Battle of Isandlwana: 140th anniversary

Today is the 140th anniversary of the Battle of Isandlwana, which marked the beginning of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, when British/Natal troops invaded Zululand.

It was a significant day for our family history too, as one of those on the Briitish/Natal side was my great grandfather Richard Wyatt Vause, and if he had been killed on that day, I would not have been here to write this. At the end of this post I’ve included an extract from his diary, describing his part in the battle.

Forty years ago it was the centenary of the battle, and as we were living in Melmoth, Zululand, at the time, we drove to Isandlwana, to the scene of the battle, I’ve included some extracts from my diary for the day as well. At that time I was Director of Training for Ministries in the Anglican Diocese of Zululand, and worked closely with Canon Peter Biyela, whose grandfather had also fought in the battle, on the other side. We sometimes wondered what our ancestors would have thought of our working together a century later.

For more about the background to the Anglo-Zulu War in general, see Imperialism and the Archbishop, and for more on the battle itself see Zulu Rising (book review).

Extract from Diary of Stephen Hayes

22-Jan-1979, Monday

Abstract

Centenary of the Battle of Isandlwana. Visit the battlefield. Jack and Peggy Stokes come to stay.

It was the centenary of the battle of Isandlwana, so we went up to visit the battlefield. It was a beautiful day, not too hot, with quite a lot of cloud, but the sun still shining brightly, and a clear view.

At Babanango we drove up to the top of the hill. There is a microwave relay station up there, and so the Post Office had provided a track by means of which we could drive right to the top, and there was a magnificent view in all directions. We took some photographs from up there, and one could just see Isandlwana in the distance to the north-west, sticking up in the middle of a valley.

View from Babanango microwave tower

We drove on and came to Isandlwana about 10:45, almost the time the battle had started. There was quite a number of cars there, and the relief model of the battlefield was open, and we took some photographs of it, and I had the diary of my great grandfather Richard Wyatt Vause, which we referred to to try to picture the battle as it had happened.

Isandlwana mountain, with cairns marking places where bodies were buried after the battle.

Down below at the cars someone was tootling on a bugle, and then some men got dressed in red uniforms — obviously costumes used for the extras in the filming of Zulu Dawn. They formed up in a ragged and somewhat sloppy column and marched over to the battlefield, to where the biggest group of graves was, and we strolled over to see what was going on, and they laid a wreath by one of the monuments. It was rather fun to see them marching about, giving some idea of what the troops must have looked like, though the British soldiers of the 24th Regiment must have been turning in their graves beneath the cairns of whitewashed stones at the sloppy drill and incomplete outfits they were wearing.

Bridget Hayes looking at the battle site

Last night we had read Donald Morris’s account of the battle in his book The washing of the spears, and it was strange to think that this was the scene of such violence a hundred years ago, and that one incident at the place, lasting a few hours, could cause it to be remembered for that incident so long afterwards. Bridget and Simon played around the monuments, too young to have any idea of what happened here, and that if their great great grandfather had not escaped, they would not even exist now.

Back at the model we once again tried to trace what had happened, and Mr Hyde, of the National Monuments Commission, pointed out Shepstone’s grave, and that gave a better idea of where Wyatt Vause and his men had fought. There was a visitors book there, and we signed it, and looked at the comments some other people had made — the triumphant ones in Zulu — “Izwe lethu” (the land is ours), “Amandla ngawethu” (power to us) and so on. The English ones: “tragic” to the banal “fantastic”. One of the most interesting was something to the effect that the world would be better without the politicians and soldiers. And looking at it 100 years later it all seems futile. None of the local people really wanted this war — neither the Zulus nor the Natalians. It was conceived by Lord Carnarvon, thousands of miles away, to suit the purposes of the British government, and not the local people at all. Yet even that judgment is conditioned by time and place, reflecting present-day views, with the advantage of hindsight.

Carnarvon’s scheme of federation misfired, it was “premature” as the history books say. Unity had to wait until 1910, when the time was ripe. But the time was not ripe then either, because the Nats are busy dismantling the Union of South Africa. Perhaps if Natal had gone its own way at the time of the republic in 1961, it would have been a better place. After the lessons of Nat rule had been learned and before the very idea of freedom had been obliterated, as it is now, certainly among the whites.

Some people dressed in felftover costumes from the film “Zulu Dawn”, playing the Last Post.

It is also interesting that the whites are more interested in Isandlwana, and the Zulus in Ulundi. Defeats seem to be more commemorated than victories, through the Afrikaners like to commemorate both, as with Blood River. It is interesting to read what happened, but what was not said would be more interesting — how many people really thought that the invasion of Zululand was justified?

