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DateOriginal Topic
14th January 2005Zulus - were they greater than the sum of their parts?
By Paul Cubbin
Eh? Well, what I mean is this. Until 1879 the Zulu Nation had enjoyed a fairly uncontested dominance over the territory it controlled. All those who came in contact with them seem to have regarded the Zulus with a mixture of fear and respect (Chelmsford, take note...bugger, 126 years too late). Militarily they seemed unsurpassed and, although there was the occasional setback, were able to achieve whatever goals were set them.
Now, was this their tactics, their weaponry or their physical potency? Or maybe a mixture of all three? The British made widespread use of NNC units, who at first glance do not appear totally dissimilar in bearing and equipment from Zulus, as well as Swazis and renegade Zulus. Yet these troops were utterly unable and unwilling to stand and fight Cetshwayo's Impis. So, how come? Sure, they were recruited mostly for scouting and foraging, but were armed for hand to hand combat as well as any Zulu. A large part must have been psychological, decades of being spanked by the local bully-boy will have an effect, but was this the main reason or was it something else? You'd have thought they would have jumped at the chance of getting to grips with their traditional rivals.
I know its an isolated account, but an Isandlwana survivor (Smith-Dorrien?) tells of a fight between an NNC trooper and a Zulu where they seem well matched in fighting prowess. Sure, one scrap in thousands, but why were there so few accounts of the native Africans in the British service actually getting to grips with the enemy successfully?
15th January 2005Derek C
OK, I'll take a stab at this......
I'm guessing it was a numbers game. Assuming they're similarly equiped (NNC & Zulus) 10 NNC guys would take on say 10 or less Zulus and fair pretty well. To expect those same 10 to take on a hundred or more is nothing short of suicide (the same holds true for the Zulu's warriors). Imagine their fear as they were outnumbered say 25:1 and the British line was failing? Imagine the "special treatment" they would receive from the Zulu's once neutralized.

When you have no advantage over the enemy (numbers, equipment etc.) but can run just as fast as them, there aren't too many choices.

15th January 2005Peter Ewart

Generally speaking, when looking for differences or similarities between those of the NNC and those of the Zulu army, it is surely important to remember that the majority of those NNC who served with the invasion force WERE Zulus themselves.

They had the same origins, background, customs, traditions and - as far as possible under Shepstone's Native Law - lived in the same way as the Zulus on the other side of the river. They had simply decided (or, in practice in many cases, had had decided for them) to live under British "protection" rather than under Mpande's or Cetshwayo's government. Many of them had been born and brought up in Zululand. In the case of those who hadn't, many (perhaps most) of their parents had been born and brought up in Zululand - or, at the very least, their grandparents had. One must also remember that in their parents' time - and most certainly in their grandparents' time - what was now Natal had simply been a part of Zululand.

The similarities were surely much more significant than the differences. Most - other than the comparatively few who lived under direct American influence (and a smaller number who lived under Norwegian or British influence) or who lived in the towns of Durban or Maritzburg (both still very small) - lived in the same pastoral way as their cousins across the river. Comparatively few lived even remotely like Europeans. Their own chiefs held sway, other than at the level at which Shepstone insisted the Natal government would make decisions or if they "strayed", such as Langalibalele was deemed to have done by Pine.

As for their supposed military shortcomings during January 1879? Well, I'm no military expert, but the NNC was raised only during the planning stage of the war, which might have been all right if they had been intended to fight as they knew well how to do. Instead, they were drilled, as I understand, to serve as virtually unarmed European infantrymen, and received much less training for such a role than their fully armed British allies would have done in their own training period at Brecon or elsewhere.

Their European officers - in some cases - appear to have been appointed equally hurriedly and not always with sound judgement. These leaders certainly do not seem to have got the best out of them.

I wouldn't underestimate one bit the motivation of the NNC Zulus in wanting to have a crack at the Usuthu faction which, in the more recent cases, had been the reason for their exile. Many had lost whole families to the Usuthu before or during their flight - at Nnondakasuka for example, or in Zululand afterwards. Between Dec 1856 and Dec 1878 thousands and thousands had moved or fled, following on from Mbulazi's defeat and the exile, for example, of Mkhungu's people, which was only the beginning. I haven't checked right now but I believe there were more Zulus in the Centre Column than there were British or Colonist - which suggests a degree of motivation on their part. It seems they were badly let down by poor leadership.

With regard to your point that "the Zulu nation enjoyed a fairly uncontested dominance over the territory it controlled", I'm not at all sure that that was the case at any time after Shaka's death. Certainly not after Dingaan's death. They lost huge tracts - over half their country - to both Briton and Boer between Shaka's time and Cetshwayo's succession, but it is possible you are referring to the latter period before the war. Well, even after the settlement of the Natal border, both Zululand and Swaziland were relentlessly encroached upon by Boer settlers in the north and west. It wouldn't be accurate to say that either Swaziland or Zululand continued to control these huge areas in even the slightest way as, grazing season by grazing season and year by year throughout the 1860s and 1870s, the Boers literally stole more and more land, presenting Mpande and Cetshwayo with a "fait accompli" for which the latter continually sought - but never received - the slightest redress. This all came home to roost with the annexation of the Transvaal, presenting Frere with a daunting conundrum which led to war.

With regard to the Zulu nation being, perhaps, larger than the sum of its parts, it is worth remembering that Shepstone (albeit retrospectively, in 1887) thought otherwise, with his notorious and disparaging "rope of sand" dismissal. One might also consider that the clans in the south-east of 1879 Zululand, as well as the far northern ones and Hamu himself, served to support Shepstone's claim, along with those who "came in" to Wolseley fairly quickly.

