Paradigm, Vol. 2 (January, 2000)

Bias in school history textbooks:
Representations of the British invasion of Zululand

Michael Lieven


History textbooks have been the subject of analysis since the nineteenth century. In the inter-war period and again after World War II, studies were driven by the concern of international bodies to reduce the misconceptions generated between European societies by the nationalistic tone of many school histories, while more recent studies have been concerned to identify ethno-centric and racial bias.1 Researchers used a variety of approaches and, while each approach involved methodological problems, in combination they produced a body of self-critical reflection by historians which was in advance of that in other disciplines.2 This article examines levels of bias and accuracy in history textbooks by tracking representations of one imperial ‘event’ (the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879) in 70 textbooks across the period from the 1880s to the 1960s.3 By focusing on one such ‘event’ it is possible to test the claims of studies that range over a wide field of imperial history.4

Although the main purpose of history teaching at the start of this period was to impart the ‘facts’ of British history, educationalists and public figures were aware of the power of history education to form the character and commitments of the young and of the limited impact of dry factual textbooks in this respect.5 Textbooks are not read in a vacuum: their necessarily brisk chronicling of events means that if the reader is to gain more than the ability to recite a chronology of events, then the books must be read in a context. From the 1890s on educationalists encouraged schools to provide narrative histories, true stories and biographies written for children in order to engage their enthusiasm and mold their aspirations. Since the context given by the content and tone of lessons cannot now be analysed except anecdotally, and in any event it would be almost impossible to synthesise the range of lessons, this article uses a small sample of such works in order to contextualise the pupils’ reading and understanding of the textbook.6


On one level there is some agreement among those doing research on textbooks. Ann Low-Beer has written that ‘nationalism is of course the form of interpretation which has been most thoroughly investigated. The conclusions are virtually unanimous, that it is very common in school texts, and frequently results in bias, that is, distortion of facts’.7 Within this general consensus, however, some researchers have taken a broadly optimistic view of the development of textbooks while recognising the problems in the way of eradicating bias. The theme of G. M. Howat, writing of nineteenth-century textbooks, was of progression from the earlier books (‘so one sided as to be untrue’) to those written later in the century: ‘The men who were now writing for schools were also producing the major works of historical research and criticism which will survive as the outstanding contribution of late-nineteenth century scholarship’.8 Valerie Chancellor, in her study of history textbooks in the period 1800-1914, noted that ‘it is certainly true that history textbooks became more jingoistic towards the end of the nineteenth century’, but she concluded:

It is none the less remarkable that at such a time so many authors of children’s textbooks succeeded in maintaining a critical attitude to the conduct of their own nation abroad . . . if there were those who sought to encourage the unthinking obedience to the call of patriotism which goes to produce ‘cannon fodder’, they were only rarely to be found among the writers of history textbooks.9

 Many in the profession assumed that with time and the commitment of educationalists, teachers and academics, improvements and revisions would occur and that the results of scholarship would be incorporated into the school textbook even if the time lapse was distressingly long.10

Howat in his optimistic conclusion about improvements in textbooks argued that ‘history textbooks should be constantly changing. They are the reflection of how each generation regards the achievements of its predecessors and evaluates what motivated their conduct.’ 11 This seems to suggest that each generation shares a collective view of the past, that one can therefore largely ignore the problem of how textbooks should deal with contested views in any one period, and that the aim, stated earlier, of producing texts which reflect recent scholarship sits unproblematically with the aim of expressing each generation’s judgements about the past. Certainly it ignores the extent to which the ‘regard’ of each generation might reflect ideological rather than scholarly or ‘scientific’ developments. If, however, one ignores the difficulties, then from such a perspective it would be a reasonable hypothesis that the views put forward by history textbooks would change incrementally in the light of contemporary understanding and scholarship. From such a perspective one would expect the level of accuracy to improve in the light of research while the views of imperial expansion propagated by textbooks over the period 1880-1960 might reasonably be expected to reflect changing attitudes to empire; Gladstonian liberal scepticism, the full blooded imperialism of 1895-1914, the policies of trusteeship and League of Nations in the inter-war years and the concern with commonwealth and de-colonisation after 1945. Such a process might seem to be confirmed by a summary of Frances Lawrence’s research: ‘in the early period [the late nineteenth century] most history books reflected a view that nationalism and patriotism were important’ but ‘by the 1930s there was a growing ambivalence about nationalism and about war . . . the virtues applauded also tended to be less heroic . . .’.12

Against such a perspective it has been argued, notably by John MacKenzie, that the core message of history textbooks on empire remained remarkably unchanged and that the views propagated in the late-nineteenth century continued to be disseminated by school texts into the 1960s: ‘Not only did the new school history and geography created in the 1890s survive the First World War, its resistance to change was so great that, in all essentials, it survived the Second too’.13 MacKenzie’s findings are lent some weight by Castle although her study ends at too early a date (i.e., 1914) to be relevant to MacKenzie’s claim that interpretations remained unchanged down to the 1960s. Equally the period covered by Taylor, the twentieth century, leaves unresolved Castle’s claim about a degree of objectivity over some issues in late-nineteenth century texts, a claim which seems to be at odds with MacKenzie, despite their broad agreement on the period 1890-1914.14

In part the significantly differing conclusions of these scholars may be the result of over-generalising the otherwise accurate results from the study of particular groups of texts. Certainly those studying textbooks on specifically European history have found more evidence of revision and of reduction in crude national bias than those studying texts on empire. While the horrors of each world war made many people realise the dangers of nationalism within Europe, there was no such imperative in considering imperial history. Indeed the very horrors of events in twentieth-century European history may have given all the more incentive to explain the expansion of the British Empire and Commonwealth as a reassuring counterweight of progress and development.15

The analysis of textbooks raises a number of methodological problems, which also go some way to explaining the differing conclusions. Large-scale international studies necessarily rely on formal classifications of bias in order to allow comparison between the work of those researching textbooks in different countries: such classifications are better at identifying factual errors, crude national interpretations and blatant stereotypes than in pinning down the nuances of language. Smaller-scale studies by individual academics suffer from the opposite problem: thus the findings of Preiswerk and Perrot, while based on a sophisticated typology of ethnocentric bias, are weakened by the narrow sample on which they are based.16 MacKenzie ranges widely in his survey of texts which, he argues, carried the propaganda of empire; but his methodology runs the risk of finding those texts which serve to confirm the thesis and his conclusions therefore need to be tested in more narrowly focused studies.

