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Racial interaction over more than four centuries conjures up a veritable kaleidoscope of images to millions of South Africans and people all over the world. One of the most fascinating centres around the legendary John Dunn, the “ white chief of Zululand.” Dunn, son of an immigrant Scotsman, rose to become a confidant of the powerful king of the Zulu, King Cetshwayo kaMpande and married forty-eight of the King’s subjects after taking a young 15 year-old daughter of a Durban businessman as his first bride.
John Robert Dunn, described as entrepreneur, politician, arms dealer, trader and hunter, whose loyalties were said to lie where self-interest and gain prevailed, was arguably a central and controversial figure in nineteenth century Zulu history. What is sad is that there are so few South Africans who know much about the life and times of this remarkable man.
To this day, his legacy lives on surrounded, as in his lifetime, by controversy. His progeny of well over one hundred and twenty, today many thousands, are involved in bitterly contested land claims in areas that once came under his direct control and referred to by him as “Dunnsland.”
Who then was this “White Chief,” hated and reviled by many including the liberal Bishop of Colenso of Zululand, yet loved and adored by his followers and who, in significant ways, influenced the history of Zululand in the 19th century.
Dunn was born in Port Natal in 1834 and was from an early age exposed to local culture and language. His given Zulu name was “Jantoni.” Bright, intelligent, physically strong and quick on the uptake, Dunn had little formal education. His youth was spent in the saddle learning to shoot and hunt This not only gave him the opportunity to hone his language skills but also to observe and accept Zulu customs and social behaviour.
Dunn was devastated by witnessing the death of his father, killed by an elephant on a hunting expedition in the Natal interior. He was but in his teens. A year or two later he commenced his long association with the Zulu nation by crossing the Thukela River accompanied by Catherine Pierce, his fifteen year old bride, whose father was English and mother of Cape Malaya origin. Here, for two to three years, he lived amongst the Zulu as one of them, hunting and trading for a living. He in all probability spoke only Zulu and lived a nomadic life, forsaking both his European upbringing and clothes.
Dunn then, by accident, met Captain Joshua Walmesley, a retired British army officer and acting Natal Border Agent. Walmesley was on a hunting expedition at the time, and had camped on the banks of the Matikulu River. There he met and persuaded Dunn to return to his home at Nonoti, on the south bank of the Thukela, to live with him, educate him and learn the European way of life. There emerged a remarkable combination of a man who could pass for a Zulu or be entirely at ease in a European environment such as the Durban Club.
During the 1856 civil war in Zululand between King Mpande’s two sons, Cetshwayo and Mbuyazi, Dunn became involved and sided unwisely with the latter who was soundly beaten at the bloody battle of Ndondakusuka. Cetshwayo forgave Dunn for his perceived treachery, elevating him to a position of both power and wealth through direct land grants. Dunn married forty-eight Zulu women, always paying the going rate for a dowry in accordance with Zulu custom.
Cetshwayo is recorded as saying, “ I loved this white man as a brother, and made him one of my Indunas, giving him land and wives, daughters of my chiefs.”
Dunn established three main residences in Zululand, namely at Mangethe, eMoyeni and Qwayinduku. He owned large tracts of land from the Thukela River to the Mhlathuze River, controlled some six thousand subjects and accumulated thousands of heads of cattle. He also supplied the Zulu nation with no less than fifteen thousand weapons of all description, legally provided by shipping consignments to Lourenco Marques and thence into Zululand.
At the outbreak of the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879, Dunn faced an acute dilemma. He expressed the wish to remain neutral, but neutrality was impossible as the British made clear to him that unless he sided with them, he would be stripped of all land, wealth and position on the completion of the proposed invasion and conquest of Zululand. A major crisis in his life approached and he was left with little choice but to side with the British. He moved his wives, children, followers and cattle to the south bank of the Thukela River, thus arguably betraying Cetshwayo for a second time. Tragically his recorded history of his interaction with the Zulu nation compiled over many years was lost forever when one of his homesteads, Ungoye, where his records were stored, was torched at the outbreak of the war.
Dunn’s Scouts, as they were known, were recruited, armed and trained by Dunn, and fought on the side of the British during the Second Invasion of Zululand, taking part in the battle of Gingindlovu. Here, ironically, Dunn fought against a figure he knew well and had taught to ride and shoot, namely Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande. Dunn went on to be appointed Lord Chelmsford’s intelligence and political advisor on all matters Zulu during the war.
On the cessation of hostilities, Zululand was divided into thirteen Kingdoms with Dunn being given control of the largest. In 1886, he wrote his autobiography, titled “John Dunn, Cetshwayo and the Three Generals,” in which he gave his view of the war. The three generals were Sir Garnet Wolsley, Lord Chelmsford and Hope Crealock. Dunn pulled few punches in voicing both his opinion and criticism of their conduct.
His eyesight failed in 1894 and, after a brief illness, died on 5 August 1895, aged sixty-five, of dropsy and heart disease at his eMoyeni home, near Gingindlovu.
Today, It is a source of great pride to belong to the thriving “ Dunns Descendants Association” and a visit to his well-kept grave, lovingly attended, reflects the high esteem in which this extraordinary “white Zulu” is held.