Remembering the Rebellion

Remembering the Rebellion


  • Author: Jeff Guy
  • Publisher: University of KwaZulu Natal Press
  • ISBN: 9781869141172
  • Price: £15.00

Review By : Ian Knight

In 1914, the novelist, Sir Henry Rider Haggard, visited Zululand. Despite the fact that he had served on Theophilus Shepstone’s staff during the annexation of the Transvaal, and that his literary success owed much to his fascination with Zulu history, it was the first time Haggard had actually visited Zululand, and he found the Zulus generally at that time to be in a fragile state, unsettled by the gradual destruction of their political institutions, by the appropriation of their land, and by the harshness of the Government response to the recent 1906 disturbances; "I had an interesting conversation with Sir Charles [Saunders] about the Zulus, a race in which he takes the deepest and most sympathetic interest. He spoke feelingly of the harsh treatment they have received and are receiving and declared that the ‘constant pin-pricks’, such as land-snatching and the poll-tax were the direct cause of the 1906 ‘Rebellion’. He added that this was suppressed with great cruelty notably in the last affair in the Insimba valley - Mome I think the place was called, where all quarter seems to have been refused even to those who threw down their arms and pleaded for mercy, as did the old chief Mehlokazulu, who held up his hands and said ‘please’ before they shot him. In that fight, if so it can be called, 547 Zulus were slain and one white man received a scratch on the wrist … somewhat significant figures … Some natives I am told were finished who had taken refuge in caves and up trees. Well, cruelty bred of fear is no new story in South Africa. The white man neglects or oppresses the native and slights his needs until something happens; then in panic he sets to work and butchers him." Haggard was, of course, a committed Imperialist, and he failed to recognise an essential truth - that the 1906 Rebellion was but the logical consequence of British intervention which dated not merely to 1879 but arguably to the advent of the first white settlement in Natal in 1824. Nevertheless - although he had confused to separate and distinct acts of slaughter (Mome and Izinsimba were different battles which followed a similar course) - his judgement of recent events was sound enough. The 1906 Rebellion - variously known, according to the politics of the historian, as the Bhambatha Rebellion, Zulu Uprising or, with more gentility than it deserves, the Poll Tax Disturbances - is largely unknown outside South Africa, at least in part because no British troops officially took part. Keen to prove its political maturity, the colonial administration in Natal was determined to handle the crisis without intervention from London - and in so doing, incidentally, aroused the disdain of the young Winston Churchill, then under-Secretary of State for the Colonies in the incumbent Liberal administration, who was deeply scathing about Natal’s ferocious response. And yet the events of 1906 are very much a logical consequence of the process of colonial control of which the British invasion of Zululand in 1879 was such a dramatic part. If there is an apparent contrast in the way the political and economic independence of the Zulu kingdom was reduced by strength of arms compared to the situation in Natal - where traditional leaders largely gave up their authority to the British in the 1840s - the result was largely the same; by the beginning of the twentieth century the chiefdoms on both sides of the Thukela found themselves confined to reserves, stripped of their best agricultural lands, their young men required to work for Europeans, and their leaders caught uncomfortably between the need to placate the administration upon which their vestigial authority depended and the frustrations of their people. There is a bitter irony in all this, of course, because most of the Natal chiefdoms had willingly accepted the authority of the British in the first place as an alternative to incorporation in the Zulu kingdom; by 1906, the Zulu kingdom seemed decidedly the better option, not least because its power and glory by then existed only in the rosy glow of nostalgia. It is no coincidence, then, that the disturbances began in Natal, where the process of control and exploitation had been longer underway. Nevertheless, the rebels sought to draw on the reputation of the old Zulu kingdom, and from the first the rebel inkosi Bhambatha appealed to King Dinuzulu to lend his name to the movement. Dinuzulu - who had not long returned from exile following his own abortive rebellion against the British in 1888 - wisely opted to stay on the fence, although his attempts to distance himself from the violence would not in the end save him as the authorities were convinced of his complicity and brought him to trial anyway. Nonetheless, to bolster their morale, the rebels chose King Cetshwayo’s grave in the remote Nkandla forest as their rallying point, and assumed the royalist war-cry, ’uSuthu!’. The Nkandla was at least favourable terrain which gave them some slim recourse in an unequal struggle against a ruthless enemy armed with magazine rifles, machine-guns and quick-firing artillery, but the outcome of the rebellion was perhaps never in doubt; on 10 June the rebel coalition was trapped in the deep Mome gorge and wiped out. Among the dead was Mehlokazulu kaSihayo, who had played a prominent part in the 1879 war, and Bhambatha himself - although like most popular heroes, legends persist that he actually escaped the slaughter. The rebellion appeared to be over, but scarcely a week later it broke out afresh when members of the Qwabe and Nodunga chiefdoms in the Maphumulo district - both of which had venerable historic associations with the Zulu Royal House - took to arms. The settler militias, their long-standing fear of a concerted rising fuelled by this unexpected development, reacted with extraordinary ferocity, and the rebels were again trapped in a narrow valley - this time the Izinsimba where they had taken refuge - and over 600 were killed. In the aftermath of the fighting the authorities deposed and exiled all those amakhosi they suspected of collusion in the rebellion, destroyed the homes of thousands of ordinary Africans, and sentenced as many as 7000 men to floggings, imprisonment and hard labour, often on the flimsiest of evidence. Jeff Guy’s ‘Remembering the Rebellion’ is the first comprehensive modern history of the rebellion, a neat paperback drawing on history from both sides and profusely illustrated with contemporary photographs, fascinating colour studies of the terrain today, and maps. As might be expected of a historian renowned for his radical leanings, it is suitably damning in its portrayal of colonial attitudes and policies, although Professor Guy has by and large opted to abandon political polemic in favour of story-telling, and the book is far more accessible to the general reader as a result. The title is deliberately chosen, too, for it is not merely about the events of 1906 but about their consequences, the way they are remembered today in a country in which the control of history has often been an expression of political power. This book is a perfect introduction to the rebellion in all its complexities, and one which should be read by anyone who thinks the struggle for control of KwaZulu-Natal began and ended on 22 January 1879.

Tuesday 11th of March 2008 02:14:04 PM