Human side to the Anglo-Zulu War

2008-12-24 00:00

In his latest book the well-known historian Ian Knight permits himself the leisure to explore topics and aspects of the Anglo-Zulu War for which he’s never had “quite space enough to explore in a narrative history”.

Knight is at pains to forefront the human experience “from the perspective of both sides: what did people do, eat or believe on campaign, why did they do it, and what did it mean to them?” He’s also found room for the “quirky or the absurd” those “fundamental human traits” that often come to the fore in time of war.

A glance through the contents gives an idea of the range: from False Alarms to Photographers, from Food (Zulu) to Stimulants (British), and Beards (British) to Liars, Fakes and Rogues.

The usual prohibition on growing beards was relaxed on active service due to the impracticalities of a daily shave in areas where water was scarce “and partly to exaggerate a business-like military experience”.

Among the more colourful rogues was the one-legged “Captain” Godolphin Finney Burslem who claimed to have been a survivior of the battle of Isandlwana and been present at the death of the Prince Imperial. His career as a fraudster was brought to an end by a New York court in 1901.

Such entries offset what was a grim, “almost Shakespearian epic of tragically flawed heroes and the fall of a kingdom”. One from which the British walked away having imposed a post-war settlement that “paved the way for the dispossession, exploitation and political repression of the Zulu people which lasted until recent times”.

Knight’s book is full of fascinating nuggets of information while a succinct introduction provides the background to the campaign. Well illustrated with maps and photographs, the Companion to the Anglo-Zulu War also boasts a notable cover by an unknown Victorian artist featuring the attack on Rorke’s Drift and unusually incorporating both a British and a Zulu perspective.

Stephen Coan

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