Journal Volume 6 2010

Sir William F. Butler (continued/7)

The Zulu War

In 1878 Britain under Disraeli annexed the Transvaal laying the foundation for the conflicts between the Afrikaners and the British which were to disturb the closing years of Queen Victoria’s Reign.

The following year the British confronted the great Zulu chief Cetewayo and when he refused to submit they mounted an invasion north from Natal. Due to incompetence and overconfidence the invaders suffered heavy defeats by the Zulu impis of which the ones remembered best today are Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift. The massacres of 1500 crack British troops shook the empire to its core. There is a local connection in that there is a memorial in Christ Church, Delgany to a young officer who was killed at Isandhlwana, erected by his father.

As part of the mobilization to deal with the Zulu threat Butler was sent to Durban as Quartermaster General to organize the munitions and supplies for a strongly reinforced army. As usual he distinguished himself with his energy and competence. He was not involved in any of the fighting which ended with the capture of Cetewayo in June.

There are two anecdotes which illustrate Butler’s character. The widow of the former Emperor Napoleon III, Empress Eugenie, was living in exile in England with her eighteen year old son known as the Prince Imperial. The young man was mad keen to join the South African adventure and wangled a post for himself. Butler met him in Pietermaritzburg and formed a good opinion of him. Sadly the Prince was killed in a clash with a Zulu band. When news of this tragedy reached England there was a Princess Diana style outburst of grief. It was Butler’s duty to arrange the cortege for the young man which he organized with splendid dignity. In later years Empress Eugenie became one of Butler’s closest friends.

The second anecdote concerns Cetewayo himself who was imprisoned and treated with contempt by the victors. It will be recalled that on his previous visit to Natal Butler had expressed forcefully the opinion that the Zulus should be left untroubled in their own enclave. He now heard that the great king was unhappy in his cell, unable to sleep on a prison cot. He begged for mats made from green rushes on which he had slept all his life. Butler personally carried bundles of green rushes to the prison and met the king in his cell. Cetewayo wept and thanked Butler for ‘bringing sleep to me’. Butler himself was emotional describing his action as ‘putting a green sod into the cage of a lark’. In later years Butler was to describe the conflict between breech-loading rifles and assegais as an unworthy contest. He detested the expansionist policies of the Tory governments of the time but accepted that the first duty of a soldier is to obey. He probably could not in conscience have continued to serve in an army which was being deployed to further the objectives of the Tories but he admired and respected Mr Gladstone and hoped to see fair and honourable policies pursued under his political leadership.

On his return to England he resumed his staff job and concentrated on his writing which led to the publication of his novel ‘Red Cloud; or the Solitary Sioux’.


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