The battle for Isandlwana is a little before the period I usually focus on, but it has featured indirectly through my research into Lord Kitchener as Lord Wolseley left Egypt to take over command in South Africa. The accounts we have are usually from the British perspective and in passing, I had wondered if there was a Zulu account but thought nothing more of it until I met the grandson of one of the Zulu commanders on my last visit to South Africa. It’s amazing how a personal connection makes an event more real and can tweak research interest. It’s part of joining the dots – all those individual accounts make up the narrative, and then when revisited, help dispel the myths created by the narrative.
At the time of Isandlwana, Kitchener was moving between Cyprus and Egypt, trying to get a taste of some military action (he saw very little comparatively speaking), and clashed with Wolseley. Kitchener’s break came when Wolseley was sent south. This led to another name popping up in connection with Egypt which I only knew in connection with South Africa, namely Redvers Buller. Buller had been in the First Anglo-Boer War of 1881, then in Egypt with Evelyn Wood – who had fought under Chelmsford in the struggle against the Zulu – before returning to South Africa to participate in the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer War. For the newcomer to these conflicts, it can all be rather confusing as the battles and wars seem to overlap. Oh, and don’t forget, between these all there is the war against the Ashanti in West Africa and the Boxer Rebellion in China. Names of leading British officers feature in numerous of them challenging concepts of time and travel 150 years ago.
What has been brought home to me, apart from the connectedness of all these African conflicts with other parts of the world, are the other side’s accounts which can be found if one searches for them. These have started to make an appearance on the battle of Isandlwana and I’ve discovered one or two on Kitchener’s time in the Sudan. Africa is slowly realising it has an interpretation of past events which is as valuable as the, till now, dominating narrative. As these accounts are increased, developed and become more well known, a clearer and more rounded understanding of the past will be achieved. With people actively looking for Africa’s experiences during World War 1, and a growing interest in African involvement in World War 2 with a few veterans still alive, we might well start seeing more rounded and balanced interpretations of Europe and Asia’s involvement in Africa.
And for those who hanker after the past, don’t forget Johnny Clegg’s wonderful coverage of the battle of Isandlwana in his song Impi– and that has a history of its own.