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KwaZulu-Natal’s French Connection

KwaZulu-Natal’s French Connection

? 11 minutes

KwaZulu-Natal has quite the French connection, from the ending of the Bonaparte Dynasty in 1879 to a modern-day tourism initiative that uplifts rural communities…

Think French in South Africa and what comes to mind? For me, it’s the lecturer who taught Langue et Langage (or something like that) while I was at varsity. Velvet-voiced and the epitome of Gallic charm, M. le Beau – not his real name – motivated many girls in my class to become ardent Francophiles that year, even if we couldn’t remember the name of the course or anything else about it.

L’amour aside, there’s wine, Mirage fighter jets, cars that at one stage in their history pumped themselves up, and Franschhoek, a bolt hole for 17th century Huguenots, including one of my forefathers, a Monsieur Roux, who fled France after the Edict of Nantes (that accorded equal treatment to Catholics and to the Protestant Huguenots) was revoked.

Cradled among Western Cape wine farms, whose names evoke the mother country – Haute Cabrière, La Bourgogne, Dieu Donnée, Plaisir de Merle are a few – that corner of France is considered, rightly, the epicentre of Frenchness in our country. So it might come as a surprise to discover that KwaZulu-Natal, last outpost of the British Empire, has important French connections too.

The end of an era

a-french-affair-5Perhaps the most dramatic of these is that it was in the old Natal that the Napoléonic dynasty abruptly ended with the death of the 23-year-old Prince Imperial, Napoléon Eugène Louis at the hands of Zulu warriors during the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War. Why, you might wonder, was the great-nephew of formidable British adversary, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, fighting alongside the British in Natal?

Well, the prince and his parents, Napoléon III and the Empress Eugénie, had gone into exile in England following the Franco-Prussian War and subsequent collapse of the Second French Empire in 1870. Groomed from birth for a military life of duty and service, Napoléon IV-in-waiting continued in that mould and enrolled at the Royal Military Academy.

He graduated as an officer but politics prevented him from taking a commission in the British Army, so he signed up as a volunteer and travelled to Natal in 1879. “He wanted to acquit himself well and show his gratitude to Queen Victoria for her hospitality,” says senior French lecturer and expert on the prince, Glenn Flanagan from Pietermaritzburg.

A “profound Francophile” and Chevalier de l’Ordre de la Légion d’Honneur – the highest French order for military and civil merits – Glenn is the mind and energy behind a wide-reaching cultural-tourism project, French Presence in KZN/La Route du Prince Impérial, Louis Napoléon.

It’s an impressive initiative that keeps alive the memory of the fallen royal hero, highlights Franco-Zulu ties such as that Napoléon I was exiled to St Helena, as were King Cetshwayo kaMpande and his uncles, Ndabuko and Shingana kaMpande, and uplifts poor communities like those next to the prince’s monument at uQweqwe. This is done through, for example, funding new classrooms and arranging for groups of young French people to work alongside community members, helping them to help themselves.

The benefits, says Glenn, go beyond the physical assistance. “It’s a form of networking that knits people together and engenders cross-cultural understanding.” The prince would probably have approved of those endeavours for, by all accounts, he arrived in the country bearing the Zulu nation no rancour. Glenn quotes him as saying of the Zulu army, ‘We might fear them as our enemy but we admire them as soldiers’.


A drawing by war correspondent, William H. Overend of the prince’s body being moved by wagon en route to Durban and followed by the Roman Catholic priest. The image was printed in the Illustrated London News.


The original sign marking the spot where the prince fell. Photograph from a collection owned by Alf Wade in Vryheid.

Take a tour

At the heart of Glenn’s project is a self-drive circular tour that traces the prince’s funeral procession and the route Empress Eugénie followed on her pilgrimage in 1880 to the site at uQweqwe where her son and British troopers Abel and Rogers were killed in a hard-fought skirmish with about 40 Zulu warriors. The tour also takes in places associated with the prince and his mother in Pietermaritzburg, a city that has further French links in that it was named partially after Voortrekker leader, Piet Retief, who was of direct Huguenot descent.

Glenn took me on a tour of those places, starting with the Imperial Hotel, where the prince stopped en route to the battle zone. Next was Old Government House where the empress stayed during her pilgrimage. We looked in at the Voortrekker/Msunduzi Museum that houses the French Presence Exhibition, and visited the first Catholic church in KZN, St Mary’s Chapel, that was built by French missionaries and was where the prince’s body lay in state before being taken to Durban harbour and then to England.

