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5th January 2005Who Killed Melvill and Coghill?
By Alan Hobson
In the acount of the deaths of Melvill and Coghill on this website, it is stated that they were killed by "supposedly friendly natives" rather than the Zulus themselves.

This is interesting, because I wasn't aware of this. Who were these natives? Presumably they weren't survivors of the NNC? What were they doing in the vicinity? What is the source for the "friendly natives" theory?

Also, from memory there was a surviving NNC or NNH unit which gave covering fire from the Natal bank, enabling some of the later fugitives such as Melvill and Coghill to get as far as they did. Did they make any attempt to rescue the two lieutenants, after Higginson had disappeared?
5th January 2005Mark Hobson

Going off memory, as I haven't gone through the books for this, I think the men in question were followers of Chief Gandama who lived along that stretch of the Myzinyathi. The story goes that when Melvill and Coghill reached the river, their Zulu pursuers called out to Gandama's people, who had been watching the fighting, to kill the officers or suffer the consequences if they refused to do so. They took this threat seriously enough to do as they were told.

Somewhere in my memory I recall having read somewhere that Melvill and Coghill's killers might even have been some local women, but I can't recall where I read this theory.

Nice surname by the way Alan
5th January 2005Keith Smith
Just a point about the Isandlwana area which is sometimes overlooked. It was not normally deserted but was heavily populated by Zulus, just as it is now. There were a number of Zulu homesteads on the battlefield, the plateau and near the road between Rorke's Drift and Isandlwana. Many of the local inhabitants fled the area just before the invasion - see C. de B. Webb, “A Zulu Boy’s Recollections of the Zulu War”, Natalia, No. 8, December, 1978, p. 6, an annotated re-print of George H. Swinny’s recorded testimony of the same name, published in 1884.
5th January 2005Paul Cubbin
The unit giving covering fire was the Edendale Contigent - a very equipped and well drilled NNH unit (part of Durnford's force - supposedly one of his 'favourites'). As I understand it they fired until their ammunition ran low (or out) then made their way back to the Natal border (via Rorkes Drift? Wasn't it they who caused such outrage by refusing to stay at the post?). There are accounts of them yelling at men crossing to keep their heads down as they fired across the water to the far bank - I for one think they deserve more recognition as they undoubtably saved British lives that day and were the only force of any size that kept its cohesion at Isandlwana (being mounted probably helped just a tad). I don't recall them attempting to aid Melville or Coghill but maybe they had already left or were at a different part of the river.
6th January 2005Alan Hobson
Thanks, all, for the replies.

Mark - helpful account. And yes, v. good surname!

Paul - Thanks for the reminder re the Edendle Contingent. I also agree they deserve more recognition. However, I would have to gently disagree that they were the only force which kept its cohesion that day. I would argue that Younghusband's 'C' company did for some considerable time, as indeed did Anstey's detachment of 'F' company, which managed to get all the way as a unit to the early stages of the Fugitive's Trail before being overwhelmed - a remarkable achievement considering the circumstances.
6th January 2005Julian whybra
Alan - it goeswithout saying that Gandama's men were Zulus! Gandama had just 'surrendered' to Chelmsford - the phrase 'friendly natives' may not be taken too literally.
6th January 2005Peter Ewart
Dr F K Mitchell also uses the phrase "the only group to maintain their cohesion through the great Zulu victory at Isandlwana" when referring to the Edendale contingent (SAMHSJ Vol 7, No 6). He may have been quoting or paraphrasing Rev Owen Watkins, "SB" Bourquin, or GA Chadwick & EG Hobson. However, at the risk of playing devil's advocate, might it not be said that most of the companies of the 24th did likewise, in retiring in good order when ordered to do so (on foot!) and maintaining contact with each other as they continued to fire while retiring, and still existing as a cohesive unit during their respective last stands on or behind the nek?

Mitchell also states that, on the Natal of the river "a large body of Zulus waited to despatch every man who escaped from the river" when the Edendale men arrived at Sothondose's. These were dispersed by three volleys across the river from the Edendale but only after the Zulus had thrown assegais ineffectively across the river. Are these the words of Simeon Kambula, Owen Watkins, or a precis of the two?

Paul, they were already in Natal when they fired back across the river to give cover to the later fugitives, so had already crossed the border.

I'm not too au fait with the volunteer system in Natal in the 1870s requiring blacks to serve in the various volunteer movements from time to time, buit someone will be. Many of these Edendale men had no previous military experience but others - like the Hlubi Troop - had served under Durnford at the Bushman's River Pass. The people of Natal certainly admired their AZW record - a feather in the cap for the missionaries, perhaps, who, up to that time (and later) were despised by many of the colonists.

The "Gamdana's people" theory appears to rest on (relatively modern?) local oral evidence, which we have discussed before. It may be correct but I'm not a believer that the oral evidence can stand alone. The suspicions of some of the column (after the handing in of a few weapons pre-Isandlwana) also led to this theory, did it not?


6th January 2005Peter Ewart
Hurried typing = missing words & several ambiguities!

The Zulus waiting on the Natal bank were fired at from the Zulu side in three volleys by the Edendale men. When these Zulu were dispersed, the Edendale contingent crossed and then provided covering fire from Natal for the remaining fugitives - according to Rev Owen Watkins or Sgt Kambula, but I haven't read their original accounts in full. Not bad, for a force who had scrabbled around on the ground around the ammunition wagons during the fight in order to collect odd cartridges after having been politely refused supplies by the famous little boy! (Or was he so little?)

I meant to imply that troopers from both the Edendale and the Hlubi troops had served at BRP but many, also, of the Edendale Mission Station were completely new to military service, as no doubt were some of the youngest troopers among Hlubi's Sotho from the Estcourt area. Their performance was therefore all the more creditable, both then and later in the war, and perhaps the NNC would have performed better under adequate leadership?

Whether or not the killers of Melvill and Coghill were from among Gamdana's people, or whichever side of the river they lived, they were certainly Zulus, as Julian has pointed out. By this time, missionary sources estimated that around 100,000 Zulus resided in Natal, which the colonists considered overcrowded & Zululand very thinly populated.

Incidentally, although perhaps not the best day (for some of us!) to mention cricket in S Africa, both the Edendale men and the NNC contained cricketers in their ranks ...

7th January 2005Mike Snook
Smith-Dorrien records that Zulus who had harried the fugitives along the Manzimyama Valley and down Mpethe Hill crossed the river in pursuit of them. And of course the whole of the Undi Corps crossed en masse in the next hour or so. The iNdluyengwe in particular crossed very close to Sothondose's Drift.

Somebody above questions whether the Edendale went via R Drift. They did not - it was Henderson's Basutos - No 4 Troop plus amaNgwane stragglers of Nos 1-3 Tps.

There is no compelling evidence to support this modern theory. In my view Melvill and Coghill were killed by Zulus who crossed the river in pursuit of them. Think how long it must have taken M & C to get so far up the side of the valley, with C in the condition he was.