The Zulu Benedict Arnold

Sitshitshili

History often throws up interesting characters this is one of them.

In May 1880 Empress Eugenie — widow of Napoleon III of France — made a pilgrimage to the remote spot in central Zululand where her son, Prince Imperial, had been killed during the Anglo-Zulu War a year before.

The story of the Prince’s demise is well known, that of his mother’s subsequent pilgrimage less so. Living in exile in England in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, Prince Louis Napoleon had gone to Zululand in search of glory, but despite being no more than an observer he had been killed in a skirmish when a patrol he was leading was ambushed. The Prince had been the last legitimate heir to the Bonaparte throne in France, and for his mother, his death was not only a personal tragedy but a dynastic calamity that ended forever the dream that Napoleon might again day guide the destiny of his country. Louis’ death was made all the more unbearable to her because his sacrifice had not taken place in the name of France and in some grand European contest, but in an obscure war against an African people and which had seen the Prince ride to war wearing the uniform of a British officer. In her grief, the Empress had vowed to visit the spot where he died on the anniversary of his death.

Empress Eugenie

In 1880 this was no undertaking to be embarked upon lightly. The fighting was by then long over, but Prince had been killed in a muddy gully close to the Tshotshosi river, a spot which was as remote as any traversed by the armies during the course of the campaign. Even from the neighbouring British colony of Natal it would require at least a week’s hard travelling by ox-wagon in a country with no significant roads — and moving among a people, moreover, who had only recently suffered the full catastrophic effect of a British invasion, and who might reasonably be forgiven the odd expression of resentment.

It was impossible that the Empress should travel alone, and indeed the expedition required the personal approval of Queen Victoria herself before it could proceed; recognising the difficulties, the Queen appointed

Sir Evelyn Wood

Sir Evelyn Wood to command Eugenie’s escort. Wood was a veteran of the Zulu campaign — one of the few British officers, in fact, to emerge from it with his reputation intact — and he knew the country well. Wood took his own wife and two of his personal staff — who had also fought in Zululand — with him, and the Queen insisted that between them they keep her informed of every step of its journey. Wood knew, too, that the Empress would require to travel in a degree of comfort, even under such circumstances: even before she reached southern Africa her entourage included an aristocratic French aide, a lady in waiting, two maids — one French and one English — and a French cook. By the time Wood had added servants and an escort of Mounted Police in Natal, it consisted of no less than 78 people.

The expedition crossed the Natal-Zulu border into Zululand on 13 May 1880. It would take two weeks to reach their objective, for Wood himself had decided the itinerary and he chose not to go by the most direct route, for along the way he intended to lay a few of his own ghosts to rest. As it transpired, this was a decision that would lead to a remarkable meeting with a former enemy — and which would shed some light on the individual tragedies which made up the calamitous post-war history of the Zulu people.

Rather than striking directly from the border towards the Tshotshosi valley, Wood had organised for the party to travel by a circuitous route, striking first northwards towards the battlefields of Hlobane and Khambula. This had been his area of command a year before, and the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the war. On 28 March 1879 Wood had supervised an assault on a Zulu mountain stronghold known as Hlobane; the attack had proved a disaster and over 200 British and African auxiliaries had been killed. Much of the responsibility for the debacle had been Wood’s; the attack had been poorly conceived, scouting was inadequate, and Wood had ignored intelligence reports that a major Zulu army was advancing into the vicinity. Wood himself had narrowly escaped with his life. The following day, however, the Zulu army had attacked Wood’s camp at Khambula and Wood had won such a decisive victory that any doubts about his conduct the day before had largely been forgotten.

Nevertheless, Wood had clearly been troubled by his culpability at Hlobane, the more so because a number of officers who had died in the battle had been personal friends of his. One — Captain the Hon. Ronald Campbell of the Coldstream Guards — had been the husband of Katherine Campbell, who had secured special permission to accompany Eugenie now as her lady-in-waiting. Campbell had been killed by Zulu snipers when Wood and his staff had come under fire; Wood had only just been able to recover the body and supervise Campbell’s burial before he had left the field. Now, the party had brought with them a stone cross to place upon the grave.

Captain Ronald Campbell, Wood’s staff officer, was killed at Hlobane.
The graves of Lloyd and Campbell, Wood’s staff killed during the battle.

