In 1906, iNkosi Bhambatha kaMancinza led a rebellion against British rule in ‘Zululand’, protesting what was known as the poll tax. In effect from 1906 to 1909, the poll tax combined with other taxes to pressurise Zulu-speaking people into the colonial labour system. Other taxes – for huts, dogs and marriage – had been in place since about 1848 and the ‘poll tax’ added a further £1 per person (equivalent to around £110 in 2019). The ‘poll tax’ was translated as ‘imali yamakhanda’ in isiZulu, or ‘head tax’. The absurdity of being taxed for one’s home, marriage, dog, and now head, contributed to the growing anger and eventual rebellion in ‘Zululand’.
The colony of Natal, which had been self-governing since 1893, had no military support from Britain itself and had to recruit volunteer militias to defeat the rebellion. Since the establishment of Natal as a British colony there had been growing fear of an African uprising and rebellion, which was also felt by the volunteer militias who were tasked to chase down iNkosi Bhambatha kaMancinza and his people. Settler concerns were, in large part, due to the massive difference in population size; there were roughly ten times fewer Europeans in Natal than Africans, which was in distinction with other self-governing colonies like Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, where they had conducted massive genocides against the indigenous people. At the turn of the century colonists in Natal began to feel agitated that Africans were become wealthy and independent by selling cattle, hides, ivory, maize, and other goods. This was their primary reason for enforcing the harsh taxes on Africans.
The early twentieth century was the height of British imperialism and its technologies of weaponry had, over the years, been developed with the ends of genocide and colonialism in mind. By 1906, British colonial forces were armed mainly with rifles and in Natal militias used ‘Mark V’, or ‘dum dum’ bullets, which fragmented upon impact, and which were already internationally outlawed by the Hague Convention. But beyond this, they were armed with the ‘Maxim gun’, a brutally efficient automatic machine gun invented by British-American inventor Hiram Stevens Maxim (which came to be known as ‘izinduku zamagwala’, or ‘cowards’ sticks’) and 15-pound cannons. Poet Hilaire Belloc, quoted in Jeff Guy’s 2006 book ‘Remembering the Rebellion: The Zulu Uprising of 1906‘, wrote:
Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim gun
And they have not
Presumably in response to the British desire to stamp out a Zulu rebellion, and to the sense of feeling outnumbered, the Castle Beer Company sponsored the Natal militia with Maxim guns and crew to operate them. The rebellion ended with the rebels’ flight into Mome Gorge, where they were surrounded by the militia. A battle never did take place between the rebels and the colonial militia – the former were slaughtered in their thousands in the valley by the rain of maxim gun bullets and cannon shells. The fires the rebels lit to stave off the bitter cold gave away their hidden positions in the forest. The remaining survivors of the massacre were taken as prisoners to Durban, where they were put to work on the Escombe Sea Wall, now known as the 1906 Prisoner of War Wall.
In South Africa today, especially with the coronavirus alcohol and tobacco bans fresh in our memories, there is an association between beer and freedom. During the ban, micro-breweries, craft beer companies, restaurants, large alcohol manufacturers, bottle stores, and drinkers alike complained about the economic impact and unconstitutional nature of the ban, and celebrated unanimously when the ban was lifted. It is interesting to note, then, that the history of beer in South Africa is deeply political, and that at some point the country’s largest beer manufacturer had actively assisted in the massacre of indigenous people in the name of colonialism and imperialism.