Bookmarks: Rorke’s Drift and the mark of Caine


Bookmarks: Rorke’s Drift and the mark of Caine

A fortnightly look at books and writers

Andrew Donaldson

Next Tuesday is the 140th anniversary of Isandlwana, the opening battle in the Anglo-Zulu War. The day, you’re no doubt aware, went to the Zulus, the British having lost more troops here than in any other single military action in the century that stretched from Waterloo, in 1815, to the initial campaigns of World War 1.
It was one of the most humiliating defeats of the colonial era, and came as an immense shock to a public who had grown accustomed to easy victories over poorly armed indigenous foes as the British empire expanded. A stunned Queen Victoria went on to describe the Zulus as “the finest and bravest race in Africa” just as her subjects began to suspect – rightly as it turned out – that the defeat, as so often is the case, was due to carelessness, hubris and arrogance, if not utter stupidity.
A new book by renowned military historian Ian FW Beckett, Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana (Oxford University Press), provides a thorough and perceptive account of the opening days of the war. Beckett makes the by-now compulsory point that the Victorians regarded themselves as an enlightened force whose duty it was to introduce the civilisation of Pax Britannica to the far corners of the globe. SA was seen as a testing ground for this mission, and that testing ground included, unfortunately, unconquered Zululand.
The Zulu king, Cetshwayo, was regarded as a problem; tragically, he believed the Zulus could coexist peacefully with the British empire and, even after hostilities began, struggled in vain to negotiate a peace treaty with the British. Over in London the colonial office was in much the same mind, urging all concerned to proceed in a “spirit of forbearance and reasonable compromise”.
Over here, though, they were having none of that. The local British high commissioner, Sir Bartle Frere, had cut his teeth in India where he had learnt that going soft on them was no way to deal with the natives. He misled his superiors by exaggerating the scale of the supposed Zulu military threat (much like Tony Blair and George W Bush “talking up” Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.)
Powerful economic incentives were inevitably at play. According to Beckett and others, Theophilus Shepstone, Natal’s director of native affairs, had plotted the destruction of the Zulu kingdom in order to provide cheap labour for the mining houses in Kimberley and, in a bid to curry favour with the neighbouring Boer leadership, farms in the Transvaal Republic. An “impossible” ultimatum was issued to Cetshwayo: basically, disband your kingdom or face the consequences.
War was unavoidable. Both Frere and Shepstone were counting on a quick victory. So was Lord Chelmsford, the British general who directed several columns of the 24th (Warwickshire) Regiment into Zululand on January 12 1879, with instructions they converge at Ulundi and there force Cetshwayo into submission.
Chelmsford took charge of one column which had camped at Isandlwana. Such was his confidence that he dispensed with the usual practice of drawing wagons into a laager. He still had no idea where exactly the enemy were, and on the morning of the battle led a reconnaissance party to look for them.
While they were gone, some 24,000 Zulus armed with assegais surprised, encircled and overwhelmed Chelmsford’s camp. Earlier, on January 17 at Ulundi, Cetshwayo had instructed them: “March slowly, attack at dawn and eat up the red soldiers.”
That they certainly did. Chelmsford and his party were horrified at what they found upon their return from their recce. More than 1,000 soldiers and their African auxiliaries had been slaughtered. A stench described as being like “a sweet potato that had been cooked when it was beginning to go bad” hung in the air: the stomachs of the dead British had been slit open, Zulus deeming this grisly practice necessary to ward off troubling visitations by the spirits of the slain.
Meanwhile, and within hours of the carnage at Isandlwana, an impi of some 3,000 to 4,000 warriors fell upon the mission station at nearby Rorke’s Drift, where about 140 mainly sick and wounded British and colonial troops were garrisoned. For two days they heroically defended the station against waves of attacks by the Zulus, who came perilously close to overrunning positions barricaded by little more than bags of mealie-meal and biscuit tins, but were eventually repelled. The fighting claimed the lives of 15 British soldiers and left more than 350 Zulus dead.
Back in London, accounts of the defenders’ bravery proved to be a salve for the searing humiliation of Isandlwana. Rorke’s Drift was hailed as a British Thermopylae, and 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defenders, along with numerous other decorations and honours.
In Natal, the war continued. The ritual mutilation at Isandlwana had greatly contributed to the harshness of the campaign against the Zulus; in addition to the gutting of their comrades, the British had been appalled by “the washing of the spears”, the warrior tradition of stabbing corpses to share in the honour that came with participating in their killing.