The present small-scale case study tests the same hypotheses about the continuity of national bias using a different measure. By choosing a single imperial ‘event’, the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, about which there were strongly opposed interpretations among political parties, opinion makers and public opinion generally, and then analysing its treatment across a wide range of textbooks published between the 1880s and the 1960s it will be possible to gauge the competing claims about improvements in the accuracy, objectivity and balance in textbooks about empire.17 Disraeli’s government disowned the policy which led up to the British declaration of war, the high-commissioner and commander-in-chief in South Africa were superseded, and the war contributed to the defeat of the Conservatives in the general election of 1880. The fact that the justice and purpose of the war was strongly contested in Britain at the time, in parliament and the press, and that these differences of opinion were expressed in several late-nineteenth history books, sets an interesting challenge for the standards of the textbook authors who followed.

The production of textbooks is influenced and constrained by a number of factors: the educational theories of the time, the examination system, the method of state payments to schools, the need to condense complex material covering long time-scales, commercial pressures on publishers which ensure the unchanging nature of the books, and the dominant ideas of the time, given status by national and local institutions and by authoritative political and academic figures.

The culture and perspectives of textbooks have also to be understood in the context in which their main development occurred in the period 1870-1914: the specific stage in the development of the European nation-state, mass democracy and national systems of education. In ceremonial, architecture, museums, literature and military parade these increasingly politicised societies were offered symbols of national unity above class and regional divisions, while the rapidly increasing populations of children were assimilated into their national ‘myths’ through the new national systems of education.18


The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, though it did not have the geo-political significance of the occupation of Egypt or the annexation of the Transvaal, nevertheless raised significant issues about imperial expansion. The Conservative cabinet of 1874-1880 had determined to resolve the continuing problems of governing southern Africa by confederating the colonies and states of the region on the Canadian model. Such a policy raised the question of how the British would treat the independent kingdom of Zululand in future arrangements. In the event the British high-commissioner, Sir Bartle Frere, decided to press ahead with subjecting Zululand to British control without waiting for the sanction of the Imperial Government. In the early stages of the resulting war the British were defeated by the Zulus at the battle of Isandlwana although they managed to defend the frontier post at Rorke’s Drift. These events were followed by further defeats and humiliations before the British managed to crush the Zulus at the battle of Ulundi at a cost of over £5,000,000 and a six month war.

In Britain these events ensured that the war was met with a barrage of criticism. In another respect also, representations of the war stood out from the normal accounts of heroic victories in small colonial wars. As a result of the Zulus’ reckless courage in resisting the British and of the heroic representations of the war by Rider Haggard and other writers, the Zulus came to have a mythological status in British culture as the greatest of savage warrior nations, albeit one contained within the racial hierarchies of empire and the contemporary evolutionary theories of race and society.

In the years before about 1905, these divisions found some echoes in school textbooks which at least recognised the Zulus’ military qualities and capacity for organisation. Yates (1899) characterised the Zulus as ‘a very brave but savage Kaffir race’ and Oman (1899) referred to ‘a series of kings of genius [who] had built up a military organisation of great efficiency’.19 Sir George Cox (1887) noted the public opposition to the war: ‘nor was there any doubt that [the British nation] regarded with grave disapproval the costly and useless struggle of the Zulu war in Southern Africa’.20 Sanderson wrote a number of histories only some of which were textbooks in a narrow definition. His Africa in the Nineteenth Century (1898) for all its imperialism drew a balanced, though not necessarily accurate, picture of the Zulu leader, Cetshwayo: ‘Of fine person, dignified demeanour, great mental ability, high courage, and ruthless cruelty towards opponents, the Zulu sovereign ruled with a rod of iron, restoring the old military discipline and making his people truly formidable as the most energetic and fearless natives in South Africa’. Though the theme is understated, he placed a large part of the blame for the war on the British: ‘the arrival of Sir Bartle Frere . . . was the signal for war’ and ‘the reply of the Zulu King to [Frere’s] audacious ultimatum was contemptuous silence’.21 J. Bright (1905) was more outspoken. He described Frere as carrying ‘imperialist views to an extreme’; ‘he was destined to pursue in South Africa the same policy which he had recommended upon the Afghan frontier, and with results scarcely less disastrous’. Bright suggested that a ‘just and favourable treatment of native claims . . . would put an end to the profound distrust felt by the African chiefs’.

Of the British Commission’s decision in favour of the Zulu claim to land seized by the Boers, a decision which was then overshadowed by Frere’s ultimatum, Bright wrote that Sir Henry Bulwer, the lieutenant-governor of Natal, ‘who had all along regarded [the Boer claims] as unjust, was of the opinion that the full and honest acceptance of the award would have been sufficient to allay the threatening irritation of the Zulus’, and Bright dismissed the Zulu actions, which Frere used as a casus belli, as ‘slight events’.22

These texts were imperialist in their tone and not surprisingly contained many examples of national bias; it is nevertheless significant that in this period such views could be combined with criticisms of British policy, recognition of the quality and claims
of other states and an awareness of divisions within British public opinion. Castle, writing of the period 1890-1914, argued that ‘most textbooks . . . share with Bright a clear admiration for this "remarkable" nation [the Zulus], whose savagery ensured its submission to the forces of progress, but which remained "a singularly fine and brave race"’.23 In fact, as I argue below, Bright’s views about the Zulus were untypical of books written after the watershed of 1900-1905: after that period the admiration for what was seen as the courage of the Zulus, or the organisation of their warrior kingdom, found little expression in textbooks.24 By then Gladstonian liberal doubts about the military expansion of empire during the ‘scramble for Africa’ had become largely irrelevant when confronted with the reality of an established empire in Africa. The radical opposition to imperial expansion now evolved into a tradition that criticised the workings of empire in order to reform and liberalise it.25

