'This Battle is Still Being Fought:' A White South African Retells a Zulu Epic

August 21, 1994|By MICHAEL HILL

Fugitive's Drift, South Africa. -- Few, if any, days in military history can match the events of Jan. 22, 1879.

In less than 24 hours, the British colonial army suffered one of its worst defeats and celebrated its most dramatic victory. In that same time span, the Zulu nation reached its military zenith and began the downhill slide that would lead to its subjugation.

The events of that day resonate still in the politics of South Africa, empowering the beliefs of those who see this country as a collection of separate nations.

Whatever their ultimate ramifications, there is no way to overplay the sheer drama of these battles. And there is probably no better way to hear about them than from David Rattray, a 36-year-old self-described Zuluphile who stokes the embers of memory every day at his small lodge in the middle of his private game park.

The lodge overlooks the Buffalo River at the drift -- or ford -- where British troops fleeing the battle of Isandlwana tried to escape from pursuing Zulu warriors.

It was here that the British found their favorite character -- the tragic hero -- in the persons of Lieutenants Neville Coghill and Teignmouth Melvill, who made a valiant but unsuccessful effort to save their company's flag in the raging torrents of that river before dying at the hands of Zulus.

But that is getting ahead of the story. In 1879 the Buffalo River formed the border between the British colony of Natal and the kingdom of Zululand. The year before, the British had decided that the Zulu kingdom needed to be brought into a South African confederation, by force.

During the hour drive from his lodge to the battlefield of Isandlwana, Mr. Rattray explains this history, how about 3,500 British troops under Lord Chelmsford crossed the Buffalo at Rorke's Drift, marching into Zululand, heading for the king's compound at Ulundi.

"Chelmsford said that his main concern was to get the Zulus to fight out in the open," Mr. Rattray said. "He thought it would take him eight days to march [50 miles] to Ulundi. It took him over six months."

The first night they stopped at Isandlwana. Isandlwana is the name of a small mountain visible on the horizon from the lodge, a strangely shaped prominence that looks quite unlike anything else in the area. Its Zulu name refers to its house-like appearance, though most say it resembles a sphinx.

Mr. Rattray gathers his pupils in front of a rock on the side of that hill. The landscape in front of them has changed little in the last 115 years, though it is now dotted with piles of white stones marking the graves of the British dead.

It is easy to picture the scene on that hot summer January day, the British camp at the foot of the hill a mass of canvas tents and ox-drawn wagons, as Chelmsford made the fatal decision to take about half his troops and head off to the east where he thought the Zulu army was.

He was wrong. About 20,000 Zulu warriors had been lurking to the north in a nearby valley. A few hours later, a column of them appeared over a hill where they encountered the force of Lt. Col. Anthony Durnsford, who spent the day fighting brilliantly in a series of tactical retreats.

Colonel Durnsford was fighting one horn of the buffalo, the Zulus' standard offensive formation. The other horn was circling behind the camp, cutting off any retreat.

Then the main group of the Zulu army appeared on a nearby ridge, the head and chest of the buffalo that descended into history in the next hour of ferocious, bloody fighting.

With their short spears and cowhide shields, the Zulus charged into a line of British troops firing lethally accurate Martini-Henry rifles. As writer Max Hastings has observed in a different context, "There is no more demanding task for infantry than to press home an attack across open ground under heavy fire, amid heavy casualties."

That is exactly what the Zulus faced, with one major difference -- they couldn't fire back. Yet they pressed home their attack nonetheless. Eventually, the combination of their bravery and their numbers overwhelmed the British forces. Of 1,772 British and colonial troops, 55 survived.

The rest of them lay on the battlefield for months until a column of troops arrived to bury the dead beneath the stone cairns.

Those who did escape headed down a valley that is dotted with white piles of stones. After lunch back at the lodge, you sit on a ledge above Fugitive's Drift and listen to Christopher Harvie tell their story.

Mr. Harvie came to Fugitive's Drift Lodge as a guest less than a year ago. Not interested in the Zulu war, he was reluctant even to go on the battlefield tour. But once he heard Mr. Rattray's narrative, he was hooked and has been employed there for six months.

"Now, I'm obsessed by it," he said. "I don't read about anything else."

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