They did not wear their scarlet coats. They lay where they had fallen, side by side, half hidden by the tall grass, in the lengthening shadow of a crooked-back hill. Their naked torsos showed the wounds cruel, sharp blades had made, not only in the frenzy of battle, but also after death. Many had been scalped. Most had been disembowelled. For months they remained unburied, in the sun and the rain, their pale flesh melting into the rich dark soil, their bleached bones blending into the stony ground. They were the dead of Isandlwana.
The news reached London in mid-February 1879 of an obscure battle fought in a distant land. Three weeks earlier, on 22 January, British troops had faced native warriors. This was not of itself unusual. For one hundred years - between Waterloo in 1815 and Mons in 1914 - Britain confronted a European foe only once, in the Crimea. Yet her soldiers were constantly engaged in warfare in some far-flung corner of the largest Empire the world had ever known. An alphabetical list of Queen Victoria's enemies might include, under 'A' only, the Abyssinians, the Afghans, the Afridis, the Arabs, the Ashantis and the Australians. As Rudyard Kipling's Tommy Atkins put it:
We've fought with many men acrost the seas
an' some of 'em was brave an' some was not...
British troops were better armed and disciplined than their native opponents. They were brave men and did not shirk from hand-to-hand combat, but basically they relied on their superior fire power. Sometimes forming the thin red line and sometimes the square, they fired volleys by rank and prevailed upon far larger numbers of unsophisticated adversaries. It may have been Hilaire Belloc who, near the end of the Victorian age, best summed it up:
Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim Gun, and they have not.
But this time the outcome had been different.
Towards the end of the 1870s, Britain, eager to consolidate her possessions in Southern Africa, turned her eyes towards an independent, warlike kingdom lying just outside her frontiers: Zululand. The High Commissioner, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, saw the Zulus as an obstacle to his federation policies. 'Such a nation,' he said, 'must of necessity form a constant menace to the peaceable European community beyond its borders.' The King of the Zulus, Cetewayo, was not a bellicose man. But his army, 40,000 strong, was the very fabric of his nation. When Frere gave him thirty days to disband it, Cetewayo demurred.
In the first years of the nineteenth century, there rose among the Zulus a man who had a gift for war. His name was Shaka. In time, he became their King and led them in the conquest of everything their eyes surveyed. To accomplish this, he had an army, a weapon and a tactical manoeuvre.
King Shaka inducted every Zulu into the army, from early manhood to old age. They served throughout their life in regiments identified by markings in their cowhide shields: black for the young unmarried men, white for the mature warriors. The regiments were based on age groups and owed no allegiance to families or clans. As a result, they afforded Shaka a powerful tool for centralising power in his hands and developing in his subjects a strong sense of national pride. He allowed no man to marry until he had washed his spear in the blood of enemies; and, until he was married, no man was his own man.
Before Shaka, war among the Zulus had been a light, inconsequential affair, where insults were shouted and spears were thrown, but nobody was seriously hurt. Shaka changed all that. He armed his men with strong stabbing assegais with a tapering blade some 18-inches long and one-and-a-half-inch wide. To use these weapons one had to get close to the enemy, thrust one's blade into his flesh and be soaked in his blood. The Zulus called these spears ikwla, from the sucking sound they made when withdrawn from a victim's body.
Shaka also devised a battle formation known as impondo zankomo - the horns of the buffalo. The stronger, seasoned warriors formed the main body of the army, the chest. As the chest hurled itself at the enemy, the younger, faster men comprising the horns ran to encircle them on each side and cut off their retreat. The reserve, the loins, waited behind the chest. Sometimes they sat with their backs to the battle, so that the sight of blood would not excite them.
In early January 1879, a British army under Lt-General Lord Chelmsford assembled on the borders of Zululand, poised for invasion. Chelmsford himself led 3,500 men across the Mzinyathi River at Rorke's Drift. They pitched camp ten miles farther, in the grassy slopes below a rocky outcrop some 200 feet high, shaped like a crouching lion. The Zulus called it Isandlwana. Chelmsford did not order his men to fortify the camp or to dig entrenchments. When he heard that a large impi, a war party, was near, he went looking for it with half his force.
The Zulus did not fight to gain psychological advantage. Their war leaders, the izinduna, knew nothing about guerrilla warfare, attrition or retreat. Their only manoeuvre was the headlong charge, exhilarating and deadly; their only strategy, annihilation and the scorched earth. The Zulus fought to wipe out the enemy, to 'eat them up'. Those who opposed them were destroyed.