The same could not be said of another of Wood’s friends who fell in the battle, Captain Robert Barton. Barton, too, was a Coldstream Guardsman who had volunteered for ‘special service’ in southern Africa. He had been appointed an officer in one of the best-respected of the locally-raised units of mounted Irregulars, the Frontier Light Horse. The FLH had played a prominent part in the attack on Hlobane, spurring up the steep paths to the summit at first light that morning to the dramatic accompaniment of an electrical storm. Zulu scouts watching the paths had spotted them and opened fire, and although the assault had been successful one officer had been killed during the ascent.

Once the summit had been secured, Barton and thirty of his men had been sent back to recover the body. By this time, however, the main Zulu army had come into view on the plain below the mountain and the decision was taken to call off the attack. Barton’s men had fallen in with other groups descending by the same route they had come up, only to find that one wing of the Zulu army had been despatched to cut them off. The Irregulars turned about and fled, sweeping round the eastern foot of Hlobane in an attempt to escape, only to be brought up short by a line of steep cliffs as the land fell away below them. Many of the troops were caught and killed above the cliffs while others were driven over the edge; some, including Barton, had managed to find a way down into the open country beyond, but Barton had never returned to Wood’s base that night. Somewhere, in the miles of sparsely inhabited veldt in between, he had presumably been overtaken by the pursuing Zulus and killed.

An experienced professional soldier as he was, Wood had been troubled by the deaths of Campbell and Barton, and the Empress’ expedition afforded him the opportunity to pay them his respects, and perhaps assuage his guilt. If he could not place a stone upon Robert Barton’s grave, as he could for Campbell, he could at least try to resolve the mystery of his disappearance.

The local Zulus, he discovered, knew the details of the battle well, and had remembered how two officers, cut off from the rest, had been overtaken several miles from the mountain. Wood concluded that the men were Barton and Lieutenant Pool, and an officer of another unit, the Border Horse, who had also gone missing. The locals didn’t know where Barton and Pool had been killed, but one offered up the name of a Zulu officer whom he thought had been involved. The Zulu’s name was Sitshitshili, and he was the son of chief Mnqandi of the Sibisi people who lived many miles away around the foot of the iNhlazatshe mountain. With the blithe confidence which characterised so many British dealings with indigenous peoples around the world in the golden age of the Empire, Wood promptly sent a message to Sitshitshili — whom he had never met — asking him to attend him and tell his story.

Sitshitshili came. He was a young man, in his early 30s, and he had fought throughout the war as a member of the uKhandempemvu regiment. He had been present at iSandlwana, and on the day of Hlobane, it had been the uKhandempemvu who had been despatched to cut off the British retreat at the eastern end mountain. Sitshitshili himself had been mounted and had played a prominent part in the pursuit, chasing the fugitives down through the cliffs and for miles beyond. Wood asked him if he knew of two officers who were killed, and Sitshitshili replied that he may indeed have killed them himself. Wood questioned him closely on the appearance of these men — and Sitshitshili’s answers took him by surprise.

After describing the coat and other clothes that Barton wore, he said ‘the White man was slightly pitted with smallpox.’ Now I had lived at Aldershot for two years in daily intercourse with Robert Barton, and at once said ‘Then that is not the man I mean’. Chicheeli, however, declined to be shaken from his statement and repeated that the marks on his face were slight, but there was no doubt that he had had smallpox. Opening my portmanteau, I took out a cabinet-sized photograph and a magnifier, and, examining the face closely, I then perceived that what I had for two years taken to be a roughness of skin was really the marks of smallpox, which Chicheeli had noticed as he stood over the dead body.

Chicheeli told me that on the Ityenka Nek he followed several white men and killed them, one man, as he approached, turned his carbine and shot himself. When he, with several others, got down on the plain, 7 miles from the mountain, he overtook Captain Barton, who had taken Lieutenant Poole upon his horse. He fired at them, and, when the horse, being exhausted, could no longer struggle under the double weight, the riders dismounted and separated. Chicheeli first shot Lieutenant Poole and was going towards Barton, when the latter pulled the trigger of his revolver, which did not go off. Chicheeli then put down his gun and assegai and made signs to Barton to surrender. I asked, ‘Did you really want to spare him?’ ‘Yes,’ he replied; ‘Cetewayo had ordered us to bring one or two Indunas [i.e. British officers] down to Ulundi, and I had already killed seven men.’ Barton lifted his hat, and the men were close together when a Zulu fired at him, and he fell mortally wounded; and then, said Chicheeli, ‘I could not let anyone else kill him, so I ran up and assegaid him.’ I said, ‘Do you think you can find the body?’ ‘Yes, certainly,’ he said, ‘but you must lend me a horse, for it is a day and a half…’

