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4th July; Ulundi Day

    It's always struck me as ironic that whilst my American friends rightly celebrate 4 July as the day they threw off the influence of the British Empire for my Zulu friends it has rather more melancholic associations. It is the anniversary of the battle the British know as Ulundi, and which the Zulus over the years have known variously as KwaNodwengu and oCwecweni - the last major confrontation in the invasion of 1879, and for them the final devastating defeat of a catastrophic campaign.

 

    The significance of the battle has been contested over the years and its place in history is undeniably complex. Jeff Guy, author of the seminal The Destruction of the Zulu Kingdom, argued that the battle's importance was over-stated by the British at the time, and that indeed it was a gratuitous act of revenge - for iSandlwana, of course - inflicted on a people who had already been militarily crushed. But whilst it is certainly true that Ulundi, as a battle, seems less importance when judged against the broader spread of the British penetration, conquest and subjugation of Zululand - which arguably began with the arrival of Francis Farewell's adventurers in 1824, jumped sharply into focus in 1879 and then ground on inexorably across the civil wars of the 1880s, ending only with the crushing defeat of the 'rebels' by Natal militia in 1906 - it was undoubtedly considered necessary by both sides in 1879. Lord Chelmsford, of course, needed to demonstrate his complete mastery of the field, to defeat the Zulu on their home turf in the very heart of their kingdom, to expunge the humiliation of iSandlwana - and to do it, moreover, before Sir Garnet Wolseley, sent by London to replace him, arrived to take command. In a sense both the Government in London and the British population supported him in this; whilst many had begun to question the policies which had led to the war, few were prepared to see British forces withdraw before they had restored British honour and prestige. And, whilst King Cetshwayo undoubtedly had lost faith in a military solution as a means of halting the invasion, the majority of his generals, and indeed the feeling within his army at large, could not countenance a foreign army occupying and destroying the complex of royal homesteads which consituted the national capital without one last act of defiance.

 

    And so, before dawn on 4 July, Chelmsford had marched the largest British force yet assembled in battle in Zululand out from his camp on the southern bank of the White Mfolozi river and crossed over, deploying in a rectangular formation and taking up a position close to the kwaNodwengo royal homestead, little more than a mile from the king's 'great place, oNdini (which was alternatively known as Ulundi - from the common root 'undi', meaning 'a high place' - this was the version the British prefered). The Zulu amabutho, which had been gathering in preparation across the previous week, appeared from their overnight bivouacks and advanced to attack, but the battle would last less than an hour. None of the amabutho could penetrate the ferocious British wall of fire - although one charge pressed to within ten paces of one of the corners of the square - and when they wavered the British cavalry were sent out to complete their defeat, chasing them from the field with a ruthlessness born of the fear engendered at iSandlwana. Chelmsford's men set fire to the royal homesteads, including oNdini, and by lunchtime had retired back across the White Mfolozi. Chelmsford had won his undeniable victory - he resigned shortly afterwards, allowing Wolseley to take charge of the mopping-up operations and impose a peace settlement.

   

    The moment was captured by the most poignant and historic photograph taken during the entire war. The limitations of the contemporary photographic process made it impossible for photographers to capture images of battle as it occured - even if they had been willing to place themselves in the front-line - but a number of civilian photographers had accompanied the second invasion and one of them took a view of the distant battlefield from the safety of the ridge overlooking the camp on the White Mfolozi. It was far too far away to capture details of troop movements, of course, and at first glance the image seems to consist of nothing more than a rather fuzzy and indistinct line of nondescript hills. Yet look deeper and the tall towers of smoke arising from the burning KwaNodwengo and oNdini itself are clearly visible; one is peering directly into the very moment the old Zulu kingdom went up in flames.

 

    It is not known how many Zulus died in the battle, although most modern sources agree it was in excess of a thousand. After the British had gone, some people living locally would have emerged from hiding to tend a few of the wounded - many of whom would have received no succour and simply crawled away to die elsewhere - or to cover over a few of the dead they recognised personally. Most of the Zulu fallen remained on the battlefield, however, and within months the grassy slopes around the British square were white with bones. As early as September 1879, when Wolseley re-occupied the site as a spot from which to receive Zulu surrenders, Captain Fitzroy Hart, instructed to survey the site, found the sheer numbers of them scattered across what had once been the very hub of the Zulu kingdom, deeply poignant -

 

The frequency with which I have come suddenly upon human skeletons in the grass had been quite forbidding. When one is not alone, the light of one's companion's presence dispells all the gloom of horrors, just as the arrival of a lamp spoils a ghost story! There is nothing so dead and harmless as a skeleton, yet when you contemplate them in solitude they appear to possess a life of their own, especially when there are so many together. Some look angry, some threatening, some foolish, some astonished, and those that are on their faces seem to be asleep. (Quoted in The National Army Museum Book of the Zulu War).

