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The Fall of Rorke's Drift An Alternate History of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 by John Laband

Read Online The Fall of Rorke’s Drift An Alternate History of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 by John Laband Classics Book

Overview: It is January 1879, and the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom are at war. Lord Carnarvon, Secretary of State for the Colonies, who had successfully brought about federation in Canada in 1867, had believed a similar scheme would work in South Africa. But such plans are rejected by Boer leaders. Lord Chelmsford leads a British military expeditionary force to enter the Zulu Kingdom uninvited. A bloody battle ensues on 22 January 1879 at Isandlwana. The Zulus are the unexpected victors.

After that brutal defeat, the British Army are at Rorke’s Drift on the Buffalo River in Natal Province, South Africa. A few hundred British and colonial troops led by Lieutenants John Chard of the Royal Engineers and Gonville Bromhead face the might of the Zulu army of thousands led by Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande (CORR). Against the odds the British are victorious and this defeat marks the end of the Zulu nation’s dominance of the region.

The Defense of Rorke’s Drift would go down in history as an iconic British Empire Battle and inspired Victorian Britain. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to military personnel. But what if the Zulus had defeated the British at Rorke’s Drift and invaded Natal? In the first ever alternate history of the Anglo-Zulu War, historian John Laband asks that question. With his vast knowledge of the Anglo-Zulu War he turns history on its head and offers a tantalizing glimpse of a very different outcome weaving a compelling and never-before told story of what could have been.

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The Fall of Rorke's Drift An Alternate History of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 by John Laband

Read Online The Fall of Rorke’s Drift An Alternate History of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 by John Laband Book Chapter One

Sitting straight as a ramrod in the saddle, trim in the short, snugly fitting blue patrol jacket that set off his lanky frame, his eyes peering out fretfully from his aquiline, heavily bearded face from under the low brim of his domed felt helmet – headgear of a singular design favoured by the British in India where he had served for sixteen years – Lieutenant-General Lord Chelmsford was ‘as full of go’ as ever. 1 He was not an officer given to delegation and firmly believed that ‘A commander must ride about and see the country for himself, or he will never be able to handle his troops properly.’ 2 So, on the cloudy morning of 22 January 1879 he was adhering to his own precept as he and his small staff trotted sedately about the broken Zulu countryside east of Hlazakazi Mountain, the grass tall and green from the teeming summer rains. Eleven days before, on 11 January 1879, the British forces he commanded had invaded the Zulu kingdom, and Chelmsford was reconnoitring the country ahead while waiting for those troops of No. 3 Column still in their camp at the foot of Isandlwana Mountain some ten miles to the west to begin moving up to the new campsite he had selected.

Just over a year before, on 1 February 1878, the Hon. Frederic Thesiger (it was not until 5 October 1878 that he succeeded his father as the second Baron Chelmsford) had been selected as General Officer Commanding in South Africa with the local rank of lieutenant-general. 3 His commission was to bring the Ninth Cape Frontier War against the Gcaleka and Ngqika amaXhosa (who for a century had been bitterly resisting the progressive seizure of their land by white colonists) to a successful conclusion. Chelmsford, a product of Eton and the Grenadier Guards, was a well-connected, aristocratic officer who had seen active service in the Crimean War (1855–6), the Indian Mutiny (1858) and the Abyssinian campaign (1868). He had spent the greater part of his military career in India, although since 1874 he had held home commands pending a suitable overseas posting. Although by nature somewhat withdrawn, he was able to adopt a genial manner in company and was an effective public speaker. He was a keen participant in amateur theatricals (so intrinsic to social life in India); nor did he hide his musical accomplishment as a clarinet player. To balance these unmilitary interests, and as befitted his class and upbringing, he remained fond of field sports and outdoor activities and always displayed considerable physical energy. Like many of his background he was compassionate towards animals, and soon after invading Zululand he ‘even licked [thrashed] with his own hand a white-bullock-driver … for brutality to oxen’. 4


