Battlefields of Zululand

This part of Zululand is jam packed with battlefields. We visited Isandlwana, Rorke’s Drift, and Blood River.

Overview: 2.5 days, 405 km

On Saturday, we visited Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. These take us back to the start of the 1879 Zulu War which we came across last month at Fort Pearson / the Ultimatum Tree and at Gingindlovu.

The British ultimatum to the Zulus expired on 10 January 1879, so without further ado, British troops crossed the Tugela and Buffalo rivers into Zululand on 11 January. We’re now with the central column under Lord Chelmsford:

The Buffalo River was crossed at Rorke’s Drift (a drift is a crossing point), named after James Rorke who lived nearby and created the crossing, which became one of the main crossing points between Natal and Zululand. After Rorke’s death in 1875, his property became a Swedish Mission Station and was then requisitioned by the British for use as a commissariat and hospital during the war.

Nowadays, there’s a handy bridge:

The Buffalo River seems quite substantial:

4709 officers and men crossed at Rorke’s Drift on 11 January with 302 wagons and carts, 1507 oxen, and 116 mules and horses. Further wagons and supplies were brought across over the next few days.

On 20th January, the central column advanced to camp at Isandlwana, about ten miles away as the crow flies.

Things now started to go wrong…. On the 21st, a party scouting to the south east reported seeing 2,000 Zulus and asked for reinforcements. Early on the morning of the 22nd, Chelmsford set off with around half the men in the camp. Later that same morning, scouts came across the main Zulu army hiding in a valley to the north of Isandlwana.

With their position given away, the Zulus decided to attack. Around 20,000 of them, in classic “horns of the bull” formation, overran the camp and killed around 1350 British troops. Only around 60 Europeans are thought to have survived, fleeing on horseback. The camp must’ve been a horrendous sight for the troops returning with Chelmsford later that evening before withdrawing back into Natal first thing the next morning.

It was some months before the British returned to bury what was left of their dead beneath white cairns; there are many of these scattered across the battlefield:

At one side of the battlefield is a larger collection of cairns (one suspects some “gathering up” of remains must have taken place), together with a number of memorials:

A more modern addition is the Zulu memorial representing the necklace given to particularly valiant warriors:

With most of the British forces left at the camp at Isandlwana massacred, could things get any worse? Erm, yes…..

King Cetshwayo’s half brother had been in charge of the reserves. He was known as an impetuous man, and seems to have felt that the reserves (made up of older men in their 40s) should also get to “dip their spears in blood”.

Despite orders from King Cetshwayo that Zulu armies were not to cross into Natal (the Zulus had not wanted this war, and the King was keen not to provoke the British), the reserves decided to attack the place they knew as “Kwa Jimu” (Jim’s House) – the station at Rorke’s Drift.

The story is well known – around a hundred British soldiers held off a force of around 4,000 Zulus for 11 hours:

Attacking at around 4.30pm on the 22nd having come straight from Isandlwana, the Zulus kept up the battle until around 4am the next morning, when they finally withdrew.

More memorials, British and Zulu:

Our first stop on Sunday was the fabulous Talana Museum in Dundee. You could spend all day there. We got lots of information about mining (this area being part of the huge coal fields we’d driven through to get here), the development of Dundee as “coalopolis” (with mocked up local shops etc), as well as the numerous conflicts that have affected the area – the Zulu War, Boer War etc.

A coal train:

Mark loves old tractors:

After his Madagascan adventures, he also loves rickshaws:

We looked around the home of the Smith family, who founded Dundee (yes, they came from Dundee in Scotland), learned about Gandhi and the 1913 strike (I’d forgotten that he spent several years in South Africa) then moved on to the First World War.

Whilst the First World War information relating to Europe was all very familiar, I had no idea that there was a rebellion in South Africa in late 1914 after the government joined the British side – Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans had, of course, been at war with the British only a few years before. South Africa was tasked with taking German South West Africa (now Namibia). I had no idea that the wireless station at Windhoek was then the second largest in the world, with that and smaller stations at Swakopmund and Luderitzbucht important for maintaining contact between German warships and Berlin.

I was just reading about the war in German East Africa, where the South Africans had to deal with guerrilla tactics from the Germans that kept the war there going until the surrender in November 1918, when Mark started gesticulating frantically. “come here! look! look!”. When I got there, well I never, it’s only my first cousin three times removed on the wall (Albert Marr, not Jackie the Chacma baboon):

There was no caption to the photo at bottom left, but I was able to tell Mark that it was taken after the War when Albert Marr and Jackie the Chacma baboon toured village fetes and the like in the UK to raise funds for the Red Cross. For a small payment, Jackie would shake hands with you; for slightly more, he’d give you a kiss!

Onward – our final destination in the area was Blood River. Back in 1837, a group of Afrikaners (of Dutch, French and German descent) decided they’d had enough of the lax ways of the British-run Cape Colony. Under their leader, a guy called Piet Retief, they decided to settle in Natal, where they could be self-governing according to their own strict Calvinist beliefs. Groups like this are known as the Voortrekkers (“pioneers” – there are lots of Voortrekker Streets in South Africa) and their journeys are referred to as the “Great Trek”.

Retief and his group came to an unfortunate end. They met Zulu King Dingane (this is the guy who, a few years previously, had murdered his half brother and predecessor, King Shaka). They negotiated a grant of land, but Dingane double crossed the Trekkers and had them murdered. He then set his warriors to work on the other Trekker groups who had crossed into his territory looking for land. Between 12 and 19 February 1838, several hundred Trekker families were killed.

On 16 December 1838, the Zulus were comprehensively defeated at the Battle of Blood River by a group of Trekkers lead by a guy called Andries Pretorius. With between 57 and 64 waggons and around 464 men, the Trekkers took on a Zulu army of 10,000 – 15,000 and won. Around 3,000 Zulus were killed.

A full-size bronze replica of the D-shaped laager at Blood River, completed in 1971:

The river wasn’t running with blood when we visited:

The Trekkers had taken a solemn vow (“covenant”) that if God gave them victory against their enemies (the Zulus), they would build a church (which they did, in Pietermaritzburg) and commemorate the date. It was only in 1995 that “Day of the Vow”, celebrated on 16th December, the date of the Battle of Blood River, was replaced in the South African calendar by the Day of Reconciliation.

Blood River is very much associated with Afrikaner nationalism. In many ways, it did make me think of the Orange Walks in Northern Ireland….

After three nights (a record for this trip!) it was time to leave Mark’s favourite camp site so far, the Kwa-Rie at Dundee.

I would say that the lake and birds were probably what attracted him, but I know better. He absolutely LOVED the Yabba-Dabba-Doo toilet block!

Monday morning was spent travelling toour next destination, the Royal Natal National Park…….

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