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We were up and about early this morning and had a hearty breakfast to steel us for the day’s sightseeing ahead. At 8:30am our guide Pat Rundgren arrived at the hotel. He is Scandinavian/Irish by descent and his nickname, Elephant, gives you an idea of his physique. Tall and very stockily built his ex-military bearing comes through as his big beefy hands grip you in a firm handshake of welcome. We had a brief chat to agree our plan of campaign for the day and then headed off through Dundee.

Yesterday the town had been totally quiet and this early in the morning it was still waking up as we drove through. Until a few years ago it used to be a small and pleasant town but it is now changing fast. Cheap stalls now line the streets and it has a run down and seedy air to it. This was a common theme for a couple of villages that we passed through today. By the time we got back in the evening there were a lot more people around and about but they did nothing to improve the overall look of the town.

Pat was a great tour guide and gave us loads of information about the spread of the British through South Africa and the events that led up to the wars with the Zulu’s. Dutch farmers who had settled the Cape area, mainly to provide a resupply base for the Dutch shipping interests going further east, were not keen on the British, especially when they abolished slavery in the early 1930’s. This had the effect of increasing the salaries the farmers had to pay to the black workers on their farms forcing many of them into bankruptcy. Rather than staying and suffering financial ruin the farmers, the Boers, started off on the Great Trek further inland where they hoped to create their own self governing areas to live in.

At around the same time the Zulu’s had been fighting with pretty much everyone they could which had resulted in all the original tribes being scattered and displaced. The Boers thought they were going into uninhabited territory and soon started to establish new farms. A while later diamonds were found at Kimberley so the British moved quickly to annexe the area so they could control the diamond business. The Boers were understandably a bit miffed about that and set off again to find new British-free lands, which they did near Johannesburg. Here, gold was found so the whole process kicked off again.

While the Boers were looking for new lands and free rule, the British were looking for new commercial opportunities and markets. They also needed to protect their land boundary at the north from the threat of the Portuguese coming south from Mozambique. This effectively trapped the Zulu’s between the British and the Portuguese and resulted in the Zulu wars. The Boers meanwhile sat and watched and waited to see the outcome of these battles as both the Zulu’s and the British were causing them problems.

The Zulu lands were immense. Much of the land was difficult to cover due to its mountainous terrain but three different routes led up through valleys and to the heart of the Zulu nation. Not that the nation had a permanent capital. As a grazing people the “capital” would move around with the people causing a bit of a problem for British military strategists. Capturing the capital of the country you were invading was the recognisable symbol that a war had been won. If there was no capital there was no end to the war but with war being a costly endeavour there needed to be a way to bring closure. To resolve the issue the British decreed that Ulundi was the capital of the Zulu empire and was therefore the focus of their battle to quash the Zulu and enable them to protect their northern land border.

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Pat gave us a tour of the battlefields

Today we visited the sites of the battles at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, the latter of which is immortalized in the film Zulu. There are no great monuments or remnants of the war and I was really glad that we had chosen to go with a guide. If we hadn’t all we would have seen were a few fields but Pat really brought the battles to life for us and told the story from both the British and the Zulu perspectives.

Both sides had a different objective for war. The British aim was to protect their commercial interests and their colonies and they determined who had won the battle based on the number of casualties suffered by each side. The Zulu’s were only really interested in the spoils of war that they could acquire and take back to their village. This was more important that the number of the opposition killed because it bought favour with their chief and with the young ladies of their village who were prospective brides. A warrior that returned from battle empty handed was not deemed to be a good catch and was teased and mocked by all in the village.

The battle of Isandlwana took place in what at first sight appears to be a wide open flat valley. Isandlwana itself is a hill, shaped like a sphinx or a boot depending on which side you see it from. The British army had a large camp here with a few thousand soldiers, 12,000 head of cattle as well as a few thousand warriors from other African tribes. They had major logistical difficulties to overcome. The land here is rocky and what looks like a flat surface is actually covered in donga’s, run offs for the water that pours down the mountain in the rainy season, most of which are deep enough for people to walk along them unseen.