 

    Another photograph supports this impression. It's unclear exactly when it was taken - perhaps on the occasion of Wolseley's visit, perhaps later, in 1880 - but it shows a stretch of recently burnt grass, looking from the square site towards the distant amaBedlana hills, all of it strewn with long bones and skulls, scattered by wild animals.

 

    No attempt was ever made to bury these bones. In 1882 the traveller Bertram Mitford had camped near the ruins of oNdini - where a few rotting fence posts still stood, and a circle of darker bush marked the extent of the great rows of huts - and he found, on strolling across the battlefield one night, that  'at every step skulls, gleaming white amid the grass, grin to the moon with upturned face and eyeless sockets'.

 

    Soon there would be new corpses to add to this nightmarish vision, for shortly after Mitford's visit King Cetshwayo was restored to Zululand and built a new oNdini just a mile or two from the old one. Yet the deep divisions engendered by the British post-war settlement of Zululand were reaching their natural conclusion and the country was soon plunged into a bitter civil war which split the old Zulu army down the middle. The king was defeated by one of his old generals, his kinsman Zibhebhu kaMapitha, who in June 1883, launched a surprise attack on the new oNdini, burnt it to the ground, drove Cetshwayo out and scattered his followers. Much of the fighting took place over the very same ground as Chelmsford's victory in 1879, and the same undulating grassland sprouted a fresh crop of hundreds of dead.

 

    Late in the 1880s, H.P. Braatvedt, who was then a young boy and whose father had recently established a mission near oNdini, recalled that one day he set off to fish near the confluence of the Ntukwini and Mbilane streams, close to the site of the first royal homestead, but when 'strolling along the river bank, I was considerably startled by the sight of two almost complete skeletons behind a bush. Probably these men fell in the Ulundi battle, as at one time numerous skeletons lay scattered all over the Ulundi plains'.

 

    By 1914, however, most of the skeletons had disappeared. The novellist Sir Henry Rider Haggard - who had once served on Theophilus Shepstone's staff in the years preceeding the British invasion, and had since gone on to make the Zulu people internationally famous through his series of adventure novels - had made a grand tour of the battlefields (described in Stephen Coan's excellent Diary of An African Journey, 1914, Hurst & Co, 2001). He had visited Ulundi accompanied by two great local experts on Zulu history, James Stuart and J.Y.Gibson, and a Zulu named Simpofu, who had fought in the battle as a young man in the iNgobamakhosi ibutho. Haggard and Simpofu were photographed at the cluster of metal crosses which then marked the burial place of the handful of British soldiers who died in the battle, but Haggard was surprised that 'we saw no skeletons lying about the veld'. He asked Simpofu why, and the answer he received was chilling -

 

'The white men came and took them (the skeletons) away in wagons'. Mr Gibson says also that he remembers seeing piles of bones lying at a store in this neighbourhood, so I suppose that the end of the mortal part of those Zulus was to be ground into bone-dust for manure.

 

For Haggard, who had come to question the certainty of the pro-Imperialist views he had held as a young man, the fate of these long-dead warriors seemed indicative of the mistreatment the Zulu had received generally since the war at the hands of their conquerers. And there is no doubt that many bones had been removed, although according to Braatvedt the remains never quite suffered the indignity of being reduced to fertiliser -

 

The storekeeper at Ulundi decided to make some use of these human remains and offered to barter salt and sugar for old bones. As a rule Zulus show the greatest respect for the dead, but evidently the temptation proved too strong, because very soon long files of women and girls daily wended their way to the trader with baskets full. Eventually a considerable heap of remains of the gallant Zulu warriors was collected and dispatched to what in those days was called a bone manure factory in Durban.

 

But on arrival of the gruesome load there was an immediate outcry against such desecration, so the bones were buried instead.

 

    So, on another anniversary of the battle, stare again into that murky and indistinct photo of the battle of Ulundi, and of the destruction of oNdini, for it lies at the very cusp of the great tragedy of the Zulu people, and of all that befell them in the decades that were to follow.