In anticipation of a lecture cruise to Cape Town in November (2010), I am including an article written following a visit there in 2008.
Heading away up the coastal highway, north-east from Durban, the endless swathes of sugarcane give way to the milk chocolate expanse of the Tugela River. A formidable barrier when in flood and a sticky mess in the dry season this is the historic frontier between ancient white and black supremacy.
Crossing the bridge, tantilizingly close to the site of the ‘Ultimatum Tree’ – just around the river’s bend to the north – the Zululand of the imagination and reality beckons. At this ‘tree’ in 1878 the terms of effective surrender to colonial domination were put to the representatives of the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, by John Dunn, a trusted adviser to both camps. The good burgers of Natal, British, Afrikan and native, were ever fearful of the perceived threat just across the river, and following a series of land, border and incursion ‘difficulties’ had resolved to bring the ‘savages’ to heel. The ‘conditions’ stated were impossible for Cetshwayo to sign off and retain his authority – much like the conditions required of Serbia by the Austro-Hungarians in 1914!
Natal was spoiling for a fight. The British Government, heavily involved in trying to secure India’s northern border through it’s own incursion into Afgahnistan, was not!
Sir Bartle Frere, the Governor of Cape Colony and Lord Chelmsford, commander of the British and Colonial forces had plotted a three pronged attack. The central thrust, to be made by a column of around 5,000 troops, was aimed at Ulundi, the homestead and central base of the Zulu King. Two other columns were expected to separately protect and defend the coastal area and contain disparate Zulu – and Boer – forces to the north.
The multi-national, multi-disciplinary force set off in optimistic mood in early January 1879. Chelmsford had at his disposal several thousand experienced regular troops, infantry, artillery and cavalry, making up about one half of his total force, together with mounted policemen, volunteer colonial units and native levies – many armed in a similar way to their supposed enemies – but distinguished from them in case of a close encounter by being issued with a red head band.
In crossing the river into Zululand the British forces became invaders, believing that ‘attack was the best form of defence’, and doing what Cetshwayo had vowed never to do – violating the land of another people. War was now inevitable. The British sought the defeat of the Zulu, they sought to defend their homeland.
Julie and I were playing truant from our ‘round the world cruise’. With four sea-days separating visits to Durban and Cape Town we had opted to make a tour of the battlefields of the Anglo/Zulu War. Our previous experiences of Africa were mainly confined to brief holidays to the coastal countries of Tunisia and The Gambia, and a Nile Cruise. More pertinently we had undertaken a charity trek across a sector of the Namibian desert where we had been exposed to extreme elements but due to the remoteness of our activity somewhat insulated from any major sociological contamination or challenges. In Tunisia and Egypt we had witnessed (and in some minor way, experienced) the rags and riches syndrome prevelant in many developing and third world countries. It has been in The Gambia, over a span of several visits, that we have been introduced, through personal invitation and familiaral contacts, to life outside the picture postcards and holiday brochures.
Whilst we have been harassed and hassled by ‘beach bums’ and street vendors, and bullied – just falling short of physical abuse – by market traders, we have generally felt reasonably safe and secure. In Windhoek and Swakopmund we were introduced to security doors on ‘open’ shops, and car-guards, hired to mind your parked vehicle, but as we left Durban heading for our target destinations we became aware of a new ‘edge’ to add to our list of travel feelings.
The cruise ship staff had warned us to venture into Durban only in small groups and to leave all valuables on the ship, such was the fear of street crime. (Two of our friends, we learned later, having been found wandering alone, had been picked up by the police and deposited in a more ‘safe’ area!) In being driven through and out of town we felt we were not missing a huge amount – possibly a mugging – but we were prepared to forego that pleasure.
Our guide and driver, Geoff, was a large character in all senses of the word, with a quiet confidence and fluent Zulu at his disposal. The Toyota Corolla may not have been his first choice of vehicle given some of the roads and tracks we were destined to navigate, but it was reasonably roomy and had working windows, locks and air-con. All necessities for such a trip.
