We awake to pouring rain and leaden skies probably appropriate in view of the fact that we’re going to spend the day at two of the most famous battlefields in South Africa. At 8am, we meet our guide for the day, Pat Rundgren, a military specialist guide who specialises in Voortrekker (Boer pioneers who trekked into the hinterland of South Africa during the 1830’s) , Zulu History and Culture, Anglo Zulu War, First and Second Anglo Boer War. We’re relieved that he’s going to be driving us as its pouring and most of the roads are unmade and very uneven.
It will be incredibly difficult for us to envisage how the current green and tranquil landscape of central and northern KwaZulu-Natal was once the focal point of major military engagements without the knowledge, theories and storytelling abilities of our guide. The battlefields where Zulu, Boer and British forces clashed in the bloody clashes that shaped the course of South Africa and rocked the foundations of the British Empire are now just green lush fields and hills with few vestiges remaining to commemorate the sights. Pat commences our tour with a visit to the Isandlwana Museum and Visitors Centre where we watch a short introductory film to give us the context for the battle. We learn that 15km across the plain at the battlefield site of Isandlwana was the precursor to the batle of Rorke’s Drift. It’s here that only hours earlier, the Zulus dealt the British Empire one of its greatest battlefield disaster by overwhelming the main body of the British force in devastating style. This is the bit missing from Michael Caine’s Zulu. Victories were clearly more box office than defeats for Hollywood in the 1960’s.
The rain is still absolutely pouring down and Pat navigates through the growing puddles and drives us to the battlefield. On arrival, he explains that the increasing strengthening of the independent Zulu nation by King Cetshwayo was perceived as a growing threat to the Colony of Natal by the British High Commissioner Sir Bartle Frere and in December 1878 the British government represented by Frere issued an ultimatum that was impossible for the Zulu Nation to accept as it would have required them to disband their army and swear allegiance to Queen Victoria. When these demands were not met, three British columns, under the overall command of Lieutenant-General Lord Chelmsford, made the fatal mistake of underestimating the fighting ability of the Zulus, crossed the Thukela and Buffalo rivers on the 12th January 1879 and invaded Zululand. The Zulus retaliated and on Wednesday 22nd January 1879 the Zulu Army, comprising approximately 20,000 warriors, attacked and overran the British camp at Isandlwana, killing 1,357 men. As we gaze across the battlefield, Pat weaves the tale of the fateful day, the Zulu battle formation and the British tactics. We visit the memorials and white cairns are dotted across the plain. Pat explains that these memorials mark the spots where British soldiers fell. We’re humbled by these unremarkable stone piles that serve as the only reminder of the resting place of the fallen. The Battle of Isandlwana was and remains to this day, the worst defeat ever inflicted by a native force on the British Army. It’s a powerful sobering history lesson to swallow.
We drive to Rorke’s Drift and the rain is relentless. We do the typical British thing and have a cup of tea before the listening to the next chapter of the story. Pat continues our history lesson and advises that as the Zulus left the battlefield at Isandlwana in triumph, 4,000 of them split from the main army and headed for the mission station at Rorke’s Drift. In the film Zulu the battle site is portrayed as a large open plain area. Rorke’s Drift in fact owed its name to Jim Rorke, an Irish farmer and trader who had acquired the land in 1849, on which he had built his home and accompanying storehouse. It was located next to a ford or drift on the Buffalo River. Jim Rorke died in 1875 and the site was purchased by the missionary, Otto Witt, on behalf of the Church of Sweden. Witt resided in the house, and converted the store into a chapel. By January 1879 the mission station was in the hands of the British who rented it as a line of communication and a supply depot, utilising the house as a makeshift hospital and the chapel as a storehouse. Hollywood lied, the battle site is in fact no larger than a tennis court.
Pat takes us around the site and explains how 150 British and colonial troops fought off wave after wave of attacks for ten gruelling hours before the Zulus finally retreat. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded following the station’s miraculous survival. Isandlwana was a humiliating defeat for a British government that hadn’t even ordered the attack on Zululand in the first place. When news reached London both of the massacre and the valiant defence of Rorke’s Drift, the British public was baying for blood. The government duly obliged their vengeful subjects and in just under six months, an enlarged invasion force had conquered Zululand. The kingdom would remain a British protectorate for the next eighteen years until it was annexed and absorbed into Natal in 1897. We walk around the small but excellent museum that explains in great detail how the seriously outnumbered British soliders held off their Zulu enemies.
Its been a fascinating day with so much to ponder. If only all history lessons could be like this. We go for a very late excellent lunch at the Rorke’s Drift Hotel on the banks of the Buffalo River, it’s still raining. Pat our guide has been brilliant, he’s evoked the battles eloquently and with great colour. We will watch Zulu when we return home, but with completely new eyes and great memories of an outstanding day at two battlefields in Kwazulnatal.
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