During his military career Chelmsford had primarily performed the staff and administrative duties at which he excelled, and the Cape was his first independent command in the field. Always a conscientious student of military matters, this was his first opportunity to put theory into practice. Consequently, it was hardly surprising that in the Cape he opted to follow the book, and in his conduct of the Xhosa campaign Chelmsford displayed a certain conservative reluctance to adapt familiar, orthodox military practices to colonial conditions. Even so, he finally succeeded by mid-1878 in breaking all Xhosa resistance. During the course of the campaign the troops under his command learned to appreciate his unfailingly gentlemanly, courteous and modest behaviour, and he earned their loyalty for his willingness to share their hardships and by his exemplary calm resolve under fire. In conformity with the changing attitudes of the late Victorian army that required officers to be more directly concerned about their men’s well-being than in the past, Chelmsford set an example of moderation and frugality. As a teetotaller, he attempted to stamp out drunkenness under his command and, to combat idleness among his young officers, encouraged them (as he had himself done) to study further. However, his inherent conservatism came out in his support for flogging as the most suitable punishment on active service since this did not take men out of the field as imprisonment would have done. 5

Chelmsford’s relatively inexpensive victory over the amaXhosa in terms of both casualties and expenditure encouraged Sir Bartle Frere – who since March 1877 had been simultaneously the Governor of the Cape, High Commissioner for South Africa and the Commander-in- Chief of the British forces stationed there – to contemplate further military adventures.

A personal friend of Queen Victoria and of her heir, Edward, Prince of Wales – who like him, was a crack shot – there was no doubting Frere’s intellectual powers and forceful personality any more than his ruthless ambition. Nevertheless, to the small number of those determined to be unimpressed, his outstanding qualities were somewhat obscured by his unctuously hypocritical and ‘oily, almost old womanly manner and appearance’. 6 A more typical response was that of a susceptible young staff officer in South Africa who wrote of the tall, dapper High Commissioner with his brown eyes, sharp nose and chin, greying hair and thick moustache: ‘He had a wonderfully quiet, deliberate manner of speaking, never hesitating and never at a loss for the right word, giving you the idea that whatever might be the subject of the conversation he knew much more about it than any of his audience.’ 7

His multiple offices gave Frere considerable discretion to act as he deemed fit in South Africa because the members of the British government were poorly informed concerning the sub-continent’s distant affairs. When these came up in Cabinet they tended to defer to the Colonial Secretary, but he depended in turn on the knowledge of the permanent officials in the Colonial Office, and especially on the advice of the senior administrator on the spot, namely, Frere, the High Commissioner. And Frere was a man in whom the government was inclined to place implicit trust because of his unparalleled experience and vision as a celebrated administrator in British India. Moreover, Frere’s responsible posts in India had trained him to act on his own initiative and he never drew back from taking vigorous executive action once he considered it necessary. He saw much scope for such action in South Africa

Frere’s mission in South Africa was to consummate the process of creating a confederation of the British-ruled, white settler colonies which the Tories under Benjamin Disraeli, the Earl of Beaconsfield, had set in motion when they came to power in the general election of February 1874. Their reasoning was that it was essential to secure the two sea routes to India, by far Britain’s most important imperial possession. One of these was via Cape Colony at the tip of Africa and the other was through the Suez Canal. If South Africa were to fulfil its prime purpose as a stable, unassailable strategic link on the way to India, then it was necessary to ensure that the region was politically and economically integrated. If this were effected South Africa would gain an improved capacity to pay for its own defence, thus relieving the British exchequer of the burden of maintaining the expensive garrisons of British troops there.

