01/23 – Rorke’s Drift

Alphonse de Neuville’s 1880 painting depicts the heroic British defense, based entirely on British eyewitness accounts. (Wikimedia Commons)

On this day in 1879, a group of roughly 150 British Red Coats completed their defence of Rorke’s Drift – a trading post known as kwaJimu (Jim’s Land) to the South African locals – against a force of roughly 4,000 Zulu warriors. Led by Lieutenant John Chard of the Royal Engineers, the Red Coats managed to hold their ground against the massive Zulu assault that began the previous day. Armed with single-shot rifles (and, apparently, one or two Gatling machine guns) the British were nearly overwhelmed by repeated Zulu charges led by Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande and his thousands of Assegai (spear) wielding warriors. But by dawn on the 23rd, the final assault had been repelled. Back home in London, the battle was hailed as a fine example of British military and moral superiority in the face of “native savagery”.

Zulu “savages” advance onto the British position. As seen in “Battles of the 19th Century”, 1901. This is one of the rare depictions of the battle from the Zulu perspective. (Flickr)

Rorke’s Drift was a strategically important spot for Britain’s defence of her forces in South Africa, a colony which the Queen hoped to fully incorporate into the Empire. Having successfully made Canada a “dominion” of the Commonwealth in 1876, it was hoped that the same would be done with South Africa – especially the rough territory of “Zululand”, now known as the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Some months after the aforementioned battle, the Anglo-Zulu war drew to a close with a British victory. The Zulus had been pushed out of their land, and British South Africa was now a firmly established part of the Empire.

A Royal Engineer sketch of the perimeter of Rorke’s Drift. (Wikimedia Commons)

The battle has a complicated legacy in British society. 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded for bravery during the fight, more than in any other battle in Commonwealth history. In 1964’s Zulu, a stoic Michael Caine exemplifies the determination and heroism of the ideal British soldier. For the Brits, Rorke’s Drift remains an endearing example of European resistance to the dangers of the Colonial world, a legacy that continued well into the horrific apartheid era in South Africa. What is often forgotten, conveniently, is that by modern standards the defence of Rorke’s Drift involved significant war crimes perpetrated by both sides. The Zulus has massacred over 1,000 Red Coats the previous day at Isandlwana, and in response the defenders at Rorke’s Drift killed several hundred Zulus by hanging and protracted torture.

But is there really any point in judging the long dead by standards that didn’t exist in their day? That’s up for you to decide. What we can do, however, is re-examine the ways in which we glorify battle of the past – and think more critically about their legacies in our culture, and the ways in which their legacies may be exploited (and distorted) for political means.

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