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Arthur Smerdon - A Levy Leader and Interpreter in the Zulu War 2 years 2 months ago #68403

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Arthur Smerdon

Levy Leader and Interpreter – Anglo Zulu War

- South African General Service with 1879 clasp to Levy Leader, A. Smerdon

Arthur Smerdon was born in about 1856, the son of William Smerdon and his wife Jane Rebecca.

Arthur had big shoes to fill – among his father’s many claims to fame were that he was a ship’s Captain, who had brought out some of the Byrne settlers in 1850 and who, electing to settle in Durban in the Colony of Natal, had founded and owned the Mount Edgecombe sugar estates to the north of that great port. He was also a notable politician, City Father and one of the founding members of the exclusive and prestigious Durban Club, as well as being the Protector of Indian Immigrants at one time.

Young Smerdon was raised in the rarified atmosphere of wealth and opulence and was, in the absence of any schools of any description, privately tutored. A Gentleman at leisure with nothing in the way of industry to keep him occupied, it can be supposed that his illustrious father involved him in the family business but there were other siblings as well to contend with in the forms of Harry Herbert, Annie Elizabeth, Edith, Mary, Lucy Isabelle and Helen Frances.

23 years old at the time the Anglo Zulu war broke out at the beginning of 1879; Smerdon would have read with horror the tragic events that unfolded at Isandlwana on 22 January. This massacre, once the details had begun to filter through to Pietermaritzburg and Durban, occasioned panic among the citizens of Natal. The dreaded barbarians were, in the minds of many, literally at the gate with little in the way of an army to defend them. The Durban Rifles and a motley assortment of other militia units were all that stood between them and a ghastly death.

Fortunately, the Zulus were not hell-bent on destruction and the good citizens of Durban and elsewhere were needlessly afraid. These events did, however, spur chaps like Smerdon into action – they too wanted to do their bit and ere long, he found himself as a Levy Leader, engaged in active service as part of District No. VI under the command of Colonial Commander George Lucas.

Among the names of those on the Levy leader medal roll are J.A. Polkinghorne and D.F. Buchanan – both leading lights in the Durban of old with Polkinghorne also becoming the Protector of Indian Immigrants in later years. A levy was a group of Zulus raised from one of the friendly local Chiefs who agreed to members of their tribe rendering assistance. A Levy Leader was normally a civilian, as in the case of Smerdon, who was placed in charge with officer’s rank, of a levy.

A passing reference is made to Smerdon in an article in The Scotsman of 13 August 1879 – under the banner heading Fort Lucas, June 29, 1879 the article read: -

‘I left the Lower Tugela Drift and rode about eighteen miles along the river bank up here. This fort has been built by the natives under Captain Lucas and the few European officers here. It is really a capital piece of workmanship, and, properly manned, would keep out a large force of Zulus. But there’s the difficulty. The material that Captain Lucas has to guard sixty-six miles of the river border – from Fort Pearson to the Umpesi River – is 3000 native levies and about 30 European officers.

This protective force in the present threatening attitude of the Zulus on the border is altogether inadequate to the necessities of the case. That Zulus may cross at any moment, at any rate, in moderate numbers, is proved by the fact that on Wednesday, the 25th instant, early in the morning a body of about 1000 crossed at Mambula Drift, ten miles above the Umpesi Drift.

They got as far as they wanted into the Colony, burning about 80 huts and killing a few Natal Kaffirs. Their progress was practically unresisted owing to the ridiculous fact of the native levies of the locality being allowed temporary leave of absence to pay their hut taxes.

In his quandary, the officer of the district made application to Captain Lucas’ nearest officer, and that official, acting on his own responsibility, went to the place with about 100 of his own natives, shot some Zulus as they were retreating, and recaptured about 30 of the cattle. The bulk of the native force under Captain Lucas’ orders have been employed in patrolling along highlands parallel to the military road, and as far as possible within sight of the Zulu country.