A good day’s travelling for the contingent would probably cover about one mile in distance. Ulundi was 90 miles away, at least a three month journey. Water was also a key factor in determining the battle strategy as without it the army would quickly suffer. Battles therefore could only be waged during the summer rainy season which also then meant that the terrain beneath them became more difficult to cross. Throw into the pot typhoid, cholera, dysentery, bugs that bite horses resulting in them dieing within a few days, temperatures in the high 30C and thick European uniforms and it was a pretty horrid environment to be in.

The strategists soon realised that they could not take the war to the Zulu’s, they had to get the Zulu’s to come to them. Among other African tribes the Zulu’s were not well liked because of the tribal wars they had waged for many years which displaced the other tribes. The British found a ready and easy supply of black warriors only too happy to get revenge on the Zulu’s especially as they would get paid for doing so. The British used these warriors to ransack, rape, burn and pillage their way through nearby Zulu homelands knowing that this would bring the Zulu army to them.

It was assumed that being a black, tribal army that the Zulu’s would have little in the form of tactics and that the military might of the British would overcome all the Zulu’s could throw at them. Half of the British contingent had gone off, with their commanding office Lord Chelmsford, on a reconnaissance mission in a different part of the valley. The orders left behind were to protect the camp and camp stores, which were a very valuable supply of food, clothing, ammunition and all required to support an army.

Looking at the site it initially seems like a very simple proposition. There is clear land between Isandlwana and another nearby hill and it seems easy to be able to corral the camp and their 12,000 livestock here. But the livestock takes up space and, knowing that they would probably be at Isandlwana for a while as the engineers worked to carve a path through the valley, the camp had a wide range of facilities. There was a parade ground, cricket pitch, hospital, kitchens to name a few as well as row upon row of tents to provide shelter for the army.

All of this took space too, especially the tents that needed to be erected on flat ground. So what at first seems like an easy to defend position soon became a large sprawling camp. With half the army contingent gone it was a very wide boundary to defend, not that an attack was expected, and it was also a camp with no outer fortifications.

The Zulu warriors were traditionally armed just with a shield, a spear and a long stick with a round wooden end used to crack the skulls of the enemy open, causing death. The shield was used to provide shelter from the sun, as a plate for eating, a sleeping bag and also as a weapon in its own right as the shaft of the shield could be removed and was sharpened into a point. The front of the shield has a lattice cut into it which was used to deflect enemy swords and bayonets, bringing the enemy into hand to hand combat.

A Zulu could probably only throw their spear about 50m so their warfare tactics were based on close range or hand to hand combat. Years of trading with foreigners though had also brought rifles to the Zulu. Their battle tactics followed a standard path. Two separate tranches of warriors would advance in a horn shaped pattern, flanking the enemy to the left and right, A third tranche would advance as a chest directly towards the enemy. They would start to close in until the enemy was encircled and would then move in to fight at close quarters.

At Isandlwana the Zulu’s tactics worked superbly. Operating under the command to protect the camp and its stores the British had no time to strike camp and move it and the supplies to a more easily defensible position when they saw the Zulu invasion starting. They initially only saw the 5,000 chest coming towards them but a further 20,000 Zulu’s were also working around their flanks. From start to end the battle lasted less than an hour and was a great victory for the Zulu’s and a momentous defeat for the British. Few British soldiers survived to tell the tale. Some escaped along the Fugitive’s Trail but these were few and far between.

Any soldier the Zulu’s came across, whether dead or alive, suffered a pretty horrific state. The Zulu’s believe in acquiring the fighting spirit or courage of the men they face in battle. Whether you were dead or lying wounded on the battle field the same fate awaited you if a Zulu got to you before your own side did. They would cut out your backside, cut off your private parts (which they then cooked up and ate) and then slit open your stomach and rummage around for your liver, which to the Zulu’s is where your guts (as in courage) is held. As few Zulu men have facial hair it was also deemed to be a sign of wisdom and maturity so if you had a moustache your upper lip was cut off too and taken back as spoils of war.

Apparently there has been much debate in the years since this battle about how and why the British forces lost so badly to the Zulu’s at Isandlwana. They had tried and tested rules detailing how to defend your position and your camp which were not followed. But, having been to the site, you can understand why this was not possible to do. The British had superior firepower and should have been able to blast the Zulu’s before they got close enough for hand to hand combat. But, the site has several black spots which would have allowed the Zulu’s to advance through the network of donga’s and reach the British unseen. Probably the biggest problem for the British though was the size of the camp they were trying to defend with relatively few men.

