The fascinating story of Cetswayo's guns

2012-06-11 00:00

TWO field guns that fired a 17-gun salute at the coronation of King Cetshwayo kaMpande in 1873 are currently being restored at the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Museum Services workshops in Pietermaritzburg.

“It’s a challenging project,” says restorer Rob Scott. “There’s absolutely no one to go to for advice on the technical aspects.”

The guns, 2,5-inch Armstrong rifled breech-loaders, manufactured in 1863, were the first to be used by the Natal Field Artillery established in September 1862, then known as the Durban Volunteer Artillery.

Scott and his assistant, Innocent Ndlela, who have been “working intensely on the guns for the past six months” are not only restoring but, where necessary, remaking the gun mounts or trails, the wheels and the limbers.

“We’ve been teaching ourselves blacksmithing and now I suddenly have to become a wheelright,” says Scott. “We’ve had to remake the entire trail, all the attaching hardware, wood screws and rivets. And to make them involved making special tools plus screwdrivers and spanners.”

The guns were the first field guns to boast breech-loading mechanisms, according to historian and battlefield guide Ken Gillings. “They were the first departure from the muzzle-loading concept for about 550 years.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising Gillings should be one of the main drivers behind the restoration of the guns: he did his national service in the artillery in 1965, thereafter being posted to the Natal Field Artillery (NFA) from which he retired as regimental sergeant major in 1988. Coincidentally, Scott also happens to be a former member of the NFA.

According to Gillings, one of the earliest tasks of the two guns was the firing of a 17-gun salute at the “coronation” of Prince Cetshwayo kaMpande by Theophilus Shepstone, Natal’s secretary for Native Affairs, at the Mlambongwenya ikhanda (military garrison) near present-day Ulundi.

After the death of Zulu King Mpande ka Senzangakhona in 1872, the crown prince Cetshwayo was recognised by the Zulus as his rightful heir, and when Cetshwayo informed the Natal government of Mpande’s death he invited Shepstone to visit Zululand when the mourning period was over. When this ended in July 1873, Shepstone set out from Pietermaritzburg in early August with an armed escort of 110 officers and men of the Natal Volunteer Corps, among them members of the Natal Carbineers and 10 men of the Durban Volunteer Artillery under the command of Captain Harry Escombe.

According to historian John Laband, writing in Rope of Sand, “this eager, if inexperienced, force” faced “very real dangers ... and took precautions against surprise attack. But they were also conscious that their object was to impress the Zulu with their military effectiveness ... and to show off fancy drill manoeuvres and fire power.”

Both Cetshwayo and Shepstone were playing a political game. Cetshwayo hoped Shepstone would support the Zulus in their dispute over territory with the Transvaal Republic and also discourage ambitious chiefs eyeing the Zulu throne. Shepstone saw an opportunity to extend British influence into the Zulu kingdom as well as a way of asserting his own authority as “the Great White Chief”. To that end, he planned to crown Cetshwayo himself, but his plans were thwarted. When he arrived at the designated meeting place, he found that Cetshwayo had already been crowned.

A few days previous to Shepstone’s visit, Cetshwayo had led his followers to the eMakhosini Valley where he sacrificed 20 head of cattle to the ancestral spirits. That night, thousands of people assembled to celebrate the new reign and the following morning Cetshwayo was declared king.

Nevertheless, Shepstone went ahead with his own “coronation”. Discussions were held with Cetshwayo concerning various “laws” that Shepstone wished Cetshwayo to adopt, and it was agreed these would be promulgated at the “coronation” ceremony.

According to Gillings, the two guns “were most certainly the coronation party’s showpieces and when the Zulus gathered around them in wonder, in order to show them the ease with which they could be handled, one was unlimbered and it fired a blank cartridge — the first shot ever fired by field artillery in Zululand”.

On September 2, in a marquee set up for the purpose, Cetshwayo was invested with a scarlet and gold mantle and a crown designed by a military tailor. He was then taken to a chair of state in front of the marquee and, following a 17-gun salute, Shepstone declared Cetshwayo king.

Cetshwayo believed the “laws” he had agreed to and that were read out at the “coronation” would be useful in curbing the powers of chiefs who might pose a threat, while the colonial authorities saw them as limiting his royal powers. But they would “disastrously backfire”, as Laband comments. “It was a short step to advancing the false claim that Cetshwayo had been crowned king conditional on the ‘laws’ laid down by Shepstone, and that, if he failed to abide by them, it was Britain’s right and duty to depose him.”

Between them, Cetshwayo and Shepstone had laid the foundations for the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and the subsequent destruction of the Zulu kingdom.

After the ceremony, Shepstone’s small force returned to Pietermaritzburg and the guns wended their way back to Durban.

They were replaced in 1892 by four nine-pounder rifled muzzle-loaders and it is thought they were retired to the Old Fort in Durban around this time. “These historic guns have been deteriorating in the humidity of Durban’s tropical climate for many years,” says Gillings.

In 2004, the Durban branch of the Gunners’ Association and the KwaZulu-Natal branch of the South African Military History Society embarked upon a fundraising drive to restore them and they were removed and transported to Pietermaritzburg for restoration. The restoration project has the support of the Amafa aKwaZulu-Natali, the provincial heritage body, British historian Ian Knight, who provided a conduit for international funding. Local funders included Magnum Magazine, the Winston Churchill Moth Shellhole and several individuals.

Restoration is inevitably an intricate and lengthy process, one further extended in the case of these two guns due to the need to remanufacture certain parts.

“The guns should be ready in time for the celebration of the Natal Field Artillery’s 150th anniversary during August and September,” says Gillings.


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