The Defense of Rorkes Drift
In my early 20’s I was given a book to read; the “Washing of the Spears” by Donald R Morris. Without wanting to be too dramatic, it changed my life. Up until I read this book, South African history was boring to me, I much preferred the history of other countries. This book though opened my eyes as to how exciting the history of South Africa was, and no event captured my imagination like the events that transpired at the defense of Rorkes Drift.
Rorkes Drift is about a 4 hour drive north-west of Durban. The road to the site is partly tarred and partly dirt. The drive will take you some of the most beautiful country side in South Africa, from the rolling green sugar-cane covered hills of Natal, to the deep valleys of Zululand and the rock strewn grasslands of the Nqutu plateau.
As you get within an hour or two of Rorkes Drift the surrounding landscape is dramatic and Zulu umuzi’s (homestead’s) are found everywhere you look. You have to be cautious driving this road, cattle, goats and children all cross without looking.
Along the road there are still signs of the British invasion of 1879, though without the obvious sign posts pointing out and naming the forts, you would be hard pressed to know where to look. The site at which James and Sarah Rorke chose to trade is as beautiful as any, in the late afternoon setting sun, perhaps more beautiful than most. The hill they chose to build them at at the base of is known to the Zulu as Shiyana (eyebrow) and it’s sides gradually descend to the fast and slow flowing Mzinyati River, known these days as the Buffalo River.
It’s here that the most convenient crossing point from Natal into Zulu was, and even today the path the wagon wheels cut into the river banks are still evident. The home James and Sarah built was up from the river, and looked out over the vast landscape to the west and travelers stopped there all the time.
The life was lonely though and James Rorkes became addicted to gin. On 24 Oct, 1875 Rorke passed away, some say he shot himself because the local supplier at Helpmekaar refused to extend James anymore credit. Sarah sold up to a Norwegian missionary in 1878 and moved.
The Swedish missionary Otto Witt and his young family. By all reports Witt’s time in South Africa wasn’t what he had hoped for, more so when Lord Chelmsford arrived with his 4500 strong fighting column.
When Otto Witt arrived he set about making his life as comfortable as possible. He made changes to Rorkes original house and converted the barn into a church and school. He grew on orchid and did his best to get on with the Zulu people in the area, even dining with Sihayo from time to time.
Lord Chelmsford and Sir Bartle Frere
In 1877 Sir Bartle Frere arrived in South African at the request of Lord Caranvon as High Commissioner for Southern Africa. Sir Frere had one goal, to confederate South Africa. Sir Frere threw himself into the task and after annexing the Transvaal, turned his attention to the independent monarchy of the Zulu, led by their King, Cetshwayo kaMpanda.
Sir Bartle Frere was convinced that the only hurdle to confederation in South Africa (and his well laid out plans) was the Zulu nation. In order to force British occupation on the Zulu, the British architect of confederation in South Africa brought about a war.
In December of 1878, the British delivered an ultimatum to the Zulu. This ultimatum was a farce, it was designed to legitimize war with the Zulu. On the 11th January, 1879, the Zulu found themselves suddenly at war with the British, even King Cetshwayo was caught by surprise at how quickly events had transpired.
The commander in chief of the British forces in South Africa was Frederic Augustus Thesinger.
Lord Chelmsford understood the challenges hs was facing very well. He understood that to ensure the Zulu people considered themselves well and truly beaten, he would have four objectives.
1. Defeat the Zulu army 2. Capture the capital (Ulundi) 3. Capture the King 4. Capture the Inkatha
Lord Chelmsford also understood that the moment the British entered into Zululand, it would not be only the Zulu who were his enemy; time itself was to be against him from the start. To wage war in Zululand, Chelsmford would need to move relatively quickly. January was the rainy season and by end of March those rains would disappear and water would become a precious commodity.
When the rains disappeared, the grass started to dry out. Lord Chelmsford’s column had over 10,000 oxen alone. All of the animals needed good quality grass on which to feed.
