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Hard-headed Harry

This new work of Jeff Guy, professor of history at the University of Natal, takes off from two earlier ones of his of about 20 years ago.

The first was his account of the destruction of the Zulu kingdom as a result of the war of 1879, which is where most other books stop. This was followed by his account of the heretic bishop of Natal, John William Colenso, who spectacularly dedicated his mission station at Bishopstowe outside Pietermaritzburg to opposing the very processes of law and administration that engineered Zululand’s further collapse into becoming a protectorate and then annexed to and eaten up by Natal.

The present work is a rehash and continues the story. Although Guy is touchy about how valid a merely biographical approach is to a topic involving a decade of civil war and near genocide, his scheme does yield much fresh interest. His subject, the deceased bishop’s daughter Harriette, certainly was feisty enough to continue his labours to save his parishioners. This, despite her utterly wet brothers, declining mother and feeble sisters, and the fact that she inherited their entire rebel church to manage as well. And then Bishopstowe was burnt down, with all their records.

Simply put, Harriette Colenso is good copy. Everything Guy quotes from her is thrusting, witty and memorable. She wielded her pen as a pamphleteer, when she had no other power, and publicised the view that the Zulu royal house should have access to what, after all, was only right and proper: British justice. Public opinion was hers to sway.

She had to learn to outface that man’s world around her, where officials protected their own, even intercepted her telegrams and had her stories spiked. Generally, they preferred hanging as a policy to her kind of liberal humanitarianism. One verbal snapshot of her — behind the grille of the Ladies’ Gallery of the House of Commons, while the scoffing secretary of state described the only Zulu-speaker in London, herself, as a hysterical exaggerator — is worth the book.

Her prayer, delivered at the disbanding of the Zulu remnants after the conspiracy trials at Eshowe in 1888-89, is a classic document in the archives, and should be available to every schoolchild.

But she was stuck with her cause, defending King Dinuzulu, against whom all the British could come up with was one Colonel Stabb. Rather a feckless, dagga-smoking dandy, the young king was hardly fit to be championed in the way Harriette Colenso offered. Even Guy tires of him, not even bothering to write up Dinuzulu’s second trial of 1907, this, one would have thought the real showdown of the book.

However, Harriette, who gambled and lost everything in the king’s defence, is worth the ride, even if Guy rather cavalierly dismisses her, too. The last 30 years of her life pass in a page. We are not given the circumstances or day of her death, though it’s noted that her dread antagonist, Sir Theophilus Shepstone, departs twice within Guy’s tome. The biographer’s plod from cradle to grave is evidently not Guy’s billet, though he says her career cries out for a memorial. So where is it?

But the points Guy makes about Harriette Colenso when she was on a winning streak should stick now. At a time when vile white overlords talked only of flogging and firestorms, she maintained the astounding view that Africans should have a right to play a part in the writing of their own history. While imperialism turned into no more than landgrabbing, she did not believe that any people dispossessed of their huts should be forced — to pay hut tax.

Right on, po-faced Harry.

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