Book Review: A British Lion in Zululand by William Wright.

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ISBN: 9781445665481
Format: Hardback 416 pages.
Publisher: Amberley, 15 Jan 2017.
https://www.amberley-books.com/coming-soon/a-british-lion-in-zululand.html

For most people the Zulu war begins and ends with its most famous battles, iSandlwana and Rorkes Drift. For the serious Zulu reader it ends 7 months later, after the battle of Ulundi. And for the deep student of African history it ends with the capture of Cetshwayo in August and the division of the Zulu kingdom. These latter qualifications just happen to coincide with the arrival in South Africa of Sir Garnet Wolseley.

He was the government’s colonial troubleshooter, and quite literally the model of a modern Major General. A straightforward professional whose trademark was well planned and orchestrated advances into tough territory and the reduction of the enemy in open battle. A careful and somewhat pompous soldier, it perhaps should have been no surprise that it would fall to to him to clean up the mess caused by Lord Chelmsford’s disastrous first invasion of Zululand. It was not to be so simple however, for by the time Sir Garnet got to Natal the last battle had been fought and won, and glory would prove an evasive prize for Sir Garnet. As such the majority of us see Wolesley as the eager saviour of British honour, racing to catch up with the army, grumbling about everything that had been done wrong along the way.

William Wright’s, A British Lion in Zululand sets out to flesh out Wolesley’s part in the war, and as an added bonus extends the focus of the book to his entire service in South Africa, including the little known Bapedi War. Although the idea of calling the foxy whiskered gentleman, Sir Garnet a lion brought a smile to my face, and a fear that this would be an syrupy, admiring ode to Britain’s most proficient imperial General, this turned out to be an engaging, well argued and well written account of end of the Zulu War and its aftermath.

It is undoubtedly pro Sir Garnet. I mention this because his failure to relieve Khartoum (which again was a mess made by others to which he was called late) left an indelible stain on an otherwise gleaming record. Up until know his actions in South Africa have also been viewed with a critical eye, and that is saying something when you consider the man he was superseding. Wright does his best to defend and contextualise Sir Garnet’s actions, giving him the benefit of the doubt where possible. Chelmsford’s petulant race to keep ahead of Sir Garnet and win a decisive battle is condemned for its short sightedness, as well it might. Wolsey is shown as vindicated in his assertions that Chelmsford only wanted to steal the wind from his sails and blot out the stain of iSandlwana. In this he was entirely successful, however he would never command again.

Sir Garnet was happiest by the side of a river, much preferring this mode of transport to road travel for his supplies. As he tried to catch up with the main column he complained about everything, and would probably have preferred to pull back once more and invade a third time rather than try and wrestle some sense out of Chelmsford’s slap dash car wreck. As it was, Wolesley was left with the tough task of “settling Zululand”, and capturing or killing the Zulu King, Cetshwayo. In the first he failed utterly, but in the second was successful. The author mounts no defence for his curious decision to split the country into segments, although he does indicate the architect of the scheme was Shepstone, rather than Wolsley.

The book feels like a part of a biography, beginning with Wolesy’s appointment as Governor of Cyprus, which offers a very interesting glimpse of British affairs in the Mediterranean at the time. Throughout the author maintains a biographical focus on its main protagonist, always attempting to explain the actions of Sir Garnet. Diversions occur when it is necessary to explain what is happening in depth, and very vivid accounts of the decisive battles are provided, not to mention the fine descriptions of all operations overseen by Wolesley himself.

Amongst the most interesting things we find along the way is how the British tried to blame the Zulu War on John Dunn, who for his part Wolesly felt would be an excellent ally in the settling of Zululand. Yet many thought he had armed the Zulus with guns and this had lead to war. Rather than the conniving machinations of Sir Bartle Frere. It stresses that the British government did not want a Zulu war, yet! For while the invasion was roundly condemned, it was done so (outside of those actually in sympathy with the Zulus), from the standpoint tha a Zulu war was inevitable sometime in the future but not now. Wolesley thought so, and in terms of morality was only sorry that Chelmsford had been such a thick-head in underestimating the enemy.

So while the beginning may not offer much new to the seasoned Zulu campaigner, except some insight in the form of Wolesley’s correspondence, which serves as bedrock for this work, and better detail regarding what is usually an afterthought. What makes the book shine is the chapters about the settling of Zululand and the Bapedi War, a conflict which is practically unknown (even on the internet, I checked.) and yet is highly interesting in terms of a colonial campaign. Here the author is digging into fresh ground, and walking a trail less trod. This small but savage conflict, which exploited tribal rivalries between the Bapedi and the Swazi  and ironically removed a great check to Boer supremacy, is usually completely overshadowed by the Zulu War. Wether or not as some of the participants said, it made it’s more famous predecessor look silly is a matter of debate, but no one  reading the chapter on the “Fighting Kopje” will deny that it was an supremely tough campaign and a singularly dirty affair.

Filled with fine word picture studies, and told with a feeling and sympathy for the time and subject, the author has included excerpts from letters and journals with an unnerring eye for atmosphere. Will there ever be a better description of a bagpipe in action than when hailed as the very “breath of battle?”, and the singular nature of fighting in the Lulu mountains will astound readers when they read of magnetised rocks dancing along behind the wagon wheels of the invading force. A British Lion in Zululand is a excellent and welcome addition to our knowledge of, British military and South African history, and a very enjoyable read.

Josh

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