Star Turn

July 21, 2000

A childhood spent in Kwazulu Natal inspired a scientist to carve out a career in military history. Adrian Mourby met him.

There are not many lecturers like David Rattray, and there are not many entomologists who end up world authorities in their own branch of military history. Rattray is unique, a South African of Scots descent who ran a game reserve in Mala Mala before discovering a new career in his own backyard.

Were it not for his parents buying a plot of land in Kwazulu Natal, Rattray might never have become a public lecturer. The family built a weekend "shack" near a crossing on the Buffalo River called Fugitives Drift. The drift derived its name from the fact that the last survivors from the battle of Isandlwana were killed here in 1879, minutes before the opening events depicted in the 1963 film Zulu.

Rattray grew up among the descendants of warriors who fought the British at Isandlwana, Rorke's Drift and Ulundi, scene of a calculated massacre that reasserted British supremacy in Africa. He spoke Zulu, Afrikaans and English and, with his friend mZonjani mPanza, would wander the grasslands and talk to men like mNandi nGobese for whom the white stone cairns around Isandlwana were eloquent memorials of 1,300 British soldiers whom his father, a Zulu commander, had killed. Rattray was the first white man to piece together the Zulu side of the Isandlwana massacre. As there were no British survivors from the last hours of that battle, he compiled the story using regimental histories from the British side and oral history from the Zulus.

In 1989, Rattray set up home in Fugitives Drift, where he and his wife created a game reserve. He began by giving lectures as he drove visitors round the battlefields of Rorke's Drift and Isandlwana. The lectures, which he now gives all over the world, had an idiosyncratic style, born out of standing on the spot where young men had died, but also using the rhythms of the Zulu folk tradition.

"And the warriors of the inGobamakhosi regiment screamed/ And they fell upon Durnford and his men/ And those warriors years afterwards would recall/ Durnford in the midst of battle/ Laughing and joking with his men/ Right up to the end/ He was one of the last to die/Ah, said the Zulus, Those Red soldiers at Isandlwana/ Like lions they fought and like stones they fell."

His lectures, delivered from memory, are reminiscent of "Hiawatha's Wedding Feast" or "The Battle of Maldon". They are highly emotional. He has to take care to control his breathing or else he can move himself to tears. Because we live in a time that draws a sharp division between that which is emotion and that which is scholarship it would be easy to dismiss Rattray as a performer in the tradition of sentimentalists like Charles Dickens - but the man is also a scholar. He knows his primary sources better than anyone.

The Rattrays' dining room is an archive not only of Zulu spears and spent Martini-Henry rifles but of letters, documents, diaries, books and newspapers from the Anglo-Zulu wars. Like any good historian Rattray travels widely to find any additional information that may make his account of Rorke's Drift and Isandlwana that bit more accurate, and people now also come to him.

When Rattray gave his annual series of lectures at the Royal Geographical Society a couple of years ago, a retired Welsh schoolteacher presented him with a photograph of the grave of Evan Jones, one of the survivors of Rorke's Drift whom the teacher had known in his childhood. Rattray knew Jones well and could even recite his serial number. "Ah," he said looking at the photo. "I wondered what had happened to him."

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