Africa's old dancing fury : SHAKA'S CHILDREN Stephen Taylor HarperCollins £18

Jan Morris on a sad, fierce story: the rise and fall of the Zulu nation

"My heart is full of grief," wrote the Zulu Will-iam Ngidi one day in the 1880s. "I cannot find words to express it, for this splendid old Zulu people." He was looking back at the prime of the Zulu nation, contemplating its later ignominy, and dou btlesslooking forward to its uncertain destiny: and his lament might well provide a text for this sad and excellent book.

Like so many contemporary histories, Stephen Taylor's Shaka's Children records the decline of a conviction. The Zulu were more than just another Bantu tribe of southern Africa, because in the years after their sudden eruption into dominance, in the earlyyears of the 19th century, they evolved something approaching an ideology. Their masterful founding father, King Shaka ka Senzangakona ka Jama ka Punga ka Mageba ka Zulu, welded them into a unique community of Spartans, sure of their divine rights and privileges, bound together in pride, battle, mysticism and an essential humanism.

The reputation of this formidable national machine seduced generations of commentators, and in the old days romantic apologists sometimes declined to see wrong in it. Time had only enhanced its arcane glamour, the gleam of is black skins, the toss of itshead-feathers. Stephen Taylor is not starry-eyed, though. He is as amazed as anyone by the majesty of Zuluism in its prime, but he does not for a moment deny its violence and its cruelty. Dedicated to war, often randomly vicious, the nation t hat Shaka founded was as awful in its ferocity as it was admirable in its loyalty and courage.

What was admirable in it particularly fascinated the British of the imperial age, who saw in the fighting pageantry of the Zulu, their discipline and their sacrifice, a mirror-image of the qualities they liked to call their own. The sneaky subjugation ofthe Zulu by the British Empire is a squalid story, nevertheless, relieved only be terrific set-pieces of battle and by the example of the noble heretic Bishop Colenso - more squalid in some ways, in its self-righteous whittling away of Zulu confidence, than the franker oppression of apartheid.

But it was bound to happen. Sooner or later two such aggressive powers, side by side in a continent of opportunity, were bound to clash. Gradually it became clear to the Zulu that their heaven-sent privileges (the very word Zulu means "heaven") were specious after all, and that they were no longer the masters of their fate. Naught availed now, when the warriors ritually vomited over the Inthaka, the sacred grass coil of national unity. Esoteric powers of kingship and the assurances of witch-doctors coul d not resist the massed ranks of capitalism, Christianity and technology. No wonder William Ngidi wept, as he watched the convictions crumble and the prancing fighting men degenerate into memsahibs' houseboys.

Most of us, I suppose, have learnt our Zulu lore from two sources: E A Ritter's celebrated imaginative biography Shaka Zulu, 1955, and Cy Endfield's 1964 film Zulu, in which the impis in all their terrifying splendour are held at bay by Michael Caine andStanley Baker. Stephen Taylor, who makes much use of unfamiliar archive material, does nothing to dispel the savage grandeur of the legend; but he manages to keep in our minds, throughout the saga proud and bitter, the fact that the Zulu were never morenor ever less human than the white men. The Zulu themselves repeatedly argued the point, baffled as they were by the aloofness of the British. They thought themselves the white man's equal; they believed their own laws - ceremonial i mpalement, for instance - to be as valid as his; but they could never find the gate, they said, through which to pass towards mutual understanding.

There were moments, I am ashamed to say, when the narrative reminded me of Beachcomber ("Mbuyazi's umuzi was north of the Black Mfolozi, Cetschwayo's was south of the Mhlatuze"), but the response was momentary, and unworthy. It is Mr Taylor's great achievement that he succeeds in making the motives of all sides in this sorry story equally comprehensible. By now, of course, the mores of the imperialists seem almost as alien to us as those of the Zulu themselves, and the whole tragic conflict seems a sort of vast misunderstanding. Taylor suggests that if the British had treated the Zulu as they did the Sotho and the Swazi, preserving their tribal identities as independent protectorates, they too might have proceeded more placidly into modernity: but it i s certainly more in the national tradition that they have come ever-raging through the night of apartheid, at odds not just with the whites, but often with their fellow blacks too.

And perhaps the traditional Zulu bloody-mindedness, inherited from the mighty Shaka himself, will prove their salvation yet. Nobody knows whether a multi-tribal, multi-cultural South Africa is going to fulfil itself in peace, but we may be sure that whatever happens Shaka's children will be recognizably themselves. The Zulu language is very much alive; the King of the Zulu is a King still; Zulus provide much of the intellectual and business acumen of the new South Africa; the impis are still, for betteror for worse, virile with the old dancing fury. It may not be that splendid old people of old, but what people is? The new day of the Zulu may yet be coming: as a Zulu schoolgirl writes in the last paragraph of Mr Taylor's generous and truly moving work: "When I think of all these things it makes me feel as if I had been born 100 years too soon and that the good times are coming after my time is gone."

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links