Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

115: “Oh you nasty Zulu” – “Zulus” in Victorian Britain

The British claimed Natal in 1843 and declared it a colony in 1856, anxious to dominate the coastal regions of eastern South Africa. Britons emigrated there. The dominant Africans of that region were Zulus, who had formed a strong military-minded state and expanded into neighbouring African societies. Reports of their activities reached Britain, and some theatrical promoters took advantage of British curiosity and presented troupes of Zulus in halls and at fairs. The best-known group, of thirteen, went on show in 1853, and Charles Dickens went to see them in May. In his Household Words he categorised them as representing the ignobility of uncivilized man, (mis)guided by a booklet published by the showman’s son. Earlier human zoos of alleged Zulus had been seen in fairs, which generated local interest only and are very difficult to trace unless, as with those who were in Worcester in early 1851, something extraordinary caught the attention of the Victorian journalists (see page 087 of this website).

The white settlers in Natal employed local people as we see with the African mentioned in British newspapers in October 1859. He was living rough in the Sheffield area. A lamb had been stolen from a field, and when police and villagers searched Hanging Lea Wood they found the remains of a fire, cooked lamb and potatoes. The man’s plight was known to the Anti-Slavery Society which asked the police to let them know when he was found. The local newspaper had to apologise for spreading rumours, for this ‘lost African’ was the servant of a man named Handley who was visiting Sheffield, and far from being an escaped slave as it earlier suggested, came from Natal ‘where, of course, slavery is as unlawful as in England itself’. The young man was a refugee from the Zulu wars, had worked as a servant for two years, and was employed to care for Handley’s children on the voyage to England. Believing he would never see Africa again he had wandered off ‘and was supposed to be hiding in some of the neighbouring woods’. He had begged a couple of times, had had dogs set on him, and was hiding. ‘The African is perfectly harmless and inoffensive’ and people were asked to rescue him from ‘perishing by cold and hunger’ (Nottinghamshire Guardian, 27 October 1859; Sheffield and Rotherham Independent 1 October 1859, p 6).

British military forces advanced into Zululand and 1,200 men were routed at Isandlwana on 22 January 1879. The defence of Rorke’s Drift some days later became a Victorian legend and in 1964 was the focus of a successful film, Zulu. News reached Britain, and although in the 1870s half of Britain’s adults were illiterate and access to newspapers were largely limited to those with money, many associated Africans with Zulus, and Zulus with the destruction of the 24th Regiment of Foot. Being or pretending to be or even looking vaguely like a Zulu became a problem in Britain. In Glasgow in early 1880 a policeman abused two women and a black man (who lodged with one of the women) asking ‘Is this a Zulu?’ and knocked her down and kicked her. The officer was drunk, and was sentenced to a month in prison (Aberdeen Weekly Journal, 26 January 1880; Glasgow Herald, 26 January 1880). In September 1880 a letter was published by the Glasgow Herald: ‘I have the misfortune to be, or rather it has pleased God to create me, a man of colour, and my well-educated wife and daughter are of the same caste as myself. Though I am in a respectable business here my wife and daughter have been subjected to gross insults by crowds of howling men and women, who call them Zulus, & c., even by the very men who ought to protect them – viz., the police – as a young lady in my shop can testify … my wife and daughter cannot go out either by tramway car or on foot without being subject to outrage and insult’. It was signed ‘A man of colour’ (Glasgow Herald, 24 September 1880).

John Williams claimed to have been with Livingstone in Africa as his servant, and had remained in England when the doctor returned to Africa. Charged with being drunk and disorderly in Chesterfield in May 1879, he had been working as a Zulu chief in a circus but had been dismissed because of his boozing. He agreed to the charge but went to prison for seven days as he could not pay the fine of five shillings. He told the court that a job as ‘a Zulu warrior’ would be open to him when he was released (Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 31 May 1879, p 2; Liverpool Mercury, 2 June 1879).

A West Indian sailor named James Parish was on his way from London to Hull in July 1879 when a crowd in Sheffield accused him of being a Zulu. He faced a charge of being drunk and disorderly, which was dismissed. The magistrate warned Parish about drinking too much in the future (Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 15 July 1879, p 3). A Portuguese sailor named Bravo was found guilty of wounding Joseph Seabrooke in Liverpool on 4 September 1879 near the Sailors’ Home. Seabrooke called Bravo ‘Diego’ (surely dago, the slang for a foreigner from the Spanish ‘diego’) and in turn was called a Zulu. They met a little later and Seabrooke was stabbed three times. Bravo was sent to prison for five years with the judge stating that had he been English the sentence would have been longer (The Times 11 November 1879, p 8). An Indian entertainer, Mouske Shaikh Gheesa ‘the snake-charmer and juggler’ was employed at the Dundee Music Hall as ‘The Original Hindoo Snake Charmer’. The Dundee Courier thought his act contained ‘very clever sleight of hand tricks’. In August he was in Lancaster, and in mid-September at the Queen’s Hall in Birkenhead. In early 1880 he appeared in court in Nottingham after a scuffle, started when he was accused of being a Zulu in a pub. He said he was a language teacher but working for Hamilton’s entertainment and was discharged by the court (Nottinghamshire Guardian, 16 January 1880). See page 089 of this site.

