- Last Outpost on the Zulu Frontiers: Fort Napier and the British Imperial Garrison by Graham Dominy
A British imperial garrison began building Fort Napier in Pietermaritzburg in 1843 and populated it until 1914. This seventy-one year occupation observed the disintegration of the Zulu empire, the rise of Natal as a colony of Britain with Pietermaritzburg as its capital, Natal’s incorporation into the Union of South Africa, and the start of the First [End Page 552] World War. In all that time, the garrison actively campaigned on only four occasions which, taken together, total less than four years of fighting. It is the other sixty-seven years of activities when not at war and their impact on the making of Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal province, South Africa) that form the focus of Graham Dominy’s monograph, Last Outpost on the Zulu Frontiers: Fort Napier and the British Imperial Garrison, an intriguing offering from the University of Illinois Press’s new “History of Military Occupation” series, edited by John Laband and Ian F. W. Beckett. Other titles in the series reflect a more conventional approach to the study of occupation as a condition of war: Emanuele Sica’s Mussolini’s Army in the French Riviera: Italy’s Occupation of France (2016), for example, or John Boje’s work on everyday life under martial law during the Second South African War. Last Outpost on the Zulu Frontiers reminds us, however, that it is outside of formal warfare where we see the greatest impact of a long-standing military presence, in the socio-economic and institutional development of a region. The line between military and civilian life could be blurred and the amount of resources and services it took to keep Fort Napier going, as well as the goods, entertainment, employment, social opportunities, and, yes, protection, the Fort offered meant that it was locked into a mutually constitutive relationship with its surrounding heterogeneous populations. Dominy posits that the reason Pietermaritzburg became and stayed pro-British, despite once being the capital of the Boer republic of Natalia, the divisiveness of the South African Wars, and the rise of Afrikaner nationalism, was Fort Napier. The Fort, he argues, established enduring gender, class, what he calls caste, and racial hierarchies within the region, exuding the trappings of British imperial authority in indelible ways. How regiments had to adjust to local conditions is not a priority of this study, though there is a tragic anecdote of sixty soldiers being struck by lightning because their clueless commander insisted they perform bayonet drills during a storm (85).
The book is organized around myriad short facets of Fort history, arranged both thematically and chronologically, regarding bureaucracy, construction, desertion, pageantry, discipline, mutinies, marriages, political economy, sex work, the local press, drills, politics, memory, and evermore bureaucracy. The reader learns of the anxieties that underwrote Fort life, the major one being that the garrison was rarely capable of defending the populations it claimed to shield in what was Zulu-dominated, Boer-contested territory. Commanders asked for assistance from London and received either lukewarm assurances or conflicting messages about the permanence of their presence in Natal. So the garrison paraded, trumpeted, drilled, and drank like it was actually in control, and this performativity—though the author does not use that word—created a “stabilizing effect” on surrounding nascent social, economic, and political institutions (3).
As Dominy explains in his introduction, this project began in 1989 as a doctoral dissertation that he completed in 1995 under the supervision of Shula Marks at the University of London. He entered into it with a research agenda that took aim at the kinds of histories that were being written under apartheid. In the next few years, he saw that system delegitimized and the beginnings of a post-apartheid South Africa. Returning there after his degree, Dominy worked as an activist, archivist, and public historian for the next two decades and has only now reworked the project into a monograph. It still bears the...