A warrior of grace, dignity

08
Nov

On December 6, four statues of kings and warriors will be unveiled to mark 350 years of the Castle of Good Hope. Here Michael Morris writes about Zulu king Cetshwayo.

Cape Town – Victory has often come at a grave cost to kings and nations, and this much is doubtless true of Cetshwayo kaMpande, the last independent king of the Zulu people, in the weeks after their devastating defeat of the British at Isandlwana in early 1879.

Whether it was wise or foolish of him at that point to resist the urging of at least some of his warrior generals to make the most of the routing of Lord Chelmsford’s force by crossing the border in pursuit and taking the war to the farms and settlements of colonial Natal is hard to judge, and perhaps idle to contemplate.

His restraint was, in its way, a distinctly kingly gesture. But it was also a calculation, for Cetshwayo hoped he might negotiate a peace agreement that would sustain his kingdom, and gain orderly or predictable relations with the British. Violating the border, he seemed to reason, would only make things worse.

Even so, Cetshwayo had no illusions the red coats he had beaten at Isandlwana represented only a fraction of the coercive potential of Queen Victoria’s imperial juggernaut. And it was soon obvious the mightiest army in the world meant to avenge the bloody nose it had been given on the steamy veld of central Zululand in January 1879.

Chastened, and forewarned, the British forces adjusted their tactical procedures for a second invasion that year – dropping the typical linear (Thin Red Line) battle formation for a tighter close-order pattern – and went in for the kill in June. The last major encounter was the Battle of Ulundi on July 4, where a still-smarting Chelmsford ordered the royal kraal to be torched. It is said Cetshwayo’s capital burned for days.

The Zulu kingdom had been feeling the heat for a while – with a Boer settler insurgency to the north, and British ambitions on the coast itching for scope beyond the colony of Natal.

The pall that hung over Ulundi in July 1879 was a grim monument to the flawed – and, not long after, abandoned – big vision (modelled on Britain’s Canadian experience) of a confederacy of southern African states to which, however, an independent Zulu kingdom was considered an intolerable contradiction.

The confederacy enthusiasm, keenly supported by British high commissioner Sir Henry Bartle Frere, prompted a cynical baiting of the Zulu king, and eventually an ultimatum, followed by the invasion that temporarily came short at Isandlwana, but was pressed home months later.

It was an increasingly difficult time in a fast-changing southern Africa.

What had, until the 1850s, been perhaps little more than an expensive and truculent agrarian possession, had begun to assume growing significance as a crown asset after the discovery of diamonds.

And the fall of Cetshwayo – he evaded capture at Ulundi, going into hiding, but was caught eventually in August – was part of a pattern of subjugation repeated across the region.

The incremental conquest was a force of history – driven chiefly by European colonial or imperial competition, insensible to basic notions of justice or fairness – whose consequences Cetshwayo seemed to have recognised in advance with acute penetration.

On January 17, 1879, less than a week before Isandlwana, the king is remembered by one of those present as saying in a speech to his warriors: “I have not gone over the seas to look for the white man, yet they have come into my country and I would not be surprised if they took away our wives and cattle and crops and land.

“I have nothing against the white man and I cannot tell why they came to me. What shall I do?”

Well, he chose his path, but, nine months later, found himself incarcerated at the Castle in Cape Town for his trouble. In 1881, his status was changed to that of being under civil custody and he was relocated to the farm Oude Molen.

It was from here that he wrote to governor Sir Hercules Robinson detailing his own and his father’s good relations with the “English”, adding: “I never for a moment thought that the English would invade my country.”

Cetshwayo, who came to the throne at his father, Mpande’s death in 1872 at the age of about 46, eventually got his chance to put his case to Queen Victoria when he travelled to London in August 1882 (the Queen presented him with a large, ornate three-handled beer tankard), where, by all accounts, he was, as one writer has described him, “a much sought-after social figure, always conducting himself with natural grace and dignity”.

If his personal stature was effortlessly maintained, his official one was deliberately diminished; when he returned to Zululand in January 1883, stripped of effective power, his was a subdued kingdom riven with factionalism and rivalry, of which he himself became a victim. Weakened and ill, he died in Eshowe a few months later, on February 8, 1884.

Cetshwayo has been immortalised in photographs, paintings, books and films. In the 1964 film, Zulu, he was played by none other than his great-grandson, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, future leader of the IFP, and, briefly – while serving in Nelson Mandela’s cabinet in the late 1990s – acting president of a democratic South Africa. A character in the 1889 opera, Leo, the Royal Cadet, is named after him, and he makes vivid appearances in several of adventure novelist H Rider Haggard’s African tales.

One of the most tellingly sympathetic portraits to have survived is the Cape Argus account of September 11, 1879 of the Zulu king’s arrival by ship at “Simon’s Bay”.

“Ever since the news came down from Natal that it was intended to bring Cetywayo to the Cape,” the report began, “the local interest in that monarch has been greatly intensified, and general expectation has been evinced concerning his arrival here.”

We learn that local shops, catching the excitement, sported in their windows photographs (taken from a painting) which, the Argus report says, “no less than common report, picture him a rough-featured and scowling being, old in years and ungainly in aspect”, yet the reality was that “the actual man wears an exceedingly benevolent look”.

The correspondent adds testily: “Those who have desired to see the captive out of mere idle curiosity might be somewhat surprised to find the savage king possessed of a natural gentility and dignity of demeanour which would put such a class of visitors at a terrible distance.”

But there was also something unmistakably forlorn about the man.

“While on board the steamer on his way down he was asked one morning why he did not appear so cheerful as usual, and did not smile. Smile?’ asked the king. Did you ever see a dead man smile? I am dead when my country is taken away’.”

* A statue of Cetshwayo – along with statues of early Cape interpreter and resistance leader Doman, and kings Sekhukhune and Langalibalele – will be unveiled at the Castle next month as part of the 350th anniversary of the construction of the stone fort.

Cape Argus