The Anglo-Zulu war of 1879 lasted less than 5 months, but the course of the war was determined by two battles fought on one memorable day. I travelled to Kwazulu Natal in South Africa to visit the battlefields of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift and to listen to the heart wrenching stories of courage, victory and defeat.
Fugitive’s Drift Lodge is a charming boutique lodge in the heart of Kwazulu Natal province, a five-hour drive from Johannesburg or four hours from Durban. The lodge is owned by the Rattray family, whose family members have set the standard for battlefield tours in South Africa. Their guides – including both sons of the late David Rattray – are talented raconteurs with deep knowledge and passion about the Anglo-Zulu war and with their dramatic stories, they are able to keep their guests mesmerized on the edge of their seat for many hours. Some parts of the events are extremely moving and many cannot help but shed a tear. It is a tour de force of performance art.
The Battle of Isandlwana took place in the morning of 22 January 1879 and in the afternoon the battle of Rorke’s Drift was fought. So, we start out early morning in Isandlwana, where as many as 12000 Zulu warriors tactically outsmarted a British regiment by locking them in “like the horn of the buffalo”. The result was a historic victory for the Zulu and humiliation for the British. The British, equipped with modern Martini-Henry rifles and bayonets were helpless against this well-organized “native” army armed with shields and stabbing spears. Standing on the top of the hill overlooking the battlefield, our raconteur talks about the events preceding the battle and the political and military tensions between British colonial commander-in-chief in South Africa, Lord Chelmsford and independent Zulu King, Cetshwayo. During the battle, a handful of British soldiers managed to escape, fleeing on foot towards the Buffalo River.
This flight route, called the Fugitive’s Trail, is now a beautiful hike of about twelve kilometers through forests and hills down to the famous river. I walked the trail in the early afternoon accompanied by my Zulu guide, who urged me to look back and imagine being chased by thousands of Zulu shouting their war cry: “Usuthu! Usuthu!”.
Heroes and victims
The next afternoon, the story continues from Rorke’s Drift, a small mission station for the British Army in those days. Warned by the British fugitives, the small hospital staff courageously defended the hospital and its patients against the Zulu, who continued to attack in waves. Many brave soldiers received the Victoria Cross for their defense of building, fighting from room to room with only their bayonets. Our storyteller vividly recounts the actions of heroes and fate of victims on both sides as the sun sets slowly on Rorke’s Drift. We see the Zulu fight for what they are worth, the English sticking to their guns, and by the time darkness sets in and the story comes to its conclusion, there is not a dry eye in the house.
What is so special about this live, on location, storytelling, is that history can be interpreted, and the individual storytellers use the small space between the historical facts to add extra drama and imagination. The events are well documented on the English side and on the side of the Zulus, stories have been handed down via the oral tradition. The Zulu perspective is different from the English perspective, and together they form the basis for unforgettable history. As more than a century has passed, the events of this war are brought to us with a certain romantic heroism, but the gruesome circumstances and many deaths of young and brave men bring no justification of war.