Thereafter history textbooks, with rare exceptions, presented a united version of events, justifying the British invasion and blaming the war on the savagery of the Zulus. The evidence presented here refutes both the assumption of incremental improvement and change in textbooks and Castle’s claim, noted above, that most textbooks had a ‘clear admiration for this "remarkable" nation’ which was represented as ‘a singularly fine and brave race’ in the accounts.26 In perhaps six of the sixty accounts published after 1900-1905 and included in this survey, there are comments which might be interpreted as noting some justice in the Zulu case or which allow them some admirable qualities although, even then, these judgements are heavily qualified. Warner and Marten (1923) noted a Zulu sense of betrayal by the British.27 Bulkeley (1923), despite serious flaws, argued that Cetshwayo ‘had always lived on good terms with the Natal Government’ and wrote of his ‘natural refusal to disarm’.28 Derry (1949) wrote of the Zulus as ‘a native race of great military capacity who were then pressing down . . . from the north’.29 However to find even six positive references one would have to include Knapp-Fisher’s (1933) comment that the Natal Zulus (‘kaffirs’) had ‘their own simple but fine code of honour, sometimes going to war . . . but for the most part happy to dance to the beat of their tom-toms and lead a quiet and lazy life’.30 For the rest Zulu qualities were either excluded or they are characterised as bloodthirsty savages.

While some textbook writers were at least careful with basic facts, the level of gross error is nevertheless surprising given that the formal educational aim was the passing on of ‘facts’. Masefield (1945) thought that the Zulus killed ‘all but two or three’ of the British at Isandlwana; about 70 escaped.31 Mowat (1933) told his readers that the British army of invasion consisted of ‘about 1,500 men’. In fact it consisted of five columns totalling 17,929 men: even the centre column, to which he seems to be referring, consisted of 4,700 men of whom about 1,500 were in the camp at Isandlwana when it was overwhelmed by the Zulus.32 Carrington (1932) stated that Isandlwana was revenged ‘at Ulundi a few weeks later’; the battle of Ulundi was fought almost six months later after a long and often humiliating campaign.33 O’Neill (1913), along with several other authors, thought that the battle of Ulundi was fought in 1880 rather than in 1879. Davies (1913) wrote that Zululand was annexed by Britain in 1879 at the end of the war; it was not annexed until 1887.34 British numbers are systematically minimised: thus Williamson’s description of ‘the heroic stand of two officers and a handful of men at Rorke’s Drift’ (there were about 130 defenders) is all too obviously a rhetorical device to enhance the heroic stature of the defenders.35 The catalogue of minor inaccuracies, insignificant in itself, raises questions about standards of scholarship when it is seen that most of them are calculated to enhance the horror felt at the savage Zulu and to increase sympathy or admiration for the British role.

The descriptions which chart the nature of the society which the British fought, the causes of the war, its conduct and its aftermath, highlight the tendentious nature of most of these texts more dramatically than simple examples of inaccuracy or incoherence. Zulu society and politics are systematically reduced to stereotypes of murderous savages despite the fact that, at the time of the war, these had been balanced by more sympathetic accounts in parliament and the British press. The naïvely one-sided view of events emerges in Carrington and Hampden-Jackson’s characterisation of the Zulu army as ‘useless and bloodthirsty’ despite the fact that Zululand had to defend itself against the Boers, British and Swazis in this period.36 One of the more extreme examples which combined the inaccurate implication that it was the Zulus who launched the war with carefully chosen stereotypes of savagery was written after World War II by E. H. Carter (1954), another of whose textbooks had been published by Oxford University Press:

About this time in 1879, the Zulus &emdash; one of the Bantu nations &emdash; began to raid white men’s farms, and before long their war drums were beating in earnest. The impis &emdash; well organized, well-drilled regiments of dusky warriors &emdash; marched against the British. Small bands of white men were almost helpless before the waves of tossing plumes, leaping dark bodies, and flying spears.37

The example is interesting since in an earlier textbook on empire E. H. Carter had explicitly condemned ‘boastful and foolish’ jingoism.38 Snape (1947) commented that the Zulus ‘were a race organized merely for war . . . No man counted for anything who had not "washed his spear" in blood’.39 The text is accompanied by a picture of well ordered British troops marching off to the war. They look protectively at a group of Natal Africans who have turned out to cheer their mission and who stand beside well-dressed white women with bonnets and umbrellas, a symbol of the Pax Britannica.40 The overall point was summarised by Carter (1948), who wrote of Zululand that its ‘existence as an independent state was not really compatible with civilisation in South Africa’.41 In the rare cases when a debate was mentioned the response of the author was dismissive. Carrington (1935) combined distortion and exaggeration of Zulu culture (‘there was a rule that no warrior might marry until he had "blooded his spear", which made the Zulus bad neighbours to say the least of it’) with a, in the context, caustic reference to Gladstone and, by extension, to liberal reformers in general: ‘Gladstone, in his Midlothian campaign, characteristically described them as "defenders of their hearths and homes with their naked bodies against our artillery"’.42

While the long-term causes of the war have been debated by historians, and it can be argued that Frere was launching a pre-emptive attack in the interests of Natal, there has never been any doubt that it was the British who declared war and invaded Zululand. Some books acknowledged the fact, while justifying it in terms of removing a potential threat, but most either evaded the point or asserted the direct opposite. The authors used various circumlocutions to avoid stating the fact of the declaration of war and the invasion: Rayner (1932) wrote that ‘in 1879 the British forces . . . came into conflict with the Zulus . . .’; Wentworth Hill (1931), that ‘the quarrel with the Zulu king Cetewayo broke into war’; S.V. Lumb (1954), that ‘in Africa there was growing unrest among the Zulus, and war finally broke out when the Zulu chieftain, Cetewayo, refused to agree to a settlement’; and Sir John Marriott (1913), that ‘a series of disputes with the Zulus led in January, 1879, to the outbreak of war’.43 Masefield (1947) stated that the Zulu King ‘provoked the British to war’.44 Davies (1913) suggested that the Zulus forced the British to go to war: ‘Almost immediately afterwards the English had to fight the Zulus. Their king, Cetewayo, had transformed nearly the whole nation into an army. They were well armed with muskets and assegais or spears. Not only did they defeat an English army at Isandlwana (1879), but they attempted to cross the Tugela River in order to invade Natal’.45 Callcott, in one of the earlier textbooks to refer to the war (and still in print after the Second World War) asserted that ‘there was a very powerful tribe of black men called Zulus, who wanted to drive out the English’.46 O’Neill, writing at the turn of the century managed to add the implication that Zululand (an independent kingdom) was in some sense in revolt: ‘The warlike Zulus, a very savage tribe, rose under their King Cetchwayo, and after defeating the British in one terrible battle they were beaten and Zululand was added to Natal’.47 MacInnes, writing after the Second World War, implied the same: ‘Perhaps [Cetshwayo] intended his rising to give a general signal to the Bantu peoples of South Africa to attack’.48 In one of the cruder version of events for junior schools, Newton (1933) wrote that the Zulus ‘broke out into war, and poured down towards the white settlements in Natal’.49 Dartford, writing after the Second World War, produced one of the most outstandingly misleading accounts, a mixture of guilt by association and wilful inaccuracy:

