Return to Zululand: A South African journey in pursuit of my family’s past

Adam Williams visits Isandhlwana

Adam Williams visits Isandhlwana

Part 1: The Battlefields

Childhood Among Zulus

Childhood Among Zulus

Several years ago I wrote a blog article related to the discovery of my lost South African ancestry. In it I described my passionate childhood interest in Zulu history, and the wistful thought that members of my family may actually have participated in events that had fired my youthful imagination. (see A Boyhood Among Zulus)

This summer I achieved my childhood ambition of actually visiting Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa and touring the historical battlefields that had inspired me ever since reading from the age of 10 Rider Haggard’s African romances and, at 12, ‘The Washing of the Spears’, Donald R Morris’s great history of the Zulu Nation.

With our guide, Andre Hannam

With our guide, Andre Hannam

We couldn’t have had a better guide. Andre Hannam, of African Sky Tours, after a fabulous few days showing us game parks, took us even further off road to see various Zulu battlefield sites, including the battle sites of Blood River, Gingindhlovu, Eshowe and Ulundi.

Boer memorial to their victory over the Zulus at Blood River on 16th December 1838

Boer memorial to their victory over the Zulus at Blood River on 16th December 1838

The Monument to British victory at Ulundi 4th July 1879

The Monument to British victory at Ulundi 4th July 1879

We were extremely fortunate to find that rooms were free in the Rattray farm at Fugitive’s Drift. From our bungalow we could see the mountain of Isandhlwana appearing eerily above the dawn horizon.

Dawn over Isandhlwana

Dawn over Isandhlwana

From there we could walk to the drift itself and visit the graves of the two lieutenants, Melvill and Coghill, who tried to save their regimental colours on that black day of defeat, 21st January 1879.

Fugitives’ Drift - the only escape route from Isandhlwana, though only 55 survivors of the battle managed to cross to safety

Fugitives’ Drift – the only escape route from Isandhlwana, though only 55 survivors of the battle managed to cross to safety

The Mission Station at Rorkes Drift

The Mission Station at Rorkes Drift

One of the owners of the Fugitives Drift property, Doug Rattray, who has taken on his late father’s mantle as a storyteller, held us spellbound for two and a half hours as he walked and talked us through the Battle of Rorkes Drift (of the movie ‘Zulu’ fame) and the next day, after another on-site account by one of Doug’s colleagues in which the Zulu experience was brought movingly to life, we were able to wander over the slopes of Isandhlwana itself, where a British army was massacred. Like Battle in Kent, Culloden in Scotland, Gettysburg in the US and Hattin in Israel, this is a battle site where the lie of the land dramatically tells the story.

Monument showing Durnford’s last stand. Isandhlwana in the background

Monument showing Durnford’s last stand. Isandhlwana in the background

The Isandhlwana battleground as seen by the Zulu high command on Inyoni Hill

The Isandhlwana battleground as seen by the Zulu high command on Inyoni Hill

The cairns to the dead on the saddle of Isandhlwana hill. The Sphinx like shape of the mountain cast a sense of foreboding on the 24th Regiment of Foot as it resembled the insignia on their cap badges

The cairns to the dead on the saddle of Isandhlwana hill. The Sphinx like shape of the mountain cast a sense of foreboding on the 24th Regiment of Foot as it resembled the insignia on their cap badges

I climbed up past the white cairns of the dead to a cave on the mountain slope. Here the last British soldier fought his lonely battle before he too was overwhelmed and speared, joining in death his 1,400 companions, who had been slain when the Zulus, after suffering the deaths of 3,000 warriors, broke their line. In this battle bravery and loss was matched equally on both sides.

With my back to the rocks, I looked for long minutes over the wide empty plain that on 21st January 1879, had been darkened by the rush of the Zulu impis, and clouded by the smoke of the British guns.

Vividly I recalled the incidents of the battle that had been seared into my memory and imagination for 55 years and which now I could conjure into place in the actual terrain where it all happened.

View from the cave. Cairns show where British soldiers fell (C Company on right)

View from the cave. Cairns show where British soldiers fell (C Company on right)

A dark atmosphere still seemed to linger over this sinister mountain. There was something elemental about this battle, which took place under an eclipse of the sun. The white stones commemorating both tragedy and heroism are more moving because of the chivalrous respect that existed between Zulu warrior and British soldier despite the losses suffered by both sides. As we left, we came across a party of modern South African soldiers paying their respects where their compatriots white and black had fallen 138 years before.

Modern soldiers pay respects at memorial to Zulu slain at Isandhlwana

Modern soldiers pay respects at memorial to Zulu slain at Isandhlwana

To be continued…

Further reading





Comments

  1. Am enjoying this Adam! Looking forward to the rest!

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