Monday, 1 April 2013

Battlefields: Isandlwana

South Africa, I like to say, is contested ground. Everywhere you go, you tend to discover hints and echos of our turbulent past.

In addition to the major battlefields, there are countless sites of skirmishes and struggles. Each one provides a connection to our rich history.

In Nieu Bethesda's dusty cemetery, a single British soldier's grave. On a West Coast game farm, Boer War buttons, spurs and collar badges unearthed during construction. In a Colesberg farmhouse, the directive requisitioning the building for use as the British staff HQ, framed on a wall in the voorkamer.

These sort of fragments can speak louder than battle sites, which, more often than not, have been destroyed by agriculture, development, or neglect.

But none speak louder than Isandlwana. Its preservation aside, there is something incredibly poignant about the site. Even on the drive to the site, you begin to notice whitewashed cairns scattered in dips and hollows, or visible on the skyline. By the time you reach the heart of the battlefield, you can see cairns in every direction you look, tracing the course of the battle across the eastern front of Isandlwana field, and plotting the course the fleeing invaders took down to the Mzinyathi river.

The cairns mark where the remains of British men and their local allies were buried. The British only managed to return to bury their dead in June/July of 1879, six months after the battle, and the remains were collected together and covered with stones. Each cairn marks the remains of up to 10 soldiers. Most were never identified.

Many of the Zulu dead were also left where they fell, simply covered with their shields, or were buried together in shallow graves north of the battlefield on the Nyoni heights.

Given that very few of the dead at Isandlwana were afforded formal graves, its a great thing that the site has been so well preserved. It stands as their collective cemetery, the strange-shaped hill as their memorial.

In the interest of completeness, I must point out that there have been formal memorials erected on the site - mostly at the "colonial cemetery" where the remains of those men identified by friends and colleagues lie buried. At the Nek there are several, including one to the men of the 24th, and near the entrance to the site is a more recent memorial to the Zulus who lost their lives on the field.

Of the remains identified, the majority were of local "colonials". Hence the more formal cemetery now known as the "Colonial Cemetery"

Memorial to men and offices of the 24th.
Memorial to the Zulu dead. Pic courtesy of
The Isandlwana battlefield is administered by Amafa Heritage KwaZulu-Natal which charges a small fee to visit the site. It is in a good state of preservation, is fenced, and the road across the nek has been re-routed around the site to limit degradation. There is not a great deal of "interpretation" or information provided at the site, so its well worth having a battlefield guide to provide context... we were shown around the area, including the skirmish site at Sihayo's homestead, the crossing points of the Mzinyathi, and the twin battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift by Paul Garner - a knowledgeable and entertaining guide.

There is plenty of accommodation in the immediate area, and in and around Dundee, (the closest town), ranging from budget to comfortably luxurious.

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