Simon Hayes at Isandlwana

A little way away in the church, St Vincent’s, also named because the battle had taken place on St Vincent’s Day, the events have a lasting effect on the place. But now St Vincent had been dropped from the calendar anyway — who was he and what did he do? Deacon and martyr, it is said.[1]

We went to see the sisters at the convent,[2] and talked to Sister Claudia and Sister Nesta. A little later Sister Christian (the Provincial, from Lesotho) and Sister Veronica Mary came in. They were going to be discussing whether they should open a new house at Etalaneni or at KwaMagwaza, and I put in a plea for KwaMagwaza, as the hospital really needs the presence of prayer. We also discussed some of the things to do with the TEE College.

We returned home on the other road, turning off at Babanango and going through Fort Louis and Owen’s Cutting. Went we got home Jack and Peggy Stokes were there, and had parked their caravan in our yard.

Peggy Stokes

Peggy is a third cousin once removed of Val, being the great granddaughter of Henry Green, whose brother Frederick Thomas was Val’s great great grandfather. We had discovered them when a Mrs Collier of Colesberg had given me their address at Kariba, Rhodesia. They had lived at Kariba for 20 years, running tourist cruises on the lake, and had then sold their boat and were now retired. Due to exchange control regulations they had not got too much money available, but in summer they tour Southern Africa, looking for family history. They had recently visited Hal Green, a grandson of Henry, in Swaziland, and had taken notes of various things he had, and had then gone to their daughter, Jean Ingle, in Umhlanga Rocks and had now come to us to compare notes on the Green family.

Extract from Diary of Richard Wyatt Vause during the Anglo-Zulu War.

22 Jan 1879

At break of day we all turned out and stood under arms for an hour as we thought that if the Zulus did attack they would choose that hour for it. As soon as it was quite light we took our men out for footdrill as we expected stiff work for our horses and wished to save them as much as possible. On returning to camp we found that a dispatch has been received from the General ordering us to join the column at Isandlwana as he was about to attack the stronghold of a chief called Matyana and he required all the mounted men available.

Col. Durnford had just started with 50 of the Edendale men to see if he could procure wagons from the farmers living along the frontier. We at once sent a messenger after him and set to work with a will to strike tents and get everything ready to move on his return. All were in high spirits at the thought of a fight at last and we little thought what a terrible and miserable ending that day would have.

About 7.30 all was ready and the order to march was given. We had a smart ride of about 12 miles, arriving at Isandlwana between 10 and 11 am. After riding through the camp we halted a few minutes to give the men their biscuits. Col. Durnford sent for me and ordered me to ride back and meet our wagons as the Zulus were seen in our rear, and he expected they would try and cut them off.

Isandlwana mountain from the west. This is the view Lieut Vause would have had bringing up the wagons, and hearing firing from over the hill.

My orders were to see the wagons safely into camp and then join him about 12. I got back with the wagons and hearing firing about 2 miles to the front of the camp at once gave the order to trot, and started off to find Col. Durnford. I came across Capt. Shepstone, and as he asked me to stay with him I dismounted the men and extended them in skirmishing order. We were soon under hot fire, but continued to advance very slowly as the Zulus were under good cover, and we had to expose ourselves every time we advanced. On arriving at the top of the hill we perceived the enemy in overwhelming force coming up from behind and fearing our ammunition would be expended before we could reach the camp Capt. Shepstone gave the order to retire back to our horses.

Model of Isandlwana battle site. Lieut Vause would have come up the road in the foreground with the wagons, but would only have seen the battle on cresting the hill.

Fortunately the Zulus were shooting very badly, and as yet very few casualties had occurred on our side. As soon as the Zulus perceived that we were in retreat they came on with a shout and were rapidly gaining on us when we regained our horses.

As soon as the men were mounted we retired slowly to the camp, dismounting every few yards and firing a volley, but without holding the enemy in check as they did not seem to mind our fire at all.
After regaining the camp it was found to our dismay that the ammunition boxes had not been opened and as the Zulus were close on our heels we had no time to look for screwdrivers. Fortunately one of my kaffirs came across a box with a few in which I distributed amongst the men.

By this time the soldiers had expended their ammunition and the Zulus had cut though them and were in amongst the tents and we were obliged to retire again. On reaching the road we found it occupied by Zulus and our only way of escape lay over a very rough strip of country. One or two of my older kaffirs advised me to try it, as it was impossible to get out by the road. So we started off, but soon got scattered, a lot of the horses falling over and throwing their riders, who were immediately killed by the Zulus in pursuit.