Wood himself could not wait, for the anniversary of the Prince Imperial’s death was looming, and the empress was impatient to proceed; instead, Wood lent Sitshitshili a horse and sent with him his orderly, Trooper Brown. Sitshitshili proved to be as good as his word;

He rode within 300 yards of the spot where fourteen months previously he had killed my friend and then said ‘Now we can off-saddle, for we are close to the spot’ and, casting around like a harrier, came in less than five minutes upon Barton’s body, which had apparently never been disturbed by any beast or bird of prey. The clothes and boots were rotten and ant-eaten and tumbled to pieces on being touched. Brown cut off some buttons from the breeches and took a Squadron Paybook from the pocket filled with Barton’s writing, and then buried the remains, placing over them a small wooden cross painted black, on which is cut ‘Robert Barton, killed in action, 28th March 1879,’ and then he and Chicheeli buried the body of Lieutenant Poole.

That grave has never since been re-discovered; it lies somewhere in the vastness of the open veldt to the north of the Hlobane mountain, the wooden cross probably, by now, long since lost to the attention of termites, or to a chance grass-fire.

In the meantime, Empress Eugenie’s entourage had moved on; she fulfilled her appointment on the spot where her son fell. While it undoubtedly brought her some sense of closure, she was nonetheless bitterly disappointed to find that the wild ravine she had conjured up in her imagination — a fitting Valhalla for the last of the Bonapartes — proved to be no more than a shallow muddy gully.

Her mission accomplished, the Empress — and Wood — left Zululand, scarcely troubling themselves about the country’s fate, nor yet what might become of gallant enemies like Sitshitshili.

Yet for Sitshitshili, and those like him who had fought loyally in defence of their country, the bitter consequences of defeat were only just beginning. After the war, Britain had walked away from her responsibilities in Zululand, turning her back on the policies which had provoked the war for fear of the expense of annexation and a prolonged military entanglement.

Instead, the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, had been deposed, and the country was divided up among thirteen chiefs whose interests were dependent upon loyalty to the British. Many Zulu loyalists, like Sitshitshili’s father, Mnqandi of the Sibisi people, suffered the loss of authority and impoverishment at the hands of the British appointees. Yet the new system was inherently unstable, if only because, while some of the new leaders enjoyed a considerable personal following, the rest were regarded as traitors by the rest of the population at large. Even by the time of Eugenie’s visit, in 1880, the country was divided between royalists, who demanded the return of the king, and those whose power and prestige were dependent upon him remaining in exile.

By 1881 friction between the two groups had led to outbreaks of sporadic violence, fuelling fears in London that Zululand was about to collapse into anarchy, with dire consequences for the neighbouring colony of Natal. In 1882 Cetshwayo was allowed to travel to London to argue his cause; in 1883 he was permitted to return to Zululand as King in the hope that he would restore stability to the country.

This was, of course, a reversal in policy that effectively nullified whatever had been achieved at the cost of so much bloodshed in 1879. The British Government felt that Cetshwayo could not simply be restored to his former position, lest he poses the same threat to British interests they considered him before the war. Under the terms of his restoration, he was specifically prohibited from reforming the old military system, while at the same time great swathes of the country were set aside for those who did not wish to live under his rule. It was a compromise settlement, and like so much political compromise it failed to address the deep-seated divisions within the country which had arisen since the British invasion. Sir Henry Bartle Frere has a lot to answer for, for starting this war between two countries that never wanted to fight each other.

The result was a political and military disaster. The king returned to Zululand in February 1883 and under the watchful eyes of British officials began rebuilding his oNdini royal homestead, but his gleeful supporters immediately set about revenging themselves upon their persecutors. In March a large royalist force, probably acting without the king’s direct knowledge, assembled to attack one of the king’s most intransigent opponents, his erstwhile general, Zibhebhu kaMaphitha. Zibhebhu was equal to the occasion, however, and drew them into a skilful ambush, killing over a thousand royalists for the loss of a handful of his own men.

