Thursday, September 8, 2011

Donald R. Morris' "The Washing of the Spears: The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation." (Steak Knives)

Shaka Zulu was a very, very bad man...

Still, from a remote corner of non-British 19th C. hinterland, the fruits of his bloody tyranny hamstrung Victoria's empire and cut down the great-nephew and potential heir of Napoleon in his prime.

Morris' recount of the Zulus reads like 50% Shaka and 50% Zulu War.  This ratio is fair in retrospect, I think, if you consider the sources available to a modern historian.  There's simply not a lot of written or otherwise reliable data to say much more about the Zulu half of the experience.  This hollow echo is shared by the subaltern and indigenous accounts of resistance the world over, so very sadly.

Shaka Zulu
(very, very bad man)
The history of the Zulu is weaved into the early colonization and encroachment of Europeans in southern Africa, and really starts to come to life with the story of the Zulu's rise during Shaka's reign.  Accounts of him meeting with Europeans while his subjects were arbitrarily selected and executed at regular intervals in the background (just because he had the absolute power to do so) were chilling.  Upon his mother's death, he had 10 women's legs and arms broken and thrown into her grave pit to keep her company, for starters.  In fact, the scope and scale of violence in response to his mother's death is absolutely hypnotic even while highly disturbing.  This variety of ultra-violent despotism is unsustainable of course, and highly unpopular with the plebs.  In the end, he's cut down by assassins while begging shamelessly and desperately for mercy.

A few leadership transitions later and we have Cetshwayo, leader during the Zulu war.  The war was triggered not by the Zulus, but the colonial interests, who delivered a list of impossible ultimatums in the hope that the threat of a Zulu antagonist would help make the case for political unity and 'confederation' of the Brits, Boers, and other colonists in the region ('plus ca change,' eh?).  Despite the British starting their invasion of Zulu territory with much advance strategic planning and provision, the Zulu's get the hard-core jump on them which leads to a rout/massacre at Isandlwana that shakes the soldiers' and Empire's confidence significantly.

Immediately following was the battle of Rourke's Drift, an incredible tale all around.  I half-know the story of the Alamo [something to add to the stack, perhaps] but the siege premise is broadly similar - defence and valour against incredible and hopeless odds. A handful of British defend a small river crossing post behind a crude and hastily built fortification of whatever they had at hand - mostly boxes of rations.

Rourke's Drift - Holding behind a line of biscuit boxes against a sea of Zulu warriors.
These and other initial successes against the British did not set the theme for the war.  When disciplined, prepared and in box formation, the British created a break wall of rifle and artillery fire that the waves of Zulus simply couldn't breach.  At the final battle of Ulundi "(n)ot a Zulu reached to within 30 yards of the British lines."
The young manhood of the Zulu nation was already disillusioned with this sort of warfare, and it seems that the Zulu leadership was also at a loss to understand how they could stop the assault (not that the Brits were interested in a negotiated end to the war - they played their own part in preventing any parley).  It's worth quoting at length here to capture the situation in which Cetshwayo found himself... 
"The terms of the ultimatum had been completely impossible, and he had been invaded before he had time to comply with even the conditions over which he did have a measure of control.  He had no very firm command over the various factions in his domain and hardly any at all over the sequence of military events.  He simply sent impis in the direction of the invading columns, and the results of the first victory at Isandhlwana appalled him.  The Zulu losses had been tremendous, and what until then had been a dispute which he hoped temporization, concession or a display of force might still settle had been turned into a war of sheer extermination."

That the war was a morally specious one was perfectly clear to those of *all* political stripes at the time.  Cetshwayo becomes a tragic figure in this light, and draws many interested, empathetic crowds in his exile.  Eventually, he's returned to a broken Zulu territory under colonial control, and the Zulu as a power in the region leave the history books with a whimper.

Cetshwayo - On right, in exile and in Western dress.

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