A biographical dictionary

2008-10-02 08:05

Adrian Greaves and Ian Knight are both well-known historians of the Anglo-Zulu War and here they have combined forces to create what is in effect a biographical dictionary devoted to those involved in the most famous of Queen Victoria's “little wars”. It comes in two volumes, the first devoted to The British and the second to Colonials and Zulus.

A brief introduction (tailored slightly differently to each volume) details the causes of the war, the battles and key events of the campaign and its aftermath. Thereafter biographical entries appear in alphabetical order. Here you will find the well-known players, such as Lord Chelmsford and Colonel Anthony Durnford, but also those who only got walk-on parts in the drama, such as journalist Melton Prior and artist Charles Edwin Fripp.

Many of the colonials involved were shadowy figures, enjoying but a brief flicker of fame thanks to the war. Some new light is thrown onto the lives of Gert Wilhelm Adendorff (was or was he not at both Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift?), George Mossop, survivor of Hlobane and author of Riding the Gauntlet; as well as Hlubi kaMota of the Tlokoa who, with Jabez Molife of the the Edendale contingent, fought through the war on the side of the British. It was Molife who exhumed the body of Durnford from the field of Isandlwana and brought it back for reinterment in Pietermaritzburg. There is also new information on Otto Witt (the Swedish missionary at Rorke's Drift) as well as the Rorkes themselves.

Featured among the Zulus are Sigcwe-legcwele kaMhlekehleke who commanded the iNgobamakhosi at Isandlwana and Vumandaba KaNthathi who commanded the uKhandempemvu. A welcome inclusion is Nomguqo Paulina Dlamini, whose life (1858-1942) spanned a period of vast change for the Zulu nation and whose book Paulina Dlamini: Servant of Two Kings “remains the only detailed account of life in the pre-conquest Zulu court from a Zulu perspective”.

The appeal of this biographical approach is that it frequently provides an answer to the oft-asked question: “Whatever happened to … ?” Many characters re-appeared elsewhere; either in another colonial war or even in later 20th-century conflicts. The format also allows the authors to make interesting connections, including some that, to my knowledge, have not been made before. For example, Sitshitshili kaMnqandi Sibisi who killed Robert Barton and J. Poole at Hlobane, was killed by his fellow Zulus in 1906 for siding with the Natal colonial forces during the rebellion.

Being a who's who, this is a work you flick through rather than read from cover to cover; but even a cursory glance throws up a rather worrying number of spelling mistakes, as well as several factual errors. For example, although Redvers Buller did take part in the Gordon Relief Expedition he was not given command of the desert column after the death of Sir Herbert Stewart. That went to Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Charles Wilson and Buller was certainly not in command at the battle of Abu Klea where Stewart was mortally wounded.

These errors are not repeated in Stewart's entry, however, it is incorrectly stated that Stewart was “invalided home by means of the Nile”. Stewart died at Jakdul Wells, where he is buried.

South African place names are also occasionally problematic. The Ukhahlamba or Drakensberg mountains are curiously rendered throughout as Kahlamba, while Schuins Hoogte becomes Schuis- hoogte. There are also odd variants on Soutpansberg and Upington; the former losing its p and the latter gaining one. And the publishers seem to have been unable to make their mind up on the title - that on the cover differing to that of the title page.

While definitely a useful addition to the shelves, a real gripe is that this publication consists of two volumes. Considering they come in at 196 pages and 240 pages respectively, both in large print, this is clearly a bid by the publishers to get members of the faithful niche market that religiously buy books on the Anglo-Zulu War to fork out for two books instead of one.

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