Lord Chelmsford and Rorkes Drift
Lord Chelmsford needed a suitable base from which to launch his invasion. He had in the months leading up to January on 1879, decided on the manner in which the British would deal with the Zulu. He divided his forces in 5 columns, one of which would be camped in the north near the Boers to ensure they didn’t become a problem, and a column of mounted men led by Col. Anthony Durnford that were to guard the Natal border against a Zulu incursion.
Lord Chelmsford them instructed the three remaining columns to be the fighting force to enter in Zululand. He chose to embed himself with the central column and so become it’s de facto commander, with the central columns own commander, Col Glyn, deferring to Lord Chelmsford.
Lord Chelmsford chose Rorkes Drift to be his staging post as the days to the ultimatum ran out. By the 10th of January 1879 his column, some 4500 men strong were strung out over the gently sloping ground all the way to the river. As an added bonus, he used the home of the missionary Otto Witt as a field hospital and stuck his wounded there.
On the 11th the ultimatum duly ran out and the British crossed over the river. On the 12th, Chelmsford watched his men in their first action of the war when they attacked the stronghold of a local Zulu chief, Sihayo. The battle was one sided, the majority of Chief Siyaho’s fighting men were already at the King’s kraal in Ulundi.
The constant tick-tock of time passing rang loudly in Chelmsford’s ears. He knew movement was the key to winning a war against the Zulu’s. His biggest fear was that the Zulu wouldn’t stand and fight, that they would embark on a guerilla war and simply starve the British army of any success.
Progress was slow though. A column made up of 4500 British soldiers, colonial volunteers and NNC (Natal Native Contingent) cannot move quickly; even less so when encumbered by 300 wagons and 1000’s of animals.
By the 10th the British column was far from the first planned destination and so Chelmsford and his staff picked a new site for the camp to stop, a peculiar hill that became known as Isandlwana. This hill would become the resting site for many brave British and Zulu soldier on the 22nd January 1879.
After the Zulu attack by the main army, some 25,000 strong, a portion of these warriors turned their attention to KwaJimu’s – Rorkes Drift.
Chard and Bromhead
Lt Chard, a royal engineer had been delayed on his way to Rorkes Drift and when he arrived, Lt MacDowel had already built the punts and departed with the column, building a suitable road for the wagons to use.
Lt Chard settled into life at Rorkes Drift and became quickly bored. His friend, Lt Bromhead was at Rorkes Drift as well as the commanding officer, Maj Spalding. Chard kept himself busy as best he could with maintaining the punts but by the 22nd decided to ride out to Chelmsfords new camp on the flanks of Isandlwana to receive new orders.
Lt Bromhead was the commander of “B” company, 24th of Foot. It seems that Bromhead was deaf, or very close to it and as a result B company was often found at the rear guarding or minding something of less than vital importance.
The Zulu’s are Coming!
At around 2pm, Chard who had ridden onto Isandlwana and returned with a report of Zulu’s seen at around 10pm on the morning of the 22nd. This report concerned Capt. Spalding who decided to ride to the town of Helpmekaar in order to hurry down two companies of the 24th Regiment that were a few days late. This decision left Spalding out of the history books, had a stayed his name may have been celebrated at the Defense of Rorkes Drift.
On leaving Spalding remarked to both Chard and Bromhead that Chard was senior, but there was no reason to issue any orders since he would be bake before nightfall – he then departed.
Chard and Bromhead then busied themselves with their various duties when at approx. 4pm the first of the survivors from Isandlwana arrived and informed of the tragedy and to urge them to leave as “the Zulu’s are coming”.
The Defense of Rorkes Drift
What happened then was written into the history books. Lt Chard, Lt Bromhead, the commissary Dalton and Bourne made the decision to stand and defend themselves against the Zulu’s; they had no choice, to be caught out in the open was suicide and at Rorkes Drift they had a fighting chance.
After some defense work had been hurriedly made, the Zulu’s arrived and for the next 8 hours or so, threw themselves at the British defenders over and over again. The British soldiers fought desperately against the Zulu’s, they knew to be overrun would be certain death.