The king’s response was to abandon the restraints imposed upon him by the British and gather his supporters at his oNdini homestead. Over the following three months, hundreds flocked to oNdini, most of them veterans of the 1879 campaign, including many of Cetshwayo’s most important generals and councillors.

Among them was Sitshitshili kaMnqandi. Even for committed royalists like Sitshitshili, the years of the king’s exile had proved a difficult and subtle test of loyalties. Many had been prepared to accept the reality of defeat. They had fought hard in 1879, but had been conquered; Cetshwayo was the legitimate king, but he was gone and the British now ruled in his place. They were prepared to respect British authority provided it acted in accord with its responsibilities towards the good governance of the people, and indeed Sitshitshili’s willingness to answer Wood’s summons suggests that he had already reconciled himself to the arrival of a new order. Already, when Cetshwayo was restored, men like Sitshitshili felt uneasy at the confusing demands placed upon their loyalty. Cetshwayo was a king once more, it seemed, and yet he too acknowledged the British as the ultimate arbiters of power; to whom, therefore, should his adherents give their ultimate allegiance?

Nevertheless, Sitshitshili had responded to the call to attend the king at oNdini, along with many old members of the uKhandempemvu regiment. He was there when, at dawn on 21 July 1883, disaster struck. After a spectacular night, march Zibhebhu made a surprise attack on the homestead in reprisal for the attacks mounted upon him earlier by royalist supporters. The king’s followers were caught completely unprepared and the royalist regiments fell apart in the face of a determined attack. The fighting engulfed the royal homestead itself, forcing the king and his household to flee. Cetshwayo was wounded in the flight, and many of his councillors — including the chief Ntshingwayo, who had defeated the British at Isandlwana in 1879 — were killed. Royalist supporters were only just able to hurry away members of the king’s family in the nick of time; Cetshwayo’s heir, his teenage son Dinuzulu, was rescued from the burning huts by Sitshitshili kaMnqandi, who smuggled him through the cordons of enemy warriors and eventually reunited the young prince with his father.

Yet it was clear even to a committed royalist like Sitshitshili that the disaster at oNdini had irrevocably weakened their cause. King Cetshwayo sought British protection but his power was finished, and he died in February of the following year. Although the Zulu civil war spluttered on, over the following decade the British steadily increased their hold on Zululand.

And Sitshitshili became trusted and favoured by the new order. Even before the death of Cetshwayo, his name is mentioned in official British reports as a messenger who could be relied upon to carry British despatches. Perhaps Cetshwayo’s demise freed him from the uncomfortable divided loyalties of the restoration; perhaps he merely favoured the strong government. Whatever his reasons, the British recognised that the public support of a high-born Zulu who had distinguished himself in 1879 added considerable weight to their authority. As, over the following twenty years, the British intervened more and more in the affairs of Zulu chiefs, encouraging their favourites and harassing die-hard opponents, Sitshitshili prospered. By the end of the century, the British had confirmed him as a chief in his own right in the Nkandla district, above the Thukela river, which had once been the old border between Natal and Zululand. This was a strategically important part of the country that dominated the routes into and out of the old Zulu heartland, and the British were more than satisfied in their choice of Sitshitshili as chief there; during the Anglo-Boer War, he further proved his worth in Colonial eyes by deploying his men to harass Boer incursions into Zululand.

Yet Sitshitshili, and those like him who had embraced white rule in Zululand, were to find themselves increasingly trapped by the subtle contradictions inherent in their position. The first few years of the twentieth century bore down hard upon the African population of both Zululand and Natal as the reality of colonial rule became apparent. Large areas of land were lost to white farmers, traditional political institutions were undermined, young men were required to leave home to labour in the developing industrial economy and property was taxed. Furthermore, in an attempt to balance its books in the economic recession which followed the end of the Boer War, Natal imposed a Poll Tax on its African population. This was particularly resented, not merely for the extra economic burden it imposed but because it seemed to be a tax upon life itself. When, towards the end of 1905, the tax was implemented many African communities refused to pay. Resistance spilt into violence which, in turn, met with a harsh response from the colonial authorities. In April 1906 a Natal chief named Bhambatha refused to pay the tax and then attacked a police patrol sent to arrest him. In open rebellion, Bhambatha and his followers fled to Zululand, hoping to mobilise the Zulus’ legendary traditions of resistance.