We turned away from the coastal highway and it’s views of huge breakers crashing onto the deserted shoreline and headed for ‘Shakaland’. The name may be resonant of an American theme park, but in reality it is a hotel complex, containing some Zulu huts and a living museum of Zulu culture. In a slight drizzle, we tagged onto a party having the ‘tour’. For the next three hours we were introduced to aspects of Zulu history, life and culture – including tasting their particular version of ‘home-brew’ and such energetic dancing that even a seasoned physiotherapist or Tiller girl would have been left open-mouthed at the high kicks.
Shaka is acknowledged as the man who united the various tribes into the entity known collectively as the Zulu nation before going somewhat mad and being assasinated and replaced by his half-brother. Apart from this he seems most renowned for discarding the throwing spear in favour of a short ‘stabbing’ version. Why, argued Shaka, throw your weapon to the enemy for them to use against you? A logic with which it is difficult to argue.
Lunch shared with the French tour party was plentiful and taken in a complex of buildings decorated by vivid murals depicting episodes in Shaka’s brief, violent and influential life. Interestingly the name Shaka is often thought to mean ‘lion’. But in truth it means ‘beetle’ – the type that inhabits the innards of the human as this was the reason given by his mother trying to cover up her illigitimate pregnacy! The name stuck as a traditional Zulu form of understatement.
We left the museum, and following the track of Chelmsford’s Number 1 column reached Eshowe. That column got stuck here and was surrounded by Zulu’s until ‘relieved’ some three months later. We were more fortunate and were able to continue north until almost by surprise we were confronted by the iconic rocky hill of Isandlwana. With staring eyes we passed behind it (we were making the full visit the next day) and drove the 10 miles to Rorke’s Drift, where again spurning the chance for a quick visit, we left it in the dust and made our way along a very bumpy and windy track to Rorke’s Drift Lodge, some three miles away. The route to the Lodge, whilst a motoring challenge, particularly to a small Toyota, is enhanced by a series of signs offering the traveller every encouragement to continue and not give up! One of the signs says “ Lord Chelmsford chose this spot – don’t blame us”. Apart from the initial plan and river crossing points it is difficult to discern anything else that Chelmsford might have deliberately chosen in his first invasion of Zululand!
The Lodge was a series of low-profile buildings set in a large compound of lawns and ornamental trees. The accommodation offered was high-class and the reception friendly. The highlight, not discounting the excellent dinner shared in the company of another pair of guests, was the un-interrupted views across miles of open veldt to the imposing monolith of Isandlwana, it’s unique and emotive profile changing colour as the sun dipped and flickered in and out of the passing clouds.
Feeling reassured by the presence of the owners two huge dogs we retired with a bottle of local red.
Returning to Rorke’s Drift after a hearty breakfast, we handed the ‘unexpired portion of yesterday’s rations’ (a well intentioned but untouched packed lunch) to the elderly caretaker/gardener at the Drift. His teeth shone white amidst a bush of grey beard on his ebony face. He did not seem to mind this day’s English invasion!
It was Rorke’s Drift, and there was just the three of us there. Geoff chatted away with the gardener who was happy to be diverted from any work (having carefully secreted his sandwiches away to avoid having to share them with the woman at the ticket office!), and we followed the ‘self guided tour’, following the marker stones. But somehow it was all so very familiar. The buildings are dull stone with red roofs – not white and thatched as in the film – and large stones embedded in the earth mark out the hastily constructed defensive walls and redoubts.
