The mood of the congregation was sombre as Bishop John William Colenso stepped up to the pulpit of the Anglican Church in Bishopstowe in the colony of Natal – and started speaking
Those who expected a sermon full of fire and brimstone were wrong.
There were no calls for retribution against the Zulu king, Cetshwayo. There was no finger-pointing (at the Zulu people). And there were no predictions of doom and gloom.
There were deep expressions of sorrow, of course – but what Colenso said was peppered with nuggets of good sense: “We ourselves have lost very many precious lives, and widows and orphans, parents, brothers, sisters, friends are mourning bitterly their sad bereavements,” he said.
“But are there no griefs – no relatives that mourn their dead – in Zululand? And shall we kill 10000 more to avenge the losses of that dreadful day?”
It was March 1879 – and a mixture of anguish and anger was sweeping through the white communities of Natal.
Just a few weeks earlier, Cetshwayo had been pushed into a war that he never wanted with England.
Yet, the first battle of that conflict, on January 22, 1879, on a hillside near a towering rock known to local people as Isandlwana, had the unlikeliest of outcomes
Isandlwana was aptly described as a fight in which “a proletariat army from the world’s foremost capitalist nation was defeated by a part-time force of peasant farmers in a short, bloody and eventually inconclusive battle that rocked the British Empire to its core.
“The Zulus attacked the red-coated British because they feared for their land and their independence. The British soldiers, drawn from the very poorest level of the working classes, fought back because they had been lured, like Private Moss from Wales, to ‘take the Queen’s shilling’ .”
It was a contest between spear and the most modern weaponry of the day, but thanks to a mixture of British arrogance, stupidity and bad planning, it was those who fought with spears who were victorious.
More than 1 500 redcoats, and an even greater number of Zulu fighters, died in the battle.
Cetshwayo was no one’s fool. It had taken a bruising battle – which had later escalated into a civil war – against his brother, Mbuyazi, for him to become the main contender to succeed his father, Mpande, as monarch of the Zulu kingdom.
When he became king in 1872, following the death of Mpande, he was keen to build a good relationship with the British administration in Natal. But he refused to be told how to run his kingdom. He needed to tread a fine line, and in this he succeeded admirably.
But then diamonds were discovered – and matters changed inexorably.
British colonial secretary Lord Carnarvon decided the best way to administer a southern Africa with far greater economic possibilities, but with a growing need for cheap labour, was via “confederation”.
By this he meant a region in which Briton, Boer and every African chiefdom would operate with some independence, under the control of England.
Although it was obvious that Cetshwayo would never agree to such an arrangement, Lord Carnarvon decided that there were many ways to skin a cat.
He left it to his most enthusiastic supporter, his Natal wheeler-dealer, Theophilus Shepstone, to decide how – and when – to bring this about.
Shepstone opted for the tried-and-tested: pick a fight with Cetshwayo and defeat him, using superior weaponry.
The British High Commissioner, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, set the ball rolling by pretending a number of minor border incidents were major threats to the security of Natal. The tipping point came when the sons of a Zulu chief seized two of their father’s adulterous wives in Natal, dragged them into Zululand, and killed them.
Cetshwayo was given an ultimatum: hand over the sons, pay 500 cattle in compensation, and disband his army and his age-group system of military organisation – within 20 days.
There was no way he could comply.
All he could do was insist that “the king has, however, declared, and still declares that he will not commence war, but will wait till he is actually attacked before he enters on a defensive campaign”.
In January 1879, British forces entered Zululand – and on January 22 came the shock of Isandlwana.
As Cetshwayo feared, Zulu losses at Isandlwana and, on the same day, at nearby Rorke’s Drift were horrific. And as the weeks passed, casualties mounted at an alarming rate, with serious losses at Kambula and Gingindlovu especially.
Then, on July 4, the redcoats attacked the royal headquarters at Ulundi, razing it and forcing Cetshwayo to flee.
On August 28, he was captured in the Ngome Forest and sent to Cape Town, where he was held at the Castle, while the Zulu kingdom was “dismembered” into 13 parts, each of which was put under the control of pliant chiefs.
A striking figure, Cetshwayo handled himself with great dignity, refusing to be regarded as a curiosity and insisting that he be given European clothes to wear while in Cape Town.
Many people who saw him commented that he was not the overgrown ogre painted by colonial officials.
Although he couldn’t read and write, he displayed a remarkable grasp of local, national and international politics. In this he was assisted by Bishop Colenso and his social activist daughter, Harriette.
Cetshwayo fought with dogged persistence to win back his freedom – and the kingdom of Zululand. In this regard, his key weapon was a letter-writing campaign that drew in prominent officials and even the monarch of England, Queen Victoria.
In March 1881, in a letter written from the Castle to Sir Hercules Robinson, the governor of the Cape Colony, he wrote: “I have done you no wrong, therefore you must have some other object in view to invading my land.
“How is it,” he asked, alluding to the fact that Shepstone had backed his ascension to the Zulu throne, “that they crown me in the morning and dethrone me in the afternoon.”
Cetshwayo’s persistence earned him a trip to England to state his case. There, he impressed as many parliamentarians and ordinary people as he did in Cape Town.
He was freed in July 1883, but his return to Natal sparked a war with his main rival, Zibhebhu.
Forced to flee his territory, he sought refuge with the British Resident Commissioner in Eshowe, where he died in 1884.