John Dunn - The White Chief of Zululand



No other person embodied the turbulent times in which they lived more than John Dunn, the legendary hunter, trader and white chief of Zululand whose activities spanned three crucial decades in the history of Zululand.

Dunn was born of Scottish parents in 1824 and grew up in the rough and ready spirit of early Port Natal (now Durban) but at the age of 18, he moved with his young bride Catherine into the unexplored territory north of Durban.

On one of his hunting trips into Zululand, Dunn met Cetshwayo - the heir apparent to the Zulu kingdom - and was invited to settle in Zululand and become the prince's advisor.

Dunn agreed to the offer and was made Chief of the fertile coastal area known as Ongoye - stretching from Thukela River to the Mhlatuze River in the north - and he increasingly adopted the culture and customs of the Zulu.

Against the disapproval of his wife, Dunn married his first Zulu wife in 1861. Over the next few decades he ended up taking 48 Zulu wives. He was careful to heed Zulu marriage rituals and customs and paid ilobolo (bridewealth delivered by bridegroom to his in-laws) of between nine and 15 head of cattle to the fathers of the brides. For breach of rules, several of his wives were banished from his household and two wives found guilty of infidelity were sentenced to death and executed in accordance with Zulu law.

He is credited with having sired at least 117 children.

The close bond between Dunn and King Cetshwayo strengthened over the years and Dunn rose to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful chiefs in the Zulu kingdom through his ivory and gun trading.

Dunn's own economic well-being depended on a policy of peace with the British colony of Natal but with the inevitability of war, Dunn's influence over Cetshwayo diminished and the king and his advisors came to view his motives with suspicion.

Dunn tried to negotiate a position of neutrality for his chiefdom but the British warned him that he would lose everything in a British-controlled Zululand.

On Old Year's Night 1878 Dunn and his family, 2 000 supporters and over 3 000 head of cattle were ferried across the Thukela into British Natal. A few days later - his fortunes plummeting rapidly - Dunn offered his services to the British. His first task was to brief the British on the terrain of his former chiefdom. He took in the war for the first time at the Battle of Gingindlovu.

Following the defeat of the Zulu army at Ulundi and the arrest of Cetshwayo, the British divided the kingdom into 13 independent chiefdoms and appointed men amenable to British administration, including Dunn who was given back his former chiefdom with increased powers and twice as much land. In the late 1880's Britain annexed Zululand as a British colony and Dunn unhappily found himself once again under colonial rule.

He eventually washed his hands of all involvement with the British government and retired to spend out his last years as a cattle farmer. His health deteriorated and after a brief illness he died on 5 August 1895 at his farm Emoyeni outside Mtunzini at the age of 71. He was survived by 23 wives and 79 children.

Information source:
- Dunn, John (edited by Moodie, D C F). Cetywayo, and The Three Generals, Pietermaritzburg, 1886. Reprint available at Fort Nongqayi Museum Village, Eshowe.
- Ballard, Charles. John Dunn: The White Chief of Zululand, Craighall, 1985

Dunn at Umlalazi
John Dunn (centre) takes a group of friends on a fishing trip to his favourite camp at Umlalazi.
Dunn's buggy
John Dunn's servants prepare a meal in the field
during one of his trips through his chiefdom.
"John Dunn is a handsome, well-built man,
about five feet eight in height,
with good forehead, regular features,
and keen grey eyes; a closely-cut
iron-grey beard hides the lower half
of his bronzed weather-tanned countenance,
and a look of determination and shrewdness
is discernible in every lineament.
So far from affecting native costume,
the chief was, if anything, more neatly dressed than the average colonist, in plain tweed suit
and wideawake hat. In manner he is quiet
and unassuming, and no trace of
self-glorification or 'bounce'
is there about him."

- a contemporary commentator.
Dunn's pool can be found  on the Mangrove TrailIndaba campsiteJohn unn's grave
Mtunzini - in particular the coastal bush and the lagoon - held a special place in Dunn's life. An area under a large milkwood tree (site of the present Indaba Campsite) was cleared and used to conduct court hearings as well as a venue for family celebrations such as harvest festivals and weddings. A pool was dug out on the banks of the Mlalazi River to provide an area safe from crocodiles and hippo in which his wives could bathe. He is buried on his farm Emoyeni outside Mtunzini.

 'I loved this white man as my brother . . . '

King Cetshwayo, on board the HMS Natal, on his way to exile in the Cape.
While in captivity at Cape Town Castle, King Cetshwayo
recorded his thoughts on his friend, John Dunn:
" One very cold and stormy night in winter I was seated before a large fire in my hut when there was a noise without as if someone was arriving.
I asked the cause from my attendants and they told me a white man in a miserable state of destitution had just arrived and claimed my hospitality. I ordered the servants to bring him in, and a tall, splendidly made man appeared. He was dressed in rags, for his clothes had been torn to pieces in fighting through the bush, and he was shivering from fever. I drew my cloak aside and asked him to sit by the fire, and told the servants to bring food and clothing. I loved this white man as a brother, and made him one of my head indunas, giving him land and wives, daughters of my chiefs. Now my sun has gone down and John Dunn is sitting by the fire, but he does not draw his cloak aside."
One of Dunn's wives
A rare photograph of
one of Dunn's wives