One Zulu king, Chaka, is estimated to have been responsible for the death of a million persons in his constant wars. Attempts were made to persuade his successor, Cetawayo, to disarm his warriors, but without success. Finally, in 1879, the Zulus launched an attack.50

Very few writers noted that the high commissioner was acting against the Cabinet’s instructions to avoid a war, an admission which would necessarily raise questions about its justice and pinpoint the existence of a public debate at the time of the invasion. Somervell (1924), who was one of the few writers to make the point, denied that the issue was open to differing interpretations and justified Frere’s actions by reference to an incident which resonates through English history: ‘His action resembles, in the political sphere, that of Nelson with his telescope at the battle of Copenhagen, and there is no doubt that he was equally justified . . .’. 51

The numerous references to the savagery and war-mongering of the Zulus were reinforced in the comments on the fighting which usually referred to no more than the battles at Isandlwana, Rorke’s Drift, and Ulundi. The limited space and the emphasis on ‘factual’ knowledge ensured that textbooks rarely gave details of the brutality of the campaign or indulged in the myths perpetuated by some narrative histories and true-life adventure stories, although there were some exceptions. Masefield (1947) recycled one myth, which emphasised the gullibility and backwardness of black Africans: ‘One soldier captured by the Zulus owed his escape to a tattoo mark. When the Zulus were about to kill him, he showed them a devil tattooed to his chest and said that if they touched him it would walk out and devour them. They fell back in dismay and let him walk away.’ 52

Already by the 1880s the defence of Rorke’s Drift had been established as an icon of British heroism. Rorke’s Drift was a former mission station which had been adapted as a frontier post for the invasion and which contained a depot to store material and to supply the main column, a base for troops and a small hospital. The story-telling highlighted the British as a small group of comrades defending themselves against savage attack and protecting the civilian population of Natal, thus deflecting attention from the British role in invading the country of a former ally. In several accounts this army base became simply a hospital which was then attacked by the Zulus and heroically defended by a garrison whose numbers are systematically understated: ‘the Zulus swept onward and attacked the company (80 men) which had been left in charge of the improvised hospital at Rorke’s Drift . . .’. 53 The image was repeated by Masefield and by Somervell in a book which was reprinted as late as 1967: ‘It seemed that the Zulus would sweep through Natal, but two subalterns and a hospital guard held them up through a night of slaughter at Rorke’s Drift, and the civilian population was saved’. 54

In most of the textbooks the British victory at the battle of Ulundi, which lasted for less than an hour and in which the British killed over 1,000 Zulus but took only two prisoners, was used to frame the traditional victorious closure to accounts of colonial warfare. The Zulus casualties in the war amounted to approximately 25 percent of the male population of fighting age and the British settlement resulted in a long civil war which further devastated the country. This aftermath of the war was wholly excluded: apart from other motives, the pace and chronological structure of textbooks as well as the focus on the British expansion of empire, demanded that the writer move on to the next imperial event. Some did, however, close the story with the longer-term results as in Masefield’s comment that ‘in 1887 the British government established a British protectorate in Zululand to ensure peace and order’. 55 A similar, if inaccurate, closure was offered in a textbook published by Blackie and Sons: ‘The capital was taken, the king captured, and the land finally settled by the British’; while Bulkeley concluded that ‘between 1887 and 1897 Zululand was successfully administered through a resident Commissioner by the Colonial Office’. 56 More often the closure was contained within the overall framework of the books, whose theme was the growth of empire and the spreading of the Pax Britannica which brought progress and economic development to the world. The theme was nicely caught in Sir Harry Johnson’s The Opening Up of Africa, in the Home University Library series:

The most serious of these struggles was that of the Zulu War (1879&emdash;80), after which Zululand broke up as an independent state and was finally annexed to the colony of Natal. Nevertheless, the relations between the British and the negroes in South Africa must on the whole have been favourable to the latter, since their numbers have increased enormously under British control or rule. At the same time, education is spreading amongst them in a very notable degree.57

More commonly there was a bland summary of the conclusion of the war: ‘Cetewayo was taken prisoner, and sent out of South Africa, and the Zulus quieted down though they still remained a danger’. 58

The general themes of the spread of progress and liberty through imperial expansion were well expressed in Henderson’s purple prose on the eve of the First World War:

A love of liberty and of the sanctity of British brotherhood is characteristic in each member of this vast Empire of four hundred and ten million people scattered over twelve and a half million square miles. We may reasonably hope for an era of peace, of social amelioration, of higher human interests, and the furtherance of those qualities which have made us what we are, so that the rule of Englishmen may be more notably the rule of equity and righteousness. 59

 The tone was not very different after the Second World War, although Broadway (1951) added a nice additional touch in modestly accepting that Europeans (Germans and Belgians for example) must take some blame for African fears:

Often the native tribes disliked the rule of the white man because the new rulers interfered with many of the ancient and cruel customs and prevented their practising any longer such customs as cannibalism and witchcraft. It took them long to learn that the new white doctors really knew how to cure them better than the familiar witch doctor, or that scientific farming would work better than the old magic-making. 60

Research suggests that the greater part of pupils’ ‘knowledge of the past came from outside the school and from sources other than their teachers’.61 Popular narratives, as well as adventure stories and magazines, formed an important source of knowledge as well as providing a context in which school history could be understood. The textbook was at best a supplement to teaching and learning but its function destroyed ‘its value as a book to read’. The narrow aim of school history was to fill children with a knowledge of Britain’s past; but beyond that were broader aims which were hampered by the nature of the textbook: ‘History . . . as a moral example, and history as the bestowing of a heritage &emdash; these are the values with which the teacher of the subject in this country has tended to be preoccupied’.62 To realise these broader aims of history by engaging the enthusiasm of children in Britain’s mission, other books were needed which would fill out and give a context to the school textbooks. The result was a flood of popular histories and true-life stories of imperial adventure for children. Six such works, all of them initially published before World War One and containing a chapter or more on the war, are used here in order to identify the context in which textbooks were assimilated. Their significance does not so much lie in the fact that they demonstrate some variation of views about the war and the Zulus but in the moral that they draw about the qualities of British heroes and their dedication to empire.

