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DateOriginal Topic
25th June 2003Cetshwayo's reaction to Isandhlwana
By Miguel
When did the news from Isandhlwana reach Ulundi?
What was Cetshwayo's reaction to those news?
What decisions did he take?
26th June 2003Peter Ewart

As no-one else has, I'll jump in.

Not many accounts (that I've seen) seem to dwell on exactly how long the news took to reach the King, but he would have known in hours. He is certainly understood to have known the same day that the two armies were engaged. With the well known speed with which news travelled in Zululand, and the obvious importance of the tidings, one can't imagine it taking more than a few hours at most - certainly by next morning at the latest. Someone else may know if it is recorded somewhere.

His reaction to the day's news? Well, he didn't exactly slap his thigh, as seen in "Zulu." Or he might have done, but not in joy. To put it bluntly, and to precis most accounts, he certainly wasn't that chuffed, which might surprise you. Many publications quote him as lamenting that "an assegai has been thrust into the belly of the nation" when he learned the scale of the casualties among his warriors, although I don't know the source for this (it'll be there somewhere, perhaps Mitford, or earlier, perhaps reported in the Natal press, I forget for the moment). Interestingly, neither Binns in his biography nor Laband in "Rope of Sand/Rise & Fall" use this quote. I don't know if he knew the scale of casualties at the same moment he heard the news of victory, which he appears to have considered a Pyrrhic one - correctly as it turned out.

He was devastated by the losses. Remember that the repulse at R/Drift brought around 600 or more dead, included the despatched wounded & others who died later; 300 or so on the same day at Inyezane, was it? Then estimates of 1000-2500 at Isandlwana (these have only ever been guesses) and he may have lost up to 3000 to 3500 men killed on the first day of heavy fighting - almost certainly over 2000. Add to this the small losses at Sihayo's homestead & at Mangeni, the early surrenders (Gamdana's people etc) and he seems to have been the first to realise that this attrition rate couldn't continue, especially as the British were still in his country & weren't going away until defeated in the field, even if then. He didn't share the view that the British had been dealt a blow which would make them rethink their policy - quite the opposite, and again he was right.

He was furious about R/Drift. The attack on Natal & the attack of a fortified position brought totally unnecessary losses against his clear & strict orders.

According to Laband he gave no credit to the commanders at Isandlwana because he received (accurate) reports that they'd lost control at the outset and the army attacked before being properly "doctored." In turn, he was criticised by his female entourage for not entering into his own doctoring rituals during the battle wholeheartedly enough, thus bringing about a partial victory only.

When most of the surviving army finally convened at Ulundi in front of the King after their own traditonal and necessary post-battle cleansing rituals at their homes, he sorted out the heroes from the cowards in the usual way and they dispersed to their harvesting duties all over the country.

He remustered them a month later (I think that's right but someone will say if it's not) but from the day of the receipt of the news of 22 Jan, he re-doubled his efforts at negotiation with Chelmsford, which he had rather pathetically - but apparently genuinely - attempted after the ultimatum, and regardless of what happened between then and July, he never stopped sending emissaries to Chelmsford, who either ignored his entreaties, responded with impossible counter-proposals or never received his messages. Cetshwayos's own warriors "put a spoke in the wheel" more than once and the little matter of a Dutchman called Cornelius Vijn, who kept the King company throughout the war and acted as interpreter & diplomat, has to be taken into account. Not so innocent Chinese Whispers were at work there now and again.

Cetshwayo's confidence was shaken by Isandlwana (a heavily outnumbered force in the open had nearly held out against his main army) and after Ginghindlovu & Kambula he knew the game was up.

Well, that's my four penn'orth.

27th June 2003Miguel
Wow, thank you very much indeed, Peter. That was more than I could have expected. I enjoyed reading your post.
30th June 2003John Young

I wonder if the 'an assegai has been thrust into the belly of the nation' quote is as mythic as the 'First comes the trader...' quote. Or whether it is a colourful translation of what he might have said?

The crux of it is that word 'assegai', which for the benefit of some of our new readers is not at all Zulu in origin.

I have now asked five members of the Zulu Royal House, about this word that we English-speaking people think of as synonymous with the AmaZulu, none of them know of the word in general use. Indeed two of them said it was a Xhosa word meaning spear.

Colourful translation or invention?

John Y.
18th July 2003Peter Ewart
Must have missed your posting when it first came up, John.

Yes, assegai is definitely held to be not a Zulu term, isn't it? A word used or picked up somewhere by the British, I've read. I've also read that it was, or may have been, originally an Arabic or N African term - as usual I can't recall where I read that!

If the statement was made by Cetshwayo - & I don't strongly doubt it but would just like to know the source (a trawl of the Red Book might find it but it's getting late!) - it looks as if the word assegai has entered into the statement via translation, as you suggest.

Is the oft-quoted "First comes the trader ..." considered another myth? I didn't know that. A disappointment, given my interest in the missionaries! I certainly don't know the source. Emery concludes his prologue (p27) by explaining that the remark was copied into Crealock's sketchbook as a caption for (or referring to) the Ulundi defeat. I haven't got "The Road to Ulundi" so can't check, but presumably Crealock is claiming to have heard someone say that Cetshwayo said it? I think this must be the source - but it's a bit woolly, isn't it?Second hand at least.

Not the sort of quote you'd make up though, and an understandable claim from a Zulu? (Of course, Crealock was "creative" in more ways than one!!!)