Natal Native Contingent
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The Natal Native Contingent was a large force of auxiliary soldiers in British South Africa, forming a substantial portion of the defence forces of the British colony of Natal, and saw action during the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War. Recruited from the local black population, the NNC was originally created in 1878 in order to bolster the defences of Natal. Most NNC troops were drawn from the Basuto and Mponso tribes, which had had long experience of fighting against the Zulus.
The structure of the NNC followed the pattern of regular British infantry units at the time. Each regiment of the NNC consisted of two to three battalions, divided into ten companies of 100 black soldiers each, with six European NCOs and three European officers per company. Units received standard British infantry training.[dubious ]
Due to budget constraints in South Africa, the British were unable to provide NNC troops with uniforms. Instead, soldiers wore their traditional tribal apparel with a red cloth bandanna around their foreheads, the only item to distinguish them from Zulu warriors. The NCO's and Officers wore Khaki and black uniforms.
The European population of Natal had long feared that arming the black population would constitute a severe security risk and as a result only one in ten NNC soldiers was issued with a rifled musket,:17 while the rest were armed with their traditional spears. The officers and NCOs, about 90 men per battalion, carried rifles, ammunition and bayonets.:22 In addition, those soldiers issued with a musket firearm were provided with only four rounds of ammunition at any one time. The bulk of the NNC fought with traditional African spears and shields and only about 20% of the unit had some sort of gun.[a]
At the beginning of the Anglo-Zulu War in January 1879, the NNC's commander, Colonel Anthony Durnford, frequently voiced his opinion that the NNC troops should be used as scouts for the advancing British army, as their similar appearance to Zulu warriors would confuse Zulu scouts. The NNC was, in his view, particularly well-adapted to reconnaissance and light infantry roles, as NNC soldiers were generally in better physical condition than British regulars (some of whom were hampered by heatstroke and illness resulting from over-exposure in the South African summer) and were not encumbered with heavy equipment. Instead, the British commander of the invasion force, Lord Chelmsford, frequently assigned NNC troops to menial labouring tasks, believing that their fighting ability was almost non-existent.
Battlefield performance was very uneven. At the Battle of Isandhlwana, units of the NNC fought hard alongside their British allies, and sustained heavy casualties. Many of the NNC were killed in fierce hand to hand fights while trying to retreat across the Buffalo river. At the Battle of Rorke's Drift, the NNC officers, NCO's and soldiers who possessed firearms were deployed along the barricade. The rest of the NNC, stripped of their command, armed only with spears, were posted outside the mealy bag and biscuit box barricade within the stone-walled cattle kraal.:401 They broke and fled as soon as the Zulu force came into sight, some NCOs and Captain Stephenson joining them. A Swiss corporal of the contingent, Christian Ferdinand Schiess, remained and won the Victoria Cross for his gallantry in the ensuing battle.
After Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift, British commanders in South Africa worried about the loyalty of their NNC detachments, and many were instead incorporated into the Natal Border Guard. The NNC last saw action at Hlobane, where a number of NNC troops were killed alongside a small British force when ambushed by Zulu troops. After the war, the NNC was disbanded and the troops returned to civilian life.
Natal Native Horse
While the bulk of the NNC consisted of infantrymen, the Natal Native Horse constituted the NNC's cavalry force. Formed of six troops of approximately fifty men each, the NNH was largely recruited from the amaNgwane, a Natal tribe traditionally hostile to the Zulus, and other tribes, as well as black Christians from the Edendale Mission. The black troopers of the NNH were much better-equipped than their infantry counterparts; NNH troopers were issued with tan-coloured European uniforms, a horse with full equipment, and each trooper was issued with a rifled carbine in addition to traditional African spears. Units of the NNH were led by European officers dressed in conspicuous sky-blue uniforms.
Five troops of the NNH were present at Isandlwana, three of them forming the "Sikhali Horse" squadron, named after their chief. The troopers fought well against the Zulus, and late in the battle were dismissed by Colonel Durnford, who was eager to save as many of his men as possible from the chaotic battle. Due to their being mounted on horseback, NNH soldiers were able to escape quickly from the battlefield, and many black NNH troopers are credited with having stopped to give rides to both native and British soldiers struggling to escape the battlefield on foot, most notably Horace Smith-Dorrien, who was rescued and ridden to safety by an NNH trooper. Around 200 NNH troopers survived Isandlwana, but unlike the NNC infantry, were recommitted to the war; the remainder of the NNH saw action at the Battle of Kambula and at the Battle of Ulundi. After the war, the NNH was retained as a police force in conquered Zululand, and saw action during the Zulu civil wars which began in the early 1880s. The NNH was finally disbanded during the 1899–1902 Second Anglo-Boer War, under a government initiative to disarm all black units in South Africa out of fear that they could side with the Boers.
- 10 captains, 20 lieutenants, 30 sergeants, 30 corporals and some 100 soldiers, or about 20% of the total each battalion had some sort of firearm.:17–22
- Thompson, Paul Singer. Black soldiers of the queen: the Natal native contingent in the Anglo-Zulu War, University of Alabama Press, 2006, ISBN 0-8173-5368-2
- Morris, Donald R. The Washing of the Spears: A History of the Rise of the Zulu Nation under Shaka and Its Fall in the Zulu War of 1879 Da Capo Press, 1998, ISBN 0-306-80866-8.