I suspect that most people's knowledge of the Anglo-Zulu wars consists of watching the film Zulu. In that movie, a heroic band of white-British soldiers hold off the Zulu hordes at Rorke's Drift and prove, through their valiant winning of multiple Victoria Crosses, that they were made of British pluck.
Ian Knight's book fills a enormous gap in the literature of military writings on the Victorian era. Unlike many celebration's of British colonialism, he retells the appalling story of the Anglo-Zulu war through the eyes of both sides in the conflict. There are many military histories of the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift. Few of them are sympathetic with the Zulus. Fewer still locate the root of the enormous defeat the British had at Isandlwana in the personal ambitions of British colonial leaders, isolated from London, who thought they could win a quick victory over a backward people.
Knight begins with a history of the Zulu people. Their origins lie in the Nguni people of eastern Africa and Knight tells us fascinating details of the development of their culture. In this difficult terrain, the Zulu's developed an economy centred on cattle, with a complex network of different tribes that paid homage to a central king.
By the 18th century, these tribes were beginning to encounter white Europeans, often shipwrecked on the dangerous coasts. As the 18th century became the 19th, European interest in East Africa increased, particularly with the discovery of resources such as diamonds.
The Anglo-Zulu war has its origin in colonial incursions into Zulu land. Knight makes it clear that local authorities, desperate to create the basis for a quick war against the Zulu, convinced those back in London to build up their military forces. But not enough. Acting with little more than their own authority, men like Anthony Durnford and Lord Chelmsford invaded the Zulu nation and incurred the wrath of Cetshwayo the Zulu King.
Knight is no romantic. He is completely aware that in the long run, the Zulus stood little chance against the might of the British industrial economy. But this first military campaign suffered from many colonial prejudices. Not for the first time did British red-coats pay with their lives, because General's assumed that the natives would run away in the face of British guns and bayonets.
The actions of the British commander Lord Chelmsford read like a text-book example of how not to invade hostile territory. He split his forces, and badly under-estimated the scale of his opponent. With columns scattered country-wide, few experienced soldiers, long-supply chains over inhospitable terrain, and racist attitudes to the enemy a military defeat of some sort was inevitable. But the scale of the disaster had more to do with the enormous size of Cethswayo's kingdom and the number of Zulu troops prepared to muster to defend their land and people. So skilled were these troops, and so over-confident the British that the Zulus were able to bring 28,000 troops within 8 kilometres of the poorly defended British camp at Isandlwana.
Knight's book is partly social history, hence his emphasis on the history of the Zulu nation and the background of the British troops and officers. Yet it is also military history. Unusually his detailed explanations of, for instance, how a soldier actually fired a Martini-Henri rifle only serve to detail the true horror of the British defeat. Knowing exactly how hot the gun's barrel got after a few shots, and how this could cause the weapon to jam, means that the reader understands how quickly the British got themselves into trouble in the face of such over-whelming odds. Knight has dug out large numbers of eyewitness accounts, from British and Zulu veterans and the stories of the last moments of the massacre, with red-coats fighting with pocket-knives against heavily armed Zulu warriors, are very hard to read.
But Isandlwana was a unique set of circumstances. The entirely different outcome at Rorke's Drift demonstrated that British tactics, in a heavily defended area, with disciplined troops, could defeat enormous odds. The Zulu people just didn't have the weapons to defeat British guns. That said though one does have to wonder at the intelligence of any commander who took rockets out into the plains of Natal to try and defeat a mobile force.
Knight captures the prejudices and mistakes made by the colonial authorities, lays to rest many of the forgotten aspects of the conflicts (the central role played by native forces in the British armies) and demonstrates how British policies (particularly after the defeat) helped lay the basis for many of the problems that came after. This is no sanitised account of military action, but a bloodily realistic description of the front line of Empire.
Sadly the book is slightly over-written, I felt a decent editor could have cut 50 to 100 of the 700 pages. That sad though, the work is immensely readable and recommended.
Newsinger - The Blood Never Dried; A People's History of the British Empire
Gott - Britain's Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt