I have a good friend who doesn’t share the same interest I have in birds. He will often tease me a little about the crazy things I do to find good birds. I recall one day he gave me a particularly hard time about it and the only retort that came to mind was to call him a “natural history philistine”. It was a moment of weakness to react in such a childish way, but it was taken in the right spirit and we often reminisce about his label whenever he points out something related to the natural sciences.
The reason I tell this little anecdote is, similarly, someone could very easily describe me as a “history philistine” (dropping the “natural”).
I gave history up as a subject at school after Grade 8. I think my aptitude at school was more for numbers than for facts and I really battled to remember the reams of information that came with studying for history exams. I guess it may have been the way it was taught at school. I think we all would have fared better if we had been encouraged to tell a gripping story in our exams, rather than being asked to regurgitate dates and names. Anyway, I regret not showing a greater interest at school but, on the plus side, I would be arriving at Fugitive’s Drift, the second phase of our road trip, with an empty head when it came to the battle between the Brits and the Zulus.
I had also not originally considered Fugitive’s Drift to be my first choice holiday, but after googling it a little I actually realised that it was in a wonderful part of KZN and surely the birding would also be pretty good.
The focus, however was on the battlefields. The lodge itself is on a property that includes a small section of the river where retreating British soldiers crossed from Zululand into Natal and came to be known as Fugitive’s Drift.
The lodge was established by famous historian David Rattray who translated what has filled many pages in dull history books into something a lot more tangible by recreating the battles of the area through a program of tours to the important locations like Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana. Tragically, David was murdered 10 years ago in what appears to have been a botched robbery by six young men who were fuelled by drugs and alcohol and had managed to get access to the property. We did not probe too deeply into that very unfortunate part of the history of Fugitive’s Drift but David’s voice lives on as his recorded tale called “The Day of the Dead Moon” is played through a sound system on the land rovers as the guides take you from location to location. Fortunately, too, the lodge lives on strongly under the care of David’s widow, Nicky, who has brought her culinary flair to the lodge (so the food over the three days was of the highest quality), and his sons Andrew and Douglas remain active in the business and, in fact, we had Douglas take us on the Rorke’s Drift section of the tour, where I would imagine his father would have looked down with pride as he told the same tales his father had told with equal passion and flair.
I knew virtually none of the history of the area and so everything I learned was new. I thought long and hard about what to share in this blog and in the end I decided to tell my version of the story. It is obviously considerably abbreviated (although it is tricky to fit eight hours of history tour into a short precis) and is subject to some interpretive and memory errors, but I felt it was the best way to absorb everything I learned. Despite the fact that I would still comfortably consider myself a “history philistine”, I do consider that my life has been enriched through the hearing of an important part of our country’s history.
The story really begins in the early 1800s where Zululand was occupied by the Zulus who, incidentally, were also not indigenous to the area. They moved in over many years and displaced the bushmen that originally occupied the hills and valleys. The Zulus were not born warriors but one of their kings, the famous and feared Shaka, instilled a training regime amongst the men that produced an army that became formidable. Shaka was displaced by Dingaan who, from the record, I understand was not a noble man like Shaka, but was seemingly a cruel and heartless leader. Nevertheless, they continued to develop martial skills that further enhanced their reputation as an army.
At more or less the same time as Dingaan was grooming the Zulu army, the Dutch settlers from the Cape started moving north east across South Africa. The Boer settlers slowly trekked across the country and found themselves in Natal and Zululand where they had several well-known and deadly encounters with the Zulus. The Battle of Blood River is the most well-known of these, where the Boers killed so many Zulus in the battle that the river turned to blood.
The Zulus also had their moment to have the upperhand when Piet Retief was ultimately killed by the Zulus in further skirmishes. But, following the defeat of Dingaan (by one of his own), the newly instilled King of Zululand and the Boers engaged in a truce where they found ways to live with each other in a relatively symbiotic way. This truce lasted many years with the Boers and the Zulus living in relative harmony. The King’s sons, however, started to get impatient with the ongoing settlement of the boers in Zululand and this created conditions for a civil war amongst the Zulus which was as bloody as it gets. The Boers were also being displaced in Natal by the continuous arrival of the British and this brought it to a head where the Zulus ultimately sided with the British to overcome the Boers in Zululand. Bizarrely the Brits then had a similar symbiotic relationship with the Zulus which remained in place for many years.
