Sometimes They Fight Back:
A Book Review of Little Bighorn and Isandlwana: Kindred Fights, Kindred Follies
The reign of Queen Victoria, 1838-1900, was a time in which the world witnessed one of the most blatant phases of colonialism. Issues concerning empire were debated throughout British society, and the nations of Europe and North America instilled systems of vicious colonial rule over most of the third world. At the same time, in the United States, both civilians and armies were heading west and engaged in several wars with the Indian nations of the plains. This would be the final stage of almost three hundred years of armed conflict between the indigenous of North America, and the settlers who came to their land.
The view of stable colonial rule was interrupted every now and then with uprisings by “the natives”. These attacks were usually put down and “stable rule” re-imposed; however, there were a few moments when superior armies with all the training and knowledge of western civilization were beaten back by the “savages”. It is with these moments in mind that you should all read Paul William’s Little Bighorn and Isandlwana: Kindred Fights, Kindred Follies.
The book details two famous battles that took place in the late 1870’s. The first, The Battle at the Little Bighorn in Montana (aka Custard’s Last Stand) where the famed general was decimated by the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne on June 25th 1876.
The second was the Battle of Isandlwana in South Africa, during which Victoria’s forces was overrun by the Zulu army (the basis for the movies Zulu and Zulu Dawn). What made these events stand out from the rest of the battles and skirmishes of the period is the significant losses on the side of Western empire. Custer and his troops were wiped out to the man, and those that survived Isandlwana were forced to flee to the Christian mission Rorke’s Drift and suffer through a long siege.
Mr. William’s book takes us back and forth, starting with the beginning of each conflict and brings the reader through the conflict to the aftermath of the battles. One thing that stands out from other histories of these events is that William’s goes to the very top of the political totem pole. Ulysses S. Grant is frequently mentioned throughout the first half of the book. We are shown a president who tries to lead an administration with goals of peace in terms of relations with Indians, but winds up surrendering to the cries of war.
The topic is an interesting one. Similarities between two battles are striking, and Mr. Williams points them out throughout the book. Both conflicts were waged by western armies against the indigenous tribes of the area. In each case the wars were fought over the western settlers’ desires to have access to the land of the natives. For the American Indians, it was the Black Hills (a sacred place within the Sioux religion) and for the Zulu it was Zululand (present day KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa).
The leading commanders in each battle are also similar. Gen. George Custer was a celebrated Indian fighter and had a reputation as a maverick. For the British Army, Col. Anthony Durnford (a carrier soldier who had spent significant time serving in Africa) would lead the fatal charge. Both men were trained at the leading military institutions of their time (though Durnford was a better student than Custer) and both would be demoted before the initial invasion due to conflicts with their superiors. In the wake of the battles, debates would rage about whether each one was to be blamed for the deaths of the soldiers that were placed under them, and to some extent these debates continue to this day.
In the aftermath of the battles, people “back home” viewed the defeats with shock and dismay. Throughout the book, the mentioned historical figures considered the notion of “fighting the savage” a relatively easy task, one that will not require much time or energy. The Western side did consider themselves at an advantage: Custer himself, prior to the battle, had a great understanding of his enemy, and tried to have his men travel light in order to “move like Indians”. The battles at Little Big Horn and Isandlwana were also some of the first conflicts after the invention of the Gatling gun (a weapon that allowed rapid firepower). Both weapons, when used by these armies, inflicted mass casualties (almost always civilian); however the weapon, though in possession by both armies, was not used at either battle.
The most commendable aspect of the book, perhaps, is the openness in which it considers the idea that these conflicts wars were the result of western aggression, and that the indigenous were justified in defense of their homes. All too often, particularly in the US, the history of conflict with the American Indian is whitewashed. The Little Bighorn was initially called a massacre, even though it was the 7th cavalry, which according to treaties, who crossed an international border and committing the first act of aggression. In both cases the indigenous peoples were provoked into the war. For example, Mr. William’s talks about the frustration leaders in Washington had in finding an excuse to send the army into the Black Hills. After several provocations, Sitting Bull and the Sioux wouldn’t take their bait.
One should not think, however, that the Sioux or the Zulu were hapless victims. The Sioux themselves only obtained the Black Hills after waging their own war on neighboring tribes, and the Zulu king Cetshwazyo was nothing short of a dictator. The excuse the British used for war was when Cetshwazyo sent his troops into British territory, to capture two female refugees who had fled Zululand, because they didn’t want to be married to older men within Cetshwazyo’s inner circle.
Those already largely familiar with the battles might find it a simple rehashing of information they already know. For those who tend to look upon Custer and Durnford as heroes, the pro-native tone of the book might be a constant annoyance. But for those who, as Howard Zinn says, “look at history from the standpoint of others,” will find the book a refreshing take on a time when native peoples rose up (all be it in vain) against the powers that were destroying their way of life.
The book itself, however, is clearly self-published (perhaps even because of its pro-native tone). Some steamers might find enjoyment to learn that name of the imprint, Phantascope, was in fact an early film projector from the 1890’s. The DIY flavor of the book isn’t a drawback per-say, but the lack of copyediting surely is. A few minor typos along with obviously incorrect spacing does take away from what otherwise is a thoroughly engrossing read.
Kevin Mullins is a playwright, theatre artist and steampunker originally from Boston. His plays have been presented at Slant of Light Theatre in Norwich CT, Flat Earth Theatre in Boston, and the International Anarchist Theatre Festival of Montreal. He is a founding member of Flat Earth Theatre, and is currently heading to the Pennsylvania wilderness to pursue a master’s in dramatic writing, and plot the assassination of Queen Victoria.