Great Zulu Commanders

Great Zulu Commanders


  • Author: Ian Knight
  • Publisher: Arms and Armour Press
  • Publish Date: 1999
  • ISBN: 1-85409-389-4
  • Price: £19.99

Review By : Elizabeth Hogan

When this book first appeared, the Daily Express, no less, ran a feature with the headline suggesting that it had outraged actor Michael Caine. Since it is unlikely that Sir Michael keeps up with the latest debates in Anglo-Zulu War circles, this seemed improbable, and indeed on close reading it proved to be merely the Express’ opinion that he would have been outraged – had he read it. The cause of the outrage was, apparently, a hint by author Ian Knight that that great icon of Imperial heroism, the battle of Rorke’s Drift, was no more than ‘an insignificant side-show’. In fact, the book claims nothing of the kind and a rather mystified Ian was compelled to defend himself to Express readers, pointing out that ‘this is a book about Zulu heroes. It seems sad that, 120 years after Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, people in Britain remain unwilling to abandon imperial and cinematic stereotypes of ‘screaming savages’, and consider the view from the other side of the barricade’. Just so. What this book actually offers is a study of the military challenges faced during a century of conflict that saw the creation and ultimately the destruction of the Zulu kingdom, through the lives of a group of individuals who were intimately involved. Those who created the kingdom include King Shaka – still a remarkably controversial character whose career is entwined with rival African nationalist and colonial mythologies – Ndlela kaSompisi, King Dingane’s principle military commander who planned the war against the Voortrekkers in 1838 and Cetshwayo kaMpande himself, whose actions in the ‘war of the princes’ in 1856 shaped much of Zululand’s later history. Those who fought to defend the kingdom in 1879 include Ntshingwayo kaMahole, who was largely responsible for the victory at Isandlwana, Mehlokazulu kaSihayo, Mbilini waMswati, Zibhebhu kaMaphitha and Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande. It was Ian’s analysis of the problems facing the latter during the assault on Rorke’s Drift which so aroused the Express’ ire, proving the extent to which this battle has been regarded in the past largely from the defenders’ point of view. Terrifying though it was to stand behind the mealie-bag ramparts, it was no easy task to attack them, either, running up through a curtain of fire time and again to struggle against an enemy who, even close-up, remained largely out of sight and out of reach. Considered from the Zulu perspective, the reasons for their defeat become clear enough, although it is interesting to note that Prince Dabulamanzi was not regarded by his countrymen as a good commander, and indeed his record in his career as a whole was largely one of heroic failure. In that respect he contrasts sharply with the renegade Swazi prince, Mbilini waMswati, who would prove the most daring guerrilla leader to emerge on the Zulu side during the war and who consistently troubled and outwitted his opponents in the northern sector. It is in the lives of Zibhebhu and Mehlokazulu, however, that real tragedy of 1879 becomes apparent. Both had fought heroically in the nation’s defence, Mehlokazulu as an officer in the iNgobamakhosi and Zibhebhu as a daring leader of scouts. Their fortunes afterwards could scarcely have been more different, however, for while Mehlokazulu’s father, Chief Sihayo, was deposed and made destitute by the British, Zibhebhu was established as one of the ‘kinglets’ set up to rule on behalf of British interests. It was then Zibhebhu’s true flair as a general emerged, and tragically his talents were used not against invading enemies but against fellow Zulus. It was his victory against the restored King Cetshwayo at oNdini in 1883 which effectively shattered the old Zulu kingdom, slaughtering an entire layer of the elite in Zulu society who had remained influential since King Mpande’s time, fracturing national unity in a way the British invasion had never quite achieved. That battle which draws together many of the lives touched upon in this book; among those killed by Zibhebhu’s warriors were Ntshingwayo and Sihayo. It ushered in darker decades of internecine killing and hopeless uprisings against creeping European domination. These are considered through the lives of King Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo – a veritable tiger as a warrior in his youth, for all his bloated middle age and early death – of Mehlokazulu, and of Bambatha kaMancinza. The story of Bambatha – topical in the centenary year of his rebellion – effectively encapsulates the way traditional African society crumbled under the pressures of colonial rule, driving many to a desperate and ultimately futile resistance. For Bambatha, that resistance ended in the slaughter at Mome Gorge; alongside him, effectively bridging two generations of bitter experience, died Mehlokazulu kaSihayo, still unreconciled to the new order ushered in by the defeat of 1879. This is an important book, and the Express’ reaction suggests why. In a field still dominated by British perceptions of the conflict, it attempts to see monumental events through the eyes of those on ‘the other side of the barricade’, and to break down the tradition of anonymity that has so often reduced men such as these to stereotypical ‘screaming savages’

Friday 30th of June 2006 07:53:26 AM