The scent of violets


Hell bent upon subjugating the fierce Zulus, the British Army invaded Zululand in 1879. This mission opened with the virtual annihilation of a British column at Isandhlwana- a disgrace which even the heroic defense of Rorke’s Drift failed to expunge.

Reinforcements were rushed from England, among them the Prince Imperial of France, only son of exiled Napoleon III and the former Empress Eugénie.

Eugénie and the Prince Imperial in 1862

Strictly enjoined to take no unnecessary risks, the young prince was permitted to join a column in the front line.

On the morning of 1 June, the troop set out earlier than intended and without full escord. Led by lieutenant Jahleel Brenton Carey, the scouts rode deeper into Zululand. With no one to restrain him, the prince took command from the senior lieutenant.

Prince Imperial of France

But as they were leaving, about 40 Zulus fired upon them and rushed toward them screaming.

The prince’s horse dashed off before he could even mount it. He was clinging to a holster on the saddle. After about a hundred yards, a strap broke and the Prince fell beneath his horse and his right arm was trampled. He leapt up, drawing his revolver with his left hand and started to run. But unfortunately for the prince, the Zulus could run faster.

The Zulus surrounded him with spears poised, ready to attack like hungry wolves. The prince was speared in the thigh with an assegai (a pole weapon used for throwing, usually a light spear or javelin made of wood and pointed with iron or fire-hardened tip), but he pulled it from his wound. As he turned and continued to fire his pursuers, another assegai struck his left shoulders. Using the assegai he pulled from his thigh, the prince continued to fight valiantly but gave in due to his wounds. He sank to the ground, and was overwhelmed. The Zulus wasted no time in killing him.

Image Source: The British Empire

The prince’s body had eighteen assegai wounds, one stabbing had burst his right eye and penetrated his brain. Two of his fellow officers were stabbed to death, and another was missing.

The prince’s body was recovered and sent back to England. A year later, in April 1880, Eugénie sought and obtained the permission of Queen Victoria to visit Zululand to see the place where her son was killed. She was certain that the place will be easy to find because a pyramid of stones had been raised there.

With each passing day, her companions started to lose hope. They finally did arrive in the region where the young prince had been massacred but during the last one year, the devouring vegetation had developed so much that they had to traverse through it by opening a path with an axe. For several days, they stumbled upon the thick vegetation, giant grasses, vines and hostile plants.

One evening, when everyone was gloomy, hopeless and fatigued, Sir Evelyn Wood, one of the Englishmen present there, told the empress to stop the search and go back. Eugenie too started to think that the expedition could very well be useless, as the forest had pretty much effaced the place where her son had been killed. The thought of having traveled twelve thousand kilometers hoping to find the spot where her son died depressed her so much that she immediately retired to her tent and spent the whole night crying.

The group decides to leave the next morning and return to Dundee. But something extraordinary happened. Eugénie, as if she had just been touched by a sudden inspiration, leapt to her feet and emotionally cried, “It’s this way!”, and grabbing an axe, she took off into the forest, followed by her stunned companions, curious to know what exactly she had found.

She passed through the thick vegetation impatiently, cutting vines, tripping over fallen trees and rotten roots, scratching herself on thorns. She didn’t even hesitate to use her bloody hands to push away grasses higher than herself, all so that she could reach this mysterious point. For hours, 54-year old Eugénie, who was totally unused to rigorous physical activity, kept on walking non stop, as if driven forward by an unseen supernatural force, without any visible sign of fatigue. For such was her commitment towards finding the spot where her son had perished.


Suddenly everybody heard her call out, triumphantly: “It’s here!”

They approach her, and to their surprise, find that Eugénie had indeed found the pile of stones in the form of a pyramid, half hidden in the bushes.

When Evelyn Wood asked Eugénie how she had managed to find the spot, she replied that when she was depressed about returning to Dundee and abandon the expedition, she smelled the scent of violets.

“This perfume surrounded me, attacked me even, with such violence that I thought I would faint.  You all know that my son had a real passion for this perfume.  He used a lot of it for his toiletry needs.  So, I thought that it must be a sign.  And I blindly followed this odour without doubting for one instant that it would lead me to the place where Louis fell.  And you see, I was right.  It really was a sign.”

Empress Eugénie had unerringly reached the spot where her son had died a year ago. An emotional and satisfying conclusion of her quest.

Featured header image source: WallDevil


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