Communication between patrols has been kept up as well as well as direct communication between the patrols and the drift guards, which latter have been reinforced from the patrols as occasion required, and the forces massed in the rear of any drift threatened. The length of the frontier between the Umpesi is, as I have said, sixty-six miles, and now the river for this distance, and of course beyond it up country, is fordable at almost any point.

This fort is about 16 miles from Fort Pearson, overlooks the Enembe valley, and is one and a half miles from the Tugela. Large underground magazines have been constructed, and altogether it is a great credit to the following officers and the natives: Captain G.A. Lucas, W.F. Ashby, Staff officer and Paymaster, Lieutenant John Ritchie, Quartermaster William Pigg, and A. Smerdon, clerk and Interpreter.

The 3000 natives in the command are drawn from 34 tribes and, to judge from their enthusiasm and natural aptitude for military drill, there is no doubt that, in sufficient numbers and well-armed, they are valuable allies. As they stand at present, they certainly could not resist a combined or two or three simultaneous raids into the Colony; but they would, doubtless, be useful in harassing the enemy’s retreat.

Shortly after my arrival here yesterday a number of them arrived inside the fort to receive guns and clothing’.

To further augment Smerdon’s war effort, predating the above account, Major Walker, the Commandant of Stanger wrote to the Commandant, Durban on 31 January 1879 as follows: -

‘I beg to report for your information that Mr Arthur Smerdon has been allowed by the Colonial Government to act as clerk and interpreter to Captain Lucas. This gentleman lately acted very efficiently as a drift leader, and I beg to recommend for your consideration that he should be appointed in General Orders as Interpreter and Field Adjutant to Captain Lucas without extra pay.

Major Huskisson, Commanding the Base of Operations in Durban, recommended this request and the D.A.G., W. Bellairs, wrote the Colonial Secretary on 4 February 1879, asking if “this appointment should appear in General Orders?”

Mr. A.B.H. Mitchell, the Colonial Secretary, demurred, responding, “No I think not, he is merely a drift officer transferred to Captain Lucas for convenience in interpreting. The drift leaders have not been put in General Orders”.

This ended the attempts to have the services of Smerdon, and others similarly employed, officially recognized. For his efforts Smerdon was awarded the SAGS medal which came (to me) with a lose 1879 clasp on the ribbon.

Life for Smerdon and the Colony returned to normal after the Zulu King was finally defeated at the battle of Ulundi, and subsequently captured and exiled. His father, the redoubtable William Smerdon, passed away at the age of 76 on 11 September 1894, leaving a substantial estate to be divided amongst his heirs.

Smerdon was a “late bloomer” when it came to matters of the heart, only tying the knot at the age of 41 when, at St. Cyprian’s Church in Durban, he wed 22-year-old, Indian born, Annie Constance Young on 30 March 1897. Soon after he decided to take his wife to live in England. His daughter, Dorothy, was born in Paignton, Devon in 1898. This was followed by the birth of a second daughter, Isabel Macdonald Smerdon on 13 December 1900. Her baptism in the Parish of Radford, Warwickshire, revealed that Arthur Smerdon was a retired Sugar Planter.

The 1901 England census that followed showed that the family were living at “The Poplars” in Radford. Smerdon, aged 45, was “living on own means” and joined in the house by his 26-year-old wife and two daughters. At around the same time, on Thursday, 20 June 1901, it was announced that an “Attractive sale of Excellent Household Furniture at “The Poplars”, Radford, Semele, near Leamington Spa” would take place. Walter Collins “has been favoured with instructions from Arthur Smerdon Esq. who is leaving, To Sell By Auction on the premises, the whole of the household furniture and general effects”.

Where was Smerdon going? From an account in the Natal Archives it would seem that he returned to Natal where he had property dealings until 1907. After that the trail in respect of himself and his family goes cold.

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Arthur Smerdon - A Levy Leader and Interpreter in the Zulu War 2 years 1 month ago #68664

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Thank you for a very interesting account of Arthur, Rory, and great images of the medal and naming.
Dr David Biggins
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