Book Review: ZULU: The Heroism and Tragedy of the Zulu War of 1879

By Saul David

For those who are not necessarily interested in the Zulu war but have some interest in history or have seen the films and would like to gain an informed opinion on the subject and the real history behind the legends (or just want to read a good true story), this book is perfect for you.

Buy this book
Publication Date: 2004
Price: £8.99
ISBN: 978-0-14-101569-9

Saul David’s Zulu; The Heroism and Tragedy of the Zulu War attempts a broad contextual overview of a lengthy and complex history of the Zulu war and its origins for the general reader, no mean feat. The author’s previous books have included an enjoyable biography of Lord Cardigan – who presided over another famous Victorian military blunder, the Charge of the Light Brigade – and a well-received history of the Indian Mutiny, which I intent to review on some future date. It is in the authors obvious understanding of the politics and traditions of the Victorian period where  his strengths in his books seem to lie, therefore the British perspective always tends to take centre stage which is not necessarily a good thing, Zulu is no exception.
The groundwork is laid very firmly in the first few chapters, the author opens with a comprehensive but thoroughly researched  narrative of the development of the Zulu peoples over the previous two centuries and, suddenly leaping forward in time and circumstance, proceeds to give a clear and accessible account of the origins of Bartle-Frere's anti-Zulu policy. The build up to the war is explained with a growing pace that I found kept me engaged, it follows the action in terms of the political and career machinations of several key individuals, but at times it gets a little difficult to keep track of everyone who the author puts forward as being involved.

When we finally get to the war itself, which will no doubt be this books main selling point, it is a little disappointing, even for a reader who likes the film Zulu Dawn starring Peter O'Toole, Burt Lancaster (and the guy who plays Eric Pollard in Emmerdale if you watch carefully) . For someone who explores well the origins of the war, from the  point the invasion commences the book begins to feel a little rushed and seems to go at a much faster pace which left me feeling remote and distant from the insights that first drew me in which comes close to ruining the whole experience, a little like the author was suddenly in a hurry to finish his book. The aftermath gets a very short summary and I felt he had spoiled his earlier promise as I reached the last chapter feeling dissatisfied and almost like I had been denied something- hoping there would be more, only to find that the last 90 pages were assigned to Notes, References, Sources.

It is clear, even from the font cover, that this book is playing upon the emotive power of the name Zulu to conjure up the air of ‘heroism and tragedy’, which still clings to the war in popular imagination, while offering only a limited insight into the Zulu point of view on the conflict itself. The Zulu perspective may not be what you're looking for, but for a book which can only  be aimed at the general reader it seems a little silly to leave it out.  Despite its length, few Zulu characters are ever really explored or come alive, and there is little sense of what is going on inside the kingdom under the weight of the British invasion. Zulu; The Heroism and Tragedy of the Zulu War of 1879 is defiantly a useful companion piece for the general reader and a good introduction to the history, but it's a long way from the last word on the Zulu War.

For those of us who appreciate the aesthetic side, however, things look really rather pleasing, the book is adorned with plenty of pictures and photographs in three large sections, the cover is lush with redcoats and Zulu warriors and the spine has the title 'Zulu' etched in gold on a dark matte background which looks great on the shelf amongst other books on imperial history.

Great for the general reader, this is beyond doubt a HASM designated Hob-Nob accompaniment.