The problem arose when there was a dispute between the Zulus and the British regarding the boundaries between Natal and Zululand. The Brits commissioned an investigation where they gathered evidence, which included documentation from both sides, and the report was not good. Well, at least not for the British. It proved that the British had extended their margin beyond what was agreed and it became an embarrassment for them. The report was buried in a bottom drawer back in an administrative building in Pietermaritzburg and, despite ongoing enquiry by the Zulus, they were placated by telling them that there were technical delays in revealing the details. They grew impatient and this resulted in a restless nation wanting the truth. At the same time, the Zulus continued to train their young men as warriors and it is my understanding that this became a threat to the British, particularly considering the buried report. The arrogance of the British in assuming that they had rights to rule over the Zulus in Zululand continued to fuel the impatience.
The Governor of Natal sent an ultimatum to the Zulu King in Ulundi to quell the potential uprising. He demanded that they discontinue their army-building activities immediately and the King had 30 days to respond in the affirmative. The message was sent to the Zulus in a document that was read in English over a period of an hour and a half. Surely not a particularly tactful approach that would have softened the rising animosity.
The King’s response was to slaughter a cow and strip it of its hide and send it back to the governor with a corresponding message that the number of hairs on the hide of the cow represented the number of Zulu soldiers that would be prepared to defend their territory.
Clearly there was a difference of opinion and so the British amassed a colony of 4,500 soldiers and set them off to Rorke’s Drift, a small settlement on the banks of the Buffalo River, the natural border between Natal and Zululand, and they prepared themselves for an onslaught on the Zulus as a result of their failure to adhere to the ultimatum.
So, that is the brief summary of the preamble to the two significant events that made up the two tours that we were taken on whilst at Fugitives: the Battle of Isandlwana and the Battle of Rorke’s Drift. It is a fairly crude and simple summary but hopefully it sets the scene.
The Battle of Isandlwana
Isandlwana is a prominent topographical feature about 10 kilometres north of Rorke’s Drift, into the Zulu territory. It is a Sphinx-shaped mountain that overlooks an open plain to the north and east. The hills of Zululand stretch far into the distance to the west. At the beginning of January in 1879 the British colony sent to quell the natives set off from Rorke’s Drift to Isandlwana. It was a two week nightmare journey given the heat of January in the hills of Zululand and the ground was soft underfoot following a strong rain season, making the passage of the ox wagons laden with supplies a torrid one.
Lord Chelmsford, who led the colony, arrived at the base of Isandlwana on the 20th of January and rested his soldiers before the onslaught on the Zulus. The biggest problem for Chelmsford was finding his foe. His scouts had been sent off in different directions and, when finding evidence of fires in the south east towards a place called Mangeni Falls, Lord Chelmsford decided to split his colony into two. He personally rode with 2,500 soldiers to the south east to meet the Zulus whilst he left 1,700 soldiers on the plains of Isandlwana. It was a decision that would be disastrous.
On the 22nd of January the remaining troops at Isandlwana sat waiting for news from Chelmsford. The day dawned very clear and Lieutenant Colonel Pulleine, the leader of the remaining troops, sent horsemen to the west to the top of a ridge from where they could scout. They arrived at the top of the hill, only a few kilometres away from the troops down on the plains and the seven horsemen noticed 700 heads of cattle further west.
They rode on a little, with the longer term intention of stealing the cattle from the Zulus in order to improve their mobility in moving the ox-wagons that were laden with battle materials. As they rode they came across something they certainly did not expect – a gathering of 48,000 Zulus, camped in a ravine between the hill they were on and the fields in which the cattle grazed. This was a shock to the British. This Zulu army was supposed to be 15kms to the south east where Chelmsford had ridden with his troops to meet them.
These horsemen reacted in a very odd way. Instead of leaving the scene quietly and warning the soldiers down on the plain, they rode over to the edge of the ravine and fired their weapons randomly on the amassed army of Zulus. I have no idea what their thinking was but this was yet another strategic error which would have severe consequences.