However, the presence of British troops would remain necessary until the perceived military threat posed to British-ruled territory by the still independent African polities in southern Africa was eliminated. The Basotho had already apparently been dealt with when in 1868 the rulers of their mountainous kingdom had placed themselves under British protection to prevent the Boers of the neighbouring Republic of the Orange Free State from seizing more of their land. In 1871 the British had passed the administration of Basutoland (as they called it) on to the Cape Colony. The successful Ninth Cape Frontier War was a truly significant step towards ending African resistance; while another was the contemporaneous, but much more minor Northern Border War of April–November 1878 in the region of the British colony of Griqualand West that finally subjugated the Griqua, Batlhaping, Prieska amaXhosa, Korana and Khoesan. 8 The amaMpondo between the Cape’s recently pacified eastern frontier and the southern borders of the Colony of Natal were effectively overawed when on 31 August 1878 the British occupied the mouth of the Mzimvubu (St John’s) River and built and garrisoned a fort there. Frere was consequently absolutely confident that after only one or two more campaigns the Africans of southern Africa would all be effectively cowed and disarmed. That would allow him to place the capstone on confederation, and the government had intimated that once he had done so that he would be retained as the first Governor-General of the new South African dominion he had created. Simultaneously, as a great architect of empire, he would receive the ultimate official accolade he craved and be raised to the peerage. 9

To Frere’s way of thinking – in which he was enthusiastically abetted by celebrated colonial officials whom white settlers regarded as experts on African affairs – even though the stubbornly independent Bapedi on the eastern borders of the British Transvaal Territory (annexed on 12 April 1877) presented a nagging difficulty that most certainly had to be resolved, it was the Zulu kingdom with its fearsome military reputation that posed the greatest standing threat to the security and stability of the confederation he was building. More than that, Frere developed the obsessively held belief that the Zulu kingdom was the political and military lynchpin of a developing, co-ordinated movement of African resistance to British rule, and that King Cetshwayo kaSenzangakhona was ‘the head and moving spirit’ of this alarming combination. 10

Consequently, no sooner had Chelmsford finished off the amaXhosa in the Eastern Cape and Major Charles Warren had all but brought the fighting in Griqualand West to a close, than Frere trained his eyes unblinkingly on the amaZulu. Negotiations and fair words, Frere believed, would never succeed in disarming and neutralising Zululand, and it was therefore essential to ‘draw the Monster’s teeth and claws’ by brute force. 11 But how easily could this be done? Frere was seduced by Chelmsford’s successful operations in the Eastern Cape to believe that the amaZulu could similarly be subdued at the price of a minor campaign. 12 Nor was he shaken in this conviction when his Military Secretary, Captain Henry Hallam Parr, relayed the prescient words of an old Gcaleka Xhosa warrior: ‘“You have beaten us well, but there,” says he, pointing eastward – “there are the AmaZulu warriors! Can you beat them? They say not! Go and try. Don’t trouble any more about us, but beat them, and we shall be quiet enough.”’ 13

Dismissing such warnings, Frere instructed Chelmsford, whom he knew well from their days together in India when from 1862 to 1867 he had held the enormously prestigious post of Governor of Bombay, to begin making military preparations for war against the Zulu kingdom. Basking in the formal thanks of the Cape parliament for winning the Ninth Cape Frontier War, and made a KCB by the grateful British government, Chelmsford duly set up his headquarters on 9 August 1878 in Pietermaritzburg, the scrappy little capital of the Colony of Natal, a British possession since 1843, that abutted the Zulu kingdom on the south.

It must not be supposed, however, that while Frere deliberately continued down the road of military confrontation with the amaZulu, that the government in London was in favour of unnecessary and distracting South African military complications. Frere’s immediate superior as Colonial Secretary was Sir Michael Hicks Beach, an aloof but strikingly handsome man – a veritable ‘scagliola apollo’ 14 – known as ‘Black Michael’ for his biting tongue. 15 Hicks Beach was exceedingly mindful of Britain’s overstretched global reach, and in particular of Russia’s determination to menace the British Empire in India.

