I am delighted to welcome
David Ebsworth is the author of a new novel about the Zulu War called The Kraals of Ulundi and I recently had the chance to ask him about the research he’d done for the story, and whether he’d discovered anything that surprised him.
It turned out that he’d been all the way to South Africa as part of his research and this is what he told me:
It really doesn't matter how much reading you do about a location, there’ll always be something that you fail to capture if you don’t actually visit the scenery in which your novel takes place.
But this was especially true with Kraals, in which much of the action is set in the former colony of Natal, and the former kingdom of Zululand, both now part of a single distinct region of South Africa known as KwaZulu-Natal. Much of this beautiful area has changed little since 1879, so our visit to KZN in November 2013 let me capture sights and smells that would have been impossible without the trip.
More importantly, since much of the story is told from a Zulu viewpoint, it was easy to make friends among the Zulu population and get help with the book’s isiZulu language, pronunciations and culture.
And making friends so easily with those remarkable people also helped me realise how long there’s been a really close affinity between the British people and the Zulus. But it took a research trip to South Africa before I understood how deeply it ran.
To some extent, British colonial officials took advantage of that affinity to launch an illegal invasion and land-grab of Zululand in 1879, but soon paid the price when a column of 1,500 British troops was massacred by 25,000 warriors armed with only shields and spears on the slopes of Isandlwana. We can easily imagine the animosity there’d be today if a similar disaster befell our soldiers somewhere in the world.
Yet, in 1879, within months, and while the war was still raging, groups of Zulus were being brought to England to perform on theatre stages to packed houses and fêted as heroes. Zulu shows had been popular in London since the days of Charles Dickens, and they were very familiar to contemporary audiences.
The response of the British public was also surprising in the sense that the news of Isandlwana provoked far more anger against the colonial officials who’d launched the war than it did against the Zulus.
And this was a two-way process. The Zulus themselves were fighting to defend their own homeland, and they did so ferociously. But while they may have been ruthless in battle and its aftermath they grew to respect the British soldiers sent against them, despite the savage way in which those soldiers treated the Zulus in return.
It was that complex relationship that I was trying to capture in Kraals and, hopefully, the research trip helped me get it right. But it also gave us the chance to enjoy the astonishing scenery and wildlife. Wonderful country! Everybody should go there, if they get the chance.
Here’s a great review of The Kraals of Ulundi by the Historical Novel Society
More details of the novel can be found on David’s website pages
My thanks to David for sharing the details of his research with us.
It's always fascinating to see how much background work goes into writing such an interesting novel.