South Africa General Service Medal, with bar for 1879, awarded to Pvt. M. McGrath, 1880
Obverse, a bust of Queen Victoria
Reverse, a lion stooping to drink before a mimosa bush; in the exergue a Zulu shield on four crossed assegais
South Africa General Service Medal, 1880 (Zulu War)
The history of the British presence in South Africa is inextricably bound up with that of the Basuto and Zulu tribes whom it displaced. A series of shaky and short-lived accommodations with the various polities that made up the African kingdoms meant that the borders between the zones were never entirely free from conflict. Between 1877 and 1879 a number of particularly difficult punitive expeditions were mounted by the British authorities, and in 1880 a medal was sanctioned for these that was a new issue of that for the campaigns of 1834-1853 with a slightly modified reverse design.
Although an independent commission had adjudged in 1878 that most of the Zulu claims to border territories were justified, the repeated infractions and raids either perpetrated or provoked by the dependants of King Cetshwayo kaMpande of the Zulus determined the British commissioner in the area, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, to finally reduce the independence of the Zulu kingdom. Accordingly he demanded a complete disarmament on the part of the Zulus and the imposition of a British residency, and when Cetshwayo predictably ignored this demand, invaded Zululand in January 1879.
The Zulu forces outnumbered the British and African troops ranged against them two to one, and on occasions were able to achieve far more effective concentrations that resulted, for example, in a massacre of Europeans at the Battle of Isandlwana. Normally, however, the balance of battle was with the far-better-equipped Imperial troops, and only an acute shortage of troops (worsened by African desertions) as against Cetshwayo's forces prevented a rapid British victory. By March 1879 reinforcement was altering this impasse, and the Battle of Ulundi, in which the Zulus lost 1500 men, more than a tenth of their force, against 100 British losses from a force of more than 5000, determined most of the Zulu chiefs to seek peace. Cetshwayo became a fugitive, and was eventually captured and imprisoned in Cape Town. The British now faced the problem of effectively controlling this huge and resentful territory with the limited forces available to the peacetime administration.
This medal was awarded to Private M. McGrath of the 88th Foot for his service during the 1879 campaigns. Lester Watson acquired it at some point before 1928.