The best known of these authors was Rider Haggard, who contributed a chapter on the war to Andrew Lang’s The True Story Book, first published in 1893 and still in print in the 1950s. The Zulu actions at the time of the war are recorded by Haggard with a balance which is missing from all but a handful of textbooks. According to Haggard, Cetshwayo ‘remained a firm friend to the British till Sir Bartle Frere declared war on him in 1879’. Contrary to the almost unanimous opinion of textbook authors who raised the issue, Haggard concluded that ‘had [the Zulus] wished to do so, there was nothing to prevent them from sweeping the outlying districts of Natal and the Transvaal after our great defeat at Isandhlwana, but they spared us’.63 The Zulus

made a brave resistance, and it was not until there were nearly as many English soldiers in their country armed with breech-loading rifles as they had effective warriors left alive in it, for the most part armed with spears only, that at length we conquered them. 64

Haggard, more than any other writer, was responsible for developing the image of the Zulus as a heroic but cruel warrior-nation entirely given over to warfare: in Haggard’s eyes they represented an admirable, if terrifying, echo of mankind’s warlike past. The Zulus were ‘splendid savages’ whose heroism validated British warrior qualities: ‘To the end they fought bravely for their king and country, and though they were savages, and like all savages, cruel when at war, they were also gallant enemies and deserve our respect’. 65 Haggard’s position was complex and has been the subject of several studies; its overall effect, however, was to dissolve questions about the political morality of the British invasion in representations of the heroic struggle between well-matched warriors, and the whole is subsumed within the glorious growth of the British Empire.66 The story of the Zulus ‘is but one scene in the vast drama which is being enacted in this generation . . . the drama of the building up of a great Anglo-Saxon empire in Africa’, an empire ‘begotten by the genius and courage of individual Englishmen’.67

Though none of the other writers matched Haggard’s romantic attachment to the Zulus, the product of his distaste for the modernising, democratising and industrialising aspects of contemporary Britain, some of them achieved touches of balance while echoing the call to the heroic project of empire-building. According to D. H. Parry, Cetshwayo, though a ‘bloodthirsty tyrant’ was ‘enlightened in some ways’. He implied Zulu responsibility for the war but noted that Frere was much criticised for his ultimatum and he made several criticisms of British military incompetence.68 The subject of one chapter was the British disaster at Isandlwana and its theme was the self-sacrifice needed to build the empire, exemplified by two young officers who saved the colours of their battalion. A. L. Haydon also hinted at British mistakes though his judgements about Zulu actions make no attempt at balance: Cetshwayo is a ‘bloodthirsty tyrant’ who ‘threatened to overrun Natal and the Transvaal, and precipitate a general revolt of the black races against the white’.69 The main theme was again the courage and comradeliness of the British hero, characteristics exemplified by the defence of Rorke’s Drift which redeemed the self-sacrifice of Isandlwana: ‘Modern history, I believe, contains no parallel to this brilliant feat of arms, which stands for all time as an example of the splendid courage and devotion of which Englishmen are capable when duty calls’. 70 James Macaulay’s True Tales of Travel and Adventure, Valour and Virtue opened with an account of the British defeat at Isandlwana:

On the same day . . . an attack was made by a vast multitude of Zulus, many of them with their hands and weapons red with the blood from the slaughtered troops at the camp, on the small outpost at Rorke’s Drift.71

The tone was established in the nuances of language through which Zulu victors become bloody slaughterers while, by contrast, the quality of the British is indicated by accounts of their self-sacrifice in defeat and modesty in victory.72

L. Valentine’s Heroes of the United Service made few concessions to balance. Sir Bartle Frere is a ‘great statesman’, the Zulus are ‘fierce savages’ (though they are also described as ‘a dauntless race’) and the killing of a soldier and two occupants who were in the hospital building at Rorke’s Drift are described as ‘cruel murders’.73 The contrast between savagery and civilisation is highlighted in two juxtaposed images. One shows various Zulu types: a grotesque warrior, a witch doctor carrying strange impedimenta and a bizarrely accoutred warrior accompanied by a frail and apparently downtrodden wife. On the opposite page is a portrait of an intelligent, thoughtful and clean cut Lieutenant Chard, with a determined gaze and strong nose but modestly dressed in civilian clothes; clearly a pacific man by nature, but strong when such qualities are needed.74 [See illustrations 5 and 6] James Grant’s Recent British Battles gave a lengthy description of the various battles, making few comments on the justice of the war. The description of the Zulus followed the normal pattern (with the exception of textbooks) in acknowledging their warrior qualities, while confirming the savage stereotypes and the racial hierarchies of empire: ‘warlike by nature, athletic tall and well-formed, they surpass most African tribes in ordinary intelligence, but are superstitious, savage and cruel’. 75 They shared ‘a widespread feeling of restlessness and hatred towards the white races’ and the author reported that after Isandlwana, every British soldier ‘was butchered, those wounded tortured, and the sick in hospital and the dead horribly mutilated’.76 The closing passage in the section on the war ended with a quotation from a traveller in post-war Zululand affirming the Zulus’ reconciliation with the British:

They say it is the fortune of war; it is past and there is an end of it; and they welcome the Englishman wherever he goes with the same cheerful and hearty greeting.77

Finally Grant quoted a (supposedly) Zulu song translated into English:

My brethren, let our weapons,
Our warlike weapons all,
Be beaten into ploughshares,
Wherewith to till the soil.
Our shields &emdash; our shields of battle,
For garments be they sewed,
And peace both north and southward
Be shouted far abroad.78

The morality of fair battle between warriors thus transcends any questions about the justice of the war and the Zulus themselves confirm the benefits and lessons of the Pax Britannica.

