Nearly 80 Zulu warriors wearing armbands of white goat fur and loinclothes of antelope tails race down the battlefield of Isandlwana screaming and slapping their wooden clubs against their cowhide shields to rouse themselves for battle.
In the summer heat, two dozen red-coated British soldiers wait in two orderly lines, one kneeling and one standing behind. They fire and reload and fire again—all in vain as they are surrounded, overwhelmed, clubbed to death or run through with
Thousands of spectators burst into applause. The annual January festival at Isandlwana just might be the world’s most colorful combat re-enactment, though it memorialises a brutal, bloody battle in 1879 that left thousands dead in just a few hours, many in close-quarters spear-against-bayonet fights.
“It’s a story of sheer bravery on both sides, but it’s hell,” said Rob Gerrard, a British historian based at the Isandlwana Lodge.
Isandlwana is only one of dozens of battlefields in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, the scars of vicious battles for
land waged through much of the 19th century—the Boer against the Zulu, the Zulu against the British and the British against the Boer.
Nearly 31 000 foreign tourists come each year to the battlefields. Most are from Britain, where the sites still stir reminders of the colonial past. But others come as well. Officials in KwaZulu-Natal hope the battlefields and re-enactments will bring more tourism, creating jobs and helping to rescue the province’s faltering economy.
“We want to do everything possible to use the war to put food on the table,” said Gugu Ngcobo, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Arts and Culture Trust. “It is a great inheritance our ancestors left us.”
Many tourists visit the Siege Museum in Ladysmith, where the British were surrounded for 118 days during the Anglo-Boer war at the beginning of the 20th century. The howitzers that defended the town now stand guard over town hall.
They visit Blood River, and see the circle of 64 life-size bronze wagons, symbols of the fortifications used in 1838 by 460 gun-wielding Boers to defeat 15 000 spear carrying Zulus, whose sacrifice is honored with a memorial across the river.
For many visitors, Isandlwana is the most emotional of the sites. It was one of Britain’s most humiliating defeats, a scene of bad decisions, inattentiveness and inexperience. The annual festival, however, is more of a celebration, an ode
to “the Zulu heritage, the military tactics the Zulu employed,” Ngcobo said.
Thousands of people, mostly locals, gathered for this year’s re-enactment. Many stood in the hot sun, others sat on lawn chairs under giant umbrellas, drinking beer from coolers.
Hundreds of Zulus showed up to participate. Many wore traditional loincloths and headbands and toted full body shields made of jackal, impala, leopard and goat skins—though they eschewed the Zulus’ barefoot tradition for sneakers. Others, like Joseph Khanyle (55) could not afford the outfit. He carried a shield and spear, but wore a red golf shirt, jeans, green sneakers and a blue baseball cap turned backward.
Alas, only those in traditional dress were allowed to take on the redcoats, played by a local group of war re-enactors. The ersatz battle, which took place on a small field a fraction of the size of the original area, was over in minutes as the Zulu overran the British.
Roughly 1 400 British soldiers and their allies were killed on January 22, 1879, in what is generally viewed as a colossal disaster. Estimates of Zulu dead range from 1 000 to 3 000.
The British had just entered Zululand after Zulu King Cetshwayo refused to capitulate to a set of strict demands. Certain of easy victory, the British set up an unfortified camp at the base of the small Isandlwana Mountain.
Most of the force headed into the mountains in search of a Zulu army that, in reality, was in a ravine just a few miles away. Some 20 000 warriors attacked the exposed camp in the classic “horns of the buffalo” formation developed by Shaka Zulu decades before. Running down the mountains, screaming war chants, the main force—the head and the chest of the buffalo—attacked head on, while the left and the right horns swept around the camp, encircling it and cutting off any retreat.
During the battle, the plain fell into the near darkness of a partial eclipse. The area now is covered with memorial obelisks to the dead and stacks of white rocks that mark where the British bodies were found. Recently, a Zulu memorial in the shape of a traditional victory necklace was added.
The day after the raucous re-enactment at Isandlwana, a more sombre ceremony was held a few miles away at Rorke’s Drift. There, within hours of the Isandlwana battle, the pain of the British defeat was tempered when just over 100 redcoats hidden behind rough fortifications of corn sacks and biscuit tins held off roughly 4 000 Zulus for about 12 hours overnight.
Today, a museum occupies what was once the camp hospital—where six volunteers defended the wounded in room-to-room skirmishes with invading Zulus.
Outside, lines of stones mark the tiny area where the corn and biscuit walls stood and 11 soldiers won Britain’s highest award for gallantry, the Victoria Cross. - Sapa-AP