Simeon Kambula had grown up in Edendale, the Methodist Mission Station near Pietermaritzburg. His father, Elijah Kambula had served as respected personal interpreter to Major A W Durnford, RE, during the Langalibalele Rebellion of 1873, and had been killed in the ambush on the Bushmans River Pass in the Drakensberg on 4 November 1873, despite Durnford’s efforts to rescue him.

In November 1878, as war clouds gathered over Natal and Zululand, Durnford, now promoted Lt Colonel, was asked to raise a force of up to 7 000 Natal Natives for service in the imminent Zulu War. Those recruited for the various regiments of the Natal Native Contingents – many of whom proved to be totally unreliable and were soon disbanded – were Infantry. There were, however, a few mounted groups who gave useful service. The most successful of all was the contingent from Edendale, which formed the Natal Native Horse – the only black unit to serve faithfully throughout the war.

When the Government asked the Elders of Edendale to raise a mounted troop, there was no hesitation. ‘We all know the cruelty and the power of the Zulu King’, they told their people, ‘and if he should subdue the Queen’s soldiers and overrun this land he will wipe out all the native people who have dwelt so long in safety under the shadow of the Great White Queen. Shall we not gladly obey her, when she calls for the services of her dark children?’

Volunteers were quickly forthcoming. Within a few days a fine body of some one hundred young men, mounted, accoutred and uniformed at their Elders’ expense, complete with boots and spurs, gathered to receive their Missionary’s blessing at a solemn service in the Edendale Church. Then off they marched to war, with their leader John Zulu at their head, and Sergeant Simeon Kambula as senior NCO in their ranks.

Lt Col Durnford was an old friend at Edendale. He was pleased to have the contingent under his command; pleased too, to have with them the son of his former interpreter Elijah. He promptly issued them with Martini-Henry carbines, but, to their regret, their request that they be given the same rations as the white volunteers was turned down by the military authorities. Two white officers were appointed to lead them. They drilled them and soon had them ready for war. ‘Apart from having become loyal and reasonably good soldiers, who proved themselves throughout the campaign and remained intact and on service when other native units disintegrated and melted away, they remained devout Christians, who rose every morning before the first bugle-call to hold their service and sing hymns …. And at night, however late they were on duty, or however tired, they met again for their evening worship.’

Their baptism of fire was not long in coming. Durnford and the mounted men of his Column had come forward from Helpmekaar to a camp near Rorke’s Drift. On the fateful morning of 22 January, 1879, he advanced to Isandlwana on instructions from General Chelmsford, who had himself moved forward with half his force on a wild goose chase. Durnford reached Isandlwana about 10h00. As senior officer on the spot, he had to take command of a totally unprepared camp, already closely threatened by the main weight of the Zulu army. The disaster which followed is now part of history.

The Edendale Contingent had been given a key position. Despite heavy casualties they held it courageously against repeated attacks. But soon the units around them broke before the Zulu horde, and it was clear that the battle was lost. The battlefield was running red with blood, the two officers gone, presumably dead. Sgt Simeon Kambula found himself in command of the survivors. He resolved to save them if he could.

The Rev Owen Watkins wrote as follows:
‘He addressed them and told them their lives depended on obedience and keeping together, and that any man who strayed from the ranks was doomed. If it was God’s will and they would obey, he would bring them through into Natal. They pledged their word to abide together with him that day for life or death. But he must, if possible, get ammunition. He saw an ammunition wagon, and noticed the Zulus were too busy in the tents to bother about this wagon. He rode up with his men, and found no one there but a little drummer boy who sat on top of the wagon and said he was in charge. Simeon asked him to give him and his men a packet of cartridges each, just to help them defend themselves. But the little boy informed them that this ammunition belonged to the 24th Regiment, and as long as he was in charge no one else should have any of it. He felt the boy was obeying orders, and respected him. Then he saw there was a loose lot of cartridges lying in the grass around the wagon. Men who had come for cartridges were in such haste to fill their belts that they dropped many on the ground. So Simeon and his men each picked up a few and put them into their belts.

Simeon’s heart went out to the boy who was sticking to his post of duty. He told him the battle was lost, the camp was in the hands of the enemy, the fighting all over, and, indeed, his was the only body of men holding together. He begged the boy to leave the wagon, and he would take him in front of the saddle, and as long as he had life he would defend him. The boy was surprised and hurt that anyone could think he would desert his post. His officer had placed him there, and no one should move him out while he had life. With a very sad heart Simeon had to leave him there. Brave young soul! I salute thee, for it is souls like thine, which have won the Empire!

Simeon knew the country, and avoiding as best he could Zulus in force, made, by paths known to himself, to what afterwards became known as “The Fugitive’s Drift”. It is a ford over the Blood River [sic. should read ‘Buffalo River’]. Before they reached the Drift, they heard the yells of men, the neighing of horses, and the bellowing of cattle. When they arrived upon the banks above the Drift they found it choked with men and beasts. On every rock stood two or three Zulus, stabbing every man they could reach, while on the Natal bank of the river a large body of Zulus waited to dispatch every man who escaped from the river.

Simeon dismounted his men. They were all good shots. Short and sharp he gave his orders. A volley was sent into the centre of the Zulu line on the opposite bank of the river. They closed in, and with wild yells, hurled a cloud of assegais, which, however, did but little harm, as the distance was too great. Three times the Edendale men fired their deadly volleys across the river, and then the Zulus broke and fled. Instantly Simeon rode down to the Drift.’

