Surveying his southern African domain on his arrival at Government House in Cape Town in March 1877, Britain’s new high commissioner, Sir Bartle Frere, felt confident that he was within reach of establishing a new British dominion. It was to be the crowning glory of his illustrious career. The outlook seemed auspicious. The Cape Colony in the 1870s was enjoying increased prosperity, driven in large part by the boom of the diamond industry in Griqualand West; investment in railways, harbours and roads grew apace. The white population reached 250,000. The ambitions of the Cape, moreover, largely coincided with the objectives of imperial Britain. Cape politicians advocated the expansion of Cape influence in southern Africa as a means of ensuring law, order and development. During the 1870s, the Cape government took on administrative responsibility for Basutoland and much of the Transkei territories lying between the Cape and Natal. Despite differences over the merits of confederation, the Cape was regarded as a reliable ally in working for British supremacy in the region.

But to Frere’s frustration, he was soon diverted by a series of African revolts erupting over the steady encroachment of white rule and its many manifestations - magistrates, missionaries, farmers, labour agents, taxation and land-grabbing. Instead of stamping his authority on the region as he had intended, Frere discovered the outer reaches of his realm were under threat.

In September 1877, in what marked the start of the ninth Xhosa war, Gcaleka Xhosa attacked a Cape police post. They were joined later by Ngqika Xhosa based in the Cape. It took colonial forces and British reinforcements seven months to suppress the revolt, at a cost of £1.75 million. In February 1878, there was a rising by Griqua in Griqualand East. This was followed by a Griqua rebellion in Griqualand West that spread to aggrieved Khoikhoi, Tlhaping and Kora groups, affecting most areas of the Colony as well as territories to the north and west of it.

Frere interpreted this tide of events as a ‘general and simultaneous rising of Kaffirdom against white civilisation’ that blocked the way to confederation and needed to be stamped out altogether. Along with his Cape officials, he took the view that as long as independent African chiefdoms were allowed to exist, the danger of a ‘black conspiracy’ against white authority would be ever present. The most powerful of them all was Zululand. Once British forces - using new breech-loading Martini-Henry rifles - had suppressed the Xhosa rebellion, Frere set his sights on forcing Zululand into submission. In promoting this new strategy, he received the full support of his Transvaal consul, Sir Theophilus Shepstone, Britain’s leading authority on the Zulu people.

For nearly fifty years, Zululand had functioned as a militarised state with a powerful army, wreaking havoc among neighbouring African chiefdoms during the 1820s and clashing with Boer trekkers during the 1830s. Although suffering a major defeat at the Ncome River in 1838, in a battle the Boers called Blood River, the Zulu army remained a formidable force; new age-regiments were regularly recruited, trained for close combat and stationed at barracks around the country. Every young Zulu was keen to ‘wash his spear’ in the blood of his enemies to prove his manhood. In internal disputes, mass slaughter and arbitrary executions were commonplace.

When Britain established the colony of Natal in 1843, the Zulu king, Mpande, agreed to a border between Zululand and Natal running along the line of the Tugela and Buffalo Rivers. The border remained relatively tranquil. Mpande sought to avoid direct confrontation with white power and established a cordial relationship with Shepstone, Natal’s secretary for native affairs.

On Zululand’s north-west frontier with the Transvaal, however, there was constant friction as Boer settlers infiltrated on to land the British authorities recognised as Zulu territory. Rather than go to war, Mpande ceded to the Boers in 1854 a wedge of fertile land between the Buffalo and Blood Rivers that became known as the Utrecht district. But Boer farmers continued their infiltration further east into adjacent areas on the north-west border, claiming yet more Zulu territory. Mpande repeatedly asked Shepstone for assistance in mediating in the frontier struggle; in 1869 he even suggested the creation of a ‘neutral’ British buffer zone to halt Boer encroachments. Shepstone supported the Zulu case; the British government was opposed to Boer expansion, yet the dispute rumbled on with the threat of war ever present.

When Mpande died in 1872, he was succeeded by his 40-year-old son Cetshwayo, a tall, broad-chested man of regal bearing, with immense thighs typical of the Zulu royal house. Troubled by internal rivalry, Cetshwayo invited Shepstone to attend his ‘coronation’, hoping that a show of British support would strengthen his hand. Shepstone duly accepted, keen to use the opportunity to extend British influence over Cetshwayo. He explained later: ‘I felt bound, representing as I did the Government of a civilised race, to take advantage of the opportunity by endeavouring to ameliorate the condition of a people under one of the most oppressive despotisms in the world.’