Bhambatha made the grave of King Cetshwayo, in the rugged Nkandla district, a rallying point for the disaffected, and his presence highlighted the dilemma of the chiefs who collaborated with the authorities. Most were dependent upon government approval for their authority but they were aware, at the same time, that the tax was widely resented and that there was a groundswell of support for resistance to it. The authorities, moreover, allowed them no leeway, demanding that they mobilise their men and join the hunt for Bhambatha or face punitive measures themselves. Most tried to prevaricate, a few took their chances, sided with their people and joined the rebels while others, like Sitshitshili, resolutely set out to crush the rebellion in their districts.

Sitshitshili had nailed his colours to the mast early in the crisis. When the chiefs in the Nkandla district gathered before the local magistrate to protest at the tax, and groups of young men noisily refused to pay, Sitshitshili stood out from the crowd and firmly stated that he had always obeyed the government, and he was not afraid to do so on that occasion. When, over the following weeks, some of his neighbours took to the bush in support of the rebellion, Sitshitshili mustered his warriors and came down harshly on any among his own followers who displayed signs of disaffection, burning homes and confiscating the cattle of any who refused to pay the tax.

Bhambatha’s flight to Nkandla brought the rebellion to Sitshitshili’s doorstep, and at the Government’s request, he willingly supplied a contingent of levies to join the troops who were concentrating to sweep through the troubled areas. With the rebel forces hiding in the steep ravines flanking the Nkandla bush, Sitshitshili personally led a detachment of scouts who harried them and burnt their temporary encampments. One colonial official was prompted to describe Sitshitshili as a ‘splendid specimen of a brave and loyal Zulu.’ The ambiguities of that loyalty — that the man who had killed Robert Barton while fighting for his country in 1879 was now oppressing fellow Zulus — were largely ignored in the face of the increasingly bitter struggle to suppress the rebellion. They were not lost upon the rebels, however.

On 10 June the war turned decisively against the rebels in Nkandla. The Government troops received intelligence that Bhambatha and his men were to rendezvous with another rebel impi led by a veteran of the 1879 war, Mehlokazulu kaSihayo. The rebels were hoping to slip unnoticed into a steep, narrow, bush-covered valley called the Mome Gorge. The troops executed a well-co-ordinated pincer movement by night which found them lining the heights above the Gorge at dawn while the rebels were still bivouacked in the open at the entrance. The rebels were subjected to a devastating barrage of artillery, machine guns and small-arms fire which lasted throughout the day; over 600 of them were killed, including both Bhambatha and Mehlokazulu.

The action at Mome effectively crushed the rebellion in Zululand. Less than a fortnight later, there was a further outbreak in Natal which was suppressed with equal ruthlessness. Then the retribution began, the Colonial authorities hunting down those implicated in the disturbances. Chiefs who had failed to demonstrate sufficient loyalty were deposed, and hundreds of those who had taken part in the rising were arrested and hanged. Thousands more were sentenced to periods of hard labour and the contaminated areas were plundered of their cattle and huts were destroyed. The actions of the Zulu king — Cetshwayo’s son, Dinuzulu — were carefully watched for any signs that he might be encouraging the rebellion.

Among surviving rebels, still hiding out in the bush, the bitterness of defeat turned to a wave of fierce anger directed against those of their own who had actively fought for the authorities. These were despised as amambuka — traitors — and those in positions of authority were particularly hated since they were felt to have betrayed the bonds which bound them to their people. Not only had chiefs like Sitshitshili failed in their duty to succour their supporters in the face of the oppressive tax, but they had actively fought to support the colonial status quo — a situation upon which their own power and well-being depended. A small group of young rebels, led by a Zulu named Chakijana kaGezindaka — who had joined Bhambatha early in the uprising and played a prominent role in the fighting — formed an assassination squad with the intention of taking revenge upon the compromised chiefs.

