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John Dunn (1833–1895)

John Robert Dunn (1834–1895) was a South African settler, hunter, and diplomat of Scottish descent. Born in either Port Elizabeth or Port Natal in 1834, he spent his childhood in Port Natal/Durban.[1] When Dunn was still young, his father was trampled to death by an elephant. His mother died a few years later. He started to earn a living by working for transport riders and hunters. His love of hunting and his skill with a rifle took him across the Tugela River into Zululand on a regular basis, where he became fluent in the language and was befriended by local chiefs. Their hospitality often included offering him a wife, and though he was previously married to Catherine Pierce - daughter of a white settler father and mother of Cape Malay ancestry - he accepted a total of 48 Zulu wives during his lifetime, much to Catherine's disapproval.[2] Dunn built his home at Mangethe, near the Ngoye Forest in Zululand.


The bloody battle of succession fight between king Mpande's sons Mbuyasi and Cetshwayo at the Battle of Ndondakusuka forced Dunn and other white settlers to flee back to Natal. After the battle, he re-crossed the Tugela to ask that the winner, Cetshwayo, to return the cattle that had belonged to the settlers. Cetshwayo agreed, and also requested that Dunn become his advisor in matters related to the British. Again, Dunn's skill in arms no doubt stood him in good stead. His cattle were returned and he was allocated land near present-day Mtunzini.

On 18 October 1872, King Mpande died at the age of 74 and Cetshwayo became king, and Dunn's power and influence rose; he handled nearly all of Cetshwayo's foreign correspondence. He was the main conduit for the import of thousands of firearms into Zululand, mostly antiquated muskets. Though Mpande and Cetshwayo had successfully resisted attempts by the Boers and the British to encroach on their territory, the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 forced John Dunn to pick sides, and he sided with the British. On 11 January 1879, British troops crossed the Tugela, near Fort Pearson, after the British had presented Cetshwayo with an ultimatum he could not accept. It is said that Dunn's skill at arms contributed greatly to British successes in the south. In the north the British, anticipating Cetshwayo's refusal of the ultimatum, had already crossed the river, only to be soundly defeated at the Battle of Isandlwana.

On 1 September 1879, Zululand was annexed and incorporated in Natal. In the Ulundi Settlement of 1879, Dunn was given the largest piece of land of all thirteen rulers in the subdivision of Zululand, and closest to Durban, where he served as a buffer zone between the British and the less-trusted rulers.

Later years[]

John Dunn died on 5 August 1895, having married 48 wives and fathered 117 children. All of Dunn's dependents were settled on a 40 km² reserve near the Tugela River.

See also[]

  • Alexander Biggar, his grandfather


  1. Ballard, Charles. John Dunn: White Chief of the Zulu, 1985. pg. 24
  2. Ballard, John Dunn

External links[]

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