Accompanied by an escort of 110 white troopers and 300 African auxiliaries, Shepstone crossed into Zululand in August 1873. During two days of discussion at a military kraal on the Mahlabathini Plain, Shepstone found Cetshwayo to be a skilful negotiator:

Cetwayo is a man of considerable ability, much force of character, and has a dignified manner; in all conversations with him he was remarkably frank and straightforward, and he ranks in every respect far above any Native Chief I have ever had to do with. I do not think that his disposition is very warlike; even if it is, his obesity will impose prudence; but he is naturally proud of the military traditions of his family, especially the policy and deeds of his uncle and predecessor, Chaka, to which he made frequent reference. His sagacity enables him, however, to see clearly the bearing of the new circumstances by which he is surrounded, and the necessity for so adjusting his policy as to suit them.

Cetshwayo insisted that all Boer settlements below the Drakensberg, including the whole of the Utrecht district, rightfully belonged to Zululand. To prevent further Boer encroachment, he offered to cede all the disputed territory to the British. But Shepstone, knowing how such a move would antagonise the Boers, felt unable to accept.

Cetshwayo’s coronation followed on 1 September. Shepstone opened the proceedings with an address in perfect Zulu to a large gathering of chiefs and councillors, setting out the terms of British support. These included an end to indiscriminate bloodshed and arbitrary execution. Then he led Cetshwayo into a marquee that British troops had erected and placed on his head a gaudy crown run up by the master tailor of the 75th Foot and on his shoulders a scarlet and gold mantle also provided by the British mission. Outside, a military band struck up and an artillery detachment fired a seventeen-gun salute.

When Britain took control of the Transvaal four years later, Cetshwayo assumed, in view of previous British pledges, that he would be able to regain lost territory. The border dispute by now had festered for sixteen years. During that time, while Boers had seized Zulu land and cattle, Shepstone had urged them to show moderation and restraint. They had duly complied. They had provided a full statement of their case in writing. Now Cetshwayo wanted the matter resolved.

Now the Transvaal is English ground, I want Somtseu to send the Boers away from the lower part of the Transvaal, that near my country. The Boers are a nation of liars; they are bad people, they lie, they claim what is not theirs, and ill-use my people.

But Shepstone proved to be a fickle friend. Once he had been installed as grand-overlord of the Transvaal highveld, he advocated ‘a more thorough control of the Zulu Country’, whether this was gained ‘by means of annexation or otherwise’. He was more concerned to appease his disaffected Boer subjects than to pursue Zulu land claims.

Alarmed by talk of annexation, Cetshwayo became increasingly distrustful of Shepstone’s intentions, telling a missionary: ‘I love the English. I am not Mpande’s son. I am the child of Queen Victoria. But I am also a king in my own country and must be treated as such. Somtseu must speak gently to me. I shall not hear dictation . . . I shall perish first.’

In October 1877, Shepstone attended an ill-tempered meeting with a Zulu delegation near the Blood River, infuriating them by suggesting a compromise with the Boers over the land issue. The meeting broke up in disarray. Livid that his authority should be challenged, Shepstone told London that the Zulu delegation had been ‘exacting and unreasonable in their demands, and the tone they exhibited was very self-asserting, almost defiant and in every way unsatisfactory. At no moment during the whole interview was there apparent the smallest hope of any reasonable arrangement.’

Shepstone now turned against Cetshwayo with a vengeance. Insisting that he had come into possession of ‘the most incontrovertible, overwhelming and clear evidence’, never previously disclosed, he threw his weight into supporting Boer claims to the disputed territory and dismissed the Zulu case as ‘characterised by lying and treachery to an extent that I could not have believed even savages capable of’.

In despatches to London, Shepstone railed against the disruptive effect of allowing Cetshwayo’s regime to remain in place. ‘Zulu power,’ he said, ‘is the root and real strength of all native difficulties in South Africa.’ In December 1877, he told Carnarvon:

Cetshwayo is the secret hope of every petty independent chief hundreds of miles from him who feels a desire that his colour shall prevail, and it will not be until this hope is destroyed that they will make up their minds to submit to the rule of civilization.

The outbreak of the Xhosa war in the Cape, he argued, had been inspired by the Zulu king. ‘I am fully satisfied,’ he told Frere in January 1878, ‘that no permanent peace can be hoped for until the Zulu power has been broken up.’ Frere, already convinced of the need for war, readily concurred. The overthrow of Cetshwayo, he believed, would be a salutary lesson for all African chiefdoms.

