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The Ghosts of the Nkandla Forest

I’ve recently returned from leading this year’s Holts tour of the Anglo-Zulu War battlefields. The tour is undoubtedly the most comprehensive of its type available and it takes in not only all the battlefields from the 1879 war but a great many other sites from Zulu history as well, and it has grown organically over the years. Originally, when Holts started their tours to South Africa some twenty-five years ago, historical tourism was in its infancy there, there were no luxury lodges close to the sites and, indeed, few enough roads to take you there. Inevitably those first tours were rather broad brush-stroke affairs which combined visits to both Anglo-Zulu and Anglo-Boer sites, but the itinerary has grown exponentially since then. Early on they split - rightly, given the complex history - into two distinct tours, and the Zulu one was tweaked and developed first by Isobel Swan (who always took a great personal interest in this tour on behalf of Holts), by Paul Marais (who explored the practical possibilities), by Adrian Greaves - who used to be the guest speaker - and later by myself. I had previously been involved in running independent tours with Ian Castle, and we had been lucky enough to benefit from the gradual opening-up of the sites in the early ‘90s which made it possible to visit out-of-the way spots which had previously been considered impractical. By the usual process of trial and error we were able to expand the Holts tour to explore the full range of contact and conflict between the Zulu kingdom and European interlopers in the nineteenth-century.

The tour now is something of a well-oiled machine, managed with brisk efficiency by Paul, our local guide and ground agent who has been involved with Holts’ South African adventures since the beginning. We’ve always worked on the assumption that anyone coming on such a tour will want to have time to explore the place properly, and indeed we offer the chance spend time on and walk over many of the battlefields, including Hlobane and Khambula as well as iSandlwana. Nevertheless because we cover a good deal of ground - both physically and historically - the itinerary is, at time, finely honed. Even so, this year we found ourselves with a few extra hours to spare at critical moments, not least because we were blessed with a group who were particularly snappy when it came to embarking or disembarking from the coach - you’d be surprised how much time you can save in a day when it takes just five minutes to get on or off at each stop, and not fifteen.

We were further helped, too, by the unexpected benefits of Jacob Zuma’s presidency. Zuma was born in Nkandla, west of Eshowe on the northern side of the Thukela and a smart - and rather controversial - new home has recently been built for him there. This has brought a corresponding improvement to the main roads in the area, most of which had been notorious for the way in which they clung precariously to the ridge-tops of the region’s notoriously convoluted hills. But the road from Eshowe to Nkandla is now impressively modern and tarred for much of the way, shaving as much as a couple of hours off what used to be a rather uncomfortable and unpredictable journey in even a small tourist coach. Not, of course, that we were planning on calling in on the President for tea, but rather on visiting one of the most poignant and atmospheric stops on our itinerary - the grave of King Cetshwayo.

Although a great deal of emphasis is popularly given to the conquest on 1879, the true destruction of the Zulu kingdom and its subjugation came with the systematic reduction of political and economic independence which followed. The king himself was captured by the British and exiled at the Cape, but following a visit to London in the summer of 1882 - and a growing realisation in London that the post-war settlement imposed by the British was collapsing into civil war - he was restored to part of his former territories in February 1883. The restoration proved a disaster, however, in part because the terms of his return effectively undermined much of his authority, and also because the rivals who had flourished in his absence had no intention of submitting to him again. Cetshwayo rebuilt his old oNdini homestead just a mile or so from the one burned by the British but in July 1883 he was attacked and defeated there by his kinsman and erstwhile general, Zibhebhu kaMaphitha. For a second time oNdini went up in flames and Cetshwayo fled, taking refuge among the Shezi people in the Nkandla forest. From here he surrendered to the protection of the British resident at Eshowe and he lived for a while in the old kwaGqikazi royal homestead outside the new European settlement. Here, on 8 February 1884, he collapsed suddenly and died; his supporters would not allow a British doctor to perform an autopsy, so the cause of death was officially but rather hazily ascribed to heart disease. The body was prepared for burial in the tradition way - bound in a sitting position and wrapped in the fresh hide of a black bull and blankets - and watched over in his hut by girls from his isigodlo (who stuffed their noses with sweet-smelling herbs to obscure the smell) until it had begun to desiccate. The king’s brothers had asked for permission to bury the body in the emaKhosini valley, south of the White Mfolozi river, where the Zulu kings had been buried since before Senzangakhona’s time, but this was refused by the British on the grounds that the funeral might further unsettle the country. Instead, it was decided to take the body to Shezi territory, where it would be safe from both black and white enemies. This involved a journey of some fifty kilometers across rugged and remote country, and since it was clearly impossible to carry the body by hand the king’s supporters purchased a light mule wagon. The funeral procession set out in the middle of April 1884, and the image of that melancholic procession across the high, narrow, grassy ridge tops has always seemed to me intensely evocative of the utter collapse of the old Zulu kingdom. On 23 April the body was interred not far from the eNhlweni homestead of the Shezi inkosi, Sigananda kaSokufa. Since it was vitally important that no objects connected with the funeral fall into enemy hands, the last utensils used by the king - his pots and medicine-grinding stones - were smashed on the grave, the draft animals were slaughtered, and the wagon itself left on the grave. For generations the site was regarded as sacred, and as the wooden bulk of the wagon rotted away, leaving only the metal parts on the grave, so a grove of trees and bush sprung up around it. The Shezi appointed guardians who watched over it, passing the duty from father to son, and visitors were not allowed into the grave without permission. The author C.T. Binns included an account of his own visit to the grave in the 1960s - and a photograph clearly showing the wagon-parts still in situ - in his book The Last Zulu King. In 1984, however - the centenary of the king’s death - the present stone slab was placed on the grave, and the remaining metal parts of the wagon taken to the Museum at oNdini. I first visited the site in 1985 - just after this - and at that time it was still necessary to obtain permission from the guardian before photographing the grave. Today things are rather less formal, and the guardian has given way to a local lady who arrives with a visitors’ book in hand - although she was still quick to ask members of our group to remove their hats as we entered among the trees. Although modern life rolls on right past the grave today, the grove is still a sad and reflective spot, and it’s clear from the visitors’ book that few tourists pass it by, even now.

