Broken down at Rorke’s Drift

Rorke's Drift in Natal South Africa

We stood outside the Rorke’s Drift Battle Museum in KawZulu-Natal, the sunset dripping blood-tinged vermillion over the landscape; an obituary but also an omen.

On this very spot in 1879, 139 British soldiers held off the might of 4,000 Zulu warriors at a mission station that colonists had converted into a makeshift hospital.  As part of an effort to annex the Zulu kingdom in South Africa, the British launched a military campaign against the impis, ignited by an ultimatum to the Zulu King that included the disbanding of his army and the abandonment of select cultural traditions. Or else war. King Cetshwayo said “you be cray” and Britain rallied its troops, expecting to quash the Zulu rebellion with the force and might to which it was accustomed.

The Anglo-Zulu war consisted of a series of battles. The Red Coats ultimately had their way but not before a lashing by Cetshwayo’s impis. The Battle of Isandlwana was the first encounter between the British and the Zulus; the 20,000-strong Zulu army took it to the Brits using its legendary bull horn formation (the flanking right and left wings encircled and pinned the enemy after an initial charge). Now, Cairns piled over the landscape in memory of the fallen British stalk the shadow of the hill at Isandlwana, over which rests a vast silence. There is no inclination of battle, as if the land has compensated for breach of humanity with stillness and beauty and yet the history of violence pervades.

The battle at Rorke’s Drift came next but here the underdogs triumphed. In an astounding victory that saw 11 Victoria Crosses awarded; the British put up a gallant defence. And in a final battle at Ulundi, Britain won the war.

Our car had broken down—we were on a school history tour through Zululand and my two friends and I had chosen to stay behind at Rorke’s Drift with my mom (history HOD and tour boss) while our red kombie waited to be towed to a mechanic in town so that it could be fixed and we could get on with the tour. The rest of the girls had somehow piled themselves into the Jeppe bus, driven my Mrs Edwards (my history teacher) back to base. As dark descended we imagined thousands of impis creeping their way through the long grass, closer and closer to the mission—and then the sudden light upon their faces as the Red Coats set the roof on fire. Guns firing, assegais penetrating; the vicious cries of war. This was a stranger violence to the one we could expect at any moment; men with automatic weapons hoping to loot, rape and pillage. We laughed and joked, relishing the absurdity of the moment; how a beautiful landscape could be so marred by imaginings of horror.

In 2017, David Rattray, husband, father, impassioned historian and story-teller, was shot three times and killed in the Fugitive’s Drift lodge that he built in duty to the preservation of the history and culture of Rorke’s Drift and the surrounding area. Rattray enacted his love for the people and history of Zululand through the development of cultural tourism, promoting economic development with the aim to alleviate poverty in the region, but what he was best loved for were his stories; an expert tour guide, Rattray’s re-telling of the Zulu war captivated tourists and locals. And then six gunmen entered his home and pulled their weapons, shooting and killing David Rattray after he pushed his wife to the floor and out of harm’s way.  They took nothing.

Eventually the tow truck arrived. Jennifer, Chantal and I clambered into the back of the kombie and we ducked for cover—finding this an expert tactic to avoid the likelihood of a hijacking (four women in a car after dark, in an unfamiliar area—not good) but laughing all the while. It was fun. We had a great time. Also somewhat disturbing, looking back on it—which I do with a smile on my face.


Author & Storyteller: Andrea Zanin

Andrea is a writer, wife, mother and dreamer; also the author of this website. She moved to London in 2006 to earn £s, travel, see bands and buy 24-up Dr Martens—which she did, and then ended up staying. Andrea lives in North London with her husband (also a Saffa) and five children. She loves this grand old city but misses her home and wishes her children could say “lekker” (like a South African) and knew what a “khoki” is.

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