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DateOriginal Topic
23rd July 2003Zulu War Poem's
By Alex Rossiter
Hi All

Are there any zulu war poems out there ,preferably about isandlwana.

there's a computer game forum thing and there's a topic about "post your favoroute poems" and i really want to post one about isandlawana.

Id love to write a poem about isandlwana but dont think ill ever get around to it .


23rd July 2003Peter Ewart

It's almost no exaggeration to say that the London press of 1879 contained a different poem every week about Isandlwana or Rorke's Drift, or both. When the news was still hot off the press most of these verses confused the two, as well as the personnel involved.

Only the other day I saw several I hadn't seen before.

24th July 2003Ian Woodason
Hi Alex!

If you check out Pte A Goatham on the KLH website (links left) there is a verse about Isandlwana from his memorial obelisk - you could just copy and paste it into the game forum thing.

24th July 2003Peter Young

I have the works of a poem called Isandula by Hume Nesbitt.

Would someone on the forum advise if it is acceptable, given copyright etc. to reproduce it on the site?

25th July 2003Peter Ewart
It may be that the first poem about the battle was composed before it began, or at least during its early stages.

Mehlokazulu recalled that the "regimental poet" (no doubt a loosely translated term) of the Nkobamakosi composed and chanted a little song at the moment that this young regiment arrived at the crest of the heights & saw below them - and well to their right - the British camp.

As they swept down to the plain, shortly to engage Durnford, Mehlokazulu's creative comrade sang out:

"Mbane, mbane wezulu, kuyacwazimula;
Langa, langa lamazulu, liyashisa konke."

("Lightning, lightning of Heaven, it glitters and shines;
Sun, sun of the Zulus, it consumes all.")

According to Mehlokazulu, the whole regiment then took up this chant and it was repeated at the top of their voices and roared out all the time they were charging.

I know that other accounts record a steady march in silence of this contingent at the time it came in sight of Durnford's force on the plain and that various accounts describe - at different times of the battle - silence here, buzzing there, then chanting etc etc by different regiments in diverse positions, but here we have it from the horse's mouth & I suppose it is simply a matter of evaluating the worth of a single eye-witness account - the bane of historians of this battle for a century or more! He appears not to have mentioned the song during his lengthy 1879 debrief, nor to Mitford, but then those accounts have their shortcomings anyway.

A pun is involved (I've never been able to understand how puns, let alone rhyming verse, can survive translation!) and I take it as an attempt to summon confidence in the pre-battle medicinal rituals which were intended to render the British fire power impotent against the Zulus, Mehlokazulu explaining that the lightining referred to the rifles but that the Zulu sun would burn everything up.

I don't know of any earlier verse on Isandlwana!

29th July 2003Peter Ewart
I've been asked for the source of the above - hadn't realised I hadn't given it but was "booted off" twice during my posting so inadvertently omitted it when rewriting.

Mehlokazulu himself recounted the details to a young Anglican missionary, Albert W. Lee, some years after the battle. Without necessarily casting doubts on Mehlokazulu's account, it might still be worth evaluating its reliability or accuracy, and those with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the movements of the left horn will be better equipped than me to do so. I don't know if the account of the above verse is recorded elsewhere?

One obviously has to bear in mind the interval between 1879 and when Lee was told the story. Lee didn't arrive in S Africa until March 1903. He met Mehlokazulu several times, including accidentally once during the Bambatha affair (unpleasant for both parties!) and as Lee was stationed at All Saints, Hlazakazi until 1907 and Mehlokazulu was killed in 1906, I'm pretty sure the conversation was in 1903, 1904 or 1905.

Lee's understanding of Zulu was nil when he arrived and remained poor for a while, but - because he was thrown in at the deep end - he learned very quickly and well, eventually becoming highly proficient, both in the language itself and in its various idioms and subtle nuances. It helped him understand, over many years, the character of his "parishioners."

As he spent his time in these years between Isandlwana, the gold mine at Hlazakazi and St Augustine's nr R/Drift, I'm pretty sure the conversation would have taken place somewhere in the Nqutu Magistracy - perhaps near (or even on) the field itself?

In Lee's account (his understanding of the battle was no better than any other European's at the time, with all the usual inaccuracies - he was writing about the same time as Coupland but may not have seen that work) when the Nkobamakosi topped the crest, they saw the white tents and "caught the twinkling reflection of the sun upon the bayonet points" although I doubt if a single bayonet had been fixed at this time & Lee may not have grasped the distance between the two at that stage!!! I think that is Lee rather than Meholkazulu speaking, attempting to "paint the picture" to fit the verse.

The allusion in the first line is taken to mean the "lightning" of the guns which shine but will not kill, and the sun of the Sons of Heaven will burn everything up. I'm not yet convinced about the pun on sun and son but this doesn't detract from the praise singer's skill.

Lee had no reason to exaggerate or embellish & was, I'm sure, passing on something mentioned to him by one of the well known participants in the battle. Like Mitford's recorded conversations in 1883 or even Mehlokazulu's interrogation in 1879, they are just that and no more.

Lee became Bishop of Zululand and gave the account of the above verse in his memoirs ("Once Dark Country" SPCK, 1949). I've studied a fair bit of his correspondence & papers of his early missionary days but see no mention of Mehlokazulu.

I'd be interested to know if Mehlokazulu told anyone else the same story.