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27th December 2004Were the Zulus war criminals?
By Paul Cubbin
Now this one should be a bit controversial.
I was trawling through some of the other topics over the last few months (I'm new to this excellent site and wanted to soak it all in) and found a reported 'rant' back in May - it had 46 replies! Many of you 'old timers' will remember, no doubt so I won't repeat it here.
Now it got me thinking. Conventional wisdom seems to point to Sir Bartle Frere being the instigator, and thus villain, of the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879. He regarded war as inevitable and thus did everything he could to make it happen. Victorian Britain was outraged and there was a significant ammount of sympathy for 'The Noble Savage' of the Zulu Nation. All fairly reasonable so far. BUT, was it all deserved?
Bear with me, don't send me any bombs or put-downs just yet. It strikes me that although we shouldn't try to judge anyone by modern standards of morality etc.. there is still a question mark over the way Zulu warriors in particular, and the nation in general, often behaved.
The Zulu nation came to power by systematically wiping out all oppostition over a period of six decades. Men, women and children were murdered in cold blood for the advancement of a previously minor bantu tribe. The taking of prisoners was almost unheard of (against the British, certainly) and pointless torture and mutilation of the vanquished was common. Can this be justified by saying 'it was part of their culture'? After all, there was plenty of murder within the Zulu 'court' itself too. Is there a parallel here with other 'evil' regimes - Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia, etc..? Now, no-one can deny that the Zulus had many fine qualities that we can all admire. But would the world have been a better place had the war not been waged at that time? At what point should armed conflict have been instigated against a terrifying, warlike nation, if at all?
Now, I hasten to add - this is purely a question. WERE they war criminals? I make no accusations and urge any readers to allow every contributor to add their opinion without censure. Feelings may run high on this one, but let's see if we can get through it intact.
27th December 2004Trevor
Yep. They were war criminals. They slaughtered there enemies and killed the wounded.
But they were no worse than the the red coats. Probably a bit better really! The zulu could say their way was cultural.
What excuse could the Brits use for slaughtering the wounded? Plus the Brits invaded them. New perfectly well their ways. Even new how they fought! Had all the advantages in fact. But when they got there a**e kicked, resorted to killing the wounded. VC's were earned on both sides. But there was no honour on those battlefields of the zulu war.
Or was there?????
27th December 2004Paul Cubbin
Ah, you are, I assume referring to the well-documented case of the Zulu wounded at Rorkes Drift being killed? I was under the impression that this was due to several Zulus 'playing possum' and then leaping up to spear or shoot at unwary soldiers in the aftermath. I also heard that it was NNC troopers as opposed to the British who did this, and not under orders. Another point strikes me as well. There was a wounded Zulu in the hospital at Rorkes Drift being cared for in the same conditions as British troops. He was even offered assistance in escaping (by one of the Williams' I think) when the hospital was on fire, but he refused saying that his friends would soon be arriving. He was found dead in his room after the battle.
It is my experience that possibly the most striking thing about the British soldier, throughout history, is not his capacity to win battles but his capacity for gentleness and generosity when the battle is over. Maybe its the old 'Fair Play' psyche of a sporting nation. "Leave it on the pitch boys."
But no. Sorry Trevor, can't agree with you on that one. I think, even if my information is not completely correct, that possibly the only 'War Criminals' in red coats were the ones with gold on their shoulders. Mind you, that could have been your point, in which case I bow theatrically and buy you a pint.
But does invasion against a weaker foe in itself constitute unwarranted aggression? Had Britain and France invaded (a much weaker) Germany in 1939, much evil would have been avoided. I don't think the Swazi tribes or the Boer farmers of the Transvaal were too upset at losing their bigger, stronger neighbours in 1879.
28th December 2004Ian
I do believe that there were examples during the campaign of the Redcoats compassion towards the Zulu's. An example, the Zulu boy that refused to give up at the front line in the battle of Gingindlovu, a redcoat reached out pulled him into the square & sat on him for the rest of the battle - he survived intact! I have read of other examples.
During the later civil unrest (1880's) I seem to remember an account where the British relocated a whole village of Zulu's, because a Zulu impi was on its way to destroy it.
Also, is it not true that the Zulu nation was an expanding Empire? Was it their land that the Redcoat invaded?
Also cultural? The British have been warlike since the year dot! Is it not part of our culture? Bearing in mind the only year we have not been fighting somewhere in the world was 1968!!
28th December 2004Trevor
I am sure that your right about individual acts of compassion, or humanity if you like. But i'm fairly sure your average red coat had no problem at all dispatching an enemy he new would take no prisoners. I have a friend who fought in Burma against the Japanese. He was one of the Chindits. He said he never took a prisoner, although on a few occations he could have! But he never lost a nights sleep over it. Now this was an educated honest and loving family man. He's passed away now. But what he, and many others did couldn't be justified after the event. Take the D Day landings. The Yanks took hardly any prisoners once they breached the German defences. I guess when something wrong is done in the heat of the moment. It's still wrong, but understandable. But if anyone kills wounded, defensless, or unarmed people. And they want to justify with whatever reason. They better be able to live and sleep with it!
Will reply to Paul. But wifes bending me ear. Tea's ready!!!!!!!!!!
28th December 2004Paul Cubbin
My wife's just handed me a plate of meringue as I sat down, such hardship, so this will also be a quickie.
The Chindits, like the SAS, were a Special Forces unit for whom the taking of prisoners was often not an option. The smallest cry out from a POW was a death sentence for an entire squad and a logistical nightmare for those operating behind enemy lines. Besides, I thought the average Japanese soldier would rather die than be taken prisoner. In fact, a huge proportion of Japanese POWs refused to give their real names or contact their families as it constituted a huge dishonour to be captured.
Now, obviously individuals will always act in a way that brings disrepute on those they serve with - its a fact and cannot be changed. But I think the British conduct during the AZW was fairly controlled considering what their opponents did to prisoners. Ian - I heard that too about the Zulu boy, didn't he travel back to Britain and become a ships boy in the navy or something? If memory serves, the bloke who sat on him was a member of the naval contingent and the crew adopted him after the battle. As for the conduct of American personel, well unfortunately it isn't an isolated incident is it? As this website is focused elsewhere it hardly needs elaboration, but I guess that's one of the prices a country must pay for a relaxed attitude to discipline in its armed forces. It may have advantages, but again, probably best not to go into them here.
29th December 2004Peter Ewart

