Historical day for Zulu artefact auction

2014-01-20 00:00

A SUPERB collection of 19th century Zulu artefacts valued at nearly R2 million goes on auction in Britain on Wednesday, the 135th anniversary of the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift fought in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. The same day also marks 50 years since the premiere of the classic film Zulu.

The Zulu collection belonged to David Smith, a former Royal Marine who later taught Classics at Bristol Grammar School. He died in 2009.

The collection, which is valued at £100 000 (R1,8 million), and is being auctioned by Wallis and Wallis in Lewes, East Sussex, took Smith over 20 years to assemble with his partner Robert Welham, who has put the collection up for sale. There are over 150 items on sale, including a Zulu shield from 1879, a wooden club thought to have been used for executions, and a selection of necklaces, knobkierries and spears.

According to Anglo-Zulu War historian Ian Knight, the adviser to Wallis and Wallis on the catalogue, and who knew Smith, the ex-commando was “struck by the fact that both the Spartans and the Zulus had a strong warrior ethic”.

Knight said the 1879 war provided an entry point for Smith’s interest in Zulu culture. “He became very interested in the story of King Shaka, and that shaped his interest in Zulu weapons and status items.

“Some of the items, particularly the high-status necklaces and staffs, are certainly rare enough to justify a place in a museum.”

The collection contains some fine examples of stabbing spears – amaklwa – “several of which I think are likely to be souvenirs brought back by British soldiers at the end of the war”, says Knight. “And indeed one has ‘Ulundi 1879’ engraved in it. A lot of these items have been preserved because British troops brought them to the UK after the war. Shields were in great demand … because shields were so representative of a courageous enemy whom they had just defeated.”

Knight says the executioner’s club is a very large, heavy iwisa, decorated with bands of wirework. “It’s too heavy to use as a weapon — it would be very difficult to carry it on campaign, and you couldn’t wield it easily.”

‘Zulu’ — the film

KNIGHT, the premier British historian of the Anglo Zulu War, cites the film Zulu, which he first saw aged seven in 1964, as sparking his interest in the campaign. “It was undoubtedly the reason I became interested in this history in the first place.”

The film, starring Stanley Baker and Michael Caine and featuring Mangosuthu Buthelezi as King Cetshwayo, depicts the British defence of Rorke’s Drift against the Zulus.

Film historian at Sheffield Hallam University, Sheldon Hall, author of a book on the making of the film, Zulu — With some guts behind it, has contributed an article to Cinema Retro marking the 50th anniversary of the film, which he first saw when he was eight in 1972. “If you see the film at the right age, as I did, it has great power to stir the imagination.”

Hall says Zulu has remained in the public consciousness longer than most war films “because it’s both old-fashioned and modern at the same time”.

Hall says Zulu is neither a “racist celebration of white supremacy nor an anti-imperial diatribe — it was made at a time when there was still a great deal of residual nostalgia for the glory days of an empire that was rapidly disappearing.

“But [it was] also a time of new consciousness of the realities of colonialism and what it meant for both the ordinary soldiers who found themselves dumped down in remote spots around the world and the indigenous peoples whose land was taken away from them.”

For conservative viewers, Zulu is “a tribute to British heroism”, says Hall, while for the liberal-minded “it questions the colonial spirit and the slaughter of warfare and pays tribute to the courage and nobility of both sides in the conflict. Of course, it also helps that it happens to be a damn good film!”

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