Like lions they fought

I recently finished this book (on a bit of a military history binge I guess) and it was very good.  The title refers to how the Zulus described the British after the 1879 war — and also how the British described the Zulus, it turns out.  In fact both sides appear, from the accounts they left behind, to have had a lot of respect for the other as adversaries.  Granted some of the British were arrogant and racist; some of the Zulu were very arrogant as well.  Atrocities were committed on both sides, though the short length of the war and the comparative humanitarianism of the British mitigated this.  In other colonial wars in Africa, the level of atrocity was much worse, with the Belgians and Germans being the worst offenders.

The “Zulu war” was basically instigated by the British, who did not want any sort of competition for control of South Africa, and issued an ultimatum which was considered impossible for the Zulus to meet as a pretext for the invasion.  The war is notable for the massive defeat of the British at Isandlwana, where the badly deployed British were massacred by the Zulus, and for a number of other battles (sieges, really) where the British defended laagered camps or fortifications against masses of relentless, astonishingly fearless Zulus.  The stand at Rorke’s Drift, which was depicted in the film Zulu, is probably the best known event of the war, but it is pretty uncharacteristic.  More commonly the battles were between large entrenched British forces (with cannon and even Gattling guns) against large Zulu forces (with a lot of rifles but no training in their use, leading to astonishingly bad markmanship of their part).

Edgerton does not shy away from the horrendous gore and brutality of the battles, but also finds sympathetic people on both sides of the conflict.  This book was probably the first to give a really fair-handed account of the Zulu, whom historians had largely treated as either fanatics or “noble savages”.  In fact he dispels some of the myths (that the Zulu had, at this time, a highly disciplined military that drilled constantly; that the Zulu warriors were brainwashed or drugged to fight more fiercely; that their king was a despised despot, etc.) and he tries to understand why the warriors of both sides fought as they did.  This makes for a fascinating look at Zulu society and at the Victorian-era British army.  Edgerton is a meticulous scholar and finds many fascinating first-hand accounts from letters, the press, and interviews conducted in the years after the war.

An epilogue describes some subsequent colonial wars in Africa, and this sharpens some of the contrast between the Zulu war and the others.  The Zulu, after all, managed to survive as a people, and even flourish, while many other African peoples were broken completely.  It is hard not to accept Edgerton’s (somewhat self-serving, as a Brit) suggestion that the restraint shown by the British, and the resilience of the Zulus, made this war different and even somewhat noble … to the extent that the senseless violence of a war, begun without real provocation to serve British greed and power, can be “noble”!

Published in: on March 9, 2014 at 11:12 am  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Now from a gaming perspective how do humanoids view us in a D&D world? What would an Orc say about us?



      • Rorke's Drift
        I’m sure they didn’t mean it that way.

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