A troupe of Zulus working at Westminster’s Royal Aquarium in the spring of 1880 included John Batika. Placed in a police cell for being drunk and arguing at Tower Hill, in the morning he was sentenced to be held for three days. He then attacked the gaoler and his assistant, and was only overpowered when constables entered the cell. Batika was thought to be the man that six constables had to join forces to remove from a police van at Bow Street some days earlier. An interpreter was sought (Bristol Mercury, 11 May 1880; Hull Packet, 11 May 1880). When one was located Batika was understood to be claiming that the gaoler had robbed him. He was sentenced to fourteen days hard labour, the magistrate remarking ‘if it had been a European or white man who had behaved in such a manner he should have punished him with a great deal more severity’ (Standard [London], 14 May 1880, p 2). This Zulu troupe included a man named Passman who had been fighting in a central London hotel with a white male, and in the process lost his umbrella (a somewhat unlikely item to be carried by a Zulu warrior) which the porter restored to him. Then another white attacked Passman who had blood running down his face. The manager of the Zulus said that three of them including Passman were to leave for Natal that week, having saved money. On that understanding the well dressed African was allowed to leave the court (Standard, 10 June 1880, p 2). Zulus continued at the Royal Aquarium in London in mid-October 1880.

In 1882 the defeated Zulu leader Cetewayo/Cetshwayo visited London with a small group of elders, impressed the British government, and returned to Africa, the last king of the Zulus. He died in 1884. The house, 18 Melbury Road, Kensington, where he stayed was marked a century later with an English Heritage blue plaque.

‘Black Charley’ Dennis was working the entertainments at the Goole regatta in 1884 when he and two whites were arrested in connection with a death at a christening in Dewsbury. The three were connected with Whittington’s steam horses, a more sedate operation than the massive menagerie which had toured for years and included lions and two ‘Zulus’, one female (Leeds Mercury, 1 August 1884; nfa.dept.shef.ac.uk/jungle for Ian Trowell’s overview). The death of the Dewsbury man led to a trial (Leeds Mercury, 5 August 1884). The following year the fair at Stockton included a man exhibited in a booth as a Zulu. Leno Bochia also known as Osman Digna said he did not speak English but a police officer remarked he had spoken English when he complained he was cold and wanted his clothes (he had been arrested dressed in a feathered costume). He was one of several charged with being drunk, and his fine was paid by his employer – who apparently paid him one pound a day. Days later another Zulu appeared in the Stockton court – he was Charles Augustus Reip who said he was a West Indian. He was released having promised to leave town (North-Eastern Daily Gazette [Middlesbrough], 30 April 1885; York Herald, 1 May 1885, p 3; North-Eastern Daily Gazette 8 May 1885).

It was reported one Zulu injured a spectator in the eye at Leicester fair in the autumn of 1885. William Davis ‘a man of colour, and a native of one of the Pacific Islands’ was in Auckland, Co Durham in July 1890, when he stole a coat from a show. He had previously worked as a Zulu.

A sedate entertainment at politician William Gladstone’s home in Hawarden in North Wales had been provided by the Native Choir from South Africa, which toured Britain in the early 1890s. They appeared at the statesman’s home on 21 April 1892 (The Times 22 April 1892, p 4). They had of course performed before the Queen – at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, in June 1891. At her request she met the singer who had recently been in the Bechuana forces that fought her army. Two small choirboys were also presented to her. The reports state that the Queen enjoyed herself (The Times 25 July 1891, p 11). They toured widely and observed the British at home: for example they had performed at the Crystal Palace entertainment centre in July 1891 (The Times 20 July 1891, p 7). In June 1892 a Zulu member of the choir, speaking fluently in English, addressed the Zululand Mission meeting of the Church of England, in London, praising its efforts (The Times 21 June 1892, p 3). In July they performed in Earl’s Court, London, The Times noting eight women and seven men, and that their performance was ‘remarkably good’. Billed as the Zulu Choir they were still performing at that showground in August (The Times 23 July 1892, p 9; The Times 6 August 1892, p 9). On 9 November 1892 they helped entertain at a banquet for nearly two thousand of London’s poor, a charitable event supported by the Lord Mayor of London with the aid of the gentry. Whatever did the semi-slum dwellers think? (The Times 10 November 1892, p 9.)

The origins of the Africans who formed an ‘impi’ or Zulu war party and participated in the Royal Military Tournament in London are uncertain, but the show continued from 23 May to 6 June 1895, and was to be visited by the British royal family and the future Emir of Afghanistan, and gave even more Londoners a chance to see Zulus or ‘Zulus’ (Standard [London], 24 May 1895, p 3).

They and the Indian magician from Lucknow, the thirteen seen by Dickens and many other Londoners, West Indian sailors, that Portuguese sailor’s victim, Thomas Allen from Natal (see page 088 of this site), the Glasgow shop keeper and his family, the fairground chancers, the potentates in London in 1882 who mixed with government officials and were seen by Londoners who gathered outside their house, and the choir all presented images of Zulus and ‘Zulus’. Like so many aspects of Africans and the British, it is a confused matter.

The one descendant of a ‘British Zulu’ who has been traced is Reginald Moores (born Brighton, 1922), interviewed in March 2008. His mother Beatrice was one of four brown-skinned children, her brother Charles Macdonald drowning when the Rowan was sunk near Glasgow in 1921, carrying the Southern Syncopated Orchestra to Dublin. That story was broadcast on the radio in Brighton, and Reg Moores sought more information. His grandfather (also Charles Macdonald) was described as a Zulu in the London census of 1911, and an acrobat, banjoist and street conjuror born in South Africa who had married Emma Ryall. Their son Charles was born in London in 1877.

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