Napoleon & the Zulus – Death of the Little Prince


When Napoleon Eugene Bonaparte (Louis) was born in France in 1856, he was a lucky lad indeed: his parents were Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie. His godparents were Pope Pius IX and Queen Victoria of England. He was the great-nephew of Napoleon and considered by all to be his heir to the French Empire; he was lovingly nicknamed “The Little Prince.”  His future looked bright, and he lived a life of immense privilege.

There was talk of marriage to Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice. The Queen hoped he would become the Emperor of France so that Europe would have lasting peace. His parents indulged him, however, causing him to be impossibly headstrong and impulsive.

House of Bonaparte: The Four Napoleons.

In 1870, at the age of 14, Louis was with his father in battle at Saarbrücken when France fell to the Prussians during the Franco-Prussian War. His family fled to England, and their luxurious life was over. His father died two years later; Napoleon Eugene Bonaparte was now the Imperial Prince. The prince trained to be a soldier and developed a great fondness and respect for England. After graduating seventh in his class at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in 1875, Louis was appointed to the rank of lieutenant in the British Army.

By 1879, he was anxious to see action in the war between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom. He was eventually permitted to go to Africa after wearing down his mother’s objections and receiving permission from the Queen. He traveled to the front as a special observer, attached to the staff of Frederic Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford and the commander in South Africa.  Thesiger was directed to keep the young Prince out of harm’s way, and Louis accompanied Chelmsford on his march into Zululand.

Napoléon at age 14, 1870.

A Francophone from Guernsey, Captain Jahleel Brenton Carey was tasked with organizing the protection of Louis, even though the Prince roundly outranked him. The Prince was allowed to take part in reconnaissance missions, but he was, as always, stubborn – enough so to endanger the lives of himself and his men. By ignoring orders in a reconnaissance party led by Colonel Redvers Buller, Louis Napoleon almost caused their ambush.

The Prince in South Africa in 1879.

On June 1, 1879, Captain Carey was given leave to accompany a reconnoitering party under the command of the Imperial Prince in order to verify the findings of a survey made previously. Due to the impatience of the Prince, they had set out earlier than planned and without a full escort. Led by Carey, the scouts rode deep into Zululand. Without anyone present to restrain him, the Prince seized command from Carey despite his seniority. At noon, the troop was halted at a deserted kraal (a traditional African hut village). Louis and Carey were drawing the land around them and used the thatch to build a fire. They had not posted a lookout.

Zulu warriors.

Just as they were gathering their belongings to leave, about 40 Zulus ran into the camp screaming, with weapons raised. The Prince’s horse started to bolt. He grabbed the saddle and was drug 100 yards before he fell under the horse. His right arm was trampled. Louis jumped up, drew his revolver with his left hand, and started to run. He was no match for the Zulus.

He was first pierced by an assegai (a hunting spear) in his thigh. Louis fiercely pulled it out and turned on the Zulu, trying to use it against them, only to be barraged by their spears. Eighteen pierced his head and body. The Prince’s body was sent to England where a state burial was held for him by the Queen.

Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie with their only son.

Later, the authorities in Zululand reported that they would not have killed him if they had known he was the Imperial Prince. Two of the Prince’s escort were killed and another was missing. Lt. Carey and the rest of the group made their way toward the Prince’s body. Carey did not order any action, and they did not fire on the Zulus.

Tomb of Napoléon, Prince Imperial. By Len Williams – CC BY-SA 3.0

He was later subjected to a court of inquiry and a court-martial, but due to intervention by the Empress Eugénie and Queen Victoria, Captain Carey returned to his duties amid the scorn of his fellow officers who shunned what they viewed as his cowardice for his failure to defend the Prince.  He died only four years later. The war would end with a British victory and the end of Zulu control of the region.

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