I am Douglas Hawkins from Johannesburg, South Africa. I am an author of historical fiction focusing on the history of South Africa.
My latest historical fiction piece is entitled ‘My Brother’s Keeper’. The story is set in the first month of the war of 1879 between Britain and the Zulu kingdom of southern Africa. When rumours of an invasion of the kingdom by forces of the British Empire sweep through the land the Zulu army mobilizes at the royal capital. As war with Britain looms, the chief of a powerful clan loyal to the king struggles to avoid a civil war within his people. Anti-royalist forces hiding in his domain are drawing his sons into a plot to place a renegade prince on the Zulu throne under British protection. An old medicine woman foretells of an attempted assassination of the chief’s heir and of a mysterious young woman who is the key to saving his life.
The Zulu army defeats the invading British force at the battle of Isandlwana. At the ensuing battle of Rorke’s Drift the anti-royalists attempt to assassinate the heir followed by an attack on the military outpost of the clan chief.
This is a story within the story of the Anglo-Zulu war; a story of warriors, chiefs and a king caught up in a churning mix of intrigue and deception.
South Africa has emerged from the rich and diverse history of more than ten disparate nations. The Anglo-Zulu war is but one of the major milestones that forged its evolution. Numerous novels have been written on this era, all approaching it from the view of British soldiers. I got to wondering what it must have been like for the average Zulu family going to war with the most powerful empire in the world at that time. ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ is the only novel on the war that is written solely from the point of view of the Zulu people. It had to be written.
Young Zulu warrior of the 19th century in full ceremonial dress.
I am passionate about the history, values, customs and beliefs of the 19th century African people living in what is today the Republic of South Africa.
The high ranking Zulu family central to the tale and the old medicine woman who guides them are fictional characters. Villains of the plot to place a renegade Zulu prince on the throne are also fictional. The plot and the prince himself are factual but he plays a silent figure working behind the scenes.
Important factual characters playing a strong role in the story are the Zulu king along with his advisers, loyal princes and leading generals. I fictionalized them through studying various academic works on the war that describe their mannerisms and character bound by the military system and cultural practices and beliefs of the time.
The Zulu king, Cetshwayo in 1879.
In ensuring historical accuracy of the novel I undertook extensive desk research of the multitude of published academic studies of the war.
Cultural accuracy was also a particularly important challenge and had to be approached through personal one-on-one discussions with Zulu men and women at the historical battle sites and in other settings.
Zulu izAngoma (Sangoma’s) of the 19th century.
I also engaged the assistance of an isAngoma (pronounced ‘Sangoma’ meaning traditional healer) to assess cultural aspects of the story such as those chapters wherein sacrifices are made to ancestral spirits.
In accordance with comments from a young Zulu at Isandlwana for example, I could not send the Zulu army into battle without gaining the approval of the king’s royal ancestors. This had to be described accurately and in full within the narrative.
Fictional aspects are brought out strongly through the use of characterization of fictional persons to drive the plot forward and link them and the scenes to factual characters and events.
I use timelines as a thread running through the core of the novel on which to build my fictional and factual characters and scenes. I follow them as closely as possible to ensure historical accuracy but there are instances where I take a bit of license with a character or event to give the story extra spice.
It bothers me when authors change facts to fit the story, be it in movies or books. I can accept that the author who sticks strictly to the characters and events as history portrays them runs the danger of the novel becoming a dull ‘cut and paste’ version of academic studies. Like all authors the writer’s first goal is to entertain and enthrall the reader however an author of historical fiction also has a duty to tell the story as truthfully as possible. Combining entertainment with historical accuracy are the true writing skills of the author of historical fiction. Taking license is inevitable in some instances to keep the flow of excitement going but it cannot be to the extent of distorting historical facts that create an untruthful facet of history or falsify the outcome of an historical event. I include an accurate summary of the actual timeline of events at the end of my novels with an explanation of where the novel deviates, however slightly.
My next novel is based on the 19th century Pedi and Swazi nations of South Africa and their uneasy relationships with European settlers, particularly those of Dutch origin known to South African history as Boers, from the Dutch word ‘Beoren’ meaning farmers.The story evolves around the 19th century trade in African children carried out by Boer settlers with the tacit approval of the Swazi king and a number of African chiefs.