Chelmsford did not find the Zulus. But late in the morning, a soldier on patrol near the camp at Isandlwana reined in his horse on the edge of a ravine. When he looked down, he saw the missing impi: twenty thousand warriors, silent and motionless. They did not intend to attack that day. It was the day before the new moon, when the moon was dead and umnyama - darkness - ruled the earth. The Zulus would not fight under such omens. Instead, they planned to wait another day and another night where they were. Then they would rise before dawn and approach their enemy in absolute silence. At the hour of the horns of the morning - when the night begins to fade and the horns of cattle can barely be discerned against the sky - they would launch their attack. But when they saw they had been discovered, the Zulus sprang to their feet and surged over the lip of the ravine like a thick black wave. They ran the six miles to the British camp in less than one hour.
The Zulus were tall, strong, fierce warriors, who knew neither fear nor mercy. They went into battle naked, except for loin coverings, and barefoot. They wore animal-skin headbands and earflaps and adorned themselves with ostrich feathers and cow-tail ornaments. Round their necks hang necklaces made out of leopard or baboon teeth, charm pouches and willow-wood beads. Their weapons were stabbing assegais and shields, throwing spears, knobkerries and a few fire arms, ranging from muskets to modern rifles. They charged their British opponents at an effortless pace, half trot, half jog, banging their assegais against their shields, hissing between their teeth and shouting Cetewayo's war cry: 'Usutu! Usutu! Usutu!'
The British had two field pieces, a rocket battery and breech-loading Martini-Henry rifles. As the Zulus approached, British firepower tore huge gaps in their ranks and pinned them down, unable to advance. But the British were spread too thin on the ground to resist the Zulus' onslaught. As ammunition ran low, they gave way and eventually collapsed before the chest of the buffalo. Yet they fought on, bayonet against assegai, among the wagons and the tents. Those who tried to escape found that the horns had come behind them. Their enemies' pursuit was brutal and relentless. In a few hours, everything was over. When the guns went silent, the Zulus were victorious.
Chelmsford returned to the camp after dark. He rode among the burning wagons, his face drawn and haggard in their glow. The ground was littered with dead men. There were 1,300 British casualties, of whom more than 800 were Europeans and the rest native troops. The horses, the oxen, the beasts of burden and even the stray dogs that followed the column had been slaughtered. Chelmsford ordered his men to lie on their arms, in case of attack. The grass was slippery with blood and the smell of death was all about them. They were awake all night, surrounded by the naked, mutilated corpses of their comrades. They left before sunrise.
The British were shocked at the condition of their dead at Isandlwana. The bodies had been stripped of their jackets and shirts, revealing multiple wounds, mutilations and brutally slashed abdomens. Yet the Zulus' actions were not, in their own view, barbaric, but part of the complex religious and social rites of a warrior nation. In the thick of battle, it was natural for a warrior to continue stabbing his enemy as long as he stayed up. The warriors who came behind also jabbed their spears into the fallen men, whether alive or dead. This was hlomula, a custom derived from the hunting of dangerous game, such as lion or buffalo. Even those warriors who had not participated in the kill sank their spears in the dead animals to benefit from their valour. They behaved in the same way with the courageous men they killed in battle.
The Zulus believed that the victims' blood contaminated those who killed them. After a battle, warriors who had killed must perform rituals known as zila -during which they wore the dead enemy's clothing - to ward off umnyama - darkness. In tropical countries, corpses decompose fast and bloat from the gases forming inside them. To the Zulus, this swelling was caused by the spirits of the dead trying to escape. To release them, their killer must slash open the corpses' abdomens. If he did not perform this cleansing zila, and the bodies bloated from umnyama, the killer would also bloat and eventually go mad.
Few have written on the Anglo-Zulu wars with such insight - or at such length - than Ian Knight. He has remarked that no medical reports were ever compiled on the dead of Isandlwana. Yet a report on an illustrious casualty which was prepared a few months later suggests the sort of injury the Zulus' victims sustained. France's Prince Imperial, the son of Napoleon III and his Empress, Eugenia de Montijo, had been living in Britain in exile since his father's downfall. He was the last of the Bonapartes. He was also a subaltern in the British Army. During a reconnaissance patrol in June, he was ambushed by the Zulus and killed. This is what his condition was like in death, as quoted by Ian Knight from contemporary records:
There was a longish wound on the right breast which was evidently mortal, for the assegai had passed through the body, and the point had penetrated the skin of the back. There were two hurts in the left side also which might well be mortal, and less serious wounds all over the upper part of the chest, and one in the right thigh. The eye was out, but whether by the thrust of an assegai or the impact of a bullet of some kind it was impossible to say... There was a large gash in the abdomen exposing the intestines, which were...uninjured...The gash ...in the abdomen is not inflicted with any idea of mutilating the corpse of a slain enemy, but simply because it is a belief among them that if this coup is not given, and the body swells, as it would by the generation of the gases of decomposition, the warrior who had neglected this precaution is destined to die himself by his body swelling...the gash was in every case inflicted after death, for no blood had flowed...Many of the wounds are so slight that ... they too must have been inflicted after death, all members of the party probably 'washing their spears,' in pursuance of some ceremonious regulation on the subject of the enemy dead.
