Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

African military culture and defiance of British conquest in the 1870s

The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 is undoubtedly the most widely familiar of the Victorian campaigns of colonial conquest, those so-called “small wars” in which British regulars were pitted against foes inferior in armaments, operational sophistication, and logistics. It is also by far the most written about, some would say to the point of exhaustion.

Yet, in poring over military minutiae, historians of the Anglo-Zulu War have all too often failed to note that it was not fought in isolation. In 1879 the Zulu kingdom was only one among several African polities in southern Africa forced to defend their independence when faced by the accelerating British determination to unify the sub-continent in a confederation of states under imperial control.

There was no place in this design for sovereign African states. So, to neuter their military capabilities and shatter their political coherence, imperial strategists embarked on a concerted, interrelated, and sometimes overlapping series of campaigns against them. Some historians now regard this offensive as the First War for South African Unification, the second being the Anglo-Boer (South African) War of 1899–1902.

Within the concentrated span of three years, the British crushed the Ngqika and Gcaleka amaXhosa in the Ninth Cape Frontier War of 1877–1878, subjugated the Griqua, Batlhaping, Prieska amaXhosa, Korana, and Khoesan in the Northern Border War of 1878, shattered the Zulu kingdom in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, and extinguished Bapedi independence in the First and Second Anglo-Pedi Wars of 1878 and 1879.

The Battle of Intombe, fought on 12 March 1879 between Zulu forces and British soldiers. Picture: The Illustrated London News, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The Battle of Intombe, fought on 12 March 1879 between Zulu forces and British soldiers, image from The Illustrated London News. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In one sense, there was nothing new about these conflicts. Intermittent, piecemeal colonial encroachment had begun with the Dutch in the Cape in the mid-seventeenth century, and tough and often skillful African resistance had frequently delayed or even staved it off. But in the late 1870s, African rulers were unprepared for the unrelenting determination of the British offensive. In this crisis, all the indigenous armies of the sub-continent, vary as they might in everything from numbers and armaments to customary tactics, faced the same urgent challenge. How were they to adapt their traditional ways of war (honed effectively enough for combat against each other) to the ever-growing European military threat?

Despite differing responses ranging from set-piece battles to guerrilla warfare, and from a reliance on traditional sharp-edged weapons to the adoption of firearms, there was a connecting thread that ran through the interwoven pattern of the resistance of these southern African societies to the British assault. That was a commonly held military culture through which notions of military honour and manhood inspired and sustained African warriors in their doomed defence of their homes and independence.

Although African military culture differed in detail from society to society, a generally accepted system of military values defined the warrior’s place in the social order and legitimized aggressive masculinity and the violence of war in which face-to-face, heroic combat was the ultimate test of courage and manliness. Indeed, masculine virtue and honour (as in many other parts of the world) were closely bound up with the prowess of military heroes, and were the binding myths of the state itself, the cultural focus around which the community adhered.

Bearing in mind this cultural universe, it is hardly surprising that African rulers in southern Africa entirely subscribed to the pervasive warrior ethos and notions of honour. Whether under threat of attack by an African or European foe, the issue for a king was always more than a question of sovereignty or expediency: it was a matter of honour. A king was a war leader, first and foremost; his warriors were raised from birth to war and its stern demands. Rather than surrender like a coward without a fight, even in the face of hopeless odds, it was considered best by far to die honourably on the battlefield as befitted a true man and warrior.

This warrior ethos was fully shared by the African allies, levies, and auxiliaries serving with the British in the South Africa campaigns of 1877–1879. (There was nothing unusual in this, for the colonial conquest of Africa was substantially the work of locally raised indigenous forces commanded by European officers.) In undertaking military service with their colonial masters against fellow-Africans these, black forces were not merely looking after their own interests by choosing what seemed likely to be the winning side. Many of them also saw it as a means of maintaining their warrior traditions and sense of masculine honour under the colonial aegis. It was this military culture which inspired and sustained them, just as it did those Africans against whom they fought.

Featured image credit: The Battle of Gingindlovu on 2 April 1879, image from the Illustrated London News. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.