By July 4 1879, it was all over; Chelmsford’s forces torched Ulundi that day, and the deposed Cetshwayo was exiled, first to Cape Town, then to England where he would remain until he was permitted to return in 1883.
In defeating Cetshwayo, the British had relied not only on sophisticated weaponry and disciplined troops, but also numerous Zulu collaborators – among them the forebears of former president Jacob Zuma. As Jacob Dlamini, author of the Alan Paton Award-winning Askari: A Story of Collaboration and Betrayal in the Anti-Apartheid Struggle (Jacana, 2014), would later observe: “Far from helping build and protect the Zulu kingdom, the Zumas helped the British destroy it.” Such treachery was not unrewarded. The kingdom was broken into parcels of land which were handed over to collaborators. Zuma’s home at Nkandla was just such a spoil. For further details see Ekhaya: The Politics of Home in KwaZulu-Natal (University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2014), a collection of academic essays edited by historian Meghan Healy-Clancy and anthropologist Jason Hickel.
There are numerous books on the Anglo-Zulu war, the perfidy and political chicanery behind the conflict having inspired historians down the ages. Saul David’s Zulu: The Heroism and Tragedy of the Zulu War of 1879 (Penguin, 2004) and Ian Knight’s Zulu Rising: The Epic Story of iSandlwana and Rorke’s Drift (Macmillan, 2010), both lengthy tomes, are worth seeking out. Commenting on the latter for Literary Review, the military historian Richard Holmes noted, “When I visited the battlefields I was struck by the proud dignity of the the Zulus I met, but as I close this fine book, I cannot help wondering if they show us more courtesy than we deserve.”
Beckett’s book, though pithy, has been praised for its treatment of the war’s cultural legacy. He makes the case that while other colonial conflicts have faded from memory, this one remains firmly planted in Britain’s national consciousness thanks to the success of the film Zulu, which told of the defence of Rorke’s Drift and which premiered in London’s West End on January 22 1964 – the 85th anniversary of the events it depicted.
The film went on to become a British institution. A big UK box-office hit, it remained in constant cinema circulation for 12 years before its first screening on television, where it continues to be regularly shown on public holidays. Despite the by-now customary squawks of protest from the woke impi who bemoan an imperial past whenever the film is shown, it remains cherished by the British public.
Zulu presented a young Michael Caine to cinema audiences in his first major movie role – “the biggest piece of luck I ever had in show business” was how he later described it. In October, the actor, now 85, published a third volume of his memoirs, Blowing the Bloody Doors Off: And Other Lessons in Life (Hodder & Stoughton), which was a runaway bestseller over Christmas. It followed 2010’s The Elephant to Hollywood: The Autobiography and 1992’s What’s It All About? His Autobiography, both critically acclaimed and bestselling reads.
The latter provided readers with the extraordinary behind-the-scenes story of Zulu’s making. The film’s producers were by no means pillars of the establishment. Screenwriter John Prebble was a former communist who had volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Director and co-writer Cy Endfield fled Hollywood in the early 1950s after being named a communist during the McCarthy witch hunts. Stanley Baker, Endfield’s production partner and the film’s main star, was a lifelong supporter of the Labour Party.
Although committed to progressive causes, there was nothing political about Zulu, which would be neither anti-imperial in tone nor celebrate colonialism, but strictly a commercial venture. Still, the decision to film in apartheid SA did present unique problems. The 60-odd cast and crew members lived largely on location, in hotels in the Royal Natal National Park, on the slopes of the Drakensberg and far from major cities and townships. Remote as this was, the country’s racial policies would nevertheless have an impact on the production.
According to Caine, the British were handed strict guidelines regarding fraternising with local black people upon their arrival in SA.
These, he wrote, “turned out to be copies of the South African interracial sex or Miscegenation laws. Heterosexual contact between black and white people was illegal here, and if you were caught the punishment was either a long prison sentence,12 lashes with a whip, or both. We all stood around reading these laws and laughing … when Stanley [Baker] suddenly piped up: ‘If I get caught can I have the 12 lashes while I’m still doing it?’ We all roared, but this went down like a lead balloon with the locals. Quickly we were hustled into the terminal building and the welcome was over.”