It is important, at this point, to mention that the Zulus were camped in the ravine awaiting the passing of the new moon. The new moon in Zulu custom is a day of rest and prayer and so they were waiting for it to pass (on 23 January) before they were going to launch their attack. They had no intention of going anywhere on that day but a volley of fire from the British was enough to invoke an anger that was to be unleashed immediately, new moon or not.
So, they rallied as a unit and proceeded with the age old “horns of the buffalo” attack technique. The army split into two and created a semi-circular attack pattern with the left horn heading south east and the right horn moving in a westerly direction. The seven horsemen then rode back with urgency to the troops down on the plains and reported to Pulleine that they had awoken the beast.
I’ll cut this next bit short as the gory details are too grim in the telling but, over the next two hours, the left horn of the buffalo came down the hill towards the plain with the sheer numbers behind the Zulu army being just too much for the 1700 soldiers at Isandlwana to hold back. The Brits made a number of crucial errors in defending their ground, the most noteworthy being an advance of the firing line too far beyond the optimal defensive position up against the Isandlwana high ground. This reduced their efficiency in re-arming their weapons as the central weapon repository was too far away from the front. The Zulus were just too numerous and when it came to hand to hand combat the Brits had no chance.
So, the battle was over in a 2 hour period when almost every single one of the 1,700 soldiers were killed. At least 3,000 Zulus also lost their lives and the plains below Isandlwana must have looked like a slaughterhouse.
It was on a small hill alongside Isandlwana that we relived the tale of the Battle of Isandlwana and we had one of the Zulus ancestors, Mphiwa, recounting the events of the day, inclusive of sound effects and emotional ululating to fill in the atmosphere. I often have difficulty placing myself back in time during the telling of an historic event but, being at the base of the Isandlwana mountain, hearing the noises come to life and the detailed description of the events of the day, made for a fairly life-like experience.
The plains are now enclosed in a National Monument and the field is littered with piles of white stones that represent the graves of the British soldiers. They were buried several weeks after the battle by the remaining British army, led by Lord Chelmsford, left to pick up the pieces. There is also a Zulu monument some distance away from where most of the British soldiers were buried. There were very few dead Zulu soldiers on the battle field as most had been taken by their comrades away from the field of battle.
Speaking of Lord Chelmsford, he was notified of the slaughter during the day as messengers were sent on horseback to hail them back to the main front of the battle. It was all too late, though, as he arrived in the late afternoon to an eerie silence, as not a single man remained alive and the Zulus had also retreated to the hills carrying their dead soldiers for a respectful burial away from the battlefield. It must have been an embarrassing moment for him, knowing that he had been fooled by the Zulu decoy of the fires burning down at Mangeni. If 4,500 soldiers had remained at Isandlwana the result of the battle may very well have been different.
The final bit to mention in this piece is that a number of soldiers were asked to take the Queen’s colours (the British flag) away from the battle and retreat to safety to Rorke’s Drift. Around 55 soldiers retreated and became known as the Fugitives. They carried the honour, though, of carrying the Queen’s colours and as they retreated west they noticed the right horn of the buffalo and so rerouted further south-east downstream on the Buffalo River where they attempted to cross into the safety of Natal. Where they crossed the river became known as Fugitive’s Drift and is now enclosed in the property that is owned by the Rattrays.
The tale of two of the horsemen, Mellville and Coghill, is a sad one. They reached the river noticing it was in flood but they faced Hobson’s Choice – either die at the hands of the Zulus bearing down on them from behind or die in the raging river, flooding from January rainfall. I guess they chose the river option which didn’t surprise me. They at least had a chance. My recollection of this part of the story is sadly a bit vague (and I promised myself I would avoid resorting to Google) so you’ll have to accept the minor and major inaccuracies. Both horsemen were washed off their horses, but were salvaged on an exposed rock which is described as being coffin-shaped (the metaphor is unavoidable). Higginson, another British soldier who was also clinging on for his life, was there to grab each of them as they were swept down the river. I actually recall that one of the soldiers (it could have been Mellville or it could have been Coghill) had actually made it across but turned back to assist his fellow soldier.