The best-known and most popular of these histories for children, was Marshall’s Our Empire Story. The introduction to this work, which was first published in 1908 and was still in print in the 1960s, made its aim explicit; to engage the loyalty and enthusiasm of children in building the British Empire through stories of heroism in which disaster is surmounted and further glories achieved.79

The title of the chapter on the Anglo-Zulu War, which focused on the defence of Rorke’s Drift, set the scene of essentially peace-loving Britons attacked by barbaric forces: ‘Against Fearful Odds’. According to Marshall, Cetshwayo at first lived at peace with the British, ‘but as time went on it became more and more plain that he wanted to fight’.80 The British had tried to avoid war: ‘For a long time Sir Bartle Frere, who was now Governor of the Cape, tried to keep the peace. But at last Cetchwayo became so daring and insolent that it was no longer possible’. The description of Isandlwana, as so often in these accounts, drew the British as a rock against which and over which a black wave washes; the ‘black exulting hordes’, ‘plundering’ and ‘rejoicing’ with ‘their fearful war hiss’.81

Marshall’s description of Rorke’s Drift re-iterated that the enemy were savages and heathens, a theme emphasised by the fact that they are attacking ‘a hospital for the sick’:

 Again and again the black waves of savages surged up to the frail ramparts, again and again they were beaten back . . . Thus did a hundred men keep three thousand savage warriors at bay, and save Natal from being overrun by a heathen horde, mad with blood and victory.82

The schoolchild did not use or read textbooks in a vacuum but in the context of other readings and texts. The popular histories of empire and true-life stories were the meeting-point between representations of empire in popular culture on the one hand and the school texts on the other. They were the exciting, officially sanctioned narratives that framed the school, textbook-based lesson. In all of them the aim is that proposed by educationalists; to induct children into their imperial heritage and to gain their assent in developing the qualities needed to carry that mission into the future.


For much of the period covered in this case study, school textbooks were riddled with inaccuracies. They were also crudely biased in a way which went far beyond the, perhaps inevitable, demands of national histories in an age of empire; the works of Bright, Sanderson, Cox and even Rider Haggard demonstrate that it was possible to convey a strong imperialist message without giving up a commitment to a degree of balance in handling the evidence (indeed that element of balance could itself confirm an English self-image of fairness and magnanimity towards defeated but honourable foes). Many of the inaccuracies and biases are insignificant in themselves, yet taken together the pattern is so systematic and endemic as to condemn the classroom textbook, even in British plural society, as a medium which may at times amount to little more than crude propaganda. The point is the more significant since it emerged not from direction by the state, as in several European countries, but from textbook authors so imbued with a nationalistic ideology that they reproduced that ideology in an apparently pluralistic profusion of texts while actively professing their distaste for jingoism.

It is also significant that there is no obvious change in the general tone of these textbooks between the beginning of the century and the period after World War II, a point made strongly by MacKenzie in his overview. There was a handful of reasonably objective accounts spread across the whole period, overwhelmed by the tendentious accounts of the great majority. Indeed the Allied victory in 1945 encouraged a revival of the belief in the Empire and Commonwealth which could justify the sacrifice and suffering of war, offer a hope of continued British international status in the era of American and Russian world dominance and encourage national self-esteem in the post-war society of austerity and hardship. Thus the textbooks written in the aftermath of the Second World War reflect the texts dating from the turn of the century, as did those produced in the inter-war context of developing ideas about trusteeship and commonwealth. In each period, regardless of changing policies for the future of the empire, there was a continuing theme that the nineteenth-century expansion of empire was justified by the progress and economic development which it brought to "savage" peoples. The evidence of representations of the Anglo-Zulu War thus confirms MacKenzie’s main claim about the continuity of attitudes in history textbooks published between 1900 and the 1960s.83

The significance of new textbooks was in any event much reduced by the longevity of existing ones, even if they were sometimes updated. Several textbooks published in the aftermath of World War One continued to be used into the 1950s and 1960s. J. A. Williamson’s The Foundation and Growth of the British Empire, first published in 1916, was reprinted in 1953 while his The British Empire and Commonwealth: A History for Senior Forms (1935) was reprinted in a new edition in 1967.84 D. C. Somervell’s previous textbook on the theme was published in 1924 and his The British Empire and Commonwealth (1930) was reprinted in 1964.85 E. M. Richardson’s The Building of the British Empire had an even longer life: first published before World War I, it was reprinted in 1955.86 The belief that scholarship and changing attitudes would ultimately filter down to the school textbook and produce significant revisions was never realised. Instead with the end of formal empire in the post-war period, the focus of the curriculum changed. The profile of British social and economic history was raised and the textbooks produced in the atmosphere of World War One or in the proud but insecure aftermath of World War Two simply went out of use without being replaced.87

The picture which emerges contains some complexities. In the first place it is worth noting that textbooks did change in the period covered by this article. In the period before 1905 textbooks made differing judgements about the justice of the war and of the Zulu case. Several criticised the actions of the British Government and attempted some degree of balance even within a broadly imperialist framework. It is unsurprising that the highpoint of imperialist thought in the years before World War One should be reflected in the tone of many textbooks, but since this was also a period of radical reaction against aspects of empire it would be worth investigating why so few texts reflect that perspective. The apparent lack of any effect of the First World War or the League of Nations on textbooks about empire in the inter-war period, though emphasised by MacKenzie, also demands further explanation. The period from the highpoint of empire until at least the 1960s saw clear evidence of consistently tendentious writing backed up by an often-casual regard for accuracy.

Dance, in History the Betrayer, argues that biases in the writing of history are inevitable and that in this respect school textbooks are no different from the scholarly works of academics apart from the need for even greater selectivity that necessarily amplifies the element of bias. Dance, however, supports his argument by pointing to the different biases among academic historians.88 The point about the texts discussed here is that the bias is so uniform as to support MacKenzie’s comment that ‘the effects of the patriotic and imperial approach to the teaching of history and geography can be understood only in the context of the transmission of the dominant ideology . . .’. 89


I would like to thank Ann Low-Beer and Sola Ingram for their help in the development of this article. The latter’s undergraduate dissertation on textbook representations of the Opium Wars was a useful stimulus to my ideas on the subject: see Sola Ingram, Ethnocentric Bias in School History Textbooks: an Analysis of Twenty English Secondary School History Textbooks Written between 1920 and 1980 for their Presentation of British and Chinese roles in the Opium Wars, (BA Dissertation, Westhill College, 1998).