Caine also recalled an incident on set which had infuriated him: a black labourer had been reprimanded by an Afrikaans foreman on set, who then punched him in the face. “I was so shocked at this,” he wrote, “I couldn’t move, and then suddenly I started to run towards the man, screaming at him, but Stanley got there first. I had never seen him so angry. He fired the man on the spot and then gathered all the white gang bosses together and then laid down the law on how everyone was going to be treated on this film set from then on. He was in an absolute fury and so were the rest of the British contingent. It brought home for the first time what this word ‘apartheid’ really meant.”
The British, meanwhile, would be amused – albeit briefly – at the antics of one of their own crew members, a Cockney foreman who had decided to “go native”. According to Caine, he had learnt some Zulu and would take his meals and drink with the black workers after hours rather than fraternise with his white colleagues.
One day shooting was interrupted when two police helicopters dropped in on the set. Several officers got out and a senior officer demanded to know who was in charge. A worried Stanley Baker stepped forward. “Apparently our Cockney had gone a little more native than we all thought,” Caine wrote. “He had moved out of the hotel into a mud hut, and had taken with him three Zulu wives. The policeman told Stanley that the man was under arrest. Later on we realised that one of our white Afrikaans foremen was in fact a police spy, placed with us for exactly this purpose. Worst of all, the policeman told Stanley that the production was closed down and we would have to leave the country. Stanley went to work on him immediately and after much argument they made a deal: the unit could stay provided that Stanley guaranteed to get the criminal out of the country by midnight. Now I realised that apartheid was not a personal prejudice but a government-sponsored form of civil terrorism. I vowed there and then never to return to that country until they changed the system, and to this day, I haven’t.”
Caine had been quite the gamble for Zulu’s producers. Prior to then, he’d done a bit of television work but was soon in danger of forever being typecast as working class and Cockney. Going against type, and giving him the role of a blue-blooded officer, Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, had paid off handsomely and did wonders for his career.
Another aspirant actor was also given a chance to shine in the film: Inkatha leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi played his own great-grandfather, Cetshwayo. But that is another story.
Fifteen years after Zulu, Cy Endfield would write and direct a prequel, Zulu Dawn, which focused on the battle at Isandlwana. This 1979 production was a much bigger affair with an all-star cast that included Burt Lancaster, John Mills, Bob Hoskins, Simon Ward and Peter O’Toole as Lord Chelmsford. It fared poorly at the box office. It wasn’t a bad film, but a story of military blundering in the bush and lives wasted by arrogant officers in an avoidable defeat had no patch on an account of the heroism of Rorke’s Drift.
According to, this year is shaping up to be a bonanza for the crime fiction aficionado. “To say there’s a lot to be excited about in the world of crime, mystery and thrillers is an understatement,” they announced in the first instalment of an impressive preview of 2019. “There have never been so many dynamic books for suspense lovers, so many genuinely thrilling works that value character development, humanity under duress, and insight into society and the individual. Psychological thrillers are on the rise but all over there are new shots of life invigorating the private eye novel, the Western mystery, the action thriller, the spy novel, the traditional mystery and, of course, everyone’s new-old favourite, the true crime investigation.”
Personally, the pick of their January selection would be James Lee Burke’s new Dave Robicheaux novel, The New Iberia Blues (Orion). Burke is one of US crime fiction’s greatest practitioners, a lyrical writer whose books are infused with a melancholy and yearning for a fast-vanishing Louisiana. In this, the 16th in the series, an old friend from his past, Desmond Cormier, returns to Dave’s life a quarter-century later. He’s now a successful film director, and also a key suspect in a murder case in which a young woman has been crucified. Dave wants to believe his old friend is incapable of such a horrific crime. But it’s not looking good for Cormier, who’s not saying anything …
“HR people used to be glorified office managers, but now they get MBAs and are called Chief People Officers. They talk about being ‘strategic talent managers’ who ‘drive corporate transformation’ and are ‘building the workforce of the future’. They’re suckers for pop neuroscience, and though most wouldn’t know an amygdala from an anal wart, they will jump on anything that they think can rewire the brain circuitry of their employees. Lego Serious Play promises to do just that, and comes wrapped in just enough scientific-sounding literature to make it seem legitimate.” – Lab Rats: Why Modern Work Makes People Miserable by Dan Lyons (Atlantic).

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