The net result was that all three soldiers eventually had to make for the Natal side of the river as a volley of throwing spears plunged into the river all around them as the Zulus bore down on them. Their ultimate survival of the crossing was in vain as they were soon killed by what is thought to have been Zulus living on the south side of the river. It is odd that no one really knows who killed them but assumptions that it was the battle Zulu soldiers chasing them down seem to be wrong. The reason for this was that they were left clothed following their death, which was irregular, as the custom was for the post-death bodies to be disembowelled by the traditional northern Zulus. It matters little, though, but they died in attempting to save the Queen’s colours and for that they were both awarded Victorian Crosses, being the first soldiers in history to be awarded the highest medal of honour, posthumously.
The Queen’s colours were lost during their fatal crossing and it washed down the river seemingly lost forever. It was after a number of days (it may have been weeks, so poor was my attention to detail) that it was eventually found wedged underneath a rock in the river. It is the part of the story that I enjoy the most. The flag was found by a soldier called Harford who was described to us as being “a beetle collector and naturalist” and not really accustomed to the battle fields. He turned out to be a hero in the battles around Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift for a number of crucial roles he played and, in a way, I find solidarity with Harford. I can imagine him being posted at one or other tented encampment and whilst his comrades were engaged in frivolous card games or idle chatter he was probably out in the veld looking at birds, snakes and insects. One thing that must have been the same in those days as they are today is the huge variety of birdlife in the surrounding hills. I suspect he saw the same Buff-streaked Chats, Mocking Cliff-chats and Little Sparrowhawks that Adam and I came upon in our wanderings around the lodge.
The Battle at Rorke’s Drift
As mentioned above, Rorke’s Drift is a small settlement on the southern bank of the Buffalo River. It wasn’t a military installation but rather a small village settled by an Irishman, Rorke, who ultimately took a liking to Square-faced Gin and eventually shot himself in a depressed drunken rage as his supplies of gin were running down. But, that also is another story. It is worth a mention that it is not such an outlandish notion to act with such extreme measures at the thought of a dwindling stock of gin as I suspect Jeanie would have similar anguish if her stock ran dry (not that my wife is an alcoholic but rather that she on the verge of opening a business that will showcase the wonderful range of craft gins available in South Africa. See here for details at www.theginbox.co.za and she owes me big-time for the shameless punt). Incidentally, I don’t think Square-faced Gin will be on the menu.
During the period leading up to the Battle at Isandlwana the soldiers that moved up from Pietermaritzburg to the Buffalo River took residence at Rorke’s Drift where they converted Rorke’s residence into a hospital and a store room (most likely for Rorke’s gin) was converted into a armament for artillery and provisions for the British army that would advance north into Zululand. During the British occupation of Rorke’s Drift the store room was filled with large 50kg sacks of grain and huge wooden boxes filled with army issue biscuits, in addition to the artillery. You may think these details are unnecessary but they form a crucial part of the story.
At the same time as these non-combative soldiers were left alone at Rorke’s Drift to tend for the sick (mostly struck down with dysentery and other tropical diseases) their fighting colleagues were being slaughtered at Isandlwana. Bear in mind that they had absolutely no idea what was going on 10kms away and they were in no way prepared for any sort of combat. Rorke’s Drift was populated with 139 soldiers plus a large contingent of paid Basuthu soldiers who worked with the British against the Zulus. They were trained to fight but I guess they had no real allegiance to a Queen or flag.
So, while we mention the non participating members of the British army sat tight at Rorke’s Drift, it is also worth remembering the right hand horn of the Zulu army that had curled around the back of Isandlwana, designed to cut off any retreating soldiers. It is also worth reminding you that they were never needed in that battle. The left horn did all the damage and the blood letting was complete without them lifting an assegai.
The Zulu soldier is a proud individual and they knew full well that their brothers in arms from the left horn would return to their villages with stories of the most unlikely victory over the foe that bore shooting weapons. They would be hailed as heros and they would be immortalised. The soldiers from the right horn would have simply been there to make up the numbers. Basically, they were substitutes that were never called on to the field. There would have been no ululating from their wives and potential suitors when they returned home.
They were, therefore, wound up like tight springs ready to unleash fire and brimstone on anything that moved. It was then that they turned and headed south for the small settlement of Rorke’s Drift. Although it was positioned on the forbidden south side of the river and the doctors and administrative officers of the British army would be lame ducks, easy to slaughter, that would matter little to the marauding right horn. All they needed was someone to claim a victory against.
