Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift

Isandlwana and Rorke\'s Drift


  • Author: Ian Knight
  • Publisher: Windrowe and Green
  • Publish Date: 1993
  • ISBN: 1-872004-23-7
  • Price: £35.00

Review By : Elizabeth Hogan

Magnificent though its production values are, don’t be fooled into thinking this large, glossy publication is ‘just a picture book’. In fact, it was Ian Knight’s first full-length analysis of the Isandlwana campaign, researched entirely from primary sources. It follows the story of Lord Chelmsford’s ill-fated Centre Column from its assembly on the Helpmekaar heights, across the river into Zululand, through the skirmish at Chief Sihayo’s stronghold, and on to Isandlwana. It describes in detail the preliminary moves to the famous battle, Lord Chelmsford’s move to Mangeni and the skirmishing there, the Zulu approach and the attack on the camp. The narrative follows the line of the British collapse and the fighting along the banks of the Manzimnyama river, and the Zulu pursuit which led on to the famous attack on Rorke’s Drift. It presents the story as a whole, with the doleful Lord Chelmsford retracing his steps through the shattered camp at Isandlwana and back to Rorke’s Drift, ending the campaign where he had started less than a fortnight before. For a book of this type, Ian opts for an interesting story-telling technique, following various characters’ adventures in their own words where possible, the narrative over-lapping in each chapter until it builds to the dramatic climax. It is worth noting that, given the debates which still rage about Isandlwana, Ian marshalled his evidence early to support his interpretation; that the Zulu attack was indeed spontaneous, and that it was launched from the Ngwebeni valley, not from behind the iThusi knoll. He is dismissive of the old chestnut that the 24th ran short of ammunition and lays the groundwork for his opinion – which he has developed since – that the real problem was that Pulleine’s positions were too extended and were adopted before the full extent of the Zulu attack became apparent. As usual, there are telling insights into the characters and personalities of the men involved and the actual bloodletting is described in chilling terms. One South African reviewer commented that this book’s description of Isandlwana ‘was almost without parallel in South African historical writing’. It is indeed something of a tour-de-force, and it is a shame that it is rather overshadowed by the series format. Ian has apparently commented that he had hoped to enlarge on some aspects of the story but was constrained by a strict word-count, and that he regrets the absence of footnotes – both of which are fair comment on the book’s limitations. Nevertheless, the pictures are fantastic, an extraordinarily comprehensive selection of portraits of personalities on both sides and views of the site, the sheer volume of which is not matched by any other current book. All the actions described – Sihayo’s homestead, Mangeni, Isandlwana, Rorke’s Drift – are all meticulously mapped – although it is a shame the topographic base of each map doesn’t have contours. And the artwork is undeniably beautiful, a selection of studies of British and Colonial uniforms by Mike Chappell and Zulu dress by Angus McBride. The overall feeling is that there is a different type of book trying to escape from the ‘picture book’ format; it almost did as the book was published without pictures in South Africa in a paperback edition under the title The Sun Turned Black. No matter; no doubt we will hear Ian’s views on Isandlwana again, and in the meantime this remains a striking and important work by a leading authority on the Isandlwana campaign.

Friday 30th of June 2006 03:17:19 PM