David Grey Rattray
One of my most treasured possessions is a set of cds entitled 'Day of the Dead Moon' which is the oral recounting of the Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift. Islandlwana took place on a day when a solar eclipse occurred, hence the title. These battles were of course those which took place in KwaZulu Natal in 1879 between the British and the AmaZulu nation who had refused to accept British rule. Rorke's Drift is the conflict which is better known to the British public, possibly because this was the fight in which that although the British were not victorious, they managed to fend off enormous odds. The Zulus though are more likely to recall Isandlwana, where their impis were wholly triumphant, massacring almost 2,000 of the invaders of their land, an engagement in which only a handful of British soldiers escaped with their lives. At Isandlwana the British encampment was attacked and eventually overrun by 20,000 Zulus. At Rorke’s Drift, just over 150 regular troops faced up to 4,000 Zulu warriors and managed to hold their ground.
In the late 1990s I began planning two novels which would cover the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. The first would concentrate on the events at Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift, the second on the final battles ending with the British victory at Ulundi, the Zulu capital and seat of their king, Cetshwayo kaMpande. During the period of my research I acquired fellowship of the Anglo-Zulu War Historical Society and had access to a myriad of books and also the audio tapes of a one David Rattray, a white South African who had grown up with Zulu children and had heard, and had become fascinated by, the stories of Isandlwana. He is the first of the ten people who have been the inspirational writing gurus who I intend depicting in my blog.
In the 1990's David Rattray lived at the site of Rorke's Drift and conducted tours of the battlefields. When I played the tapes (I now have the cds) I was totally mesmerised by this man's gift for oral storytelling. I had never heard anything like his soft powerful voice and the tremendous talent he had for recounting a war between a nation with primitive weapons and an army bearing modern armaments. It was spears and hide shields against Martini-Henry rifles and field artillery. I played those tapes over and over again, absolutely lost in the hynotic retelling of two engagements that took place in the shadow of the Drakensberg Mountains.
In his recounting of the history of these battles, David Rattray took no sides, praising the 24th Foot (later the South Wales Borderers) and the Zulus alike for their courage. He did however state that Isandlwana should not be looked on as a British defeat, but a Zulu victory, a subtlety that impressed me. I am also a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and in the early 2000s I was privileged to hear him speak at the society's lecture hall in London. When he visited my grandson's school at Felsted in Essex and gave a talk to the students there, I spoke to the man and shook his hand. Sadly, he was murdered at the age of 48 in his home at Rorke's Drift while being burgled by six men. I understand the person who fired the killing shot was a young Zulu and one wonders whether his killer knew that a great deal of the money David Rattray earned lecturing and guided tours was spent on the education of poor Zulu children.
David Rattray was an inspirational man. Being a teller of tales myself, albeit in print, he filled me with awe and admiration for his storytelling. In 1999 some Welsh troopers visited the battlegrounds and held a memorial service in the chapel at Rorke's Drift. Thousands of Zulus came from their homes to meet their erstwhile enemy and the two groups, both famed for their ability to sing, joined together in a chorus that soared into the surrounding hills. David Rattray was present to witness the event and apparently he stood in the audience and wept. He is survived by a wife, Nicky, who I understand carries on the work he so loved, amongst the people he loved.
(For those interested in the two historical novels I wrote on the Anglo-Zulu War, they are:
The Scarlet Sash and Dragoons.
I also wrote a poem on Isandlwana:
The Iron Wind
[In 1879 2000 Zulus charged into a hail of
fire from 2000 Martini-Henry rifles.
It was at a place called Isandlwana and after their
total victory the Zulu youths used the battle cry:
‘We are the boys of Isandlwana’.]
We are the boys of Isandlwana
who faced the iron wind.
A furnace wind,
like the Saharan Simoom
or Haboob of Khartoum,
bringing madness on its breath.
No shield can turn it,
no magic cloak.
Warriors are whisked away
like broken straws.
it takes our heads clean off.
We are the boys of Isandlwana
who race at the fiery rush,
into the bulleting blast,
for wind is only wind
and tomorrow the enemy
will be calm
and utterly still.