The international notion of a "war criminal" was surely unknown before the Geneva Convention & was not put to the test until 1946.

In the 19th century the British army would hardly have expected most of their non-European "enemies" to have taken prisoners. The mutilation of the dead was what caused the cultural shock.

Shaka's armies did no differently to what other tribal antagonists did to their enemies or neighbours throughout the world, whether in Africa, Asia or elsewhere. Why else would these primitive peoples have been labelled savages by Europeans?

To suggest that all these societies - simply because they killed women and children and/or unarmed enemies - were "war criminals" (a totally meaningless term then) is surely nonsense.

29th December 2004Paul Cubbin
Peter - yes, but at the risk of applying modern terminology to a conflict 125 years ago, was their behaviour excessive? These people were not animals or toddlers devoid of conscience; they had a society, a law, a structure that defined acceptable actions - all governed by tradition and the word of the King.
Are we now able to relate fairly universal values of 'honour' and 'justice' that most successful civilisations have adhered to - respect for human life being the most important - and judge the Zulus as being in violation of these basic tenets?
Or, as Peter infers, is their culture so removed from what is familiar to us that their actions are simply an act of war as they saw it?
30th December 2004Tait
When placing cultures under the spectrum of war, each has his own set of ways.

Take the Native Americans, they had a variety of ways of treating prisoners they took or what they did to the dead. Some were brutal.

Their antagonists, the US Army, was no better in their treatment of the Native Americans for some part. Look at the Sand Creek Massacre during the 1860's.