1. K. Peter Fritzsche, ‘Prejudice and Underlying Assumptions’, in Hilary Bourdillon (ed.), History and Social Studies :Methodologies of Textbook Analysis (Swets and Zeitlinger, Amsterdam, 1992), pp. 52-9.

2. D.W. Hicks, Textbook Imperialism: A Study of Ethnocentric Bias
in Textbooks, with Particular reference to the Teaching of Geography
(University of Lancaster, Ph.D. thesis, 1980), p. 136. In this respect John MacKenzie’s comment that ‘there have unfortunately been few studies of school textbooks’ is accurate only with respect to textbooks on empire: John M. MacKenzie, Propaganda and Empire: the Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880-1960 (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1984), p. 174.

3. I examined 70 randomly selected textbooks of which about 10 date from before 1905; since some are undated the figure cannot be precise. The great majority were aimed at senior school pupils. Most of the texts are in the collection of the Institute of Education Library, University of London, and I would like to thank Claire Drinkwater, of the Institute Library, for her assistance.

4. For another study which uses this methodology see Anne K. Taylor, An Examination of the Nature, Causes and Incidences of Bias, in some English History Textbooks Published in the Twentieth Century (University of Nottingham, M.Phil thesis, 1981). Castle uses a number of case studies; see Kathryn A. Castle, An examination of the Attitudes toward Non-Europeans in British School History Textbooks and Children’s Periodicals, 1890-1914, with Special Reference to the Indian, the African and the Chinese, (Polytechnic of North London, Ph. D. thesis, 1986).

5. See David Sylvester, ‘Change and Continuity in History Teaching 1900-1993’, in H. Bourdillon (ed.), Teaching History (Routledge, London, 1994), p. 9; J.G. Fitch (HMI) quoted in Frances Lawrence, ‘Textbooks’, in William Lamont (ed.), The Realities of Teaching History (Chatto and Windus, London, 1972), p. 12.

6. Anne Taylor classifies these books as textbooks. See Taylor (1981), p. 75.

7. Ann Low-Beer, ‘Books and the Teaching of History in School’, History, 59, (197) (Oct. 1974), p. 394.

8. G. M. Howat, ‘The Nineteenth-Century History Textbook’, British Journal of Educational Studies, 13 (2) (May 1965), p. 151.

9. Valerie E. Chancellor, History for their Masters: Opinion in the English History Textbook: 1800-1914 (Adams and Dart, Bath, 1970), pp. 137-8.

  • 10. See Henriette S. Verduin-Muller, ‘Criteria and Trends with Regard to Subject Matter Didactics (Geography)’, in H. Bourdillon (1992), 72; Ernst Hinrichs, ‘Subject Matter Adequacy’, in H. Bourdillon (1992), p. 42.

    11. Howat (1965), p. 147. Low-Beer’s point was that ‘bias . . . cannot be entirely removed from school texts’ and that interpretation, its positive form, is precisely what studying history should be about. She therefore argued that the traditional, single, authoritative class textbook ‘is quite incompatible with historical method’. Low-Beer (1974), pp. 394, 392.

    12. Ibid., p. 395.

    13. MacKenzie (1984), p. 190.

    14. Castle (1986), p. 121.

    15. It would also be worth investigating the extent to which recent concern about the revision of textbooks on specifically European history reflects political and ideological moves towards a united Europe, as much as a concern by publishers and schools to produce more balanced texts which reflect scholarly revisions.

    16. Roy Preiswerk and Dominique Perrot, Ethnocentrism and History: Africa, Asia and Indian America in Western Textbooks, (Nok, New York, 1978). They use only three textbooks from Britain (all written by the same author) four from France and three from Germany in a total sample of thirty texts.

    17. This is the methodology of Taylor who uses case studies of the ‘Indian Mutiny’ and the Second Boer War (Taylor, 1991).

    18. E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1975), 95. See also V. Berghahn and H. Schissler ‘Introduction’ in Volker R. Berghahn and Hanna Schissler, Perceptions of History: International Textbook Research on
    Britain, Germany and the United States
    (Berg, Oxford, 1987), pp. 1-2.

    19. M.T. Yates, Collins Alternative History Reader: Book III: Queen Victoria and the British Empire (William Collins, London, [1899]), p. 92; C.W. Oman, England in the Nineteenth Century (Edward Arnold, London, 1899), p. 251.

    20. Sir G.W. Cox, A Concise History of England and the English People (Joseph Hughes, London, 1887), p. 511.

    21. Edgar Sanderson, Africa in the Nineteenth Century, (Seeley, London, 1898), pp. 241-2.

    22. J.F. Bright, A History of England. Growth of Democracy: Victoria: 1837-1880 (Longmans Green, London, 1905), pp. 546-8.

    23. Castle (1986), p. 121.

    24. For the case of adventure stories see M. Lieven, ‘Contested Empire: Bertram Mitford and the Imperial Adventure Story’, Paradigm, 25 (May 1998), pp. 16-25.

    25. Bernard Porter, Critics of Empire: British Radical Attitudes to Colonisation in Africa, 1895-1914 (Macmillan, London, 1968), pp. 84-122.

    26. Castle (1986), 121. It should be emphasised that Castle notes this case as an exception and that the general thrust of her findings supports MacKenzie’s conclusions.

    27. G. T. Warner and C. H. K. Marten, The Groundwork of British History (Blackie and Son, London, 1925), pp. 708-9.

    28. J. P. Bulkeley, The British Empire, A Short History (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1923), p. 171.

    29. Kingston Derry, British History from 1760-1945 (G. Bell and Sons, London, 1949; 1st publ. 1934), p. 227.

    30. H. C. Knapp-Fisher, The Modern World: A Junior Survey (London, 1933), p. 110.

    31. M. Masefield, The British Commonwealth and Empire (G. Bell and Sons, London, 1947), p. 94.

    32. R. B. Mowat, A Short History of the British Empire (Rivingtons, London, 1933), pp. 152-3: John Laband, Kingdom in Crisis: The Zulu Response to the British Invasion of 1879 (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1992), pp. 46, 72.