The British government had no objection to annexing Zululand at an appropriate moment, but was nervous that Shepstone’s warmongering might lead to precipitate action before proper preparations had been made, and wanted to avoid war. To gain time, Britain authorised a boundary commission to investigate the dispute. In view of assurances that Shepstone had given about the rightful ownership of the disputed territory, Frere fully expected the boundary commission would find in favour of Boer claims and thus precipitate a Zulu uprising. But in July 1878, the boundary commission upheld Zulu claims. ‘The evidence shows,’ said their report, ‘that this so-called “disputed territory” has never been occupied by the Boers, but has always been inhabited by the border clans, who have never moved their kraals, and that the only use ever made of the land by the Boers has been for grazing purposes, which in itself proves nothing.’ The Transvaal government had never exercised any jurisdiction, civil or criminal, nor had it ever governed any of the natives resident on the land. It had never received taxes or land rent from the Zulu inhabitants and had never appointed a government official there. For five months after receiving the report, Frere delayed any announcement about its findings while he worked out another way to bring on a war.

Using the pretext that Natal was threatened by a Zulu invasion, Frere sent British troop reinforcements there from the Cape. Cetshwayo was quick to express his concern to British officials:

I hear of troops arriving in Natal, that they are coming to attack the Zulus, and to seize me; in what have I done wrong that I should be seized like an ‘Umtakata’ [wrongdoer]? The English are my fathers, I do not wish to quarrel with them, but to live as I have always done, at peace with them.

Frere brushed aside such protestations and continued to talk up the danger of a Zulu invasion, claiming in his reports to the Colonial Office that Cetshwayo had 60,000 warriors under his command, ready to strike across the border; the people of Natal, he insisted, were ‘slumbering on a volcano’.

Alarmed by his warnings, the British government authorised the despatch of two more British battalions to Natal, but still hoped that war could be avoided. The difficulty that British ministers faced was that they had no immediate means of controlling Frere. There was as yet no direct telegraph link to the Cape or Natal. The telegraph cable from London reached only as far as the Cape Verde islands; from there messages had to be carried to Cape Town by ship, taking at least sixteen days; letters and despatches spent up to a month en route from London. The time lag enabled Frere to argue that he needed to respond to events on the ground without waiting for government approval of every decision he made and provided him with an excuse to ignore government instructions altogether.

But in any case, neither Frere nor his army commander, Lord Chelmsford, expected anything more than a short, sharp action before Zulu resistance collapsed. Having recently thrashed the Xhosa, Chelmsford was in a confident mood. ‘I am inclined to think,’ Chelmsford wrote to a subordinate in November, ‘that the first experience of the power of the Martini-Henrys will be such a surprise to the Zulus that they will not be formidable after the first effort.’

When Paul Kruger passed through Durban in December on his way back to the Transvaal from his second visit to London, Frere asked him whether he would be willing to join the campaign as an adviser, suggesting he could name his own reward. ‘The independence of my country and people,’ replied Kruger and turned down the request. Kruger nevertheless agreed to talk to Chelmsford about the best ways and means of waging war against the Zulus. He warned that whenever British forces set up camp they should form their wagons into a laager as the Boers were accustomed to do and send out scouts and spies to inform them of Zulu movements. It was advice that went unheeded.

The device that Frere used to provoke a war was an ultimatum he sent to Cetshwayo on 11 December incorporating demands that he knew were unacceptable. Frere told Cetshwayo to disband his army and abolish his military system, in effect to remove his principal source of power, or face the consequences. Cetshwayo was given thirty days to comply. To ensure that there was no interference from London, Frere delayed informing the Colonial Office about his ultimatum until it was too late for it to be countermanded. The full text of his demands did not reach London until 2 January 1879. By then, Chelmsford had assembled an army of 18,000 men - redcoats, colonial volunteers and Natal African auxiliaries - along the Zululand border, ready for invasion.

On 11 January, Chelmsford crossed the Buffalo River at Rorke’s Drift, an old Irish trader’s post that had become a mission station, placing himself in command of the main expeditionary force of 4,700 men, which included 1,900 white troops and 2,400 African auxiliaries. His intention was to advance along a wagon track that ran from Rorke’s Drift to Cetshwayo’s capital at Ondini, sixty miles to the east. As the track was in bad condition, he decided to set up an intermediate camp along the way. After making a personal reconnaissance of the area, he selected a site beneath a giant rocky outcrop called Isandlwana, twelve miles from Rorke’s Drift, shrugging off the misgivings of several members of his staff. No trenches or any other kind of defences were built around the camp because Chelmsford considered it would take too much time. Nor did he order sufficient reconnaissance, dismissing the likelihood of a Zulu frontal assault on a force of heavily armed British soldiers, even though the Zulu were renowned for that type of warfare.