As an American who lives in the state of Montana, I have had the experience of visiting the Custer battlefield, and traveling on the the trail Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce, and his the rest of his tribe, took on his escape from the US Army. Some of the acts commited to Custer's 230+ dead by the Natives after the battle are horrific in nature. Some of the acts commited by troopers were sinister and cruel.

Mr. Ewart has a point, like the British soldier in the far flung reaches of the empire, American pioneers were not especially shocked at what they may have seen the Natives do, the difference is that they saw it as brutal and against their forms of humanity. It was only viewed as such by them and not the natives themselves. The US army, while it could have showed more civility, did have en exuse to some degree in the conditions there were in. I could expand on that but thats for another time and forum. They didn't see their acts as brutal or criminal, it was a different order, one they adhered to alot of the time.

To come to my point, in line for the most part with Mr. Ewarts, we shouldn't point fingers as to who was a war criminal so readily, especially when looking at an event for far removed from out culture and standards today. This was a different time and era from what we have now. They participants in the action and events reacted differently from what we may do. Society is more advanced now. We have found common ground on the most part regarding the rules of war, something that wasn't so when Isandhlwana or the the battle of the Little Bighorn occured.
30th December 2004Peter Ewart

I'm not sure what actions you are referring to 125 years ago which may be described excessive. Given the period you cite, you are obviously referring to the Anglo-Zulu War but I can't think of any action or behaviour by the Zulu which could be termed excessive in 1879.

The Zulu army was charged with the task of removing the British invasion force from Zululand and this they tried to do to the best of their ability. As far as I know they killed no women or children because there weren't any to kill. I can't think of any prisoners they killed because there weren't any prisoners to kill (with the possible exception of the two on the night of 3rd/4th July, both of whom may well have been despatched in the usual way first and mutilated later and never actually became prisoners).

They mutilated the enemy dead in their own usual fashion, which may have upset the sensibilties of their European enemies but would presumably have done no such thing to any African neighbour they had fought in the past.

I'm not sure the Zulu kingdom became the power it did by wiping out all opposition systematically over a period of six decades. I would have thought a decade and a half would have been more accurate. The "mfecane" lasted a bit longer but not six decades and much of it did not eventually involve the Zulu directly. After that, apart from some raids on the Swazis and a series of futile attempts to prevent the relentless theft of their land by the duplicitous Boers, they more or less kept themselves to themselves, their country becoming progressively smaller with each passing decade.

Cetshwayo spilt much Zulu blood in establishing his power base in 1856 and this did involve the deaths of many thousands of women and children in a single day, something which his adherents continued on a smaller scale for more than 20 years.

But at that time (Ndondakasuka) this country (GB) was enthusiastically executing women in public and during Shaka's lifetime they were even beheading women in public in this country for non-violent transgressions. I fancy a poor British child had a far more onerous and dangerous existence than his/her Zulu counterpart, and also a greater chance of a violent or untimely end.

31st December 2004Michael Boyle

Not sure if judicial capital punishment compares to summary execution,not that summary execution didn't exist in Britain's (or anyone's) past.

Were the Zulu's an expanding empire in 1879 or had that sort of tailed off after Shaka? I seem to recall they were rather complacent empire-wise after Shaka's death and Cetshwayo bemoaning the Impi system he'd inherited (although I'm not sure if his comments were pre- or post war or just the remarks of an apologist).

As for corpse mutilation, I doubt the sight of an evicerated body would shock any veteran of any army of the time (or since for that matter) given the effects of artillery fire,sabers,spears,sword bayonets and a .455 boxer-Henry (although post-mortem mutilation does stick in one's craw when thought done for spite or terror) .I've always felt that the shock came from the sight of bloody behinds and the lurid imaginations that attributed them to unspeakable acts rather than the cutting out of certain body parts (including the sphincter) from particularly worthy opponents for muti.