So they worked their way towards the river, 4000 strong.
The Rorke’s Drift contingent was sitting waiting in the insufferable heat of a January afternoon when a few of Lord Chelmsford’s men arrived at the north bank of the river in a state of panic. They delivered the message that the Zulus had claimed a victory at Isandlwana and they were on their way to Rorke’s Drift to attack there. The recipient of the message was the officer in charge of the camp, Lieutenant Chard, and he was down on the river tending to the pont that ferried supplies to and from the Zululand side, back to the Natal side. He secured the pont in the middle of the river and rushed up to the hospital and store room where he, in turn, delivered the message to the remainder of the force.
For the sake of accuracy, it must be told that there were around 450 soldiers at Rorke’s Drift, many of them being the Basuthus who were enlisted to fight with the British.
Within minutes the decision had been taken to defend the position rather than abandon the post. The biggest difficulty for those camped at Rorke’s Drift was that none of them were well trained in combat and so they all more or less knew that they would be lambs to the slaughter, particularly after hearing what had happened at Isandlwana. But that was the way of the British soldier in those days – defend the position, with honour, at all costs.
So, they jumped into frantic action and, in a very short period of time, motivated by the need to do everything they could to avoid certain death, they created a defensive wall around the two buildings (the hospital and the storeroom) using the large 50kg sacks of grain as well as from the biscuit boxes (remember that I told you those details were important).
We sat in the quad between the two buildings (about 20 metres apart), 138 years later, as Douglas Rattray, David’s middle son, pointed his knob-kierie at the rows of stones laid out around the buildings indicating where the four foot wall of grain bags were laid. In addition, they created a further internal wall of biscuit boxes between the hospital and the storeroom (incidentally, now a church) which would create a smaller, but easier to defend, position. Douglas reminded us over and over again that the doctors and non-combative soldiers were small in stature and it must have been back-breaking work, over a period of an hour and a half, to create some sort of defensive line for the imminent attack.
Briefly, Rorke’s Drift sits on a hillside overlooking the Buffalo River. The river lies to the north whilst the land falls away from the hill down a long slope towards the west. To the south is a small hillock and then to the east is a smallish mountain called the Oscarberg or, in Zulu, Shinyane. This mountain was a good vantage point for the British to send a few scouts to determine how close their attackers were. Lieutenant Chard sent the nimble bodied surgeon called Reynolds, a Swedish Missionary Oscar Witt and the hulking red-maned army chaplain, George Smith, to the top of the Oscarberg to determine the proximity of the Zulu army. It was not long before they saw these three men sprinting down the face of the mountain with the terrible news that the Zulus were coming over the mountain themselves, any minute.
As the Zulus crested the mountain, that was the moment for the 300 additional troops to vacate their position and head west with urgency. Lieutenant Chard had commanded the garrison to defend its position but that instruction didn’t hold water with the surplus troops who, all of a sudden, left 139 soldiers, at least 22 of which were ill in the hospital, on their own to defend against 4,000 Zulus. This desertion was another guaranteed nail in the coffin for the remaining valiant soldiers.
Once again the gory details will be skipped over. But, in summary it was a different story to the Battle that had raged at Isandlwana. There the conflict was over in less than two hours. The Battle of Rorke’s Drift would draw itself out over 12 gruesome hours from the last light of the day, into the night and through to the early hours of the next morning. Another contrast was that the decision making by the seemingly inexperienced soldiers at Rorke’s Drift was far more strategically sound than had been the case at Isandlwana. They had created a circle of defensive walls which allowed them to be close to ammunition as well as to allow them to face each side of the attacking fronts, no matter where they came from.
The Zulus were a force though and they ultimately breached the first defensive wall and gained access to the hospital which was a thatched roof building. The Zulus set that on fire to flush the Brits. British lives were lost in the hospital but through outrageously brave acts many of the lives were saved as the patients and defending soldiers were able to cross over to the store room which was defended by the biscuit boxes.
There were, in fact, so many acts of bravery by many of the soldiers at Rorke’s Drift that many of the men were awarded Victoria Crosses and it was astonishing to me (not knowing the end of the tale at that point in the telling) that many of the British soldiers survived to receive them alive. In fact, one of the soldiers who had to suffer through un-anesthetised open shoulder surgery in the middle of the battle and still got up afterwards to distribute artillery, was awarded a Victoria Cross back in England by personal delivery from the Queen.
