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The Boiling Cauldron - Utrecht District and the Anglo-Zulu War 1879

Jones, Huw M
Shermershill Press -

Review by Stephen Coan

When it comes to the Anglo-Zulu War books on the two keynote battles, Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift follow one another in almost monotonous succession. Little wonder that a few years back, John Laband, a leading historian of the war, called for a moratorium on such rehashes and appealed for more detailed examinations of neglected aspects of the subject. The Boiling Cauldron by Huw M. Jones exactly fits the bill; subtitled “Utrecht District and the Anglo-Zulu War, 1879” this is a meticulously researched account of the years preceding the war in the area that became known as the “The Disputed Territory”, one in which various groups - Swazi, Boer, English and Zulu - came into often abrasive contact that climaxed in the defeat of a British/Colonial force consisting of mounted units, burghers and African auxiliaries on the mountain of Hlobane in 1879.

Jones's interest in the area goes back to 1956 when he was posted by the British colonial service to Swaziland and much of his research findings either corrects - or skilfully contests - conclusions drawn by other scholars and historians of the period, including Richard Cope, Philip Bonner, Ian Knight, John Laband and Ron Lock.

The saga begins

The saga begins with the arrival of Swazi chieftain Mbilini waMswati at the confluence of the Phongolo and Ntombe rivers in 1867 and his alliance with Zulu king-in-waiting, Cetshwayo. Thereafter Jones backtracks 50 years to the early settlement of the area gradually building up a picture of conflicting interests and aspirations: the Boers seeking a route to the east coast from the land-locked Transvaal; upheavals in Swaziland causing migrations southwards; the Zulus expanding to the northwest, ever mindful of the British colony of Natal on their southern border. As Boer and Zulu negotiated various land cessions and boundaries, different cultural attitudes to diplomacy and land ownership created what Jones calls “a dialogue of misunderstanding”.

With their annexation of the Transvaal in 1877 the British inherited the boundary dispute and a commission was appointed to resolve matters. The commission proceeded in an “overtly partial manner”, according to Jones, focusing on an 1861 boundary agreement to the exclusion of several others. Transvaal witnesses were subjected to “adversarial examination in which the Transvaal was effectively on trial for encroaching on what was accepted, without evidence, as Zulu territory. The Zulu, on the other hand, were required to do no more than state their extravagant territorial claim.”

War inevitable

Although the commission found in favour of the Zulus, the British ultimatum delivered to representatives of King Cetshwayo in December 1879 effectively negated it; war was inevitable and the British invaded Zululand. In the Utrecht district Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Evelyn Wood commanded the number three invasion column and Colonel Redvers Buller was in charge of irregular cavalry troops.

After the overwhelming Zulu victory at Isandlwana the British commander-in-chief, Lord Chelmsford, looked to Wood and Buller “to pull me out of my difficulties”. Thus events were set in motion that would lead to the battle on the Hlobane plateau where a British force were confronted by the Mdalose, Ntombela and Qulusi led by Mbilini.

Jones's account of the battle avoids any echoes of Boy's Own derring-do, offering instead a sober exposition reminiscent of F. W. D. Jackson's cool-headed appraisals of Isandlwana. Students of the war will find Jones's opinions on who did what and who went where at Zungwini's Nek of particular interest. He also raises the question of whether Hlobane was a battle that should even have been fought in the first place. Wood's suspect tactical claims apart, there seems to have been an inordinate interest in the spoils of war, in this case cattle. War correspondent W. H. Russell identified both Wood and Buller as “relentless devils and cattle lifters”.

British attitudes

The battle also highlighted British attitudes towards colonial units: “The colonial volunteer horsemen played the central role at Hlobane,” says Jones, “and were clearly sacrificed to save the lives of British infantrymen, not only by plain subsitution, but by poor planning.”

The Boiling Cauldron tells a complex story that requires attentive reading and, as if to emphasise its academic nature, there is little in the way of illustrative material, indeed no photographs at all. However, there is - and published for the first time - Lieutenant-Colonel A.W. Durnford's 1878 map of Zululand and the three maps that he prepared for the 1878 Boundary Commission, as well as one of the maps drawn by Captain J. Alleyne for the Zululand Boundary Commission in September 1879, and five contemporary sketches drawn by Major T. Fraser, RE, when travelling through the area with Wood in September 1881.

For its author The Boiling Cauldron probably represents the crowning achievement of a life's work. It will be interesting to see how it feeds into the more mainstream books dealing with the Anglo-Zulu War.

First published in The Witness, 29 March 2007.