As for being war criminals I've always held that a war crime is an act of premeditated wanton cruelty (someting I don't attribute to the Zulus) rather than an impulse in the heat of the moment (as most combat veterans would concur) so I feel the Zulus are innocent of the charge.



31st December 2004Paul Cubbin
Pete & Mike - thanks for your responses guys. I guess I'm being swayed a little by your cogent arguments. The killing of women and children I referred to was the section regarding the rise of the Zulu nation, not the AZW itself - I was thinking specifically of the 'smelling out' ceremonies where entire family groups were annihilated for 'witchcraft' at the say-so of the witchdoctor (strange how many possible rivals to the king disappeared that way). As for the fact that no prisoners were killed as none were taken, I guess that depends on your view of a prisoner doesn't it, a touch of semantics methinks. I would regard someone incapable of defending themselves (or unwilling to) as a prisoner. Sgt Maxfield in the hospital at Rorkes Drift and goodness only knows how many others at Isandlwana would qualify in my opinion. 'The heat of the battle' doesn't cut it for me, a soldier who becomes temporarily insane during battle is not worthy of the title, humble enough though it may be. Yes, Mike, I am inclined to agree with you regarding a soldier's experience of mutilated bodies. Perhaps it would be the thought of the cruelty and malice behind such an act as opposed to the actual injuries that would be hard to stomach.
As for my own opinion, well I still honestly don't know (its why I posted the question in the first place). I do thank everyone for their interest and have greatly enjoyed the discussion for its own intellectual pursuit but I'm still in two minds. I admire the spirit and prowess of the Zulu warrior and feel aggreived at the manner in which war was forced upon them. Cetewayo himself appeared to go to great lengths to prevent aggression against British subjects. But I still cannot resign myself to accept many of their practises (I'm sure they'll be heartbroken to hear it). The Zulus have been attributed to causing millions of deaths, mostly during the reign of Shaka, either directly or indirectly. These include enemies and their own people. Pretty bloody work for a nation that never exceed a quarter of a million at most. 'Other people were worse' - yeah, maybe but it still doesn't excuse it does it? Maybe I'm just too immersed in modern morality to be able to relate.
As for the argument that a Zulu child probably had it better than a British one, are you kidding? Babies who were born with any deformity or 'extra' children from a multiple birth were killed by having earth stuffed in their mouths. Infants were then buried, put in fires and speared up the rectum with sharp reeds until they bled (are we all clenching?) in the name of ceremony and hygiene. Plus they ran the risk of abandonment, violence and disease that every other child in the world does. After that, discipline was pretty lax until the coming of age. All you had to do was hope your dad wasn't seen as a political opponent of the king, his cattle weren't coveted by the king and he wasn't singled out as a witch by the king - in which case you'd be butchered in your sleep. Now I know grammar schools are pretty rough (especially rugby on a wintry pitch), but all in all I think I'd choose the latter.
Anyhoo, have a good New Year everyone and 'keep your loved ones close'. Small question, is anything special being done on the site for the 125th anniversary in a couple of weeks?
1st January 2005Mike Snook

You had better do your sums again, old sport!

1st January 2005Paul Cubbin
Mike - you see! Bloody grammar school education! Give me the Zulu way any time, now here did I put that pointy reed? Nurse, pass the Preparation, the large tube...
1st January 2005James Garland
I think it's pretty well accepted internationally that retribution and killling of prisoners in the heat of battle is inevitable. Even if it is technically a war crime I can't think of any occasion when anyone has been prosecuted for it.
It's the cold blooded killling of unarmed prisoners once combat has subsided that can be termed as a war crime.
As far as the Zulus are concerned they killed the enemy in the heat of battle.I don't know if the mutilation of a body after death would be considered a war crime under modern international laws. After all once the enemy is dead does it matter what you do with the body.
1st January 2005Peter Ewart
Fair point about the difference between a judiciary punishment and others, Michael. However, to pick up on Paul's belief that he'd have been better off in an English grammar school than in Zululand, well I agree with that too. But how many English boys went to a grammar school? The tiniest proportion imaginable and only a very small minority attended ANY school.