For Lord Chelmsford Isandlwana was a significant career limiting move and he desperately needed to find a way to minimise the impact. Not only did they lose the battle but the Zulu’s helped themselves to all of the camp stores which would have been worth millions, probably hundreds of millions, in today’s money. But battles with the Zulu’s for that day were not over yet. A few miles further back along the valley was Rorke’s Drift, a small camp and mission post not far from a crossing (the drift) of the Buffalo River. We crossed the river today by bridge and even now outside of the rainy season the water was running pretty fast.

The bridge is the site of just one of four crossings at Rorke’s. The bridge is the sight of where a sling and pulley system was set up to bring the cattle across. Downstream a rocky stretch was used to haul wagons across the river. A little way upstream from the bridge the army engineers built pontoons to get the soldiers across and further upstream, the native soldiers were left to cross by their own devices. They were separated from the rest of the contingent, both at the crossings and in the camps, to prevent them from stealing supplies and making off with them.

The Battle of Rorke’s Drift is the story told in the film Zulu. A small camp with a hospital and storehouse, manned by 140 soldiers (a rough bunch, 50% of whom would either be discharged for poor conduct or find themselves “doing time” of some sort during their army career) held out for twelve hours against an invading Zulu army of 4,000. They suffered minimal casualties and having killed more than they lost, the British claimed this as a superb victory, focussing heavily on this rather than the losses at Isandlwana. Not only had they protected their camp but they had also stopped the Zulu advance into Natal so they had protected the British colony also. Lord Chelmsford then set off a few months later to capture Ulundi which he did, but not without further tragedy dogging him.

In his party was the Prince Imperial of France, presumably a descendent of Napoleon who was Emperor of France. The Prince and his escort found themselves caught by a group of Zulu’s and the Prince suffered the fate detailed above at the hands of the Zulu’s. This was a blow to Chelmsford but not as big as blow as the fact that the escort had deserted the Prince leaving him to his fate. Shortly after capturing Ulundi, Lord Chelmsford’s replacement arrived and he retired back to England, never again to lead a military campaign. He died, aged 94, playing snooker.

But back to Rorke’s Drift. The reported events of the battle are well known. The Zulu’s attacked the camp from the hospital end, setting the hospital on fire. The soldiers inside smashed their way out of the burning building and made it across an open courtyard in broad daylight to the other end of the camp, about 100m away, where the storehouse was still being defended. The storehouse was then the focus of the battle until the Zulu’s gave up and went away.

Pat, our guide, has a keen interest in military history and has spent many hours pondering the events at Rorke’s Drift. He’s analysed the battle statistics and the events as reported and has found parts of the puzzle that do not fit. The Zulu’s didn’t have the means to make fire so it is unlikely that they fired burning arrows into the roof of the hospital. They also didn’t have bows and arrows having gone straight from spears to rifles. Even if they had fire, the battle was held in the rainy season so it is unlikely that they would have been able to set fire to the sodden thatch. It is more likely that the fire was started from inside the hospital, either by accident or on purpose. As the Zulu’s needed to take spoils of war home to their village, they would have wanted to plunder the hospital building, another reason why they would not have burnt it.

The battle statistics claim that the British were fighting a 4,000 strong Zulu army for 12 hours. If so, it is reasonable to expect that both sides would have suffered higher casualties than the 15 British and 351 Zulu deaths recorded. Pat has an alternative theory that yes the battle lasted for 12 hours but it was not an intensive all out attack by Zulu’s waging hand to hand warfare. As the Zulu’s fight at close combat they would need daylight to see what they were doing and also so that their colleagues could see, record and verify how many British soldiers each Zulu killed. All of the British Casualties at Rorke’s Drift died of bullet wounds not from spears so this would indicate sniper fire action rather than hand combat.