The power of the grave, with all its associations of the prestige and independence of the old Zulu kingdom, made it a potent and symbolic spot during the decades of dispossession which followed Cetshwayo’s death. When, in 1906, protests amongst the African population of Natal against a newly imposed Poll Tax led to violence, the leader of the armed resistance, inkosi Bhambatha kaMancinza, deliberately tried to associate himself with the Zulu tradition of heroic struggle by making the grave a rallying point. Lacking the numbers and firepower to mount an old-time challenge in the open against Colonial troops armed with modern machine-guns, Bhambatha and his followers instead waged a guerrilla campaign from the cover of the surrounding Nkandla forest. Colonial troops converged on the grave and camped close-by, and on one occasion a grass-fire - started accidentally by the troops - swept through the thicket, causing considerable outrage. After avoiding the troops for several weeks, however, Bhambatha rendezvoused with an impi under the command of Mehlokazulu kaSihayo - a veteran of iSandlwana, and one of the few Zululand amakhosi to join the rebellion - with the intention of taking refuge in the narrow and inaccessible Mome gorge. The gorge was the traditional stronghold and hiding place of the Shezi amakhosi, and indeed Cetshwayo himself had hidden in a cave behind the waterfall at the far end following his defeat by Zibhebhu in 1883. On this occasion, however, the rebels made the fatal mistake of bivouacking at the entrance to the gorge, rather than entering it immediately, apparently because Mehlokazulu had come far that day and was tired from walking in new boots. Colonial troops got wind of their presence and made a remarkable night-time march from Nkandla and from the camps around the grave to line the ridges over-looking the gorge. At first light on 10 June 1906 the rebels were awoken by a shower of 15 pdr shells and machine-gun fire. They fled across a narrow nek and into the gorge only to find that the troops already commanded the exits. For much of the day, as the rebels took what cover they could in the dense bush along the narrow floor of the gorge, the troops raked them with heavy fire. Few prisoners were taken and according to official sources over 600 rebels were killed, and this may well have been an under-estimate - only a handful of Colonial troops were killed. Mehlokazulu was shot down apparently - according to the novelist Rider Haggard - as he tried to surrender. When I visited the gorge in 1985 local herd boys pointed to a banana-palm in the bushes as the site of his grave, and human bones were clearly visible among the undergrowth nearby. Bhambatha was allegedly killed in a hand-to-hand tussle with auxiliaries, and a Sergeant Cavlerley of the Zululand Mounted Rifles, charged with obtaining proof of his death several days after the event, cut of his head and took it into the Colonial camp for identification. It was photographed and supposedly returned to the corpse for burial, and a bayonet carried by Calverley - in a suspiciously well-decorated scabbard - is now on display at the Fort Nongqayi Museum in Eshowe.

There is a story, however, that Calverley was tricked, that Bhambatha’s supporters pointed out the body of a man with similar features, and that the inkosi himself survived the battle and was spirited away to live out his days in exile.

It’s still difficult, even now, to explore the gorge, and we certainly didn’t have time with the Holts group, although we were able to take them as far as the mouth, and to stand between the site of the rebel bivouac and the koppie from which the artillery first opened fire on them. We passed some fields where the crops were being irrigated by sophisticated small-scale techniques, suggesting that modern rural development is steadily penetrating even these remote areas, but from the number of curious locals who wandered across to chat to us it is clear that outsiders are still a relatively new phenomenon.

It was once said that the Mome was home to a unique form of ghost, of spirits who had form and faces but no mouths, and who gave vent to a low moaning sound that spoke of the grief and dispossession of the African peoples of Zululand and Natal.

Even now, if you peer hard enough into the cool shadows between the trees, it’s possible to believe they might still be there.