Thirty years in the writing

2010-12-15 00:00

HISTORY never ends. Or rather the interpretation of historical events doesn’t. Take a minor campaign such as the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. Just when everyone thought it was all sorted, a debate breaks out over the question of where exactly the Zulu army was situated when first encountered by the British and colonial force at Isandlwana.

The debate has been sparked by the paper The Missing Five Hours from local historians Ron Lock and Peter Quantrill which can be found on the forum page of

I’m not going to give a verdict, other than “historians disagree”. Not exactly news. Publishers — and readers — doubtless hope they may long continue to do so.

A contrary voice was raised back in 2003 when respected Anglo-Zulu War historian John Laband suggested maybe the time had come to draw a line under books on the Anglo-Zulu War, especially its main battles, as little more was to be teased out. “Those of us studying the Anglo-Zulu War must accept when it has come time to stop,” he said. “That point, I believe, is not far away.”

Either that point was further than he thought or nobody was listening as a seemingly unending stream of books continue to come onto the market, usually focusing on the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, either stressing different angles or claiming new information.

Such industry is happily driven by publishers ever ready to service a niche market providing a guaranteed sale. The received wisdom is that sales success depends on the magic word “Zulu” appearing on the cover which explains the plethora of titles containing the word, including its most recent employment for Zulu Rising by Ian Knight.

This marketing ploy plays off the popular 1963 film Zulu, broadcast regularly on British television and which continues to capture the imagination of the viewing public and seed interest in the campaign.

Back in the sixties the film, allied to Donald Morris’s The Washing of the Spears, kickstarted serious research into the war. Morris’s pioneering work has long been overtaken by the research and consequent books it inspired, not least those by Knight himself who has written over thirty works on the war as well as other aspects of Victorian military history.

I have to declare an interest here. Knight is a friend of mine plus I pop up in the acknowledgements thanks to his having tapped into some of my own research that happens to relate to the two major battles of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift.

For Knight Zulu Rising represents the culmination of more than three decades of research so perhaps it’s not surprising that Laband has described the book as a “wide ranging and even-handed study that is now definitive in the field”.

Far more than a study of the two battles, Knight’s book provides an authoritative overview of the war including the best account of the various cross-currents at play preceding the conflict which cleverly interweaves the politics and the personalities that brought about the invasion of an independent sovereign state.

An invasion seemingly in line with London’s Colonial Office confederation plans but mostly engineered via the local machinations of Theophilus Shepstone and Sir Bartle Frere who sought to bring the war about and end it in double-quick time before anybody in London knew what was going on. The overwhelming Zulu victory at Isandlwana soon put paid to such deceptions.

When the combat commences Knight never loses sight of the individual human stories — Zulu, colonial and British — that intertwined in the fateful events of January and January 23, 1879, and one of the great strengths of the book is the number of first-hand sources, black and white, that Knight skilfully marshalls to tell his story.

The result is rich and textured, fully justifying the 200 odd pages devoted to the preamble, battle and aftermath of Isandlwana. The Rorkes’ Drift chapters are shorter — the famous defence being a less complex affair.

The second phase of the war, an inevitable anti-climax after the drama of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, is dealt with briefly but succinctly.

However, though it didn’t actually affect the outcome of the war it does seem a pity not to have included the death of the Prince Imperial, if only as an excuse to trot out Benjamin Disraeli’s famous assessment: “A remarkable people the Zulu. They defeat our generals, convert our bishops, and put an end to a great European dynasty.”

My other reservation concerns the maps. Publishers just don’t seem to get it with military history books these days. Here we have a book detailing two famous battles, one of which features complex maneouvres before, during and after the war, and they provide cursory cartography.

Gripes aside, the question remains: is Zulu Rising, as Laband claims, now to be considered the definitive work on the subject? If I was asked to name one must-read on the Anglo-Zulu War this would certainly be it.

As Frederic Raphael put it when punting a book authored by a friend: “It is not a sign of corruption to speak well of one’s friends, not least when their work deserves it.” And Knight’s book thoroughly deserves it.

•  Zulu Rising - The Epic Story of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift by Ian Knight is published by Sidgwick & Jackson.

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