The Boiling Cauldron

The Boiling Cauldron


  • Author: Huw Jones
  • Publisher: Shermershill Press
  • Publish Date: 2006
  • Price: 45.00

Review By : I Knight

Just before dawn on the morning of 28 March 1879, to the accompaniment of a dramatic electrical storm, British troops, consisting largely of Irregular horsemen and African auxiliaries, launched an attack on the Zulu stronghold of Hlobane mountain. What was to happen next would account for the second largest British butcher’s bill of the entire Zulu campaign - dwarfed only, but inevitably, by iSandlwana - for after a running fight which spluttered on for much of the day the British were driven off the mountain leaving 200 dead behind them, including no less than fifteen officers. The exact number of African auxiliaries killed in the battle was never determined, and many of the dead were only sought out and buried months later; some never were. A good deal of the blame for the failure of the expedition can be laid at the door of the senior commander of the Left Flank Column, Sir Evelyn Wood, who embarked upon it with inadequate intelligence, mixed objectives, and despite warnings that a major Zulu army was about to enter the theatre en route from oNdini. Nor did the battle go well for Wood personally; at one point his escort came under fire, and two of his staff were shot dead in front of his eyes. Yet the degree to which Wood was culpable for the disaster has largely escaped the searching eye of history until quite recently. He did, of course, redeem himself by his comprehensive defeat of the main Zulu army at Khambula the following day, against which success his failure at Hlobane was seen as no more than an embarrassing aberration. Wood was, moreover, and adroit politician, adept at distancing himself from errors - whether his own or others’ - and it is only recently that his accounts of Hlobane, upon which almost all subsequent interpretations have been based, have been challenged. Among those first to challenge them was Huw Jones, who has expanded his view of the battle into a thumping 380-page study. Central to the author’s thesis is that, unlike almost every other engagement in the war, Hlobane reflected not only the broader strategy of the war but was the culmination of decades of local and personal rivalry, and that its character was shaped not by events in Natal but by the tangled history of Zululand’s north-western border. In the 1820s the Zulu kingdom had expanded its influence up the valleys of the Mzinyathi and Ncome rivers, dislodging major groups like the amaHlubi and amaNgwane who lived there. Although the Zulu kingdom was undoubtedly the dominant power in the region, the author argues that Zulu control was never as complete as the Zulu Royal House claimed, that many of the groups who remained living in the region merely gave tribute to their powerful neighbours as an insurance, changing allegiance as the need dictated, and that along the Phongolo valley, further east, the influence of the Swazi kingdom was more significant than is sometimes claimed. Indeed, one of the ironies of the story lies in the fact that it was precisely because the area was on the periphery of his territory that King Mpande gave republican Boers, reeling from the recent annexation of Natal by the British, permission to settle between the Mzinyathi and Ncome - in what became the Utrecht district - in the 1840s. This was the genesis of the infamous ‘border dispute’ which was a cause of conflict in 1879, and its rights and wrongs - and the hostilities it engendered, which made the Utrecht the ‘boiling cauldron’ of the title - take up a good deal of the book, framing the later military action. They were, suggests the author, the result of a number of different and mutually antagonistic agendas. As the Utrecht settlement grew, so frontier farmers sought to expand their activities into Zululand, pressuring King Mpande to grant them at first seasonal grazing rights and later permission to settle. Further inland, the South African Republic nursed a long-term ambition to establish a safe corridor through to the Indian Ocean, and as such was inclined to support the Utrecht burghers’ claims when it suited them - but not necessarily when it did not. On the other side the author is inclined to dispute the title in any case of King Mpande to dispose of the land, and makes much of the divided nature of political power in Zululand following the succession crisis of the 1850s. In the aftermath of the destruction of a large coalition of his internal rivals at the battle of ‘Ndondakusuka in 1856, the then Prince Cetshwayo effectively secured his right to succeed but remained sensitive to last-minute support from his father to rival claimants. That some of these rivals escaped to Utrecht prompted him - probably unwisely - to offer concessions to the Utrecht burghers in return for their surrender; concessions for which the ultimate authority did not rest with him. To further complicate an already unstable situation, Mpande allowed German missionaries to establish a settlement at Luneburg in the 1860s, probably hoping that their presence would diffuse the growing tension. And, perhaps in an attempt to trump his father’s influence, Prince Cetshwayo gave permission at about the same time for one of his favourites, the exiled Swazi Prince, Mbilini waMswati, to settle nearby. Mbilini, of course, emerges as a major figure in the story; he had fled Swaziland after an unsuccessful attempt to secure the throne following the death of his father, King Mswati, and his attempts to rebuild his power and prestige, by raiding both outlying Swazi settlements and farms on the SAR side of the border, ratcheted up the tension by several notches. Indeed, his presence ensured that the Swazi kingdom could not remain entirely aloof from the increasingly fraught relationship between the British, Zulu and Transvaal and Utrecht burghers. In 1879 Mbilini - famously described by a relative to have possess the personality of ’a hyena’ - was to emerge as the most able guerrilla leader fighting in the Zulu cause, directly responsible for the successful attack on the convoy at Ntombe Drift and certainly involved in the defence of Hlobane mountain. What makes Huw Jones highly detailed and meticulously researched account of these proceeding both fresh and to some extent challenging is his support for the Utrecht burghers’ position. He goes to considerable length to identify the specifics of their discussions with various Zulu personalities - which burghers held negotiations with which Zulu dignitaries, when, and about which tracts of land bounded by which landmarks - and makes no bones about his opinion that their position has been consistently misrepresented, not least by the Natal Boundary Commission in 1878 and by most historians ever since. For him, it is Cetshwayo who is the villain of the piece, offering concessions to the burghers when it suited his political and territorial ambitions and reneging on them when called upon to carry them into effect. Yet it must