Pat’s theory is that a small contingent of the Zulu’s kept plugging away through the night at the British to keep them occupied while the rest of the Zulu’s stole their herd of cattle. To the British the cattle were not really that important, they had maintained camp, protected their stores and as they had initially stolen the cattle from the Zulu’s it could easily be replaced. For the Zulu’s the cattle were a major spoil of war and very important currency for them when they returned to their village. While the British won the battle of Rorke’s Drift, the Zulu’s were simply on a cattle rustling expedition so both sides were successful in their endeavours.

Whatever the actual truth is of both Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift I think it will be impossible now to tell. Western spin would have ensured that the battles won were hyped up and those lost down played so events reported probably are not an accurate representation of the facts. The Zulu’s version of events has never really been asked for so the history is all very one sided. What is known is that on the day of the battles a few thousand British and Zulu men lost their lives.

The British returned to Isandlwana to find and bury their dead. With the passing of time, the carving up of the bodies for Zulu ritual purposes, local wildlife finding an abundant meal and rainfall washing bones away it must have been a grizzly task. The ground at Isandlwana is too rocky to dig graves so all they could do was to collect the bones together into piles and cover them with stones to try and prevent the jackals having a further meal. There was no way to identify the dead (the Zulu’s also took their uniforms). Up until the 1960’s missionaries at a nearby station were still finding bones that had been washed up by the last year’s rains. Today the piles of stones are painted white to make them easier for people to see. They clearly show a trail of soldiers running from the front line of battle up to higher ground to try and protect their position.

At Rorke’s many soldier’s were awarded the Victoria Cross medal for their bravery in rescuing their comrades from the burning hospital and for protecting the camp. What was surprising to hear is what happened to them when they returned to the UK. People awarded the VC at that time had normally been pretty badly injured such that their army career was brought to an end. Unlike today, there were no pensions or payments for early retirement on medical grounds and no state benefits system either. Many of these soldiers ended their lives in extreme poverty and some committed suicide. It’s not a very glorious end for those who saved Rorke’s Drift and the colonies with it.

If you go to the battle sites get a guide. A small museum has been set up in the old schoolhouse at Isandlwana which runs through the events of the battle held there. It’s worth a visit but has minimal information compared to what you will learn from your guide. If you know where to turn off after you’ve crossed the Buffalo River, you can take a detour off the gravel road and cross a field to see the drift itself close up. At the Rorke’s Drift camp the hospital has been rebuilt and is now also a small museum outlining the events of the battle there. Again it’s worth a visit but you need a guide to really bring it to life.

In 1999, without it seems much consultation with the Zulu’s, it was decided that as there were no Zulu memorials to these events, but lots of British ones, memorials to the Zulu’s should be built. This is not part of Zulu culture and the feeling we got from Pat is that the Zulu’s don’t really care either way. There is one at Isandlwana and one at Rorke’s Drift. Incorporated within the memorial at both sites is a Buffalo Thorn tree, an important tree for the Zulu. The young buds are brewed up into a drink which, to quote Pat “makes ladies want babies”.

Zulu culture is based on ancestor worship. Those that are too badly wounded to make the journey home are killed by the Zulu at the battlefield. For all their dead they take their spirit home. To do this they slit open their stomach and with a small branch from the buffalo thorn tree dig and probe into the guts to capture the spirit. The thorns on the tree grow in both directions so they will catch the spirit whichever way it moves. The branch is then taken back to the warrior’s family and in this way his spirit is taken home.

All in all it was a very informative day.

During the day we chatted on and off about the changing face of South Africa and whether or not the black/white divide is still in existence. Not surprisingly it is and a great example is where people would be on this holiday weekend. Under apartheid the beaches in Durban were for whites only, the beaches further away north and south being for the black population. This weekend Durban will be busy but with all the blacks on the beaches by town that used to be for the whites and all the whites on the beaches that used to be black only.

Pat dropped us back into town where we did a quick detour to get some more accommodation leaflets from tourist information. After a couple of hours at the hotel we then took Pat up on his offer of comings down to the Moths bar, the equivalent of the British Legion. It was a small bar full of military memorabilia, a kind of time capsule. Their Moths club now has only about 40 members and they open the bar for a couple of hours on Friday night only. You very much got the feel that this was a regular spot on the social scene for the white community of Dundee and that the same faces would be seen at every different “social” event.

We had a couple of drinks at the bar then headed back to the hotel for dinner and bed.