Thursday, 24 March 2011

A Few Bad Men

Back from South Africa, a land of myriad butterflies and scuttling lizards all set about in a bleached and dazzling sun.  It’s been a kaleidoscope of joyful faces, multi-colours and poignant memories.  One such re-visiting was to Fugitives’ Drift.  Just a few miles from the victorious Rorke’s Drift, Fugitives’ Drift tells the opposite story: of the devastating defeat suffered by the British Army at the hands of the Zulu. Where only 55 men escaped the carnage, managed to avoid the relentless assegais, and forded the flooded  Drift back into Natal and to safety.  Where the world's first-ever posthumous VCs are buried, dying in their attempt to save the Queen’s Colours.

We first saw the name on a crooked little sign announcing the “Fugitives’ Drift Lodge”, a vague arrow pointing down a long bumpy track.  It was the mid-eighties.  Visiting home from the UK, we had taken a favourite drive through the heart of Zululand to the quaint little settlement that is Rorke’s Drift. We loved the woollen rugs they dyed and wove at the Lutheran craft centre there.  It was hot and very dry when we came across the sign announcing a drift we had never heard of, so we drove down to get ourselves a drink.  The Lodge looked pretty basic, but we wandered in, up the broad stairs, through the wide dark verandah, and into the cool reception room.  We stood around a bit, looking in fascination at the battlefield memorabilia on tables, the walls, everywhere.  Almost  a museum, we thought.  Eventually a young man appeared, dark hair, and rather pale-faced, he smiled and nodded as we ordered two very cold drinks with ice, please.  We sent him off, and made ourselves at home examining the buttons and bayonets that were obviously on display after being picked up in the area.  It had been a long drive, and we settled back in the comfy chairs as our host brought two tall tinkling glasses of sparkling orange.  We took our time, asking about his wonderful collection. It was obvious he was passionate about this little-celebrated part of the Anglo-Zulu Wars – the battle the Zulus won: Isandlwana.

It was only when we came to pay that that it dawned on us. David Rattray, for it was he, refused our money, saying thank you, but this was not a hotel.  We had made ourselves at home, ordering extra ice even, in his front room!  He smiled at our discomfort.  No, on the contrary, he assured us, he was very pleased we had come. He was planning to open a hotel on this very spot, and to run battlefield tours culminating in the dramatic crossing of Fugitives’ Drift.  Would we like to climb aboard his Land-Rover; he’d give us a personal tour.  He drove us down to the Buffalo River, and first-hand, we got the story of how the 24th were overrun and slaughtered.  How the few men who managed to avoid the stampeding Zulus, the boggy marshes and the slithering gorges, finally either drowned - their heads bobbing and whirling in the flooded pools - or made it across to Natal, and back to the tiny garrison at Helpmekaar. How the two VC’s, Melville and Coghill, tried in vain to save the Queen’s Colours, but were inexplicably murdered and disembowelled on the Natal side, under a huge rock, where they had managed to drag themselves crippled and bleeding. Where they still lie.

David Rattray was to become the world renown Anglo-Zulu War historian, honoured by the Royal Geographical Society, personal friend of Prince Charles, and famed for his passion, his authenticity, and brilliant oratory. He painstakingly interviewed old men on the folk stories handed down from grandfathers. He went on to build the international standard Lodge in the middle of remotest Zululand, and created an industry honouring Zulu history and the Zulu people.  An ordinary man, universally loved and respected.  Then three years ago, he was cruelly murdered in front of his wife by five armed robbers, who took not a penny.  Only David’s life.

Now we were travelling back into the vast shimmering valleys to take the full battlefield tour of the Isandlwana site; and a return to the now unrecognisable property we had innocently stumbled into all those years ago. 

Yes, it was pretty upmarket, that’s for sure, but the welcome was pure warm South African.  After a very long and dusty drive, the looming presence of Isandlwana Mountain hung everywhere.  The singing of the cicadas added to the dense heat.  The tour was led by Mphiwa, a handsome Zulu, whose grandfather and great-grandfather had fought alongside King Cetswayo when he had annihilated Lord Chelmsford’s army.  Mphiwa had a good delivery, and disarmed us when he described the Zulu hoard streaming over the hills, “...just imagine," he stopped and squinted hard across the horizon, taking in the vastness, “.... England.... against the All Blacks!”
In fact it was only half the British force, because Lord Chelmsford, underestimating the war-like Zulu, had taken off on a wild goose chase, and left an inexperienced Lt Col Pulleine in charge of the camp.  1750 men stood with their Martini-Henry rifles and cherry-red jackets as 25,000 or more crazed Zulus poured over and around them. The eerie quality of the mountain made even more so by a total eclipse of the sun during the height of the battle.  

Arriving at the silent battlefield in the shimmering heat was a moving experience.  The beautifully white-painted cairns built over the skeletons of men, exactly where they fell, dotted their retreat back through the valley behind.  A couple of lonely cairns up on the slopes saw an inevitable last stand on the Mountain itself.  Mphiwa told the story of his people’s historic victory, and it sent a shiver to hear him call the original battle cry, “I-SU-THU!!!” and imagine the terror those carved names must have felt.  Each man was disembowelled, and reports state the ground ran vivid and glistening with blood and gore.  They were disembowelled to stop their spirits haunting the Zulus who had killed them.  Captain Durnford - and there’s the large marble cross where he fell - was spared disembowelling:  the Zulus did not regard him as their enemy.  Well over a thousand white skeletons were found, most still in their uniforms, four months later, when the 24th had enough men to return and bury their dead. Two royal tribes locked into a spurious hatred. The Zulu King stated he did not want to fight the British for his own Kingdom, and even today, there is little here an Empire would want.  They were all traduced into a ghastly war by Chelmsford and a couple of duplicitous cronies, Sir Bartle Frere among them, on the make for imperial land. Our British fellow-tourists were left pale and shamed by the story of betrayal perpetrated by Chelmsford in the name of Queen Victoria and the British people.

And of course, that was the end of the fearsome Zulu kingdom.

Sitting under the shade of some acacia trees, sharing the huge mournful area with lots of other tour parties and lecturers; knowing that this is exactly what David strove to bring about, Mphiwa eventually tells us about the day of David’s murder.  Hard to stop the tears as we get the hollow, mindless story.  Five armed men burst into David’s living room, David rushes out to protect his wife Nicky, calls: “Don’t shoot!” They shoot and run away.  It is clear how much they all loved him, and how hard it must be to repeat this story over and over again, on this battlefield, this one man, joined forever.  We climb back into the Landie.  Mphiwa and I softly singing the Click Song. We drive home in the fading golden light with a CD of David’s voice describing the aftermath; finding the Colours in the river two weeks later, the rout at Rorke's Drift, the final defeat and incarceration of King Cetswayo at Ulundi.

Four of the murderers were arrested and jailed.  At dinner that night, another guide lowers his voice as he tells us how the fifth man escaped arrest, but was caught by locals and had both his arms - and he demonstrates with his hands – chopped off. He sits back, and by look he gives, we know this is a folk story full of wishful thinking - the local grief is still very raw.

Nicky Rattray has written in her Lodge welcome letter, that they have spent many a night trying to make sense of what happened. It seems that, just like Isandlwana, there is no making sense of just a few Bad Men.