Monday, 29 January 2007

Zulus' Champion Killed

David Rattray, 48, was shot at his lodge in KwaZulu-Natal on 26 January 2007: what a shock. Rattray, whose lodge lies between the battlefields of Isandhlwana and Rorke's Drift, was not only an expert on the Anglo-Zulu wars but was an outspoken champion of the Zulu people. Allegedly, it was Zulu's that killed him.

Charles White, 46, was killed at the Battle of Isandhlwana on 22 January 1879, when the Zulus defeated the British. Charles White was my great-grandfather. Immediately afterwards the Zulu fighters attacked the British at Rorke's Drift - made famous in the film Zulu with Michael Caine - and the British were victorious (by the skin of their teeth). Is it any coincidence, I wonder, that Rattray was killed so close to the anniversary of these events.

For some time time I've promised myself a visit to the Zulu battlefields: there are cairns to mark where brave British and Zulu soldiers died and a memorial with - among many - the name of my great-grandfather on. It was at David Rattray's lodge that I wanted to stay: his tour that I wished to be on.

Fortunately, I did meet Rattray in October 2005 to hear him talk about the battles and what an experience that was. He was the most marvellous raconteur and, although seated in a very English school hall, his passionate story telling made us all feel that we were there, on the battlefield of Isandlwana, in the thick of it: one could almost feel the heat, the tiredness, the boredom and then taste the frustration and awful fear. The stirring account - interspersed with words and clicks of the Zulu language - moved many of us to tears.

And Rattray went to great lengths to impress on his audience that the Zulus had not wanted a war: they had not been the perpetrators. But, at the Battle of Isandhlwana, their tactics were far superior to those of the ill-equipped and badly managed British troops.

My forbear, Charles White, left India and the British Army and retired to South Africa. Like many gentlemen he became a colonial volunteer and joined the Natal Mounted Police (NMP). But then he made his big mistake: he volunteered to join the British forces to go up country to Zululand. The courageous NMP were some of the last to fall at one of the most humiliating defeats in British military history.

White's daughter, my grandmother, was born two months after he died. It was in their honour that I took the pen name of White (in place of Alexander) when I wrote A Little Blue Jacket based on her life. Set in South Africa in the early 1900s, the character Ursula has overcome her prejudices: "She knew now that the Zulu impi were herdsmen and only part-time soldiers, and that they were simply defending their land against the British." They were brave men.

Which is a great deal more than can be said of the men who killed David Rattray.


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