Zulu king who crushed British Army honoured with historic blue plaque

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The Independent Online

Britain had no reason to cherish the Zulu king Cetshwayo kaMpande in the early days of 1879. He inflicted on the British Empire the most crushing military defeat it had known, claiming the lives of 867 white soldiers and 440 black auxiliaries in a single day. Only the legendary British fightback at Rorke's Drift, immortalised in the film Zulu starring Michael Caine, has preserved the reputation of those military leaders who decided to take him on in the Zulu War.

King Cetshwayo's struggle with the British, at the head of an army equipped only with shields and spears, seems to make him an unlikely recipient of an English Heritage blue plaque - the commemorative marker affixed to buildings linked to great figures of the past.

But Cetshwayo has now been deemed worthy of the accolade and it will hang outside the townhouse in Kensington, London, where he stayed before a remarkable, though relatively little-known,encounter with Queen Victoria and her Prime Minister, William Gladstone, three years after his massacre of the British.

Cetshwayo, who was played in the 1964 Zulu film by Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, later leader of South Africa's mainly Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party, experienced a profound downturn in fortunes after overcoming the British in the Battle of Isandlwana. He was taken prisoner by the British as their armies rallied in July 1879 and was deposed when his capital, Ulundi, was captured and torched. Imprisoned in Cape Town, South Africa, his prospects were looking grim until he found an ally in the Earl of Kimberley who said the Zulu invasion was "unjust and necessary".

Cetshwayo (also known as Cetewayo or Ketchwayo, meaning "the slandered one") asked to visit Britain to make a case for his return to the throne to prevent further wars. There was a fierce parliamentary debate on the "great public inconvenience and considerable risk" that might pose. But, on 4 August 1882, he was received for a month's visit - becoming the first Zulu to visit London. In an interview given while at the townhouse, in Melbury Road, Cetshwayo said he regarded the war as "a calamity".

Ian Knight, a historian and author, said: "Everyone in London was curious to see this guy who had given the British such a bloody nose. As is often the case, the British secretly admired the pluckiness of an underdog. They lined the streets for a look, all expecting him to be a scowling savage in a loincloth but he turned out to be impeccably dressed in European clothes. He apparently made a great impression on Queen Victoria and everyone else he met and ended up being cheered wherever he went."

It was the start of a political rehabilitation, of sorts. The year after his visit, the British tried to restore Cetshwayo to part of his former territory, hoping that it might avert a war between Zulu tribes. The attempt failed as another chief, helped by Boer cavalry mercenaries, attacked his new base and forced him out to flee. He was later moved to the town of Eshowe but died a few months later, possibly as a result of poisoning.

For some Africans, the plaque overlooks the aggressive colonialism which the British invasion of Zululand represented. "The plaque might act as some symbolic gesture to erase their consciousness," the historian and writer Kwame Osei told the website Black Britain. "It would be of more value if it were part of a wider programme such as apologising for enslaving Africans and reappraising how African people are viewed, portrayed and treated in British society."

English Heritage said the story of King Cetshwayo was of "exceptional interest" and one that shed "crucial light on Britain's late 19th century history."