Russian victory in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–8 had not only expanded Russian influence over the entire Balkans, but seemed set to gain control of Constantinople and the Dardanelles. If that ever came to pass, the eastern Mediterranean would be opened to Russia’s Black Sea fleet and Britain’s vital route to India through the Suez Canal be endangered. True, the urgently convened Berlin Congress of July 1878 had agreed that the Russians must withdraw from the Balkans, but the Russian army refused to comply immediately, and until August 1879 it remained at Adrianople, within a day’s march of Constantinople. For as long as it did so, and the ‘Eastern Question’ remained unresolved, the British Navy took up station in the Dardanelles and relations between Russia and Britain continued dangerously strained to the point of war. To make matters even more perilous, once Russia found itself thwarted in the Balkans, it redoubled its involvement in the ‘Great Game’, that grand contest of imperial competition, espionage and conquest in Central Asia. A Russian diplomatic ploy for an alliance with the Amir of Afghanistan that would have brought Russian influence right up to North-West Frontier of India provoked an alarmed response by the theatrical Viceroy of India, Lord Lytton, who himself was pursuing an aggressive ‘forward policy’ in the region. In November 1878 Lytton blundered into the protracted Second Anglo-Afghan War that saw several drastic defeats of British arms before being brought to a conclusion in 1881 in the midst of divisive domestic debate. 16

Hicks Beach consequently became ever more anxious as it dawned on him that Frere was determined to open yet another military front and force on a war with Cetshwayo. Towards the end of 1878 the Colonial Secretary made it clear in a series of increasingly alarmed messages that Frere must desist. 17 Frere nevertheless encouraged Chelmsford to continue with his preparations. He knew that he risked his distinguished career, but he was confident that any censure for disobeying explicit instructions would be wiped away by his triumphant clinching of South African confederation. So, even while he continued to prime the engine of war, he used his experience as a seasoned administrator to play the system and coolly exploited the sluggish communications with London to keep the Cabinet off balance and a step or two behind the fast-moving crisis he was orchestrating.

These unsatisfactory international communications would play a significant part in the disastrous Zulu campaign about to unfold, and require a word of explanation. Communication between South Africa and Britain had been entirely by sea until the laying in 1874 of a trans-Atlantic undersea telegraph cable connecting Brazil to Europe by way of São Vicente in the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa and then via the island of Madeira 1,300 miles to the north. 18 But once a telegraphed message from London reached either Madeira or São Vicente, it languished there awaiting the weekly mail steamer that was to carry it to Cape Town, a slow sea voyage that took about three weeks from the former island and a fortnight from the latter – and longer if the weather were poor. In April 1878 Cape Town was linked overland by copper telegraph cable to Durban, the port of Natal, that since 1864 had been connected thus to Pietermaritzburg. Pietermaritzburg in turn was connected to Pretoria in the Transvaal Territory. Official telegraphic messages were often sent in cypher, and if they were of any length could take secretaries or officials several hours to formulate and decypher, thus delaying their immediate transmission. All this meant that a telegraphed message from Pietermaritzburg (where Frere took up post on 28 September 1878) to London took 15–21 days to reach its destination, or between two and three weeks. Yet this was rapid compared to the time it took despatches too lengthy to telegraph to arrive in London. They went the entire way by sea from Durban, and this would take about five weeks. The upshot was that even the most urgent official business between the High Commissioner in South Africa and the Colonial Office required at least five weeks to turn about and could take ten or more. Consequently, the British government’s decisions concerning the distant sub-continent were unavoidably all too often scarcely more than belated responses to events that had already taken place. 19

By fending off directives from Hicks Beach with slow-moving despatches detailing his objections, Frere kept the pot at a low simmer while he completed his preparations for war with Zululand. The strain told, and Frere began to suffer from neuralgic headaches brought on, Chelmsford believed, by all the ‘perpetual worry and annoyance’ he was being subjected to. 20 But in the end Frere’s machinations paid off. When Chelmsford invaded Zululand on 11 January 1879 on the expiry of the ultimatum served on King Cetshwayo on 11 December, Frere was able (as he always intended) to present his superiors with a fait accompli. All that remained was for Chelmsford to ensure a quick victory that would mollify London and transform potential censure into approbation. Unfortunately for Frere, it was to prove easier to humbug his superiors in Whitehall than to defeat the amaZulu.

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