The first battle of the Zulu War.
It might not be well known that the first battle of the Zulu War occurred some days before 22/01/’79. The circumstance for this came about when the Natal Colonial authorities were recruiting friendly Zulus to fight on their side in the upcoming conflict with the mighty Zulu Kingdom. The following article, somewhat amusing in parts, detailing this story ,has been transcribed from the 1907 edition of the Natal Police magazine, Nongqai and was titled;
An unrecorded episode of the Zulu War of 1879
The Zulu War of 1879 was forced on Cetewayo, the paramount chief of the Zulu nation, by the British Government in order to break up the formidable armed force which he had formed to protect Zululand from the encroachment of his Dutch neighbors in the Transvaal. Thereby to bring a closer approachment between the Boer Government of the Transvaal and the British Government; but the result of which actually had a contradictory effect; as when the Boer Government was relieved of the incubus of the powerful and dreaded Zulu army assembled near their frontiers. Instead of hailing the British Government as their deliverers, they, the Boers, said by their actions , if not words “thank you very much for delivering us from the dread of Cetewayo and his impis. who have hitherto deterred us from expanding towards the sea (*see note 1) as we want to do, and we can now look well after ourselves and our own interests, without further interference from the outside.”
At this time I was resident magistrate of Weenen county - since divided into three different magisterial divisions –and I received instructions to call out armed natives from every Zulu chief in the district , to take part in the invasion of Zululand by British troops. My official headquarters were then in Estcourt , but I went down to the village of Weenen to collect and enroll my natives as being more central and nearer to that part of the Natal/ Zulu frontier where the entry of troops was to be shortly effected. There, the various tribal elements were encamped whilst being enrolled.
I was busy one day writing out lists , when my Zulu servant girls ( I had taken my wife and children with me as I had the use of the vacant Dutch parsonage as a residence ), came rushing into the building, crying out that the natives were fighting. I rushed out and saw in an open space in the front of the house some two hundred of my levies ranged in two parties, who were having a regular “ Donnybrook”, or set to, on their own account.
Sticks were whacking and stones and bricks were flying in all directions and I saw at a glance that if this shindy was not promptly squashed the combatants might be joined by others from their camps, bringing their shields and assegais with them , and in that case serious bloodshed may ensue. I thereupon rushed in and tried to stop the fight ; seeing a native shouting and flourishing his stick and naturally taking him to be one of the combatants, I whipped his stick out of his hand and fetched him a clip on the side of the head with it , which bowled him over like a shot rabbit. What was my surprise when he got on his feet again and ruefully rubbing his head, he said reproachfully, “Au Nkosi, why did you hit me, I am one of your police and I was trying to stop the fighting?”. I had no time to spare for apologies then, although half-a-crown presented by me later was considered a very satisfactory apology.
The next man that I encountered was a small Zulu warrior with bandy legs and carrying an enormous war shield as long as himself. Alarmed by the ferocity of my looks as I charged him he fled for his life , rushing along with his head looking over his shoulder to see how near I was to him. Suddenly he went head foremost into a sandpit and vanished in a cloud of dust. Serious as matters were, the sudden disappearance of this redoubtable warrior , and I, thinking, whose ordinary occupation was probably that of kitchen boy, cleaning pots and chopping firewood, gave me an irresistible fit of laughter. However there was no time to lose , so I dived in between the two lines of combatants , and ably seconded by some Dutch and English onlookers I managed to quieten and separate them. I then sent them off each party to their respective camps with a gentle intimation that I would shoot the first man who attempted to restart the quarrel. That is, I sent off all those who were not seriously wounded. The wounded however, and there were a good many of them, I set to patch up with assistance of one of the Weenen residents. We spent a couple of hours stitching up and closing, sometimes with sticking plaster, many gaping head wounds, which, had they been inflicted on the cranium of Europeans, would probably have resulted in fractured skulls, or at least have laid them up for a number of days. But the head of an African is the hardest part of his anatomy and requires a very forcible knock to do more than cause a flesh wound. So, once the patching up was complete all the damaged warriors departed quite happily to rejoin the respective parties and perfectly ready to go to fight for the “houliman” ( Government), except for two unfortunates who had had their front teeth knocked out by blows or by stones and bricks flying about. These two protested, almost weeping saying that it would be no use sending them to the front as they would not be able to eat any beef, so I sent them back to their kraals to look after the women.
On enquiring into the cause of this fight I found out that the combatants belonged to two of the largest tribes in the country, ie the Amacunu and the Abatembu. and that some men of the former tribe had deposited their shields on the patu in the bush, at the side of which they were sitting peacefully, when some of the other tribe came along and ordered the sitters to remove their shields which were obstructing the way, threatening that if they did not do so, they (the speakers) would tread on them.
Resenting the imperious way in which they were addressed by the owners of the shields, those seated dared them to do so. The challenge was immediately accepted; up jumped the sitters sticks in hand, they snatched up their shields and the fight started .which was rapidly joined in con amore
by all all of the men of the two tribes, who were within hearing of the war cries.
The contingent was to march off, on a two day journey to the front the next morning, and I felt rather anxious lest the two tribal parties which were of about equal strength, should renew their quarrel on the journey. So I despatched a mounted man to the corporal who was in charge of the Mounted Police detachment then stationed at Escourt, 24miles off to come down at once with the three men in his command , which formed the only European force available. The Police turned up promptly that night and the next morning I despatched the contingent, placing a mounted man at the head and foot of the Amacunu men and one at the head and foot of the Abatembu as well. They were instructed to keep the two factions well apart.
I was pleased to learn later that there were no incidents on the journey to the battlefield.
Footnote by Barry
Factionalism and internicine violence is a very common occurrence to this day in Natal. The difference today is that the weapons used are not shields, iwisa’s and assegais, but rather more modern weapons when obtainable. Common “hotspots” for this are Tugela Ferry, Umbumbulu, Dududu, Msinga, Mid Illovo.
Challenges, based on settling old scores, are issued on an annual basis and squaring off usually takes place annually over the Easter recess. Thus, in the vernacular, having a “Donnybrook” means having one of these faction fights, ie Zulu vs Zulu., and the outcome of much of which is fatal for many of the combatants.
Note 1 :
The Boers had already “tested the waters” of St Lucia estuary on the coast where they had covertly brought in supplies of powder and weapons from ships moored in the bay. Long boats brought the goods ashore via the St Lucia estuary mouth. This was to be their link to the sea and the world beyond.