15th January 2005Keith Smith
This is a subject pretty close to my heart, having read very widely on the subject.

1. There were more NNC soldiers than British/colonial troops as at January 1879 (some 65% of them were NNC).
2. No. 3 column consisted of 1275 infantry, 320 mounted men and 2566 NNC. This excludes Durnford's 250 mounted men and about 240 NNC which came up from RD.
3. There was a substantial disagreement between Chelmsford and Sir H. Bulwer about the NNC and Bulwer was eventually persuaded to recruit them reluctantly. His bone of contention was the 'regimental' system adopted for them, rather than the traditional 'tribal' system which had prevailed hitherto.
4. The men were poorly led by officers and NCOs, many of whom could not even speak Enbglish, let alone Zulu. Charlie Harford, staff officer to 3rd Regt., was an exception.
5. Most of the men making up the three regiments were of Zulu origin, people like Zikhali having fled from earlier Zulu kings. Moreover, Mkhungu and Sikhotha were members of the Zulu royal house.
6. Only 10% of men of the NNC were armed initially and they were often placed in the van of formations. Their exposure to heavy Zulu fire placed them at a severe disadvantage. This can be seen plainly at Nyezane.
7. The NNC were able to fight when given the opportunity, even though poorly armed. James Lonsdale's isiGqoza company fought well at Isandlwana.

For a better understanding of the NNC, I recommend Paul Thompson's 'Natal Native Contingent', recently reissued.

16th January 2005Paul Cubbin
The mounted NNC units do seem to have been markedly better than their infantry counterparts. Was this a result of being better equipped in training, kit and officers/NCOs?
It does seem odd to recruit natives specifically to take advantage of their inherent abilities for scouting purposes, just to negate this by organising and drilling them along European lines. The British Army had successfully used native allies before, notably in Canada and the Northwest Frontier, so how come they made such a hash of it this time? Perhaps a result of the war being rushed through and not being officially sanctioned; with wiser heads available, Chelmsford may have altered his plans (not that they weren't there - its just that Chelmsford seemed to have ignored those not in 'official' positions somewhat).
In many ways, perhaps the (less experienced?) British units held more fear of the dreaded Zulu (especially post-Isandlwana) than those who had already lived and fought with them for so many years.
Keith - I can see the disadvantage it must have been for the Officers not to be able to competently speak Enbglish, or even rbead and wrbite it. I wonder if they could speak Zbulu? (Snigger, guffaw, general childish giggling etc..)
16th January 2005Peter Ewart

Thanks for those numbered points. Corroboration of my ramblings from such a quarter is verification indeed!

Although I have my doubts as to the reliability of everything "Noggs" Newman wrote, especially as so much of his text lacks a contemporaneous feel, he did suggest (p20/21) that the NNC was recruited from both farm employees and from those living in their own homestead communities. He reckoned there were over 200,000 natives (adult males?) in Natal available from that category alone, a figure even higher than that guessed at by the Anglican missionaries around that time. Certainly it was considered an overcrowded colony and it suggests there may have been more Zulus living in Natal than there were in Zululand. There were some discussions earlier on this forum about the probable population of Zululand I remember, although I never have been able to arrive at reliable comparisons between there and Natal.


It could be said, therefore, that the Central Column invading Zululand was primarily a column of Zulus stiffened by a leavening of Europeans!

The NNH was trained by Durnford, who was originally earmarked to raise and train the NNC as well. He did a very good job, showing leadership skills of the highest order and a deep knowledge and respect of the people he trained. I suspect nothing like the result achieved could have been done in such a short time without mutual trust, something apparently lacking (putting it mildly) between the NNC and many of their officers. The Edendale men from near Maritzburg and Hlubi's Sotho, drawn from around Weenen county, were already familiar, it should be remembered, with co-operating closely with Europeans. Chief Hlubi was keen that his men should become christians and the Edendale men were already devout Methodists. Trust, discipline, organisation and a familiarity with working with Europeans helped - as well, of course, as being well led, armed and mounted!

The NNC, with one firearm in ten and "led" by (some) officers who considered all that was needed was a sjambok to sort them out, were untrained or wrongly trained, often badly led & virtually unarmed for the task allotted them. I agree with you that the time available before the invasion probably left far too much to be done, but mistakes were made nevertheless in training decisions and appointments. Perhaps if Durnford had remained in charge of the training of both the NNH and NNC, he wouldn't have been able to remain so close to his own NNH.

After Isandlwana, it seems the NNC (but not the NNH) almost to a man, not surprisingly and understandably thumbed their noses at the European effort as if to say "if you call that soldiering, you can keep it!" whereas, conversely, they were widely reported at the time as having let down the Europeans by their funk and indiscipline and contributed to disaster.

16th January 2005Keith Smith

Durnford trained only the 1st Regiment, the other two being trained by their own commandants. After Isandlwana, the 3rd Regt, under Lonsdale, with Hamilton-Browne and Cooper in command of the two battalions, was disbanded after their mass desertion. Various reasons were attributed to their behaviour but one (albeit minor) was that they had seen Chelmsford also desert - he rode off the Pietermaritzburg as sson as possible!

The two remaining regiments were then organised into five battalions. Of the 1st Regt, Bengough's 2nd batt. went to the 2nd Division with Newdigate and went all the way to Ulundi. The other two batts remained at Kranskop, where they were eventually merged into one.
The two of the 2nd Regt (renumbered the 4th and 5th Batts.) under Barton and Nettleton, went with Chelmsford to relieve Eshow (and thus fought at Gingindlovu) and then with Crealock (senior) and the 1st Division.


16th January 2005Keith Smith
I regret the typos so please excuse them. FFS! (Fat Finger Syndrome).