Rorke’s Drift Museum

Reviewing the Rorke's Drift Museum, with Taylor Downing.

Rorke’s Drift Museum, KwaZulu-Natal
Monday to Friday 8am-4pm, weekends 9am-4pm
199 D4, Rorke’s Drift, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
+27 (0) 34 642 1687

In 1847, an Irishman named Jim Rorke bought some land alongside a ford in the Buffalo River on the boundary between British-controlled Natal province and the Zulu Kingdom founded by King Shaka. Just up from the ford, Rorke built a typical frontier home, comprising two, long single-storey stone buildings with thatched roofs.

From here, he hunted and traded with the locals, both the white settlers and native Zulus. He became a popular figure, and colonists would buy from his stores and take a drink in his simple café. With the Zulus he would trade blankets, beads, gin, and the occasional illegal rifle, usually bartering them for cattle. To the Zulus, his trading centre became kwaJim (Jim’s Place). To the settlers, it was known simply as Rorke’s Drift.

The main entrance to the museum at Rorke’s Drift. The site is named after an Irish hunter and trader who set up a home there in 1847.

Jim Rorke died in the mid-1870s; Otto de Witt, a Swedish missionary, acquired the property in what was now becoming a tense border region. It was from the adjacent ford that British forces under Lord Chelmsford launched their invasion of Zululand on 11 January 1879.

The trading post became a temporary field hospital and was itself the site of a battle on the late afternoon and evening of 22 January. A few hours earlier, Zulu warriors had massacred 1,400 British and native troops at nearby Isandlwana.

A monument to the British who were killed at Rorke’s Drift during the attack on 22 January 1879. A well-organised defence by two lieutenants repelled the Zulu assault.

The original buildings at Rorke’s Drift were destroyed after the battle, but a museum stands there today. Modest though it is, it presents a fascinating record of the events in which 140 British Redcoats fought off an attack from about 4,000 Zulu warriors.

After the humiliating disaster at Isandlwana, the heroic defence of Rorke’s Drift captured the imagination of the British public. Several artists depicted the battle, including Lady Elizabeth Butler, whose painting attracted a ‘great crush’ of onlookers when shown at the Royal Academy. Nearly a century later, the defence was immortalised in the epic war movie Zulu, directed by Cy Endlfield and starring Michael Caine, Stanley Baker, and Jack Hawkins.

Unexpected attack

The museum begins with the story of the Zulu Kingdom under King Cetshwayo. On display are examples of the famous assegai spear, the shorter iklwa sword (so named because of the sound it made when withdrawn from the body), and the ishilunga cowhide shield. Tableaux of mannequins, as well as a detailed model, tell the story of the defensive battle.

As no attack was expected, there was no one in command at Rorke’s Drift that day. Instead, two lieutenants, Gonville Bromhead of the 24th Regiment and John Chard of the Royal Engineers, took control. A hasty fortification was constructed using mealie bags and biscuit boxes. From here the defenders fired volleys from their Martini-Henry rifles.

Lady Elizabeth Butler’s 1880 painting, The Defence of Rorke’s Drift. It captured the essence of the myth that surrounded the battle: that of courageous imperial soldiers staving off a barbaric attack.

The Zulu warriors initially adopted their bull and horns tactic of attacking from two sides at once, surrounding the buildings. Taking shelter behind boulders and amidst the tall grass, the Zulus were cut down in large numbers.

But their assault continued. As darkness fell, the attackers struck the hospital and set fire to the thatched roof. Intense fighting ensued as the Zulus advanced from room to room, spearing the British while their enemy fought with rifles and bayonets. With the building in flames, its defenders evacuated through holes they made in its internal walls.

In a heroic gesture, Privates Alfred Hook and John Williams managed to drag the last survivors out of the rear wall and across a yard to the other building, where Lieutenant Chard had organised a basic redoubt.

. The Isandlwana battlefield with the peak in the background. The cairns mark the places where British soldiers fell.

As darkness descended, the defenders kept up a continuous fire against the attackers, now only visible from the light of the burning roof. By midnight, the exhausted Zulu warriors, who had run miles across the country and endured hours of bitter combat, began to withdraw. As dawn rose the following morning, the British counted their losses and waited for another attack. But none came.

In all, 11 VCs were won at Rorke’s Drift. The museum relates the many stories behind the decorations, including that of the soldier who hid in a cupboard once the Zulus had occupied the hospital, as well as those of Hook, Williams, and others who escaped the burning building.

Celebrated sideshow

The museum today has been diminished a little by recent austerity in South Africa. Many of the mannequins look tired and need tidying up, while an excellent audio track that used to play the terrifying sound of the distant Zulu war cries has broken down and has not been fixed.

. The same peak is visible in Charles Edwin Fripp’s 1885 painting, The Last Stand at Isandlwana. Around 1,400 British and native troops were killed there hours before the battle at Rorke’s Drift.

Outside is a memorial naming the 17 British soldiers who lost their lives at Rorke’s Drift. The names of the approximately 600 Zulu warriors who fell and those wounded are not recorded. However, in 2005 a new memorial was unveiled to the Zulu dead. It depicts a leopard, representing the Zulu monarch, protecting a covering of shields of the fallen warriors. At the centre is an Umlahlankosi tree, traditionally used by the Zulus to bring home the spirits of the dead.

Less than ten miles from Rorke’s Drift is Isandlwana and the site of the massacre that took place earlier the same day. This story is told in the 1979 movie Zulu Dawn, directed by David Hickox and starring Peter O’Toole, Burt Lancaster, and many others. The battlefield lacks a museum, but the broad plain below the rocky summit is easy to explore and is replete with cairns marking the spots where the troops fell.

A memorial to the Zulus at Rorke’s Drift. Unveiled in 2005, the leopard represents the Zulu monarch as it protects a covering of shields belonging to the fallen warriors.

There are also several British monuments, although nothing to commemorate the Natal Native Contingent under Colonel Durnsford, which also suffered heavy losses. A modern Zulu memorial marks the unknown number of their warriors who fell, which on each anniversary of the battle is the site of a Zulu-led memorial service.

A visit to both Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana is enhanced immeasurably by having a guide to interpret what is to be seen. One of the most outstanding guides was local historian David Rattray, who was tragically murdered in a botched armed robbery in 2007.

Several guides can be hired by the day. There are some Zulu guides, but one of the best white South African guides is Paul Garner, who is available through Rorke’s Drift Hotel, a luxury lodge overlooking the original ford. Individual travellers should be warned that the approach to Rorke’s Drift is not for the faint hearted, involving a drive of over 20km along an unpaved, rough track.

When news reached London of the Anglo-Zulu battles in 1879, the massacre at Isandlwana was considered a humiliating blow to Britain and its empire. In contrast, the defence of Rorke’s Drift was a minor sideshow, but was celebrated for the courage and heroism of its defenders.

While public opinion generally blamed Lord Chelmsford and the senior military leaders for the massacre, it was junior officers, Chard and Bromhead, supported by privates and NCOs, who had manned the defence of Rorke’s Drift.

This confirmed the view of many Victorians that the British army was poorly led but its junior ranks consisted of courageous, worthy defenders of the empire. It was this kind of story – of a few humble men who had defended an outpost in the face of the Zulu onslaught – that helped to inspire the imperialist dream. •

You can read Taylor Downing’s review of Zulu Dawn.

All images: Taylor Downing / Wikimedia Commons.