At dawn on 22 January, Chelmsford led the main part of his column out of the camp to make a sweep of country to the south-east, ignoring reports of Zulu bands moving towards Isandlwana. At nine-thirty a.m., a messenger galloped up to Chelmsford’s group with a note from the camp commander, written at eight a.m., warning that ‘Zulus are advancing in force from the left front of the camp.’ When a staff officer asked Chelmsford, ‘What is to be done on the subject?’, Chelmsford replied: ‘There is nothing to be done on that.’ Despite other bits of intelligence reaching him in the following hours, Chelmsford remained in the field, taking no action to send back reinforcements to Isandlwana.

The British army that day suffered one of the worst disasters in its history. A Zulu force of 20,000 warriors swept into the camp at Isandlwana, annihilating six companies of the 24th regiment. In all, some 1,360 men died - 870 white soldiers and 490 black auxiliaries and non-combatants. Out of a total garrison of 1,760 troops, only 55 whites and 350 auxiliaries survived. An estimated 1,000 Zulus were killed.

Later that afternoon, another Zulu force attacked the mission station at Rorke’s Drift which the British had converted into a makeshift hospital. Forewarned that the Zulus were coming, a British detachment of a hundred men improvised defences by throwing up barricades of wooden biscuit boxes and bags of maize cobs and managed to hold out against a ferocious assault lasting twelve hours.

The shock waves from a British army’s defeat at the hands of spear-carrying tribesmen spread across southern Africa. All over Natal, white communities were gripped by panic, fearing a Zulu invasion would soon overwhelm them. In London, Disraeli was not only mortified by the blow to Britain’s military prestige, but livid that Frere had started the war without his sanction. No one doubted that the British army would eventually prevail in Zululand, but its defeat at Isandlwana left Britain humiliated in the eyes of rival European powers. The only glimmer of light was the gallant defence of Rorke’s Drift. At a time of disaster, Britain wanted to hear of heroes. A total of eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded for the defence of Rorke’s Drift. Chelmsford meanwhile was quick to cover up his own catastrophic failure of command at Isandlwana, blaming it on subordinate officers.

Needing to restore its authority in southern Africa, Britain set out not just to crush resistance but to dismantle the Zulu state. Cetshwayo sent a series of envoys to Frere: ‘What have I done? I want peace. I ask for peace.’ But Frere was in no mood to listen. Bolstered by reinforcements and armed with rockets, artillery and Gatling machine guns, British forces, after a ponderous five-month campaign, routed the last of Cetshwayo’s impis at the battle of Ulundi. More than 1,500 warriors died for the loss of thirteen on the British side.

A new British proconsul, General Sir Garnet Wolseley, was despatched to deal with this troublesome part of south-east Africa, with powers to act as ‘supreme civil and military authority’ not only over Natal and Zululand but also over the Transvaal; what the British cabinet wanted was a ‘dictator’ to sort out the mess. Wolseley was the most famous British general of his time, with a record of reckless daring combined with a talent for organisation. He had served in the Crimea, Burma, India and China. More recently, he had led the British campaign to subdue the Ashanti in West Africa and served briefly as governor of Natal. He was also vain, outspoken and frequently contemptuous of other people.

In short order, Wolseley packed Cetshwayo off to prison in Cape Town and broke up his kingdom into thirteen ‘kinglets’, stripping Cetshwayo’s Usuthu clan of their status, land and cattle and rewarding Zulus who had sided with the British, or who had capitulated early, in a ruthless display of divide-and-rule tactics. A sizeable chunk of southern Zululand was given to a white gun-runner, John Dunn, once an ally of Cetshwayo, who had deserted him at the beginning of the war to join the British camp. The entire ‘disputed territories’ were ceded to the Transvaal. Wolseley claimed that his ‘settlement’ had laid ‘enduring foundations of peace, happiness and prosperity’ but it resulted only in years of bitter strife amongst rival Zulu factions.

Next, Wolseley turned his attention to smashing Sekhukhune’s Pedi state in eastern Transvaal. In November 1879, he mustered a motley army of British troops, colonial volunteers, Transvaal African auxiliaries and 8,000 Swazi warriors to destroy Sekhukhune’s capital at Tsate. While Wolseley led the main column along the valley to the town, the Swazi regiments descended from the heights that lay behind it. It was all over in a few hours. Sekhukhune was taken prisoner and incarcerated in Pretoria; his followers were dispersed into new settlements, losing much of their land.

Wolseley assumed that such a demonstration of imperial might would have a salutary effect on the restless mood of the Transvaal Boers. But, by crushing both Cetshwayo and Sekhukhune, the British had liberated the Transvaal Boers from the two greatest threats to their security. They now saw a new opportunity to get rid of the British.

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