I managed to reach the Buffalo River with about six kaffirs but my horse not being able to swim was washed down and I lost him. After a great deal of difficulty I managed to reach the opposite bank but being thoroughly exhausted I had to sit down and rest and had it not been for a little kaffir boy giving me a seat behind him on his horse I am quite sure the Zulus would have been upon me before I had gone many yards further.

However we soon got out of range of the Zulus’ fire and as I found the boy could not manage his horse, jumped off and walked a short distance, and came across Edwards of the Carbineers and he kindly took me up behind him.

We reached Helpmekaar thoroughly exhausted and formed a laager of the wagons and sacks of mealies but as there were only 38 of us to defend it we quite expected that it would be our last night.

Fortunately the Zulus were repulsed at Rorke’s Drift and did not get as far as Helpmekaar. I lost 30 men and 10 wounded, so have not many left of my original 50.

Biographical information on Richard Wyatt Vause

born : 1854 02 10 Pietermaritzburg, Natal
died : 1926 05 28 Durban, Natal
mar : 1881 02 03 St Paul’s Church, Durban
to Margaret Ellen COTTAM
eldest daughter of John Bagot COTTAM and Adelaide HERBERT, his wife.
Father : Richard VAUSE
Mother : Matilda Park

Richard Wyatt Vause, generally known as Wyatt to his friends, was the eldest son of Richard VAUSE, born two years after his father’s arrival in Natal from England.

He was educated at Durban High School, and spent some time on the Kimberley Diamond Fields. In 1874 he started a printing, bookselling and stationers business in Pietermaritzburg, known as Vause, Slatter & Co.

In the Anglo-Zulu War he fought as a Lieutenant in the Natal Native Horse under Colonel Durnford, and was one of the few survivors on the British side of the Battle of Isandlwana (22 Jan 1879).

After the war he married Margaret Ellen COTTAM, and they had a son and three daughters. By 1889 he was operating as a sharebroker as well, with offices in Pietermaritzburg and Johannesburg, the name of the firm being Vause and Nourse.

In 1891 his wife died, and he moved to Johannesburg. His bookselling and printing business in Pietermaritzburg was taken over by Daniel Saunders and W.J. Slatter. It later expanded into music and musical instrument sales, and was a theatrical agency as well.

During the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) he was in the Army Service Corps. After the war he was in business in Johannesburg as an accountant, probably in the firm of his brother-in-law, Charles Henry Matterson. He later appears to have returned to the diamond fields, and then to have farmed in Natal for a while before retiring to Durban.

His hobby was horse racing and breeding.

His only son, Dick Vause, died two years before him. Of his three daughters, Ruby married Jack Stayt, and had two sons and a daughter; Lily married Percy Hayes, and had two daughters and a son; Gladys married Gilbert Wilkinson of Ottawa. They had two daughters, and were later divorced, and Gladys then married Arthur “Dave” Nourse, the well-known cricketer.

Notes

[1] St Vincent of Spain (Feast Day 22 January, 11 November in some Calendars)

St Vincent of Spain, Deacon & Martyr

The Holy Martyr Vincent of Spain from his childhood was the disciple of a wise pastor Valerian, the bishop of the city of Augustopolis (now Saragossa, Spain). When he reached mature age, the virtuous, educated and eloquent Vincent was ordained deacon by Bishop Valerian. Since the bishop himself was not adept in speech, he gave a blessing to his deacon, an eloquent orator, to preach in church and among the people.

Diocletian (284-305) sent the governor Dacian to the city of Valencia, Spain with full authority to find and execute Christians. People denounced the wise bishop and his deacon to the governor, who arrested them. The soldiers, mounted on horses, dragged the Elder and his disciple behind them in chains from Augustopolis to Valencia, and there they cast them into prison beaten and tortured, giving them neither food nor water.

Read it all here.

[2] Convent at Isandlwana

In the Anglican Diocese of Zululand several young women felt called to the monastic life, but there was no monastery  for them in Zululand, so they were sent to Lesotho, where they joined the Community of the Holy Name (CHN). When Alpheus Zulu became Bishop of Zululand in 1966 he invited them to return, and they established a convent at Isandlwana, near the site of the battle. The CHN grew rapidly, and by 1982 had four houses in Zululand.

One Response

  1. I found an interesting article on this battle, and Rorkes Drift, here. It also seems Isandlwana as a memorial site has been neglected.
    http://www.rorkesdriftvc.com/zulu_perspective.htm

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