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

img_2782

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

The Week in History, Issue 2.

The Week in History.

A roundup of last week’s coolest historical events.

Issue 2: Wednesday 22 February (1732) George Washington is Born. Thursday 23 February (1836): Siege of the Alamo Begins, (1820) Cato Street Conspiracy Foiled. Friday 24 February (1525): Battle of Pavia. Sunday 26 February (1815) Napoleon escapes from Elba. Continue reading

Book Review: Breaker Morant The Final Roundup by Joe West & Roger Roper.

img_2773

ISBN: 9781445659657

Format: Hardback.
Length: 400 Pages.
Published: Amberley 15 Dec 2016.
https://www.amberley-books.com/breaker-morant.html

The execution of Harry “Breaker” Morant and two other officers of the Bushveldt Carbineers is one of those controversy riddled debates that rumbles onwards wether or not the subject is in the public eye. Honestly I am unable to comment as to wether the evidence presented in this latest contribution alters the scale one way or the other. For this reviewer is one of those mentioned in the introduction; a newcomer to the subject, therefore in reading this I was at least blessed with an open mind. Continue reading

The Week in History,

A roundup of the week’s historical events, collected from my Twitter ramblings and expanded with contemporary and near contemporary descriptions.

Issue 1.  Mon. 13 Feb 1503. Challenge of Barletta. 13 Feb 1692. Massacre of Glencoe. 14 Feb 1779. Death of Captain Cook. 15 Feb Destruction of the USS Maine. 17 Feb Official Opening of Tut’s Tomb.

Continue reading

By harking back to Greece and Rome we are winking at the Spynx.

Common (ish) perceptions of the ancient world.

img_2569

What’s Your Civ?

Back in 2012 I offered my small pool of followers the chance to take part in a small experiment I called “What’s Your Civ?”. A kitch hashtag I thought up which tells you as much about my own social media naivety back then as it does anything else. But the idea was to then do a post about the results, highlighting people’s perceptions of past civilisations. Continue reading

Messages from the Alamo.

How the Texas Revolution was reported in Britain.

The first page of Travis' famous letter from the Alamo to the people of Texas and all Americans in the world. Little did he know his words would actually reach the world.

The first page of Travis’ famous letter from the Alamo to the people of Texas and all Americans in the world. Little did he know his words would actually reach the world.

Messages from the Alamo.

In the days before overseas telegraph, international news travelled as fast as the fastest ship. Although special correspondents and reporters played a part, unexpected stories required newspaper agents to gather the latest papers tie them up and send them home, where editors would either print verbatim or amalgamate stories to make up a column.

Delays in the relay of information, which filtered north and south through Texas into the United States, Mexico and then across the sea, meant that by the time some British readers heard about the fall of the Alamo, the defenders had been dead for nearly two months. Continue reading

Book Review: How Australia Became British by Howard T. Fry.

img_2553

ISBN 9781445664989
Format: Paperback
Pages: 288.
Publisher: Amberley 2016.

https://www.amberley-books.com/how-australia-became-british.html
In 1811 a book was published in France presenting the findings of a scientific exploration of southern Australia. But the name on the maps read, Terre Napoleon and the inlets and bays had names like Bonaparte and Josephine. It was a visual representation that showed how global the rivalry between France and Britain truly was. Newly discovered trade routes had made the east an area of great strategic interest. Continue reading