Did you know about the strong historical connection that exists between KwaZulu-Natal and parts of France? The association between these regions dates back to the 1800s when French travellers, missionaries, and soldiers arrived in the South Africa. Some soldiers went on to support the British in the Anglo-Zulu and Anglo-Boer wars. One such connection between KZN and France was the arrival and subsequent death of the French Imperial Prince, Louis Napoléon who died in an ambush on June 1st, 1879.
The young prince’s history in the province is a short but tragic one and his legacy is remembered through the Prince Imperial Heritage Route. Points of interest include the prince’s memorial, the site of the ambush in uQweqwe and St Mary’s Chapel of the French Oblates where his body was laid to rest before it was sent to Durban, and subsequently to Europe. Why did a French Prince move to KwaZulu-Natal to help the British in their war against indigenous Zulu communities? And why is this history still relevant?
The short life of Prince Imperial Louis Napoléon (1856 – 1879)
Prince Louis Napoléon lived a short life and died tragically at the age of 23. Louis was the only son of French Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie de Montijo. He was also the great-nephew of Napoléon Bonaparte, the formidable French general and emperor who was best known for his military expansion across Europe and his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. Napoléon III was the last French monarch and lost the throne following France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. He then relocated with his family, including Prince Louis, to England. It was here that the young Prince Louis trained as a soldier, completing his Officers’ Course at the Royal Military Academy and obtaining permission to help the British troops in KwaZulu-Natal during the Anglo-Zulu War. Shortly after his arrival, while on a renaissance mission, the prince met his untimely death. As historian Glen Flanagan writes:
Tragedy struck when the undermanned group off-saddled in the Jojosi Valley, near a supposed deserted kraal…The patrol was surprised by a horde of Zulu warriors … The prince, unable to mount a bucking horse, fell. The horse trampled his right arm, his sword fell from his waist in the scramble and he was left to face his foes. The prince’s body was recovered the following day and brought down from Zululand via Pietermaritzburg to the coast, and hence back to England.
The Prince’s pocket watch
Following the ambush, one of the warriors took a pocket watch from his body. He later gave it to a Norwegian missionary named Dr. Osfterbro as a token of his appreciation after he took care of his ill wife. The watch was loaned by the late Solveig Mathiesen to Durban’s KwaMuhle Museum where it formed an important part of Durban’s Franco-Zulu history. It was studied by a team of French historians in 1988 when they explored Prince Napoléan’s route. However, in 2015, Solveig Wise’s son formally requested its return. After verifying documents, affidavits, and death certificates, the eThekwini Municipality obliged. Of the proposed return of this important historical artifact, Flanagan shared:
We need to keep this watch. The prince died here. It is the only effect of the prince left in this country; it is very important that it stays here….It is a very valuable piece of South African history, especially for KZN.
Explore the Imperial Prince Heritage Route
The Prince Imperial’s legacy forms an interesting part of KZN’s heritage. East of Nquthu in KwaZulu-Natal is a memorial to celebrate this legacy. Interestingly, Queen Victoria sponsored the memorial in honour of his service to Britain and enabled his mother Eugéne’s journey to colonial Natal after his death. On the first anniversary of the fatal ambush, she spent the night in the location where her son died. While located off the beaten track, the memorial brings tourists to the area every year and thus bolsters the local economy.
Thanks to the cultural research programme, “French Presence in Pietermaritzburg – KwaZulu Natal” an annual French Week occurs in the province every June, and events are held in Pietermaritzburg, Dundee, Pomeroy, and UQweqwe. La Route du Prince Impérial allows visitors to follow the Prince Imperial’s footsteps and his mother’s subsequent journey after his death.
A sewing machine (with a mother-of-pearl inlay) that belonged to Empress Eugénie can be seen at the Greytown Museum in KZN. When her carriage broke down in Seven Oaks during her journey, the local Newmarch family lent the empress one of their carriages. She gifted them the sewing machine to offer thanks for their kindness.
Anyone with a keen interest in KZN’s French connection will enjoy this heritage route. Have you explored it? If so, what were your favourite sites?