The small cemetery to the south contains a white monument – listing those who died there – dusted with dried and fading poppies and wreaths each significant with it’s message and somehow poignant and too personal for public display. A small stone monument between the mission and the road pays tribute to the Zulus. The museum gives a summary of events and contains a model showing the height of the battle. The hospital is in flames and ‘B’ company of the 24th (2nd Warwickshire) Regiment is retreating to its secondary line of defence. It is interesting to note that whilst the common belief is that the soldiers present were mostly Welshmen, there were in fact only 32 from that country, whereas there were 49 Englishmen, 16 Irish and 22 ‘others’. The model is crowded with spear waving Zulu, but the ‘key’ informs us only 2,000 figures are depicted – only half the number involved.
Logistics rather than chronology were the order of the day. We all knew the sequence of events on that fateful day of January 22nd 1879 so we turned our backs on Rorke’s Drift and metaphorically turned our clocks back and moved on to Fugitive’s Drift set deep in the land of fairly recently murdered David Rattray. On a remote hillside overlooking the Buffalo River – out of sight of both Rorke’s Drift and the hill of Isandlwana, the bodies of Lieutenants Melville and Coghill are buried. They are not alone. Piles of white painted stones indicate where other fugitives from the ‘worst military disaster inflicted on the British Army’ who had fled the scene were caught and killed by the pursuing Zulu. Melville and Coghill had been charged with saving the Colours – the Queen’s Colours. Riding away from the closely impending finality of the battle, and pursued by hundreds of warriors intent of total annihilation of the ‘red-coats’, the lieutenants reached the river. It was in flood and in attempting to cross both lost their horses and further up the opposite bank, both lost their lives. The Colours were found a little way off by the returning forces, eventually, and eventually both officers received a posthumous Victoria Cross. A further V.C. was awarded for that day’s action. A Private Waller helped other fugitives across the river. 1300 dead soldiers and 3 V.C’s. compared to the 11 V.C’s. awarded to the 100 odd defenders of Rorke’s Drift. Dead men can give no testimony.
The visit yielded additional benefits to the military minded tourists in the form of ‘game’. Impala, blazebok and monkeys to add to the list later to contain giraffe, kudu, diku and a solitary mongoose!
We continued our pilgrimage by retracing our route to Rorke’s Drift and stopped just over the Buffalo River, where once the army had forded and ‘ponted’ across. Behind in the distance were the roofs of the mission and to the front of us the 10 miles of road that led to Isandlwana.
The landscape is fascinating and dramatic. The rolling hills and flat plains cut deep by ravines and valleys where occasional rivers and streams have carved out their dramatic routes. Scattered around, often in the most unlikely and remote exposed positions sit the Zulu enclaves. Groups of houses and round ‘beehive’ huts sit with no sign of boundary or limit looking like they have been placed there on a whim. The area is prone to drought and this is reflected in the dullness of the undergrowth, the dun colours of the buildings and the ever present dust. What rivers there were, were listless and tired. Where they were not, they showed like jagged scars on a sterile surface.
The Visitors Centre at Isandlwana is set some distance from the battlefield site. The expected collection of fading memorabilia lies dotted amongst the charts and maps telling the time-line story of the events that occurred half a mile down the road. However good this display may be the lure is towards the open pasture beneath the rocky edifice and one is drawn there as if it were a magnet. At the entrance there is a magnificent memorial to the Zulu, in the form of a huge representation of the necklace given, like a Victoria Cross, to warriors who had distinguished themselves in battle. Beyond, on the gentle undulating slopes, are the various memorials to individuals and regiments but apart from the hill itself, which hypnotically draws the eyes, the whole area is punctuated by the piles of white painted stones which were, and are, the final resting places of the soldiers that fell. (The collection and burial of the dead was not undertaken until the forces of the second invasion reached the battlefield later in 1879 following a long detour by Chelmsford who did not want the sight to be a morale-sapping experience for his ‘new’ army.)
