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King Cetewayo’s Visit to Britain

King Cetewayo’s Visit to Britain

I recently received an invitation from our old friends the Die Hards, which, as regular readers and veteran re-enactors will already know, portray the Victorian army, asking me to join them at Cardiff Castle in Wales on the 31st of August, where they were putting on a display along with a group of more than 50 Zulu men and women, who were in Britain on a cultural tour from South Africa, to commemorate the 135th anniversary of King Cetewayo’s visit to the country in 1882.

As well as performing traditional Zulu singing and dancing, it was also an opportunity for them to re-enact their victory over the British army at the Battle of Isandlwana, almost 140-years ago. Wearing traditional costume, carrying cowhide shields and assegai short stabbing spears, they would take to the field against a platoon of Victorian ‘Redcoat’ soldiers, provided by the ‘Die Hards’, who recreate the 57th Regiment of Foot, which later became the Middlesex Regiment.

The presence of the Die Hards was historically correct, because the 57th Regiment of Foot took part in the war, gaining ‘South Africa 1879’ as a battle honour in the process. However, for this event, they wore the ‘Sphinx’ badge of the 24th Regiment of Foot (later to become the South Wales Borderers) on the collars of their tunics for full authenticity. This was in tribute to those companies of the regiment which had fought at Isandlwana and defended the outpost at Rorke’s drift, an event best known through the depiction of the 1964 film ‘Zulu’ starring Michael Caine.

The history

The Zulu War began on the 11th of January 1879, when Sir Henry Bartle Frere, High Commissioner for Southern Africa, ordered a British force to advance into Zulu territory, with a view to curtailing perceived threats of Zulu expansionism. The Zulus, under King Cetewayo, responded and on the 22nd of January they attacked a British column at Isandlwana, killing over 1300 men. Later that day and into the following day, a small detachment of 140 British soldiers successfully defended their position at Rorke’s Drift against seemingly insurmountable odds. It was not a prolonged war, the main fighting took place between January and July that year, but it was a hard-fought, bloody and difficult war.

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For six-months, the war continued at the end of a supply line, which stretched over 9000-miles from England to Cape Town. During the fighting, the British army lost more than 1900 men killed and hundreds wounded out of a force of almost 17,000 men committed. The once-great Zulu nation lost around 7000 men out of an army of some 40,000 warriors. The final episode came when King Cetewayo was taken prisoner in August 1879 and sentenced to imprisonment.

His confinement was short-lived and was released following a campaign by the popular press, which managed to change the opinion of the British public, so that he was no longer seen as a man who had once been an enemy of Britain, but rather as a man who had been wronged by the governing powers in Cape Town at the time. Among those journalists petitioning for Cetewayo’s release was Lady Florence Dixie, who wrote for the Morning Post. Books were published, which added weight to the campaign for his release and increased his popularity.

All this publicity culminated in Cetewayo visiting Britain in August 1882, three years to the month after his capture. The British public by now were greatly curious to see the man whose army had inflicted the greatest loss to a European army on the battlefield by a native force armed with mainly spears. On his arrival, Cetewayo was feted and given celebrity status. He visited London, Windsor Castle in Berkshire and other locations. He was photographed for newspapers and magazines. The highlight of his visit was an audience granted by Queen Victoria at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

Die another day

All of this was the reason for the commemoration event at Cardiff Castle, but it was promise of a battle re-enactment which most excited the visitors. They were not disappointed, either. Armed with Martini Henry rifles and wearing authentic tunics, helmets and webbing equipment. The Die Hards have a reputation for immaculate smartness of turnout for their events. Here, however, they had a look about them, which gave the impression of having been on hard campaign. It all added to the realism, to show how the Victorian army looked in battle.

For accuracy during the battle recreation, tactics and firing drills of the period were used to face a force of Zulu warriors formed into an ‘Impi’ force of much-reduced size. Wearing traditional garments and headdress, carrying assegai thrusting spears and cowhide shields, the visiting Zulu men showed how their ancestors must have engaged the soldiers at Isandlwana. Moving around to encircle the Die Hards, it became hand-to-hand fighting at close quarter. The outcome was known, but it was all very dramatic and, outside of a big budget film production, as close to the real thing as anyone is ever likely to get.

The intention is to repeat the event again over the next couple of years before the culmination, ending with the 140th anniversary of the Battle of Isandlwana. Already plans are afoot and when I learn more details I will be pass the information on in the pages of this column as they are made known.

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