of the events of 1879 to 1884 on contemporary South Africa. The Zulus are divided between traditionalists (those living in the tribal areas of Zululand) and the non-traditionalists (descended from those who moved into "white" Natal to work on farms and in the towns. After 1994, the two groupings owed allegiance to different parties, which led to strife. The Zulu population comprises about one quarter of South Africa's total indigenous population.

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(1). Great Britain's application of the principle of "divide and rule" to maintain the political "Balance of Power" were implemented in the 19th-20th centuries, essential to enhance its imperial ambitions, retain naval dominance and most importantly, to keep the emerging and old continental European order in check. This inevitably led to conflict - so much so that 11 European powers in the period between 1800 and 1940 were involved in 287 wars. Of these, Britain was involved in 80 wars (28%), France in 75 wars (25%) at the upper end of the scale. At the lower end, the Netherlands and Germany/Prussia, respectively (23 wars or 8% of the total), and Denmark were involved in 20 wars (7% of the total), formed a distant rearguard.
- (Source - Wright, Quincey: A Study of War, Vol. 1: University of Chicago Press, 1960, p. 221) - Ed.

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The Treasurer, Mr Bob Buser, thanked Mr Mountain for another fascinating and thought-provoking talk and presented him with the customary gift.

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We welcome new member Mrs E M Villet and hope to see her at our future talks.

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Fellow-member Bob Buser has spoken on the subject before, but in the light of new findings and the underwater investigation of the remains of both the KMS Bismarck and the HMS Hood, the findings which he has studied in detail (as is his style), will be shared with us.

His talk will cover both the birth of the new German Kriegsmarine, the building of the battleship Bismarck, the all-too-brief combat history of the pride of the German Navy that was sunk on its first - and fatal - high seas venture; the battle itself and the impact that the sinking of the Bismarck have had on current and future naval operations of both the German and British navies in WWII.

11 APRIL 2013: THE WESTERN FRONT: A FAMILY ODYSSEY by Dr James Tunnicliffe

Dr Tunnicliffe will present an illustrated talk on the results of his research into the military career of his great-uncle who participated in the "Great War" of 1914-1918. Our speaker only recently discovered that his great-uncle served with distinction on the Western Front and participated in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. He has visited the battlefield to follow in his relative's footsteps and will illustrate his talk with some vivid and evocative pictures of the battlefields as it was then, and now. Being a medical doctor, he is greatly interested in the medical aspects of the First World War.

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BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

South African Military History Society /