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Zulu

Dr Alex Tang

 (poster source: amazon.com)

This 1964 movie is about the defence of Rourke's Drift, small mission hospital in Natal during the Anglo-Zulu wars on 22-23th Jan 1879. Michael Caine made his cameo appearance as Lt. Bromhead, an aristocrat and Stanley Baker as Lt. Chard, an Officer of Royal Engineers who came from a more humble background. This set the stage for the interchange about class status in the movie. Michael Caine came across well as an English aristocrat.

Jack Hawkins played the role of a missionary who is anti-violent, stuck in the middle of a war. The missionary is a complex man who seems to understand the local culture, yet is a drunken and quoted Scripture all the time. Ulla Jacobsson played the role of the missionary's daughter but I do not know why she is there. Except for the feminine impact, the show would be fine without her. (I am not being sexist here)

 The costumes were great. I loved the British red uniforms worn by the foot soldiers of that time. The commitment of the soldiers, their dependence on their NCOs, and their fighting tactics were realistic enough to be believable. I can see the research in making the appropriate uniforms and also in the battle itself. Most impressive is the wedding dance of 200 Zulu warriors and 200 Zulu nubile maidens at the beginning of the movie at the King's kraal.

In the nineteen century, the British were competing with the Dutch to bring Zululand into the empire. During the 1870s, the British were looking for a pretext to completely defeat the Zulu In 1878 they got it. The wife of Sihayo, a Zulu chief, fled with her lover into British territory. Sihayo's sons crossed the frontier into Natal and killed her. The British ordered the Zulu to disband their army and predictably the Zulu chief, Cetshwayo, refused. On this pretext the British army marched into Zululand.

On January 22nd 1879, the Zulu, with vastly inferior weapons, killed 1500 British and defeated the army at Isandhlwana. It was a remarkable achievement, and the greatest victory ever won by Africans against Europeans in sub-Saharan Africa. After the defeat of the British army, the Zulu army attacked a small British field hospital and supply depot at Rorkes (Rourke's) Drift in Natal.

The defence of Rorkes Drift was one of the most heroic military defences of all time. Manned by 140 troops of the 24th Regiment, led by Lieutenant John Chard of the Royal Engineers, the camp was attacked by a well-trained and well-equipped Zulu army of 4000 men, heartened by the great Zulu victory over the British forces at Isandhlwana earlier on the same day. The battle began in mid afternoon, when British remnants of the defeat at Isandhlwana struggled into the camp.

Anticipating trouble, Chard set his small force to guard the perimeter fence but, when the Zulu attack began, the Zulus came faster than the British could shoot and the camp was soon overcome. The thatched roof of the hospital was fired by Zulu spears wrapped in burning grass and even some of the sick and the dying were dragged from their beds and pressed into the desperate hand-to-hand fighting. Eventually, Chard gave the order to withdraw from the perimeter and to take position in a smaller compound, protected by a hastily assembled barricade of boxes and it was from behind this barricade that the garrison fought for their lives throughout the night.

After twelve hours of battle, the camp was destroyed, the hospital had burned to the ground, seventeen British lay dead and ten were wounded. However, the Zulus had been repulsed and over 400 of their men killed. The Battle of Rorkes Drift is one of the greatest examples of bravery and heroism in British military history. Nine men were awarded Distinguished Conduct Medals, and eleven, the most ever given for a single battle, received the highest military honour of all, the Victoria Cross.

The British reinforced their troops, however, and eventually defeated the Zulu at the Battle of Ulundi in 1879. The Zulu king ordered his warriors to stop fighting, since his people were starving. The British divided Zululand into 13 smaller states. This encouraged disputes between the chiefs and eventually there was civil war. In 1887 the British made Zululand a colony.

 

posted 15 April 2007 

 

revised 10 Jan 2015. Thanks to Gerald Pille for pointing out that the Battle of Ulundi was in 1879 not 1789. An error in typo.

               

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