First Photo
This colour, donated by Mr Robert Topham, was presented by Major General Sir Evelyn Wood, VC, KCB, Governor of Natal, in the name of the Queen ‘to the officers and troopers of the Edendale contingent of the Natal Native Horse’ at Edendale on 15 December 1881. ‘The flag having been unfurled, was delivered by the General to Sergeant Major Simeon Kambula, and Sergeants Simon and Enoch, who knelt before His Excellency. The choir sang the National Anthem’ (The Natal Witness, Saturday 17 December 1881).
(Photograph by courtesy of the Killie Campbell Africana Library, University of Natal, where the Colour now rests)

Owen Watkins went on to record that calling other fugitives to cling to the stirrups of his men, Simeon led his Contingent through the fast-flowing river, then formed them up on the far bank to fire a final volley at the pursuing Zulus. Their ammunition exhausted, he then led them off to Helpmekaar, the only group to maintain their cohesion through the great Zulu victory of Isandlwana.

There was grief in Edendale over their many young men who did not come home, but volunteers came forward immediately to replace the fallen, and the Contingent was soon off to war again, this time under command of Capt Cochrane, 32nd Regt, to operate with Col Evelyn Wood VC in the North, at Fort Kambula. They served with Wood – in the final advance as part of his ‘Flying Column’ – until the final defeat of Cetshwayo at Ulundi on 4 July 1879.

Promoted Sergeant Major, Simeon Kambula fought with Major Redvers Buller at the Battle of Hlobane Mountain on 28 March, but got safely away with most of the force, to Kambula.

Cmdt S Bourquin wrote as follows about the activities of the next day, 29 March 1879:

‘Not more than fifty natives were left in camp at Kambula when it was attacked the following day by the full weight of the Zulu army, but there was one exception; the Edendale Contingent had stood fast. They rode out with Buller’s men to provoke the right horn of the Zulu army into a premature attack before the left horn and the centre were ready. When the right horn took the bait and charged, the mounted men raced back into camp but the Edendale contingent retreated to the west, making an offing of several miles and staying outside the camp during the ensuing battle.’ [This was the Battle of Kambula, where the Zulu commanders learnt to their cost that it was not advisable to attack British infantry in a prepared position.] During the next three months the Edendale men were constantly scouting for Wood’s Flying Column. They were involved in a series of minor skirmishes as the 2nd Division advanced slowly and carefully but inexorably into the heart of Zululand. At last, on 1 July, the column reached the White Umfolozi River and established a laager almost within sight of Cetshwayo’s Great Kraal at Ulundi. On 3 July, no satisfactory reply having been received to a final ultimatum, a reconnaissance in force was undertaken by Lt Col Buller and the mounted men of the Flying Column. The official Narrative of Field Operations tells the story:

‘Sending a portion of his force by the ford of the wagon track, Buller with the main body crossed at another ford lower down, and moved against the southern end of the hill overlooking the river between these two fords. This hill, which had been occupied by the enemy’s skirmishers, was promptly evacuated, and when Buller’s party emerged from the bush bordering the left bank of the river, a number of Zulus were seen hastening over the open country in front. These were pursued to a distance of nearly 3 miles [5 km] from the Umfolozi, when Buller’s party suddenly came under heavy fire from a force of about 5 000 Zulus who were concealed in the valley of the ‘Mbilane stream. Numbers of the enemy also appeared on both flanks of the reconnoitring party, pushing boldly forward with the object of encircling them and cutting off their retreat. In this attempt they were unsuccessful and Buller ultimately withdrew his party, having lost three men killed and four wounded.’

Troop Sergeant Major Simeon Kambula’s moment of glory had come. This was the citation which was to lead to the award to him of the Distinguished Conduct Medal (WO 146/1):

This non-commissioned officer has also set an excellent example to the men of the Troop, of courage and ready obedience under fire. At the White Umvolozi River on the occasion of Lieut Colonel Buller’s reconnaissance towards “Ondine”, the day before the Battle of Nodwengo, Simeon Kambula saved the life of an officer of the Frontier Light Horse, by bringing him out of a very heavy fire behind him on his horse. He was present at “Sandhlwana”, “Hlobane”, “Kambula” and “Nodwengo”, besides many smaller actions, and has taken part in every patrol of the mounted Troops of the Flying Column, since 14 March 1879.’

The following day, 4 July, the Edendale Contingent was in action again, as Chelmsford moved his famous square past the Nodwengu kraal to the open ground in front of Ulundi. Sensing an easy victory, a repeat of Isandlwana, the Zulu impis hurled themselves at the exposed square. But they had not reckoned with the devastating effect of disciplined and controlled volley fire by the well-drilled British infantry. None reached closer than thirty paces. The attack began to falter. Then Chelmsford launched the 17th Lancers, as hesitation changed to retreat and soon to rout. ‘In this pursuit’ states the official report, ‘the efficacy of the lance as a cavalry weapon was abundantly proved.’ Buller’s mounted men with the Natal Native Horse to the fore mopped up behind the Lancers. The Edendale men were the last to return to camp at the close of that well-fought day. Some 1 500 Zulus died on the battlefield. The Zulu military power was shattered. The Zulu War of 1879 was over.

Soon the Edendale Contingent could return home to be welcomed as heroes by their Elders and their people. They were given a banquet in Durban ‘for having given good service at the chief action of the campaign’. Simeon Kambula had truly served ‘The Great White Queen’. In due course he received the Distinguished Conduct Medal ‘from the hands of an English General’, wrote the Rev Owen Watkins, ‘at a grand parade of the troops. Had he been a white man, he would have received The Victoria Cross’.


  • The Zulu War and the Colony of Natal (Natal Provincial Administration).
  • O Watkins, article in The Methodist Reader.
  • Cmdt S Bourquin.
  • Narrative of the Field Operations connected with the Zulu War of 1879,(London, 1881).
  • D R Morris The Washing of the Spears (London, 1966).
South African Military History Society /

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