Michael Caine’s first starring role saw him riding through the veld on a cheetah in Zulu. As Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, he is the very epitome of British imperial heroism: resplendent in his starched red tunic, a cloud of arid African dust trailing behind him, one hand raised in a rallying battle cry. He fearlessly cuts a swathe through the heat of the battle, leaving only the destruction of the enemy in his wake. Glorious. And it is this glorious figure in the 1964 film that has perforated and subsequently come to define the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879 in the British popular imagination. A conflict of epic proportions, the war saw valiant British soldiers fended off infinite hoards of barefoot Zulu warriors in a swashbuckling defence of Queen, country and empire.
It was certainly this patriotic spectacle that was prominent in my expectations as my family and I drove three hours from Durban to visit the battlefields of the conflict. I must admit, the thought of seeing the glory of the British Empire was somewhat submurged under the dread of wandering the Natal landscape in the sorching heat and leaving behind the azure sublimity of Cape Town. Such preconceptions could not have been more misguided.
Over the next few days, thanks to this visit to the battlefields and a series of accompanying lectures, my view of the Anglo-Zulu war, and indeed my view of the future of South Africa, was transformed. This transformation is wholly due to the formidable influence of David Rattray, the founder of the lodge in which we stayed – ‘Fugitive’s Drift’, which lies on the site of the British retreat from the battle of Isandlwana. Obsessed with what he considered to be the untold story of the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, Rattray dedicated his life to the retelling of the Anglo-Zulu conflict.
The story in itself is astonishing. The battle of Isandlwana on January 22nd 1879 was arguably the most humiliating defeat in British colonial history; mere hours later, at Rorke’s Drift, 139 British soldiers successfully defended their garrison against an intense assault by 3000 Zulu warriors. Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to the British defenders, the most ever received in a single action by one regiment. Faced with the juxtaposition of these two battles, I was immediately struck by how these events conveyed at once an indictment of man’s inadequacy and a tribute to his bravery. The lectures crafted by Rattray, however, take this story to another level.
First of all, they go some way towards redefining heroism – the heroes of Rattray’s story are not the swashbuckling Michael Cains of Zulu, nor even the battle-hardened warriors of history text-books. Rather, they are the cooks and bottle washers whose courage coursed from their comradeship. The story dwells on the actions of Hook the Cook, who ran back time and again to rescue the patients from the blazing infirmary at Rorke’s Drift, dragging them to safety by the light of Zulu fire. Another one of Rattray’s unconventional heroes that emerges is Charlie Herford, a peripheral participant whose writings Rattray used to recount the Rorke’s Drift battle. Herford was an eccentric young officer whose passions and talents lay with entomology (the study of insects) rather than military leadership. As a result, when he suddenly disappeared in the heat of battle, he was presumed dead. Moments later, he reemerged clutching a rare beetle he had spotted and captured in a matchbox.
These effervescent anecdotes, which infuse the story both with humour and depth, stem from Rattray’s ability to speak both English and Zulu fluently. He was able to use a hitherto untouched mass of oral history sources passed down to him from the grandchildren of Zulu survivors who work the land as farmhands and goatherds. This affinity with the Zulu community is crucial, however, in allowing Rattray’s lectures to view the conflict sympathetically from both sides. It provides a refreshing comparison to the gung-ho version of the struggle that had informed the empire’s children for more than a century. For whilst the lectures in no way mitigate the extraordinary display of courage at Rorke’s Drift, they present Isandlwana as a Zulu triumph, rather than a British failure.
Indeed, one of the concluding themes of these lectures is the spirit of reconciliation, which the battlefields themselves seem to represent. The battlefield of Isandlwana is filled with dozens of gleaming white cairns marking the mass graves of the British soldiers. Whilst it might seem natural that the Zulus who still live in this area might resent the constant traipsing of British tourists over their land, the battlefields remain almost exactly as they were 130 years ago. Indeed, in this time, there has not been one single act of desecration or vandalism of these graves. On the contrary, the relationship between Zulus and British appears to be one of mutual respect. On the 125th anniversary of the battle of Rorke’s Drift, the Zulu priest of the Church on the original site of the battle, upon hearing of the visit of British war veterans to Natal, insisted that a church service be held to celebrate the bravery displayed on both sides. Indeed, Rattray himself, being both Anglophile and Zulophile, seemed to embody the very essence of this reconciliation.
However, it is perhaps idealistic to believe in the reality of this appeasement. Indeed, Rattray himself, having done the most to bring about harmony between Zulus and British, was the victim of his own efforts. Two years ago he was killed by Zulu intruders who entered his house demanding money. Whilst the legacy of the story he created and the values that he espoused live on, it is impossible not to be disillusioned by this murder. It seems to highlight the lawlessness engulfing South Africa, where 20,000 people are murdered every year. Following his death, a spokesman for the Democratic Alliance, the opposition party in South Africa said ‘people like David Rattray used their lives contributing to the body of knowledge that is in this country, whereas the criminals contribute nothing but an evil vacuum that sucks in our best and brightest.’ In this culture of violence, it seems that Zuma’s anthem ‘Bring me my machine gun’ is still being trumpeted.