So, in the end analysis, 22 out of the 139 British soldiers lost their lives and an estimate of 700-800 Zulu soldiers lost theirs. It is not easily understood why the Zulus eventually called off the attack. Some believe that the dawning of the day revealed Lord Chelmsford and his men returning from Isandlwana, which spooked the Zulus back over the river and away from Rorke’s Drift, while others may believe that it was simply that they had grown weary of the long battle that had delivered way too many casualties. Whatever is the case, at 4:30am on the 23rd of January, the exhausted remaining British soldiers watched the Zulus retreat to the north.
So, there ends my not so brief recollection of the two battles that took place on the 22nd and 23rd of January 1879. As I said before I am certain that my version is littered with historical inaccuracy but it is the way that I remembered it in the telling. I do hope the Rattrays never read this and realise that they even failed to educate this “history philistine”.
As you can tell there was a lot of time spent being educated, but I certainly made sure we had some time for some birding. In fact there were times when the two activities overlapped which made for some stressful moments. On the Isandlwana tour our guide, Mphiwa, was relating the early phases of the story to us at the top of a small hill half way between the Buffalo River and Isandlwana when I noticed a large bird flapping past me about 30 metres to my left. I immediately identified it as a Southern Bald Ibis which I knew was a lifer for Tommy and Adam. Mphiwa was in the midst of a bout of ululating and chest-thumping as his story reached a crescendo, but I managed to steal a glance at Adam who had also noticed the ibis circling behind Mphiwa.
The bird soon landed about 15 metres away from us on some dry ground where it started pecking at a few morsels in between the tussocks of grass. Adam’s camera was slung over his shoulder ready for action but, out of respect for Mphiwa’s compelling story-telling, it remained slung, despite the perfect light and position of the bird. I was sadly not as disciplined and I lifted my camera and fired off a few shots. I am pretty sure it was the first time Mphiwa had been interrupted in that way and he accepted it in good spirits but it does go to show that there is a long road to walk before the philistine has been entirely removed. As a consequence of Adam’s good manners and restraint he missed the shot and we spent three more days scouring the area for another Southern Bald Ibis for him to photograph.
Adam and I spent a fair deal of the free time walking the property from one end to the other. The lodge was set on a ridge above the Buffalo River and we paid several visits down to the river valley as well as to some incredible view points. The bird list ticked over, ultimately finishing up on 82 species for the pentad.
The birding highlight, however, was actually on our drive into Fugitive’s Drift. I made the mistake of following Google Maps with blind trust but it ultimately led us on to some dead end roads in the grasslands to the north-east of Fugitive’s Drift. We were first stopped by Jeanie who spotted a small group of White-bellied Korhaans which, surprisingly, posed nicely for some photographs and then shortly thereafter I had to screech to a halt as Adam had spotted a Temminck’s Courser right next to the road. It was a good thing we stopped as it revealed yet another lifer for the boys in a small flock of Pink-billed Lark, a special bird for me too in that I hadn’t seen one for at least 20 years.
We ultimately discovered our route disaster in a field of aloes where we added Buffstreaked Chat to the boys’ lists but it was such an incredible afternoon and special time together as a family and a few family pics (including a dodgy self-timed family portrait) that the delayed arrival time didn’t bother us in the least.
So, our time at Fugitive’s came to an end. I can’t thank our good friends enough for “forcing” this upon us. I know at times it appeared as if my attention span was too short for fascinating exposure to our rich South African history but hopefully in reading this they will know how much my life was enriched by the experience.
We only had two days left of our holidays and decided to spend it in the Midlands. Jeanie felt it would be a good place to source a few additional products for the Gin Box so while she meandered through some of the craft suppliers in the area I tried to eke out a few extra birds for our trip list. The most productive time we spent was probably along the shores of Midmar Dam but that was also a little vacant being well advanced into winter. I reckon a visit back to Midmar in the height of a wet summer may reveal a far more varied species count.
So, the holiday sadly came to an end but it was another good one. Whenever there are birds, family time, good food and great company, how can it not be?