Another British concern was whether the Zulus had removed any organs from the dead for use in their rituals. Ian Knight has observed that 'certainly the dark tales of mutilation that have survived would suggest that a limited number of body parts were removed.' There were, for instance, rumours about a fallen soldier whose head was removed and taken away. Human body parts from a defeated enemy could have an immense value as intelezi medicine to solicit the help of the spirit world. Facial hair from Europeans, in particular, was highly priced. Knight tells how some Zulus at Isandlwana had cut away the lower jaws of bearded white men and decorated their heads with them. But their commander had reprimanded them. 'The mighty Zulus,' he had said, 'did not get their strength by cutting up dead bodies and carrying bits about with them.' The sad, grisly trophies were thrown away.
There is little left to tell. The Zulu army's greatest triumph was also its last. In the aftermath of Isandlwana, a 4,000-strong impi, thirsting for blood, attacked the mission post at Rorke's Drift but could not overcome its spirited defenders. Their day of glory cost the Zulus dear: more than 1,000, perhaps as many as 2,000 lives. When Cetewayo heard of such losses, he said: 'An assegai has been thrust into the belly of the Nation...there are not enough tears to mourn for the dead'. In Britain, the news of the defeat was met with consternation and dismay. Queen Victoria wrote in her journal: 'How this could happen we cannot yet imagine.' Unable to provide an explanation, Prime Minister Disraeli took ill to bed. In 1880, his Government fell to Gladstone's Liberals.
Six months after Isandlwana, Chelmsford was back. He no longer underestimated his enemy. He waged a textbook war against the Zulus which ended only when he had destroyed their army and burned their capital, Ulundi, to the ground. Yet his victory did not redeem his tarnished reputation. He lived on for 26 years but never fought another battle. It was his replacement, Sir Garnet Wolseley, who reaped the benefits of the Zulus' defeat. At the height of his popularity, he became the 'very model of a modern Major-General' in The Pirates of Penzance. The defenders of Rorke's Drift received eleven Victoria crosses, the highest number ever given for a single action.
Cetewayo went into exile as his nation disintegrated into a jigsaw of petty kingdoms. In 1882, he visited Britain to plead his case with Queen Victoria. The Zulus had been brave in battle and dignified in defeat. The British admired them for that. They also acknowledged their deposed King's great charm and even wrote music-hall songs about him:
White young dandies get away, O!
You are now 'neath beauty's ban;
Clear the field for Cetewayo,
He alone's the ladies' man.
a Zulu impi dished us up in style,
but he reserved his best praise for the Fuzzy-Wuzzy.
Ripperologist readers, wise on the ways of theorists, have no doubt long guessed the aim of this article. The similarities between Zulu rituals and the Ripper murders - the repeated, frenzied stabbing, the disembowelling and mutilations, the removal of organs and pieces of clothing - are remarkable. The standard assegai, with its sharp, broad blade, could well have served to inflict the wounds from which Martha Turner died. Other assegais were reportedly much shorter and might have been used in other Ripper crimes.
I had better face it at once. Am I suggesting that the Ripper was a barefoot Zulu warrior, gliding silently through the back alleys of the East End in his full regalia? The notion is almost irresistible. But no, not really. Nor can I quite believe that a Zulu in civilian garb used an assegai to kill and disembowel Whitechapel prostitutes. Zulu rituals were for enemies slain in war, not for the likes of the Ripper's poor, pathetic victims. Yet one might think of a veteran of the Anglo-Zulu Wars, haunted by the memories of that long, sleepless night spent next to the dead at Isandlwana. Perhaps such a man came to Whitechapel. Perhaps he drank alone at the pubs in Commercial Street, reliving ever-present images of death and carnage. And, perhaps, he sometimes walked out into the night, hiding about his clothes the sharp spear he had brought back from Africa as a grisly souvenir. Perhaps. No one can say.
Michael Barthorp: The Zulu Wars
Hilaire Belloc: The Modern Traveller
Axel-Ivar Berglund: Zulu Thought-Patterns and Mysticism
Byron Farwell: Eminent Victorian Soldiers, Mr Kipling's Army, Queen Victoria's Little Wars
Donald Featherstone: Victoria's Enemies
Lawrence James: The Rise and Fall of the British Empire
Rudyard Kipling: Barrack-room Ballads
Ian Knight: Anatomy of the Zulu Army; British Forces in Zululand; Rorke's Drift 1879; The Sun Turned Black; The Zulus; Zulu; Zulu War 1879
Jan Morris: Heaven's Command (The Pax Britannica Trilogy)
Roland Oliver and J. D. Fage: A Short History of Africa
Thomas Pakenham: The Scramble for Africa.