David Rattray: His vivid accounts of the Zulu wars live on despite his murder

Historians in the News

Nobody who met David Rattray, the internationally renowned historian of the Anglo-Zulu war, ever forgot him and nobody who heard his stories ever forgot them either. For the hundreds of Times readers who will have heard him speak, as he so often did, at the Royal Geographical Society in London, or who will have sat at the base of that brooding sphinx-shaped mountain that stands guard at Isandlwana as he unfolded the tale of that long-ago battle, the news of his murder at his farmhouse at Fugitives’ Drift in KwaZulu, South Africa on January 26, came as a most heart-wrenching shock.

David was just 48. He left a young widow, Nicky, and three teenage sons. He was not only an exceptional man but a storyteller of the most gifted kind. He brought to his stories his love of history and his profound admiration for the Zulu people as well as his empathy for every man, from the youngest little Welsh drummer boy to the hordes of Zulu impis who had been caught up in the great and tragic events of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. He told these stories through the eyes and voices of those on both sides of the battle on that “Day of the Dead Moon” (at the height of the battle it is said that the sun went dark), January 22, 1879.

He’d read the soldiers’ journals, he lived among the descendants of the Zulu warriors who had fought that day, he knew the cave where the last soldier had held out and the valley which as far as the eye could see had been filled with 20,000 Zulu impis sitting in utter silence row upon row, their shields glinting in the sun, waiting for the battle to begin. His tales were of a British defeat, one of the worst in its imperial history, and of a great Zulu victory. He helped the Zulu nation to reclaim its history and gave it voice and power. And in the telling of these stories those who were privileged to listen to him came to understand why history matters, why every human life is meaningful and to believe that nobility and courage, honesty and loyalty are constants in the human spirit that are there, ready to be awakened if only the cause is fine enough.

It was this gift, combined with the energies and talents of his wife, that turned a small lodge on family-owned land in a remote corner of Zululand, close to Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana, into one of the most sought-after destinations in South Africa for tourists. It became a place that brought kings and our own Prince of Wales, foreign diplomats, historians and ordinary people who had heard of his magic to visit the historic sites and listen to him talk.

But while David’s voice has been silenced, the stories themselves will not die. At Fugitives’ Drift itself Rob Caskie and Joseph Ndima will continue to tell the stories the way that David taught them. But into the mix there are now lectures offering new perspectives on the history of their land. The lodge will continue to function just the way it always has, still offering a magical insight into the infinite complexities of South Africa and KwaZulu-Natal in particular, into its history and cultures, sharing the secrets of that region that the Zulus called “The Land of Heaven”. As Nicky Rattray puts it: “David’s life would really have been in vain if his life’s work folded.” Nicky herself says she feels as safe at Fugitives’ Lodge as ever she did. David’s death, she is convinced, was a random act of violence which has not diminished in any way her love and trust in the Zulu people. ...

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