During the long years of Queen Victoria’s reign there was little or no opportunity for the Royal Navy to reprise the role it had played in the great days of the age of sail and Nelson. Britannia ruled the waves and the job of the Royal Navy was to police the seaways and give support to land based campaigns. However, the blue jackets did come ashore often in the company of their beloved guns as naval brigades and their actions in the Crimea, the Indian Mutiny and other conflicts are renowned—as are the names of the vessels associated with them, H.M.S. Pearl, H.M.S. Shannon and others. Written by one of their number, an officer and doctor, this book principally concerns the activities of the men of H.M.S. Active and their service in South Africa. In the 1870s the ongoing unrest that prevailed in the colony was a continuation of the warfare, that had prevailed for many years, with the so called kafir tribes. From their arrival in 1877 the men of the Active were involved in ongoing campaigns to protect colonists, but their principal challenge came in 1879 as war broke out between the British and the martial Zulu tribe under their king, Cetywayo. The slaughter at Isandlwhana quickly established that these were foes of a differently quality and this account features the siege of Ekowe in some detail. Accounts of sailors serving ashore are always fascinating and this one is no exception. It is, of course an essential addition to any library of the Zulu War.
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There was a prominent hill a few miles in advance, on the summit of which were seen some half-dozen Zulus: our cavalry was well in front, and it was hoped that they might be captured. About 8 a.m., having crossed the Inyezane River, we had come to the foot of the hill which formed the commencement of the mountainous country in which Ekowe is situated. Here the road took a somewhat semicircular sweep up a hill, and this was commanded on either side by one of much greater height, the bases of which were covered with thin bush. Here we were about to outspan; the cavalry had already unsaddled, and part of the Natal native regiment had passed some distance up the road, I had ridden part of the way up the hill, engaged in conversation with Capt. McGregor, when we suddenly heard heavy firing a short distance above us. This was from our advanced cavalry and the Natal native regiment, and we immediately perceived that we were partly surrounded by a large force of Zulus.<br>
As we were conspicuous objects, from being on horseback, we were evidently specially aimed at, bullets whistling by us as we thought in very close proximity. I looked round and saw the Zulus on our right, running like deer, in a long semicircle: this was the right horn of their army, trying to surround the first part of our column and cut the line of the waggons. Col. Pearson and his staff now posted themselves on a knoll, a little to the right of the road, and with them was part of the Naval Brigade, with the rocket-tubes, two companies of “the Buffs,” and the artillery, with two 7-pounder guns; and these commenced the action with the chest or main body of the army, the fire soon becoming extremely hot. “The Buffs” were extended in skirmishing order to defend the front, and the Naval Brigade, after doing great execution from its position in advance, was ordered to move up the road—a work of much difficulty, as a heavy fire was poured into it from three sides by the Zulus on the heights above, wounding four of the blue-jackets.<br>
There was a kraal towards the top of the hill, on the left of the road, which was stubbornly held by a strong body of the enemy, forming the left horn of the Zulu army; but the rocket party of the Naval Brigade, under Mr. Cotter, boatswain, having sent a rocket right through one of the huts, set the kraal on fire. The Natal native regiment then advanced and drove out the Zulus, taking possession of the kraal. The Naval Brigade continued to advance with great intrepidity, but their fire seemed to have no effect in dislodging the Zulus from the ridges in front. It was then determined to make a charge up the hill and along the ridges.<br>
At this time the blue-jackets were reinforced by a company of “the Buffs,” under Lieut.-Col. Parnell, whose horse was immediately shot under him. Capt. Campbell, commanding the Naval Brigade, behaved with much gallantry: he called to the men to follow him and close with the enemy, and then, accompanied by Capt. Hart, staff-officer of the Natal native regiment, an officer of unflinching courage, galloped towards the Zulu position.