The killings began in early 1907. Chakijana’s men dressed in dark greatcoats in an attempt to pass themselves off as policemen in Government employ, hiding revolvers in their long pockets. They visited the homestead of Chief Matshana kaMondise, a government supporter, but as they tried to surround his hut at night they were disturbed and fled. Instead, they visited another ’traitor’, a headman named Gence. They arrived to find Gence’s family preparing for a wedding; Chakijana waited until evening before entering the homestead and seeking out Gence in his hut. Gence thought he was a guest, come for the celebrations — until Chakijana produced a revolver and shot him dead.

News of the attacks upon Government loyalists troubled those remaining chiefs who had supported the Government. Among these was Sitshitshili, whose public endorsement of the Government’s ruthless methods had made him detested by the rebels. In this, ironically, Sitshitshili had no more than behaved according to the traditional dictates of Zulu warfare, for he had pursued rebels with the same vigour with which he had hunted down the survivors of Hlobane in 1879. He had been so successful at that that the authorities presented him with a rifle as a token of the esteem with which they regarded him.

Yet even at this stage one wonders if Sitshitshili had come to regret the choices he had made to ally himself so publicly to European rule in Zululand. The road from Hlobane had been a long one, and he was, perhaps, beginning to question whether his faith in the Colonial authorities had been misplaced for the Government, it seemed, was reluctant to fulfil their side of the bargain. In the middle of 1907 Sitshitshili commented to one colonial administrator that ‘We cannot understand how matters stand at present. Although we are British subjects we still seem to be subject to danger. We do not seem to be protected in the way we ought to be … There still seems to be a cloud over us that cause us to leave our kraals and make us go and live in the bush. We are chased into the country …’

Sitshitshili was right to be concerned, for his name was now at the top of Chakijana’s hit list. In the first week of August Chakijana and two others arrived secretly in the countryside near Sitshitshili’s homestead, and began to watch his movements. By now it was common knowledge that the murderers of Gence had posed as policemen, so the killers decided to adopt another ploy. One of the men, Njombolwana, went into the homestead alone; still wearing his greatcoat, he now claimed to be a messenger sent to Sitshitshili by a member of the Zulu Royal House. Sitshitshili was apparently convinced by the story and gave Njombolwane the hospitality due to his mission. Njombolwane spent that night and the following day — 8 August — at Sitshitshili’s homestead, attending the chief, working his way into his confidence. That evening, however, when Sitshitshili retired to his hut Njombolwane followed him on the pretext of serving him — then pulled out his revolver and shot Sitshitshili twice in the chest. At the sounds of the shots Chakijana, hiding nearby, ran into the homestead, only to find Sitshitshili already dead; Chakijana gleefully stole the rifle presented to Sitshitshili by the authorities.

Sitshitshili’s death was perhaps the last triumph of the rebellion, but it was met with the fury of the authorities. The hunt for fugitive rebels was stepped up; Njombulwana was later captured, while Chakijana gave himself up. Njombolwana was tried and hanged for the murder of Sitshitshili. Chakijana escaped the death sentence because he was prepared to turn in King’s evidence, he implicated the incumbent Zulu king, Dinuzulu, in the plot to kill Sitshitshili.

In fact, Dinuzulu had done his best to stay aloof from the rising. He knew only too well the cost of taking up arms against the whites, and he knew too that his position had made him a marked man in the eyes of the authorities. Not that his prevarication was to save him; in 1908 he was arrested and charged with 23 counts of treason with respect to inciting the rebellion. After a lengthy trial, he was found not guilty of all but three lesser charges.

Dinizulu in 1908

In fact, Dinuzulu genuinely deplored the murder of Sitshitshili. He remembered well the old war-horse’s gallantry in 1879, and he was grateful to Sitshitshili for saving him from the flames of oNdini during the darkest days of the civil war.

Yet there was more to Dinuzulu’s regret than grief at the loss of an old friend and ally. In Sitshitshili’s murder, Dinuzulu saw something of what had become of the Zulu kingdom since the British invasion of 1879 — that the conquest had done irrevocable damage to traditional forms of authority, and had replaced them instead with a system that was entirely unsympathetic to the needs of the African population.

For those, like Sitshitshili, who found themselves trapped by the contradictions of the new order, the price to be paid had proved heavy indeed, and in their tragedy lay the true fate of the Zulu people.

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Sir Ron Harrison

Sir Ron Harrison

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What is life without a little controversy in it? Quite boring and sterile would be my answer.