We wandered about in an unhurried way (there were only a handful of other visitors who left soon after our arrival) and we read the numerous eroding inscriptions on the monuments and moved from stone-pile to stone-pile. We climbed the hill to find further piles showing where retreating soldiers had sought refuge but only found their deaths. It was like visiting a cathedral. We spoke in whispers and paused often to take in the views and the undoubted ambiance of this very special place. The attack of the Zulu impi on the un-laagered camp of Chelmsford’s split forces was overwhelming. Arguments rage about the cause of the defeat – insufficient defensive works, lack of available ammunition, poor leadership and so on. But, to my mind the key word is ‘overwhelming’. The Zulu were going to be unstoppable that day and that’s exactly what they were. Overwhelmed is the word that applied to us also.
It is a sad, but glorious place and we left it, on one hand reluctantly, but also with an anticipated excitement for the thing yet to come on our tour. We were heading north east, towards Ulundi and the scene of the final demise of the Zulu nation.
It took Lord Chelmsford some time to recover from the humiliation of Isandlwana, but somehow his reputation remained intact, possibly helped by the events at Rorke’s Drift. He retained command and put together a much larger – and wiser – force for a re-invasion later on. In entering Zululand, he deliberately chose to avoid passing by the field of Isandlwana, but did allow some troops to do their duty by recovering the remains of their colleagues and burying what was left of them under the stone cairns that remain there to this day. It was whilst on the advance that he again encountered some misfortune – some real bad luck. Within his entourage, and without his total support rode the heir apparent to the French Throne – the son of Napoleon III. This young man was keen to hone his military experience and through influence in high place – Victoria – he was given a place on Chelmsford’s ‘staff’, but to observe only and not place himself in any danger. That at least was the plan!
Whilst out riding with some fellow officers on some jaunt or other, Louis Napoleon found himself somewhat isolated in the face of a few Zulu. Despite a heroic attempt to defend himself (we are told) he met his end at the end of an assegai. It has been reported often that one Zulu solved a problem that was exercising the minds of many politicians in both Britain and France about what to do with this descendant of the great Napoleon himself. Chelmsford was embarrassed by the incident, but others took the blame and courts martial followed. The body of Louis Napoleon was returned to England and now lies (with those of his parents) in a monastery crypt in Surrey that is well worth a visit – I’ve taken some French friends there!
Undeterred Chelmsford marched on, and we motored on to find the site of the final victory.
In travelling across the countryside we were again impressed with the beauty and scale of the place. Rolling hills and forests interspersed with vast open plains. The whole being dotted with small collections of dwellings and villages. The roads were mainly good with occasional stretches reverting to dust and holes, and wherever we were we saw people. Usually in small groups or individuals, moving a few cattle, carrying bags of food, or groups of school children on their way to school or back again. Their appearance was immaculate. Neat, tidy and colourful uniforms, worn with pride and obviously well taken care of were the order of the day. The smiles were broad, despite the undoubted miles of walking needed to make either journey. Yet, to us, there was not a friendly aura. Three ‘whites’ in a car, in their ‘manor’ was not something to be waved at, as it might be in many other places. Geoff told us that there was no ‘white’ settlement here, and when questioned about how any white settlers might be viewed if they felt so inclined he ventured a time limit of ‘they’d last about 20 minutes’!
We entered the ‘city’ of Ulundi – the traditional capital of the Zulu – and having spotted the battlefield memorial went to our accommodation via a visit to the museum adjoining the kraal of Cetshwayo which is being slowly and painstakingly restored. Despite our fatigue and yearning for liquid refreshment the curator of the museum fired us with such enthusiasm that the minutes melted away in his company. A visit to the kraal itself, and into the replica King’s Hut was emotive to say the least. This kraal, of huge proportions was burned to the ground by Chelmsford and now is rising again from the embers. We stayed overnight in a replica Zulu ‘beehive’ hut – it’s main door being only 30 inches high, which posed a problem, but the modern additions of bathroom, shower and small kitchen did not!
We shared our barbeque supper with three men working on the museum refurbishment and a good time was had by all. Their ‘we must leave at 7am tomorrow’, turned into a late shared breakfast and a very late leaving!
