David Rattray

Historian of the Anglo-Zulu War

Monday 29 January 2007 01:00

David Rattray, historian and tour guide: born Johannesburg, South Africa 6 September 1958; married (three sons); died Rorke's Drift, South Africa 26 January 2007.

David Rattray, the pre-eminent historian of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, was shot dead on Friday in his Zululand home in northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, apparently by assailants drawn from the people he loved so dearly.

A gentle man on a personal level, Rattray was an extraordinary raconteur and orator. His dramatic accounts of the Anglo-Zulu War and especially the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift, the sites of which are just kilometres from his travel lodge, Fugitives' Drift, drew more than 60,000 visitors, including the Prince of Wales (who became a close friend) and - at last count - 94 British generals and four field-marshals.

Rattray was a regular guest at the Royal Geographical Society in London where his annual lectures, held over three days, were always sold out. His mesmerising accounts, which would leave even the most august and stiff-upper-lipped audience moist-eyed, drew on a deep passion for South Africa and for the Zulu people among whom he had grown up and whose language he spoke impeccably. He was a Fellow of the society and in 1999 received its Ness Award for broadening understanding of Zulu culture.

David Rattray grew up on the family farm, Fugitives' Drift, where he was killed. His father was a keen amateur historian and the young David accompanied him, as he collected the oral history of the local community, many of whom had fathers and grandfathers who had fought at Isandlwana, where the Zulu handed Britain her greatest colonial trouncing, and at Rorke's Drift, where imperial honour was restored the following day in the courageous defence of the post.

In 1989 David Rattray gave up his job managing the famous Mala Mala Game Reserve and he and his wife, Nicky, returned to his childhood home to build Fugitives' Drift Lodge and host visitors to the battlefields. As he had done with his father, his sons Andrew, Douglas and Peter as young children often accompanied him, as he continued his lifelong task of assembling into the vast oeuvre that exists on the Anglo-Zulu War the accounts of the Zulu.

It was an irony, much enjoyed by Rattray himself, that the foremost authority on this important period in South African history was not trained as a historian, but as an entomologist, at the University of Natal. He did his master's degree, as he used to tell his lecture audiences, "on a rare and insignificant kind of burrowing wasp" and was always conscientious in warning that his interpretations were no more than a single view of a complicated conflict - academic modesty from a man widely recognised as a leading world authority on the period.

It is this typically wry humour that caused Rattray to choose a peripheral participant, Charlie Harford, as one of the main characters through whose writings he used to recount the Rorke's Drift battle. Harford was an eccentric young colonial officer whose passion was entomology not military science, and who in the heat of an engagement disappeared momentarily and was thought killed, but emerged unscathed, having been merely distracted by a rare beetle he had spotted and then captured in a matchbox.

Such eccentricity appealed enormously to Rattray, who had the unusual distinction of being both Anglophile and Zuluphile. He reconciled these strands by bringing together on several occasions the men of the Royal Regiment of Wales and local Zulu people in moving commemorations of the battle. He was energetically involved in a number of education projects in Zululand.

He travelled often to the United Kingdom as a speaker, during which he took every opportunity to research the men who fought at Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift. A few years ago he unearthed a collection of accomplished watercolour paintings and sketches, which with original diaries and source material is to be published this week as A Soldier Artist in Zululand: William Whitelock Lloyd and the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.

In a country which is in search of its soul, Rattray was a rare man. He loved South Africa and believed without equivocation that there was a place under its sun for all its people. The lesson that he extracted from the fog of battle was not a military or a strategic one: it was the simple truth and value of the ordinary person, doing what circumstances demanded of them.

William Saunderson-Meyer

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