19 August 2021
Ian Knight examines one of the final battles of the 1906 Zulu Rebellion.
In October 1906 a minute passed over the desk of the then-Under Secretary of the Colonial Office in London, one Winston Churchill. The minute had come from the Governor of the Colony of Natal, in southern Africa, and it asked that the Imperial Government issue a silver campaign medal to recognise the service of Natal troops in a recent uprising. Churchill knew Natal well as he had been present there during the Anglo-Boer War, just a few years before, but he was decidedly unimpressed by Natal’s handling of its recent crisis, and sceptical of the sacrifices of its troops.
He wrote: ‘There were, I think, nearly a dozen casualties among these devoted men in the course of their prolonged operations and more than four or even five are dead upon the field of honour. In these circumstances it is evident that special consideration should be given to the survivors. But I should hesitate to press upon them an Imperial medal in view of the distaste which this colony has so strongly evinced for outside interference of all kinds. A copper medal bearing [the rebel leader] Bambatha’s head, to be struck at the expense of the colony seems to be the most appropriate memento of their sacrifices and their triumphs.’
There was a reason for Churchill’s heavy sarcasm and his reference to the head of the rebel leader Bambatha. In one of the most decisive actions of the uprising, at Mome Gorge on 10 June 1906, Bambatha’s head had been, quite literally, cut off.
The 1906 Rebellion was the last tragic act of resistance to British colonialism in a region which had been dominated, historically, by the Zulu kingdom. In 1824 British adventurers had established an enclave on the coast and from this the colony of Natal had grown. In 1879 Natal bad been the kick-off point for a British invasion of Zululand. The independent Zulu kingdom had been overthrown and over the next 20 years the realities of colonial rule had gradually begun to bite in both Natal and Zululand. A succession of natural disasters, including cattle disease and locusts, had, by 1900, left many Africans impoverished and feeling threatened that their traditions and way of life were under attack.
After the Anglo-Boer War the Natal Government had introduced a new Poll Tax in an attempt to rectify its budget deficit and for many Africans it proved the final straw. There were widespread protests and attacks on police patrols sent to enforce the tax. On one occasion two policeman were killed and the perpetrators were arrested, tried and, despite appeals for clemency from London, subsequently shot.
In April 1906 a minor chief living in Natal, Bambatha kaMancinz, ambushed a police patrol sent into his district. Perhaps frightened by the enormity of his actions Bambatha and his young men then fled across the Thukela river, the old boundary with Zululand. Bambatha hoped to persuade the Zulu king, Dinuzulu, to support him but Dinuzulu’s father, Cetshwayo, had been deposed by the British in 1879 and he himself had once been exiled to St. Helena, and so he refused to back Bambatha’s rebellion. Instead, Bambatha returned to the rugged and heavily-forested country around Nkandla, on the northern bank of the Thukela. King Cetshwayo was buried here so Bambatha used his grave as a rallying point, hoping to evoke the prestige of the heroic Zulu kings of old.
In fact only two Zulu chiefs of note joined him. One, Signanada kaZokufa of the Chube people, lived in the Nkandla, and his defection allowed Bambatha unfettered access to the region’s natural strongholds. The other was Mehlokazulu kaSihayo, a famous warrior who had fought at the battle of iSandlwana and throughout the war of 1879, and who had staked his future on one last attempt to throw off colonial authority.
Mehlokazulu, who lived near iSandlwana, moved his men south to join up with Bambatha. In the meantime, colonial militia units were hurried to spots around the Nkandla, hoping to hem the rebels in. On the night of 9 June colonial troops received word that the two chiefs had united, and were poised to enter a feature known as the Mome Gorge.
The Mome, pronounced “maw-may”, was a traditional hiding place of the Chube people, and is a narrow winding valley about a mile long, cut by a stream which tumbles into it from high ground at one end, drops 1,500ft, before emerging at the other. The valley floor is seldom more than a hundred yards wide and is framed by steep buttresses which rise up in some places for 2,000ft. On one slope there is a forest, the Dobo, shaped like an inverted pear. Once the rebels entered the gorge it would have been almost impossible for colonial troops to drive them out and yet, within reach of safety, they made a fatal error. Arriving after dark on the evening of 9 June, they decided not to pass into the gorge immediately, but rather to bivouac at the entrance. The rebels, about 1,500 strong, were tired and Mehlokazulu dismissed the idea that colonial troops would find them at night. In the bitter words of one rebel who survived, the old war-horse Mehlokazulu, “Was very stout, and wore boots, and was tired.”