be said that this remains a contested history, open to other interpretations. The author sees little evidence to support A.T. Bryant’s contention that the Zulu royal homestead ebaQulusini - the settlement from which the abaQulusi section originated - was established in the 1820s, and proposes that it was not placed near Hlobane mountain until the 1850s. AbaQulusi elders today disagree, however, and indeed a number of locations on the northern slopes of Hlobane are still held in reverence because of their associations with the founding of the settlement, which they firmly associate with Shaka’s era. And while Cetshwayo, driven to frustration by the political intrigues within Zululand and by the de facto interference of the Utrecht community, undoubtedly made them wild offers which he was not in a position to honour, it is not entirely clear whether he ever confirmed them afterwards, and they do not appear to have been ratified in any case by those who ranked above him, namely the king and royal council. While the author might attribute Cetshwayo’s actions in destroying recently-erected border beacons at the beginning of 1865 to a fit of pique following a fresh defection by one of his rivals, to ‘annoyance at the fact that his duplicitous behaviour over the land cession had been in vain’, it might equally have reflected his frustration at his inability to reach a lasting agreement with any Boer party who could give him the trade-off - the closing of the borders - he so desperately sought. It was these entrenched rivalries which shaped the pattern of the war in the north in 1879. Because the annexation of the SAR had proved so unpopular among the Boers, the British failed to secure any support for the invasion of Zululand, but they were able to enlist the help of one of the most influential Utrecht patriarchs, Petrus Lefras Uys, who had farms in the disputed territory. Resistance to the build up of British troops was orchestrated by Prince Mbilini in concert with the abaQulusi and the theatre saw a low-intensity struggle of raid and counter-raid from the beginning of the war. Once the war was further under way, however, the situation was yet further complicated by the defection of Prince Hamu kaNzibe to the British cause, an incident which heightened King Cetshwayo’s unease over the security of the northern borders. It was against this background that the Hlobane complex assumed such strategic importance; it was a stronghold for both the abaQulusi and Mbilini himself, a bastion of royalist sympathies and resistance to the invasion. If it is arguably stretching things a bit far to suggest that Wood might have continued his advance towards oNdini and simply ignored Hlobane, the author is quite right to point out Wood’s motives in deciding to assault it at the end of March were mixed. Lord Chelmsford’s request that Wood make a diversion to distract the Zulus from Chelmsford’s own moves towards Eshowe on the coast might have provided a context for Wood’s action, but many of the men under his command were under the impression that their primary objective was merely to deprive the abaQulusi of the 2000 or so head of cattle they had secured upon the summit. Ironically, it was Wood’s success in applying pressure to local groups, and securing the defection of Hamu, which had in turn persuaded Cetshwayo to despatch his main army to the northern sector. Wood knew it was coming, and his blithe confidence that it could not reach Hlobane before he launched his attack on the 28th now seems like negligence of the first order. Understanding of the battle of Hlobane itself has remained confused, partly because a number of prominent British officers were killed in the action, and partly because official reports have been dominated by Wood’s version of events. The battle was a running fight, moreover, which took place over a wide swathe of difficult terrain, and it is often difficult to make sense of the personal impressions of those who took part. The author is particularly keen to tie specific incidents to physical locations, and this is one of the strengths of his account. He is, for example, scornful of previous historians who have, he says, ‘manufactured a dilemma’ about the true whereabouts of Zungwini Nek, to where Wood ordered Lt. Col. J.C. Russell on the day, with disastrous results - whilst at the same time acknowledging that this particular paper-trail can be traced to Wood himself, who claimed that Russell mistook ‘the position of Zunguin Nek [and] trotted five miles to the west’. Indeed, the illustrations in the book largely consist of topographical sketches made in September 1881, and which largely illustrate the point. Wood’s wilful misrepresentation of the facts - in this regard, and in connection with the circumstances surrounding the death of his Staff Officer, Captain Campbell - is laid bare here, and it is difficult to avoid the impression that the colonial horsemen who made up the bulk of the attacking forces were made the scapegoats, afterwards, for the failings of their senior officers. Yet this does not entirely justify the accusation, repeated here, that in choosing to employ the colonials when planning the expedition Wood was deliberately sacrificing them to preserve his regular infantry; the fact remains that if Hlobane was beyond the effective range of his infantry, and if Wood chose to assault the mountain with mounted troops and auxiliaries, the colonials were all he had. Nor, even after so meticulous a study as this, is it entirely clear to whom credit for the Zulu victory should be directed. The author suggests Mbilini was the architect of the defence of the mountain; modern abaQulusi traditions ascribe it to their senior military induna at the time, Sikhobobho - and indeed all memory of Mbilini’s participation has been lost. And while Wood’s assertion that the abaQulusi took part in the attack on Khambula the following day is challenged here, modern oral traditions are adamant that many Qulusi did fight there. The contradiction is explained by Sikhobobho’s pronouncement that the Qulusi had fought well enough in the defence of Hlobane, and had no duty to attack the British camp. They had, he is supposed to have said, already ‘done their bit’, but individuals might join the assault if they so chose, and a large number indeed did so, although they were late in joining the impi, and suffered heavily at the end of the battle, during their retreat to the mountain. There are other anomalies, too. The name of the important induna commanding the southern Mzinyathi border, opposite Rorke’s Drift, is given as both Sihayo kaXongo and Sirayo kaXongo, even in the index, as if they were different people. But these are minor quibbles in what remains a hugely important study of a neglected theatre of the war, and a perceptive re-appraisal of its defining battle. More than that, The Boiling Cauldron is that increasingly rare thing - a thoroughly researched, original and worthwhile contribution to the literature of the Anglo-Zulu War.

Saturday 07th of June 2008 08:20:29 AM