Old Government House in Pietermaritzburg

Old Government House in Pietermaritzburg where the Empress Eugénie stayed during her pilgrimage to the site of her son’s death.

A Requiem Mass for the prince is held in that chapel during French Week, an annual event that Glenn, as director of the Maritzburg branch of Alliance Française, organises in May to celebrate French influence and culture in KZN.

On the programme are talks by Glenn, fine French dining, wine tasting (including the labels, Empress Eugénie and The Prince Imperial), dance performances, and classical and local music concerts. It all culminates in a commemoration ceremony at the Prince Imperial Monument on 1 June, the anniversary of Napoléon Eugène’s death.


The French connection

In respect of Alliance Française, KZN has another strong French connection. The Durban branch of that worldwide, non-profit, apolitical, and non-religious network is the oldest one in South Africa, having been established 80 years ago in 1936. Today there are 15 branches in the country and they’re part of a regional network that incorporates Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

“Alliance is about making links between people and cultures,” Vincent Frontczyk, director of the Durban branch tells me. This is achieved in three ways – teaching French, promoting Francophone culture, and opening up dialogue with local artistes to promote synergy between them and French artistes.

The KwaZuluLoire Partnership is a student-exchange programme between the Académie de Nantes (another type of edict of Nantes!) in western France and the French Teachers Association of KwaZulu-Natal. Ten schools in this province and an equal number from the Nantes region participate in the exchange. It’s an evolving project and, for the past two years, groups of French students have come out to KZN to spend a few weeks attending their partner schools and staying with host families.

“There’s a real chance of South African students going to Nantes,” says Heather Peel, president of the French Teachers Association of KZN. “But they will have to finance the trip themselves whereas the French government pays for their teachers and students.” She adds that the programme fosters greater mutual understanding and tolerance of cultural differences. “Perhaps even more importantly, we are reminded of how much we have in common despite very different education systems. I wish that the South African government could fund its students and teachers in the same way that the French fund theirs so that less affluent children also have a chance of going.”

Statue in Pietermaritzburg of Piet Retief, who was of direct Huguenot descent.
Glenn Flanagan, founder of the French Presence in KZN tourism project, and the banner used during French Week to illustrate Franco-Zulu ties linking KZN with St Helena Island.

Heather makes an important point for, as Vincent tells me, French is the foremost language in Africa, with 55 per cent of French speakers living on this continent. “Most of North Africa is French speaking,” he says, “as are Seychelles, Comores, Madagascar, Mauritius and Reunion.” And as the rest of Africa opens up more to us down south, it makes sense for us to learn French.

“It’s an African language,” he says. “Knowing it is key to doing business in Africa.” What’s more, in Vincent’s view, KZN with its vibrant, multicultural society represents the future face of South Africa.

Time to work on my feeble command of French. I should have paid more attention to M. Le Beau.


An appliqué crafted by a member of a rural community near uQweqwe depicts the French presence in KZN.


  • A fascinating account of the Prince Imperial’s tour to KZN is Trois Mois chez les Zoulous (Three months in Zululand) by Paul Deléage, a French journalist sent to South Africa in 1879 by the Figaro newspaper to report on the prince’s trip. Written in French, the book went largely unread in South Africa until French academic, Fleur Webb of Pietermaritzburg, translated it into English. Entitled End of a Dynasty – The Last Days of the Prince Imperial, Zululand 1879. (University of Natal Press 2008. ISBN 978-1-86914-138-7), it’s a first-hand account of not just those final days but also of rough and ready, war-torn 19th century Natal as seen through the eyes of an urbane young Parisian, the only French journalist to cover the war. Fleur’s previous translations include Adulphe Delegorgue’s Travels in Southern Africa Volume I and II, and the French section of François Levaillant’s Birds of Africa.
  • La Route du Prince Impérial, Louis-Napoléon features in several French travel guides. The project celebrates its 21st year in 2017 and was the main focus during French Week 2017. Contact Glenn Flanagan +27 (0) 82 677 9997, [email protected], [email protected]
  • Alliance FrançaiseDurban branch +27 (0) 31 312 9582, www.alliance.org.za/durban
  • Institute Français Afrique du Sud
  • KwaZuluLoire Partnership

Words Andrea Abbott

Photography Andrea Abbott and Supplied

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