There were two colonial forces operating in the area. On the high ground a few miles above the gorge was a column led by the Natal Commander-in-Chief, Sir Duncan Mackenzie whilst at King Cetshwayo’s grave, a few miles south of the entrance to the gorge, was another commanded by Lt Colonel WF Barker. Late in the evening of 9 June word reached McKenzie of the rebel presence and he immediately ordered about 800 men of his command to make ready to seal off the head of the gorge. He then sent word to Barker to intercept the rebels at the mouth. Both forces were faced with moving quickly and silently over steep and rugged terrain in the dark.
Barker’s men (about 250 white troops with 15pdrs and two machine guns, 90 Zululand native police and 800 levies) were in position before first light and he was able to place his guns on a knoll looking straight up the gorge whilst his troops occupied the ridges on either side. During the night some of the rebels had become suspicious and had left the bivouac, moving into the gorge proper. However, most were still at the entrance when the first pink light of daybreak revealed the presence of the troops on the heights around them. In some confusion the rebels scrambled into a formation but as they did so a burst of machine-gun fire ripped into them from one of the ridges. Barker’s men immediately opened fire all round, showering the rebels with shrapnel and shot. Hopelessly exposed, the rebels fled for the cover of the gorge, only to find that some of Barker’s men still overlooked them.
By the time the firing broke out McKenzie had reached the other end of the gorge. He struck off along a high, narrow ridge above the Dobo forest with the intention of joining Barker but he had not gone far when he caught glimpses of the rebels fleeing through the bush below him. He ordered his men to dismount and scramble down the hillside to block the fleeing rebels. It was immediately apparent that the rebels were trapped, and any attempts by them to make a stand attracted a storm of fire. Mehlokazulu was shot at the bottom of the gorge. He had taken off his troublesome boots and a servant carried them beside him. Those boots had cost him the rebellion.
By this point Barker had lost his targets at the mouth of the gorge and moved his 15pdrs to the site of the old rebel bivouac. From here, at maximum elevation, they could shower the Dobo forest, where many of the rebels were taking refuge, with shrapnel. Gingerly, Barker’s men descended from the heights and began to sweep through the thickets, shooting any wounded or hiding rebels they found.
This continued for several hours and McKenzie’s men slowly swept through the gorge from the opposite direction. Late in the afternoon McKenzie became concerned that the two parties might accidentally fire on each other, and he called the battle off.
It was immediately clear that the battle had been a decisive one, although quite how decisive only became clear over the next few days when McKenzie’s sweeps failed to turn up any further rebel concentrations in the surrounding countryside. A few days later old Sigananda, the last rebel of consequence, surrendered. His captors marvelled at his great age and at the stories he told of the early days of the Zulu kingdom.
The total Government losses were one officer killed, probably shot by his own side when pressing to far ahead in the bush, and another officer and trooper mortally wounded. Eight other white troops and an unknown number of auxiliaries were also wounded.
For the rebels, however, the battle had been catastrophic. At least 600 were killed, probably more, and their bodies were left lying in the bush. As late as 1985, when I first visited the site, human bones could still be seen in the densest thickets.
It was imperative that the authorities had proof that Bambatha, the rebel instigator, was dead and a few days after the battle a captured rebel offered to take troops to his corpse. A party under Sergeant Calverley of the Zululand Mounted Rifles was taken to the banks of the stream, at the very bottom of the gorge, and shown the body of a man wearing a white shirt whom the informant claimed was Bambatha. He had been making his way up the gorge during the battle when surprised by two auxiliaries. One had stabbed him in the back but been unable to pull out his spear. When the other tried to stab him Bambatha had grabbed the man’s blade. The three were struggling when a Zululand policeman came past, saw them, and blew out the rebel’s brains. Calverley decided that it was impossible to remove the body from the gorge so, instead, he cut off the head and took it back to McKenzie’s camp where it was photographed as proof of his death.
Although officially the head was taken back and buried close to the body the incident aroused some disquiet and, indeed, there have been persistent rumours ever since that the authorities were duped, and that the body had been deliberately misidentified. According to this legend, Bambatha himself had escaped the slaughter and lived out his days anonymously.
Either way, the battle destroyed the rebellion in Zululand. There was another outbreak in Natal shortly afterwards later which was put down with equal ruthlessness. By the time the rebellion was officially declared over in September 1906 as many as 4,000 rebels had been killed and 7,000 imprisoned. On the Government side just 18 white troops had died as a result of enemy action, and a further six from other causes whilst on campaign. Six auxiliaries were killed and 37 white troops injured. Convinced that the rebellion had, somehow, been instigated by King Dinuzulu, the Government arrested and charged him with High Treason. He was eventually found not guilty of 17 serious charges but guilty of three minor charges of having given shelter to rebel sympathisers. He was removed from Zululand and sent into internal exile. And, despite Churchill’s caustic judgement on the affair, Natal was, in the end, granted its Imperial campaign medal.
You can read more about the medal itself in the November 2021 issue of The Armourer.
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