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Conversations in Zulu
Paul Bryant-Quinn


Joined: 14 Oct 2007
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As the fighting drew near to the camp at Isandhlwana, James Brickhill met Louis Dubois, who farmed in Msinga. Brickhill remembered their conversation:

I saw Mr Du Bois who asked me in Zulu how it looked. I replied 'ugly', he said 'yes, the enemy have scattered us this day'.

Any thoughts as to why these men would have spoken to each other in Zulu? Would it have been their common language, or had Zulu simply become for them the language they used most often?
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Peter Ewart


Joined: 31 Aug 2005
Posts: 1797
Location: Near Canterbury, Kent, England.
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Paul

I have always assumed it was because they (or at least one of them) realised things were getting "ugly" but that they did not want to spread alarm (or admit that they were already alarmed) by making comments others could understand - whether soldiers or contracted civilians. In other words, they took the opportunity of having a conversation in public which could remain private. The fact that the conversation took place "as the fighting drew near" serves to emphasise this in my opinion.

That's what I've always thought but others may have other ideas. When you watch India play cricket the batsmen call to each other in English - yes, no or wait etc. But when in the field, the skipper often communicates to his team in Urdu or Hindi to prevent English-speaking batsmen understanding their plans. A year or so back an English county fielded half a dozen "Saffers" and they yacked regularly with each other in Afrikaans - again, to avoid being understood by your average county batsman. I think it would have been natural for Dubois to have spoken in Zulu to Brickhill the interpreter, whom he obviously knew as a Zulu speaker, and that Brickhill would have recognised immediately why the question had come in that language - perhaps with a wink or a certain look in the eye of the speaker to ensure he recognised the reason - and he responded accordingly.

Of course, the conversation may have continued with other words they didn't want to be understood, such as "It's time we were getting out of here or we've had it." Brickhill need not have related later everything that had been said if it would reflect badly on him. Do we have all the conversation? Perhaps not. The idea that Brickhill may have been thinking of flight at this time but didn't necessarily want to advertise the fact doesn't clash at all with his later admission of his refusal to assist Gamble when the latter desperately appealed for help during the flight.

I think Zulu was used to avoid alarming others or - if it was too late for that - to keep D's and B's fears and intentions to themselves.

Peter
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Paul Bryant-Quinn


Joined: 14 Oct 2007
Posts: 543
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Peter Ewart wrote:

I have always assumed it was because they (or at least one of them) realised things were getting "ugly" but that they did not want to spread alarm (or admit that they were already alarmed) by making comments others could understand - whether soldiers or contracted civilians.

Peter

That's an interesting thought - although the alarming proximity of some 24,000 Zulu warriors would probably have done as much to suggest to those in earshot that things were looking bad, as anything Brickhill and Dubois let slip in conversation!

Laughing

Also, of course, in the open air and the noise of battle, what they said to each other would well have been inaudible anyway.

Do you happen to know whether Dubois was French, or was he an Afrikaner? Could it have been the case that his Zulu was more fluent than his English, and that this was the most convenient language he and Brickhill had in common?
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Paul Bryant-Quinn


Joined: 14 Oct 2007
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The question of Europeans speaking Zulu also brings to mind that strange and evocative account by Mangwanana Mchunu of a warrior named Muti Ntshangase chasing someone he describes as a 'soldier', whom he heard calling out, in Zulu, "Do not kill me in the sun, kill me in the shadows". Whatever it was that he said seems to have mystified both Mangwanana and the Zulus who heard and retold the tale: they appear to have been under the impression that the man was looking for a place to hide.

The account suggests that Muti himself was in quite a state; he may therefore not fully have comprehended what the 'soldier' (presumably a colonist?) shouted out as he faced the imminent prospect of his death. Could it have been a biblical reference, or perhaps a prayer of his own making? Something along the lines of "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death ..."; or "hide me under the shadow of thy wings ... from my deadly enemies, who compass me about"?

What sparked my attention here was the fact that the European - if indeed he was a European - was, like Dubois and Brickhill, speaking in Zulu; that those who heard him couldn't make out what he was getting at (why would he prefer Muti to "kill [him] in the shadows" anyway? Why would it make any difference?); that there was a sense - perhaps from something the man said which was not reported - that he was looking for a hiding place (but again, why tell your attacker that?). For me, the combination of powerful images of light, shadow, death and shelter resonates with any number of biblical or liturgical references, to which he might have turned in prayer. Perhaps the man was calling out not to Muti but to God.

If that was the case, then this may not have been the only example of prayer at Isandhlwana. Muziwento reported that "some covered their faces with their hands, not wishing to see death". And, of course, it may well have been as simple as that; but it's also worth noting that in some Christian traditions you cover your face with your hands while you are praying or making an act of contrition. Were the Zulus watching Europeans making their final commendations? Who knows.
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Alan
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Joined: 30 Aug 2005
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I have removed a posting from Coll as well as any reference to it which followed including
one requesting that I remove it, if anything existed in the first place which required removing,
which I'm not saying that there was. Phew.

Coll is no longer a forum member. Good luck Coll.

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Peter Ewart


Joined: 31 Aug 2005
Posts: 1797
Location: Near Canterbury, Kent, England.
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Paul

Fascinating background suggested for the "kill me in the shadows" incident. I agree that it is very likely that the Zulu may not have heard at all clearly something mouthed in less than perfect Zulu (as you know not all colonists had perfect idiomatic Zulu) amid the noise & confusion. And, yes, almost certainly - well, certainly, really - not the only instance of prayer (if that's what it was) being used by many of the doomed. It is inconceivable that out of over 1,000 doomed Victorians there were not a few at least who found a moment to make their peace with their maker.

With regard to Brickhill & Dubois, although it is suggested that the situation may have been desperate by then (after the return of Durnford's force towards the camp) I feel it highly likely that the remarks were made just as doubt began to filter through to the "chief cooks and bottlewashers" among the tents that things were not just difficult but beginning to turn. They would have begun observing the battle with little fear. They would have seen the retirement. They would have observed the numbers of the enemy. Perhaps seen the retreat of the artillery. And they would know the consequences of defeat. Yet they could never have contemplated the annihilation of the 600 redcoats immediately in front of them. (These must have been still mostly alive & firing or there would have been no need for the question itself, as no doubts in their mind would have lingered).

So I picture the conversation just as the battle "turned" - as far as those at the rear could comprehend. And it may have turned very rapidly. Had the two seen or suspected the vanguard of the right horn behind them? They may have been reassured to find themselves nearer their fighting (though retiring) comrades - or they may have felt the opposite, fearing things were going wrong and that they were now near the sharp end themselves. I believe they (or Dubois at least) may have thought they had worked things out before those around them had and didn't want their conversation understood by others who might panic - or grab a horse before they did. On such an occasion a common "secret" language fits the bill perfectly.

Peter
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Conversations in Zulu
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