The battlefield site – if battle is the correct word for the slaughter that took place there – is a fenced garden with a central monument looking like a small church. The size of the plot is defined, it is said, by the size of the defensive, yet mobile, formation that Chelmsford employed. He was not going to be caught out in the open with his forces extended and unsupported. He had learned. From some distance away he created a ‘rolling square’, with cannon and gattling guns at the corners and lines of infantry making up the sides. He then moved this force slowly towards the oncoming Zulu impi. With three ranks of rifles and the rapid-fire hand-cranked machine guns he ensured that few, if any Zulu, got anywhere near him. The result was never in doubt. Limited by their weaponry the Zulu warrior is a very effective mobile operator. Speed and endurance and the use of the shock ‘sprint’ attack are effective against a weak defence. Chelmsford’s defence was far from weak. The Zulu came on in their hundreds and in their hundreds they died. The cavalry chased those who ran away and many more fled, including Cetshwayo himself. The Zulu war was effectively over. Cetshwayo was eventually captured and in time was sent to meet Queen Victoria – who it is said was ‘charmed’ by him.
The battlefield site is interesting if one is to believe that it marks the exact spot and the exact size of this ‘killing machine’, and I have no reason to doubt it. Alas, the place has no atmosphere. Could this be the result of the whole event being the equivalent of the first round knock-out in a much anticipated, but poorly matched heavy weight boxing match? For this was the British army at its most professional. True, it had taken a couple of body blows, but this is not unique in the history of the armed forces of Britain. Having realized the nature and size of the task and with proper consideration of the strengths of the enemy, the expedition was mounted with a professional and planned approach relying on proper intelligence, good advice and respect for the enemy – not as a walk in the park. This almost clinical ruthlessness was evident in the overwhelming victory which leaves one contemplating the number of times that we have evidence of the self same approach throughout the annuls of British military history – where complacence and smugness together with a reliance on previous practices have received the rebuff and bloody nose they deserved. I will record only a few as examples – The Crimean War, the BEF in 1914, and as mentioned previously the sending of my father to meet the German tanks armed with a horse and a lance! Ulundi is a place of death, a memorial to the passing of an epoch, but perhaps the enduring memories are of the noise of passing cars and lorries and the anxiety of leaving the car outside the fence!
Our journey back to Durban was punctuated by a visit to the museum and ‘shrine’ marking the place of the murder of Shaka – and the thunderous rain. The stone upon which he reported sat whilst being relieved of life glistened through the unkempt weeds surrounded it, and whilst the museum was tidy it had little to offer other than a spear once believed to be that of the great King himself (but I’ve been told of other such ‘unique’ spears in the possession of other people.)
Careful study of the map showed we would pass by the often ignored battlefield of Ginginlovu. This engagement had taken place in the first invasion and had involved the coastal defence column which eventually became entrapped at Eshowe. Geoff did not know of it, but by dint of careful navigation we found a small cemetery up a track nestling in the remains of a corn patch. The grave stones were named and showed some care but this was certainly the ‘corner of some foreign field’ far from the gaze or indeed the remembrance of most.
As we settled into our high security bed and breakfast accommodation in Durban – where Geoff had insisted on escorting us to and from the small local supermarket – we were able to reflect on what we had seen and experienced.
Several things have been in my mind for years as if on a wish list. In my younger (and financially poorer) days, I never thought that any of these things would be achieved. Visiting South Africa, viewing and experiencing the sites and scenes of the Zulu War was always on this list. Now it had a big tick next to it. Our senses had been assailed for 4 days. We needed time to assimilate the information and the atmospheres, but overarching all of this was the emotion of the place. Politics aside, and following a difficult rebirth, this is a country showing the signs of a troubled adolescence. Like a teenager some of the responses vary, often irrationally between maturity and outright tantrum and violence. Geoff was hopeful. He believed that ‘Seth Efrica’ needed another generation or more to be at ease with itself, and thus put others at ease.
I bow to his wisdom and lean on his optimism.