Manuscript diary of the Anglo-Zulu War

Item author: An Officer or Non-Commissioned Officer in the 5th Company, Royal Engineers
Item date: 1878-1879
Grant Value: £5,000
Item cost: £12,750
Item date acquired: 2021
Item institution: Royal Engineers Museum
Town/City: Gillingham
County: Kent

Sam Jolley, Assistant Curator, writes:  The Anglo-Zulu War (1879) was fought between the British and the Zulu kingdom of Cetshwayo kaMpande. It is one of the foremost campaigns of imperial expansion into Africa, with victory enabling British political and economic aims in the region. This 170-page manuscript diary, with sketches and albumen prints, records the experiences of an Officer or Non-Commissioned Officer in the 5th Company, Royal Engineers during this conflict.

Internal evidence shows the diary was written by a member of 5th Field Company, Royal Engineers - the company that lost so many men at Isandlwana and with whom John Chard VC, the commanding officer at Rorke’s Drift, served. The family believe the author was Lieutenant Archie MacDonald, although no such officer existed in the Corps at the time. However, the contents of the diary actually imply the author is a Sapper, not an officer. Despite the author’s anonymity, the diary is a marvellous narrative detailing the movement and experiences of a section of 5th Field Company during the Anglo-Zulu War.

The diary begins with 5th Field Company’s departure for South Africa in December 1878 during the preparations for war, and follows the author through to June 1879. The author was not in the section of 5th Field Company at Isandlwana, although he dedicates many pages to rumours and reports on the actions there and at Rorke’s Drift - an invaluable source for those studying the contemporary views and the subsequent myths. The author also encounters survivors retreating from the battle. During the campaign the author travels extensively around the theatre, and events include encountering a Zulu prisoner put on trial as a spy, meeting Louis-Napoléon, and assisting in the re-fortification of Rorke’s Drift. Reference is made to the deaths of two captains in his company and, interestingly, the suicide of a member of the Mounted Police. The author reports also reports on a British infantry supply convoy killed in their sleep by Zulu soldiers. Multiple references are made to the hardships and tensions of the campaign, with one wagon fort described as "a slaughter house [more] than a place of defence", and also the inevitable complaints against leadership that occur in military memoirs during a campaign turned sour. The diary ends in June, when the author was involved in a friendly fire incident alongside John Chard VC. 

Complementing the narrative are seven pen and ink diagrams, including military encampments and forts from the author’s journey, and a print of another artist’s sketch of Isandlwana.

It is a beautifully written diary, which records life on campaign and the quintessential Royal Engineer Role: building fortifications. The writing is remarkably clear and legible, and the diagrams modest but informative. Personal diaries and memoires from the Anglo-Zulu War are sparse, particularly those written by Royal Engineers.

Item Provenance
Bought from Bonhams (30 March 2021, Lot 23)