Monday, September 29, 2014

New Perspectives on Old Stories, a guest post by David Ebsworth, author of The Kraals of Ulundi: A Novel of the Zulu War

David Ebsworth (the pen name of Liverpool-born writer, Dave McCall) has contributed an essay on the background to his third novel, The Kraals of Ulundi, and the reason that he chose some unusual perspectives to tell the story of the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War.


New Perspectives on Old Stories
David Ebsworth

I was filled with doubts during the eight months that it took me to write Kraals. Everybody had warned me not to write an “Africa” story. ‘Africa stories don’t sell any more,’ seemed to be the general advice. But most of my stories are those that I wished somebody else had already written – yet which so far seem to have been overlooked. And this tale of the Zulu War’s second half was high on my list. So I was delighted when, on publication, the Historical Novel Society reviewed the book as an Editor’s Choice and described it as “an accomplished, rich, beautifully produced and very rewarding read that brings a lesser-known era of history to life” – though I was even more delighted when the review picked up on the new perspectives with which the novel may help the period to be viewed.

As it happens, this marks the 50th anniversary of that iconic 1964 movie, Zulu, starring Michael Caine and Stanley Baker, as well as several thousand Zulus. It’s a beautiful piece of cinematography, produced jointly by Cy Endfield and Baker himself. It tells the story of the heroic and successful 1879 defence of the Rorke’s Drift mission station by 179 British soldiers against an attack of 4,000 Zulus, as a result of which eleven of the defenders were awarded the Victoria Cross. Yet, at the same time, and just a few miles away, on the slopes of the mountain called Isandlwana, the British army was suffering one of the worst defeats in its history, as 1,500 of their soldiers were massacred by the rest of the Zulu army, more than 20,000 warriors. And this action became the basis for a second film, Zulu Dawn, released in 1979.

Isandlwana with a British cairn marking a grave from the Battle of Isandlwana

But those events took place during the first few weeks of the war – and the war then dragged on for a further six months. And while there has been a fair amount of excellent non-fiction written about the rest of the Zulu War, the subject remains virtually untouched by fiction writers – even though it covers some astonishing episodes. First, when news of Isandlwana reached Britain several weeks later, the reaction of the public was unexpected. The invasion of Zululand had not been endorsed by Queen or Parliament, and people were outraged that it had been undertaken as an overt land-grab by colonial officials in South Africa, almost without provocation. Within months, groups of Zulu warriors were being brought to England to appear on the London stage and to be fĂȘted on the streets of the Empire’s capital. The massacre could not go unpunished, of course, so reinforcements were sent out, and these included the French Prince Imperial, Louis Napoleon, Bonaparte’s great-nephew. Louis was killed there, in a Zulu ambush on 1st June 1879 – a monumental catastrophe for Queen Victoria that had repercussions all of its own.

The Prince Imperial

There were more battles, victories and disasters for both sides. And the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, was eventually captured in yet another bizarre series of incidents that finally drew the conflict to a close, even though its legacy still rebounds through South Africa’s contemporary politics.

It was a story that I couldn’t ignore. But the more I researched, the more I looked in vain for novels that told the Zulus’ side, or dealt with the six months after Rorke’s Drift, or explained why Britain was fighting the independent and friendly kingdom of Zululand at all. So I began to consider telling my tale from different perspectives. First, and most controversially, a semi-fictional Zulu Warrior, Shaba kaNdabuko. Second, a historical character, the British lieutenant, Jahleel Brenton Carey. Third, a purely fictional renegade white trader, William McTeague, who spans both the British and Zulu cultures. And fourth, the three women who stand alongside them and create the catalyst for much of the book’s interaction.

Naturally, it was the Zulu perspective that gave me both the greatest pain and the greatest pleasure. Long hours studying the culture of this extraordinary people, and learning some of their isiZulu language. And then a trip to South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal region – a beautiful part of the world – where I was able to talk with present-day Zulus still using oral tradition to pass down memories of the conflict, as well as their enigmatic relationship and affinity with the British, evident still today, exactly as it was when the Great Farini organized his Zulu Shows at the London theatres in 1879. And in KwaZulu-Natal I was also lucky to meet Mabusi Kgwete, who used her own considerable skills to help me finalise the book’s isiZulu Glossary and Pronunciation Guide.

As the Historical Novel Society review points out, the use of Zulu words in the text may seem daunting, although on most occasions they are simply there as additional colour, rather than being essential to understanding and, overall, “they were a well-placed constant reminder of perspective and showed how different were the two cultures that clashed with each other.”

I like to say that Kraals is the novel which picks up the story of the Zulu war where Michael Caine left off. But I hope that maybe readers will come away from the book’s closing paragraphs with the view that, in fact, it really picks up the tale from the perspective of the Zulus themselves.

Cosi, cosi yaphela! 


David Ebsworth has published three novels: The Jacobites’ Apprentice, Finalist in the Historical Novel Society’s 2014 Indie Award; The Assassin’s Mark, set during the Spanish Civil War; and The Kraals of Ulundi: A Novel of the Zulu War. Each of these books has been the recipient of the coveted B.R.A.G. Medallion for independent authors.

More details of David’s work are available on his website:


  1. Thanks for posting, Sarah. Looks great. And I'm obviously happy to pick up any comments from readers. Great blog, by the way!

    1. Thanks, and thanks for the great post, David. Overlooked areas of history interest me a great deal!

  2. Anonymous11:16 AM

    What a massive amount of research, David. And you wrote the entire novel in only eight months? That's impressive.
    (I love that old movie, Zulu.)

  3. Hi Cynthia. Yes, eight months - of actual writing, of course. I would have already put together an outline and done some of the research. And the eight months doesn't include re-writes. Zulu's still one of my favourite films too - even though I lost count of the times I watched it while writing the book!