I’m thrilled to have author David Ebsworth guest posting today about his latest book, The Kraals of Ulundi. I loved this book The Assassin’s Mark (review here) and am grateful that David has also joined in for #30Authors!
Hi Allison, and thanks for arranging this stop. It’s great to be back on the Book Wheel. My real name is Dave McCall and I was born in Liverpool, UK, but I live in North Wales now. I worked as a union organiser for thirty years, then retired a few years ago so decided to take up a long-time ambition to write historical fiction. I’ve published three books so far, under the pen name David Ebsworth, and the latest is The Kraals of Ulundi: A Novel of the Zulu War.
Can you tell readers a bit about the book?
Yes, of course. It’s set in 1879 and tells the story of the unprovoked invasion of Zululand in a South African land-grab that British history likes to call the Anglo-Zulu War. In the middle of the conflict, the British forces were joined by an unusual observer, the French Prince Imperial, Louis Napoleon. He fell into an ambush and tragically died there. It was a story that I’d known for a long time but hadn’t been covered, so far as I could tell, in any work of fiction. So I decided to use this incident as the catalyst around which my three main characters are linked.
I see that it’s fifty years since the release of the Michael Caine film, Zulu. Is it just coincidence that you’ve published Kraals now?
I have to be honest about this. When I was writing Kraals, I hadn’t thought very much about this being the film’s 50th anniversary. It was a couple of colleagues from the Anglo-Zulu War Historical Society who brought this aspect to my attention. But it’s been very helpful with the publicity. So more coincidence than clever marketing – or maybe it was just fate, eh?
I guess a lot of people won’t know much about the Zulu War. Do you think there’ll be much interest in it?
Not as much as the conflict deserves, really. But anybody who’s interested in British history or the Victorian period will enjoy it. The Zulu War was just one of a series of conflicts in which the British Empire embroiled itself and, like all the rest, this one had really long-term repercussions. The way we treated the Zulus and destroyed their way of life in 1879 directly shaped all the politics of South Africa that came afterwards, right up to today. And the subject is definitely neglected badly by fiction writers. Yet it still generates quite a few non-fiction books every year, and there are several Zulu War societies that are all flourishing. Besides this, the various Battlefield Tour companies in KwaZulu-Natal attract phenomenal numbers of visitors all the time.
Zulu is an iconic movie for your British film industry, but it gets panned a lot for not being historically very accurate. Do you agree with its critics?
Only to a certain extent. The film tells the story of the defence of the mission station at Rorke’s Drift on 22nd-23rd January 1879, of course. The garrison consisted of 104 men from ‘B’ Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Warwickshire Regiment plus a small number of sick and injured – no more than 140 defenders in total. And they held out against an attacking force of 4,000 Zulus. The film was co-produced by Cy Enfield and Stanley Baker (who also played the starring role, as Lieutenant John Chard). Baker, a staunch Welshman, decided to give the Rorke’s Drift defenders a much stronger Welsh presence than was factual – including having tenor Ivor Emmanuel sing Men of Harlech. But its worst crime was to turn the character of Henry Hook – one of the bravest and most revered of those awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions – into a malingering anti-hero. There are lots of lesser inaccuracies too, naturally. In the end, though, this was never intended as a documentary, but as a piece of lavish entertainment. And there can be few ‘war’ movies in the entire history of cinema that have done it better. It’s spectacular, and captures the ‘spirit” of Rorke’s Drift beautifully. In addition, the film gave countless thousands of people an abiding passion for the Anglo-Zulu War that has never been diminished by our eventual realisation that Zulu may have had one or two flaws, after all.
So where do you stand on the whole issue of accuracy in historical fiction?
Basically, I believe that Historical Fiction should be as factually accurate as possible. Apart from anything else, our readers won’t tolerate too much sloppiness in that regard. On the other hand, we’re writing fiction. Against a historical background, granted, but fiction all the same. And, like the co-producers of Zulu, our job is to entertain. So I think it’s OK to consolidate huge numbers of historical figures into a smaller number of representative characters; or to slot imaginary characters into historical scenes; or to composite repetitive events into a shortened series of actions; or to use our imagination to fill gaps where there are no definitive ‘facts’ – but only ever on the basis that, where I may have tweaked such things, I always explain them carefully in my author’s notes.
And your main characters, are they fictitious or based on real people?
Kraals picks up the story from the perspective of three main characters. The Zulu warrior, Shaba, is based on the real-life Xabanga, who struck the fatal blow that killed Louis Napoleon. The Englishman, Jahleel Brenton Carey, is a mostly accurate depiction of the lieutenant who led the fateful patrol. But the renegade trader, William McTeague, is a purely fictitious character, though based more broadly on the personality of John Robert Dunn (who also makes a brief appearance in the novel). There are strong female characters too. Shaba’s sister, Amahle, is purely fictional. Carey’s wife, Annie, was real and has her own remarkable story to tell too.
And you travelled to South Africa itself while you were writing Kraals. Can you tell readers why you came and give them a flavour of the trip?
Yes, the best trip we’ve ever made, I think. My original intention was to check out the locations and also, maybe, to make contact with folk who could help me with some of the Zulu language and culture issues in the book. So we followed the same route that the story takes, more or less. We visited the dramatic and moving battlefield sites – and you have to bear in mind that the war continued for another six months after Rorke’s Drift. But we also spent a lot of time with the fabulous wildlife of KwaZulu-Natal. It’s a most beautiful region, and the Zulus themselves are still astonishing people. So I owe a huge debt of thanks to Mabusi Kgwete (now with the Dancing Pencils Writing Clubs here in South Africa) in Durban for all the time she spent in correcting my isiZulu.
So, to finish, can you summarise the book in about a dozen words?
What about this? The Kraals of Ulundi picks up the story of the Zulu War where Michael Caine left off.
If you want to find out more about the book, you can visit David Ebsworth’s website and here’s a link to a great review by the Historical Novel Society.