In the first half of the 19th century, poverty for both the urban and rural population in GB was the norm. A sweeping statement, perhaps, but the poor formed the huge majority of the population, and a large number of these subsisted in life-threatening conditions.

I'd find it very difficult to believe (though will be persuaded by reliable research, of course) that, on birth, a British child's life expectancy was longer than that of a Zulu's at that particular time. Nor would I consider it likely - even after allowing for the dangers of one's clan, family or chief falling foul of the violent retribution of Zulu politics at some time in the uncertain future - that a British lad could look forward to a life of less violence, hardship, injustice or misfortune than his young Zulu counterpart, unless he was unusually fortunate in his "choice" of parents.

Again, this may be a sweeping statement (allowing for certain exceptions in British society) but I have little doubt that a Zulu lad was likely to have received justice and fairness from his country's social and legal system in a much larger measure than his British counterpart at that time was likely to receive from his own.

1st January 2005Paul Cubbin
Yeah, kind of hoped you'd pick up on the light-hearted reference to grammar schools...maybe it was too subtle. I think the point, in relation to original question so many obscure turns ago, is the treatment of children by the society in question. I can think of no instances of an official mandate for deliberate cruelty to children in Victorian Britain (with the exception of the frosty rugby pitches so unsuccessfully hinted at above). Charitable institutions, both private and Gorvernment funded, abounded for orphans and foundlings which, although incredibly strict by modern standards were an attempt to deal mercifully with less fortunate kids. Sure, there were abuses, but Dickensian workhouses were already becoming an anacronism and a real effort was made to improve the lot of a British citizen right from birth. Now, the fact that so many Zulu children died from officially sanctioned and encouraged 'religious' practises (I have heard figures quoted of a 1-in-3 mortality rate purely from these 'tests', never mind any other factors), some of which are mentioned above, is a convincing argument for a society that puts doctrine above life, even for a baby. Sure, you could argue that the rate of sickness for a Zulu child was lower - a warmer climate, less crowded living conditions, an active adolescence - but that's by the by. The Zulu establishment did not directly control these things, they did control what I perceive as pointless shamanistic tortures and political murder on a par with anything the Spanish Inquisition had to offer. I can see where you're coming from, Pete, I just don't agree with the conclusions, that's all.
2nd January 2005Lance Corporal Anderson
As some people have said before, the Zulus were not war criminals because the Geneva Confention was not around and even if it was the Zulus might not have signed it (Like Japan).
And also the British were not exactly 'war criminals either' .

3rd January 2005Michael Boyle

Crime is an action not a reaction, that's why we codify a difference between pre-meditated murder and wrongful death and that only to discourage the civvies from knocking each other off. A soldier (or Marine) who's only job is to kill or incapacitate the enemy (through rigourous training ) can not be held to the same standard because he does not exist in the same world. When an individual snuffy (or squaddie) reacts to the death of his mates in a seemingly egriegious manner in combat not only is it not insanity it is human nature and ironically often rewarded with honours.The term "in the heat of battle" may be a cliche' but it reflects a reality that supercedes all others. A combatant only becomes a prisoner if his surrender is accepted and accepting a surrender is not always easy,think perhaps of the school-yard bully who tries to cop out when bested only he's responsible for the widows and fatherless children of your mates. If you try to wage war with civilian morality you will create your own widows and fatherless children.Despite Democracy and free market economics war has not nor will not change.

This of course does not justify prisoner abuse (recent head-lines) or after action attrocities (My-Lai springs to mind), these are only prevented by firm discipline and worthy leadership. Although the Zulu court may have been precient of Stalin and Hitler in their machinations (or antecedents of the European Middle Ages) the Zulu army seems to have aquitted itself rather well in keeping with the situation.(As far as I know yet.) However I am curious of accounts related as to British behaviour after Rorke's Drift.(I tend not to credit them myself.)