    33. C. E. Carrington and J. Hampden-Jackson, A History of England Part III: 1714-1935 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1945: 1st publ. 1935), p. 692.

    34. M. Davies, The Story of England (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1913), p. 308.

    35. J. A. Williamson, The Foundation and Growth of the British Empire (Macmillan, London, 1953; 1st publ. 1913), p. 299.

    36. Carrington (1945), p. 692.

    37. E. H. Carter, Across the Seven Seas: the Story of the British Commonwealth and Empire (Thomas Nelson, London, 1954), p. 61.

    38. E. H. Carter and R. A. F. Mears, A History of Britain: Book IV; 1814-Present Day (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1948: 1st publ. 1937), p. 884.

    39. R. H. Snape, Britain and the Empire 1867-1945: A History for Schools (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1947), p. 99.

    40. For the need to read textbooks as a total package including illustrations see Alain Choppin, ‘Aspects of Design’, in Bourdillon (1992), pp. 85-95.

    41. E. H. Carter (1948), p. 885.

    42. Carrington (1945), p. 691.

    43. R. M. Rayner, England in Modern Times (1714-1930) (Longmans Green, London, 1932; 6th ed. 1946), p. 363; Wentworth Hill, The British Empire through the Ages (James Nisbet, London, 1931), p. 124; S. V. Lumb, Central and Southern Africa: A Short History (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1954), p. 59; Sir J. A. R. Marriott, England since Waterloo (Methuen, London, 1957; 1st publ. 1913), p. 895.

    44. Masefield (1947), p. 93.

    45. Davies (1913), p. 308.

    46. Lady Callcott, Little Arthur’s History of England (London, 1929: 1st publ. 1874); see also Thomas Nelson and Sons, Brief History of the British Empire to the End of the Great War (Thomas Nelson and Sons, London, 1935), p. 257.

    47. Elizabeth O’Neill, The Story of the World: A Simple History for
    Boys and Girls
    (T. C. and E. C. Jack, London, [1913]), p. 522.

    48. C. M. MacInnes, The British Empire and Commonwealth, 1815-1949 (Ginn, London, 1960; 1st publ. 1951), p. 195.

    49. A. P. Newton, A Junior History of the British Empire Oversea (Blackie and Son, London, 1950: 1st publ. 1933), p. 228.

    50. G. P. Dartford, The Growth of the British Commonwealth (Longmans, London, 1949), p. 96.

    51. D. C. Somervell, British History, 1874-1914 (G. Bell and Sons, London, 1930: 1st publ. 1924), p. 23.

    52. Masefield (1947), p. 94.

    53. Mowat (1933), p. 153.

    54. J. A. Williamson, The British Empire and Commonwealth:
    A History for Senior Forms
    (Macmillan, London, 1935), p. 304: Masefield (1947), p. 94.

    55. Masefield (1947), p. 94.

    56. Blackie and Son (n.d.), 227: Bulkeley (1923), p. 165.

    57. Sir H. H. Johnston, The Opening Up of Africa (Home University Library, London, [1911]), pp. 232-3.

    58. Newton (1950), p. 229.

    59. B. L. K. Henderson, The British Nation: Political and General History (G. Bell and Sons, London, 1914), p. 249.

    60. Constance M. Broadway, Building the Empire (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1951), pp. 147-8.

    61. John Slater, ‘Report’, in Bourdillon (1992), p. 12.

    62. Ministry of Education, Teaching History, pamphlet No. 23, (HMSO, London, 1952), p. 13

    63. Rider H. Haggard, ‘The Tale of Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift’, in Andrew Lang (ed.), The True Story Book (Longmans Green, London, 1893), p. 133.

    64. ibid., p. 133.

    65. ibid., p. 151.

    66 . See Alan Sandison, The Wheel of Empire, (Macmillan, London, 1967), pp. 25-45; Joseph Bristow, Empire Boys: Adventures in a Man’s World (Harper Collins, London, 1991), pp. 127-47; Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (Routledge, New York, 1995), pp. 232-257; Wendy Katz, Rider Haggard and the Fiction of Empire: A Critical Study of British Imperial Fiction (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987).

    67. Haggard (1893), p. 151.

    68. D. H. Parry, Britain’s Roll of Glory or the Victoria Cross, its Heroes and their Valour (Cassell, London, 1906), pp. 227-8, 229-31.

    69. A. L. Haydon, The Book of the V.C. (E.P. Dutton, New York, 1907), pp. 168-71.

    70. ibid., p. 178

    71. James Macaulay, True Tales of Travel and Adventure, Valour and Virtue (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1884), p. 294.

    72. ibid., p. 296.

    73. L.Valentine, Heroes of the United Service (Frederick Warne, London, [1900]), pp. 238, 235.

    74. ibid., pp. 232-3.

    75. James Grant, Recent British Battles on Land and Sea (Cassell, London, 1904), p. 195.

    76. ibid., p. 218.

    77. ibid., p. 315. The quotation is from Bertram Mitford, Through the Zulu Country (P. Kegan, London, 1883)

    78 . Grant (1904), p. 315.

    79. H. E. Marshall, Our Empire Story (Thomas Nelson, London, 1908), vii.

    80. ibid., p. 324.

    81. ibid., pp. 324-5.

    82. ibid., p. 336.

    83. MacKenzie (1984), 190.

    84. Williamson (1953) and (1935).

    85. Somervell (1930) and D. C. Somervell, The British Empire and Commonwealth (Christophers, London, 1964).

    86. E. M. Richardson, The Building of the British Empire (G. Bell and Sons, London, 1955: 1st publ. 1913)

    87. See Taylor (1991), p. 73; MacKenzie (1984), p. 190.

    88. E. H. Dance, History the Betrayer: A Study in Bias (Hutchinson, London, 1960), pp. 15-17, 26-7.

    89. MacKenzie (1984), p. 194. I have truncated MacKenzie’s statement which concludes ‘ . . . through all the other media examined in this book’.

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