Whilst the fighting took place outside, the wounded British soldiers and some volunteers fought from inside the hospital until an Martini Henry rifle was discharged in the confines of the room directly into the thatch causing a fire to break out.
The men desperately hacked though the mud bricked walls to avoid being burnt to death, escaping out the rooms into the open wasn’t an option, there only the thrust of an asasagay blade awaited them.
Throughout the night the brave Zulu warriors continued to test the British defenses and their resolve and time and time again they were repelled at horrific cost.
When the sun’s rays finally lit the battlefield the following morning the true nightmare from the night became clear, the bodies of 370 Zulu lay dead around the makeshift defenses, many more lay dead or dying out of sight in the bush surrounding Shiyane. On the British side, 19 dead were counted, and a further 2 passed away from their wounds in the days after.
11 Victoria Crosses Awarded at Rorkes Drift
When the dust settled, the dead carried away and laid to rest, the individual stories from those that survived were told and heroes created; Private Hitch fighting on despite his shoulder blade being destroyed by a Zulu bullet, Hook who bravely volunteered to defend the wounded in the hospital, Schiess who despite being injured before the battle and again during the battle continuing to fight, all these men and so many others become part of military lore.
11 Victoria Crosses were awarded in this action, the most ever awarded to a regiment in one action. Years later this would be criticized, accusations that the Victoria Crosses were handed out too freely surfaced, it was done for political ends they said, to distract from the disaster that was Isandlwana.
For the men, I don’t believe the awards mattered much. They stood shoulder to shoulder and back to back, they fought and did their duty like true British soldiers, they didn’t need medals, their actions were a statesman to their mettle.
On the later afternoon of the 22nd Jan 1879, 4500 Zulu warriors attacked a British post of some 150 British soldiers; and in doing so the Defense of Rorkes Drift became a part of British military lore.
Visiting Rorkes Drift
Getting to Rorkes Drift is relatively easy, but it is a long drive, 4 hours if you stick to the speed limit (which obviously you should. There’s no bus service or train service to the site I’m afraid, so you’re either going to have to self drive, pay for a transfer or book a guided tour.
If self driving, then I believe the best route from Durban is to head north on the N2 and then take the Eshowe turnoff onto the R66. Stay on the R66 all the way to Melmouth and then turn onto the R68 towards Babnango. Stay on the R68 until you see the turnoff marked “Isandlwana”. It’s best to refuel in Melmouth.
Where to Say
There’s four sites to stay at that are situated on or very near the battlefields.
- Isandlwana Lodge: Situated at the base of the Nqutu Plateau overlooking the Isandlwana battlefield, about 20 min from Rorkes Drift.
- Rorkes Drift Hotel: My personal favorite. The hotel is round in keeping with traditional Zulu style and overlooks the Buffalo River just a hundred meters or so from the actual drift. Within 10 min walking distance from Rorkes Drift.
- Fugitives Drift Lodge: This is a very well known lodge thanks to the Rattrey family that own the lodge and game reserve it’s situated in and of course known for their incredibly deep knowledge of the Anglo Zulu war. About 15 min from Rorkes Drift.
- Battlefield Lodge: Haven’t stayed at this site yet but I’m told it’s reasonable and about 10 min from Rorkes Drift.
- Elandsheim Retreat: Although I’ve had guests stay here, I personally haven’t. I think the site is really more geared towards large groups such as schools.
- Dundee: The town of Dundee is about 40 min away from Rorkes Drift and there are a number of B&B’s to stay at here.
Booking a tour to Rorkes Drift
The best way to visit and get the most of Rorkes Drift to to simply book a tour with us (or another guide). With a guide you’ll get to learn more about the why’s as well as the how’s. We offer three different options currently
- A day tour from Durban to Rorkes Drift and Isandlwana
- Overnight (2 day) tour to Rorkes Drift
- A three day tour to Rorkes Drift and Isandlwana
If you would like more information about our tours to Rorkes Drift and Isandlwana simply use the contact form below and we’ll do the rest.