It is often the policy of imperial powers to help with the control and defence of their possessions by raising local troops, and with war looming in Natal in the late 1870s authority was given to raise what would become the Natal Native Contingent (NNC), which it was hoped would help make up for lack of numbers of regular British troops. By the end of December 1878 three regiments had been raised with a total of seven companies of roughly a thousand native troops each. Plans were made to uniform and arm all these men, but widespread fears by white settlers over the arming of so many natives meant that initially only about one in ten were given a rifle (and literally a handful of cartridges), and the rest had to make do with their traditional weapons. Officers were to be European, but were very hard to find, so in general were of very poor quality. With only a few days of training, the NNC were sent with the British forces to invade Zululand, where their performance could politely be described as 'mixed'. Badly lead and poorly armed, many recognised a bad situation when they saw it and ran when the Zulus approached, but others fared better, and some NNC remained as part of the British forces until the end of the war in 1879, after which their short existence was brought to an end.
Initial plans to uniform these men were rejected as too expensive, so they were issued a red cloth to wear round their head as a field sign, and a blanket. Some officers found old western clothing to supplement this meagre issue, while some men could bring western clothing they already owned, but initially many of these men were indistinguishable from the Zulus apart from the blanket and head-band. After the initial disasters of the campaign, more uniforms were issued to help bolster morale, and photos of these men show a very wide variety of clothing at all stages of the campaign. Every man in this set has the headband and all but one a blanket, but some are otherwise entirely traditionally dressed, while others wear various bits of western clothing. Everything here matches with photos of these men - even the woollen cap one wears - so full marks for the costume.
After the original one in ten issue of guns, more were later provided, including some decent types, but this set has just one pose holding a rifle. The rest hold their traditional spears and shields. The spears look good, as do the shields, for although they are smaller than we often see in this hobby they are the perfect size for the umbumbuluzo, which was the most common form of shield at the time, while some photos show that even smaller shields were sometimes taken on campaign. A couple of men have acquired haversacks for themselves, and one has a canteen, which seems a reasonable reflection of the very uneven way these men were equipped, particularly early on, so everything is fine in the kit department too.
The sculpting is quite good - not as sharp as some sets being made today, but softer, although this is not a subject that requires lots of fine crisp detail. Generally the proportions are good, although the faces are not the best we have seen. On our sample we found almost no flash and no excess plastic despite every man coming complete with his weapon and shield.
Much of the reason for no excess plastic is because some of the poses are quite flat. If you make figures carrying shields and spears but all as one piece then inevitably there will be some compromises, and some of these poses hold their spear close to their body in a not particularly believable way. Figures three and four in our first row must step forward on that charge, as must the second in the lower row. The first figure in the second row is also sub optimal, for although he does not commit the cardinal sin of holding his spear directly over his head, he is still quite flat in both stance and the way he holds his weapon and shield, and to us just looks rather uncomfortable. Given the limitations of a one piece figure the choice of poses seems reasonable, although how the last man in the top row is holding his shield is unclear because it would be almost impossible in reality.
We often say that subjects with shields and edged weapons require either complex, multi-part moulds or assembly, and this set does suffer by keeping everything simple, although undoubtedly some will be happy not to have to do any putting together. Taken as a whole, the standard of dress and the weapons used suggest the early part of the Zulu War for these figures, when supply was deliberately sparse, but when they participated in actions such as Isandlwana, which is probably what most customers will want. There are no officers here, but the man with the rifle could serve as an NCO, and officers could be sourced from other sets. Accuracy is fine and sculpting is reasonable, so the main drag is some of the poses, yet none here are particularly bad. The NNC was the major auxiliary unit employed by the British during the Zulu War, and these are a reasonable rendition of an important body of troops that have been overlooked until now.