Carte De Visite Photographs and the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War

See all cartes de visite and other photographs related to Anglo-Zulu history available for sale here.

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Cartes de Visite of Zulu King Cetshwayo & British Commander Lord Chelmsford

By 1879, the relatively new art of photography - the first experimental photograph had been taken as early as 1826, but the first practical process, the daguerreotype, was only invented in 1839 - had already captured the attention of all levels of society throughout Europe, America and Britain and its empire. This extended to even a small colonial backwater like Natal where there were no less than nine professional photographers in Pietermaritzburg, and a further six in Durban. The photographic process remained cumbersome and slow, however, and although local photographers were quick to realise the historic importance of the British invasion of Zululand, taking photographs in the field was problematic.

The Durban photographer James Lloyd photographed the presentation of the British ultimatum to King Cetshwayo's envoys at the Lower Thukela on 11 December 1878, and travelled to the same spot a month later to photograph troops crossing the river at the start of the war.

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Photograph of the iSandlwana Battlefield, taken by James Lloyd of Durban in June 1879 during one of the British burial expeditions, showing wagons, dead men and oxen in the background.

Not only did photographers have to lug their heavy and fragile equipment along bumpy tracks into the wilds to capture scenes from the war, but because of the slow exposure times of the day they could not capture battle scenes - which were, in any case, dangerous to be around - and were restricted to static scenes of camp views or posed groups.

Ulundi battle photograph

Although some historic scenes were recorded - George Ferneyhough accompanied Wood's Flying Column on the final advance to oNdini, and took arguably the only action shot of the war (seen above), the smoke rising from the King's burning homestead, photographed from the safety of the British camp on the White Mfolozi on 4 July 1879 - many only depicted the battle sites weeks after the events took place.

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Cartes de Visite of Gonville Bromhead VC - one produced by a British photographer in civilian dress (right) and the other in his 24th Regiment uniform produced by Kisch Brothers in Durban (left).

There was one area, however, where photography could at least offer fascinating insights into the individuals who waged the war; the 'carte de visite' photograph was hugely popular in the 1870s, and the price was sufficiently modest to attract not only passing officers but also ordinary soldiers. The 'carte de visite' was a small studio portrait, supplied on a card mount which greatly resembled a visiting card - hence it's name. Many of the Natal photographers offered a 'CDV' service, offering portrait sessions to the soldiers passing through, and both James Lloyd and the Kisch Brothers, Henry and Benjamin - who had studios in both Pietermaritzburg and Durban - took hundreds of such photographs during the course of the war.

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 Lt. Coghill, Lt. Melvill & Col. Durnford - all killed at the Battle of iSandlwana, 22 January 1879 - click on the images above for more details.

Taken in secure studio conditions, these photographs were much easier and cheaper to prepare than exterior scenes, although the process was still quite slow, and it was not uncommon for photographers to use supports keep their subjects in position during the slow exposures. Although sometimes photographers might offer copies of these photos for general sale, if the subjects had gone on to play a significant part in the war, many, particularly of ordinary soldiers, were only produced once, for the benefit of individual clients.

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Although British troops naturally represented the majority of the output, photographers were also aware of the interest in Zulu subjects, and many took posed studies of Zulu subjects - and while many of these were not of true Zulus but rather of African citizens of Natal, who could be easily hired for the day, there were, particularly after the war, occasional studio shots of genuine Zulu personalities.

The advantage to historians of the 'carte de visite' photograph is that they offer a snapshot of individuals moving to or from the war - and it is to them that we owe many of our most contemporary studies of the men who made and fought it. Some maybe of significant individuals - like those of Durnford, Bromhead, Melvill, Coghill and Henry Hook that I have recently added to my gallery site - but many others have come down to us today without a name attached, and they serve as a window into the ordinary faces of the war, a contemporary example of the many soldiers who remain no more than a name on a regimental roll or an anonymous portrait, the 'unknown soldier' of their day.

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Cartes de Visite of Alfred Henry Hook VC, Sir Charles Warren, RE & Henry Rider Haggard - click on the images above for more details.

See all cartes de visite and other photographs related to Anglo-Zulu history available for sale here.