The Zulu War, fought in South Africa in 1879 (and immortalised in the movies Zulu and Zulu Dawn) cost more than 1,700 British and 6,000 Zulu lives. However, within a few months of the Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, a Zulu football team was touring Britain, playing exhibition matches in front of thousands of delighted spectators.
Led by Cetawayo, the Zulu King who had defeated the British at Isandlwana, and his brother Dabulamanzi, the hero of Rorke’s Drift, the team played a warm-up match in Scarborough, and then travelled to take on a Sheffield FA XI in an exhibition aimed at raising funds for the families of (British) soldiers killed in the conflict. Around 2,000 spectators crammed into Bramall Lane to watch the spectacle. However, all was not as it might at first have appeared.
'It may be necessary to state that the Zulus were only Zulus in name,’ reported the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent. ‘They were not black men, but veritable whites.’
The ‘Zulus’ were actually local footballers who had blacked-up their faces with burnt cork, and covered their bodies with black jerseys and stockings. They wore feathers on their heads and white beads around their necks, and they carried spears and shields that, it was claimed, ‘were actually brought from the battlefields of Zululand’.
‘Cetawayo’ was in fact T Buttery of Sheffield Exchange FC, and ‘Dabulamanzi’ was actually England international Jack Hunter, who would go on to win the FA Cup with Blackburn Olympic.
‘The Zulus proved quite as good, and even better than their masters, for they succeeded in defeating them by five goals to four,’ said the Independent. ‘The play at times created a considerable amount of amusement, and the spectators appeared to enjoy the proceedings immensely.’
However, as the Zulu team’s tour moved on, to Chesterfield, Nottingham and Edinburgh, it transpired that the players were being paid for their services – at a time when professionalism was still outlawed. The players concerned were banned by the Sheffield FA, and the Zulus team was disbanded, never to black up again.
This is an edited extract from The Victorian Football Miscellany by Paul Brown.