David Rattray: A good man in Africa

Nobody loved Africa like David Rattray. A historian of the Zulu people, he had a knowledge and a passion that enthralled everyone he met. So why was he brutally murdered? And what does his shocking death mean for the land he left behind? Special report by Raymond Whitaker

Friday 02 February 2007 01:00 GMT

The chapel at Michaelhouse, South Africa's top public school on the English model, can hold 500 worshippers. At the funeral of David Rattray yesterday, the chapel was full, and twice as many more followed the proceedings on large screens outside. The most commonly used word in the tributes to the 48-year-old Rattray was "icon". This was a man who was not merely the world's leading historian of the 19th-century Anglo-Zulu war, but whose dramatic re-tellings of the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift could move listeners such as the Prince of Wales to tears. The news that he had been murdered in his home last Friday resounded far beyond the shores of South Africa.

Prince Charles took Prince Harry to visit Rattray in 1997, shortly after the death of Princess Diana. Rattray was subsequently invited to Balmoral as the personal guest of the Prince, who also invited him to attend the private funeral of the Queen Mother in April 2002.

Joining the historian's widow, Nicky, and their three sons - two of whom are pupils at Michaelhouse - were members of British regimental associations and the Royal Geographical Society in London, where Rattray is believed to have been the only speaker ever to have received a standing ovation. Many had visited his lodge at Fugitives' Drift, overlooking the countryside of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift, and been enthralled by his tales.

Zulus themselves, both humble and grand, were among the most numerous of the mourners yesterday. Rattray was a fluent speaker of their language, likened to Italian among African tongues because of its mellifluous vowels. Rattray's dramatic oratorial style earned him the accolade "the Laurence Olivier of the battlefield", and it owed much to the oral tradition of the Zulus, with their umbongi (praise singers) and storytellers. He was close to King Goodwill Zwelithini, the successor of Shaka and Cetshwayo, and always travelled on his research trips with a lifelong friend, Mzongani Mpanza.

With the help of Mpanza, who taught him the language, Rattray brought to light the Zulu memories of the war, which were his greatest contribution to the study of the period. As he often pointed out, with so few British survivors of the battle of Isandlwana - nearly 1,300 of the 1,350-strong force were killed - any history that relied only on their accounts was bound to be incomplete.

Not only did Rattray rewrite the imperialistic version of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift (the one retold in the celebrated 1964 movie Zulu, starring Michael Caine and Stanley Baker), in the words of Saki Macozoma, a businessman and member of the African National Congress's national executive committee, he also "restored the dignity of the Zulu people and their history, and had people spellbound with his intimate knowledge of the Anglo-Zulu war".

All the sadder, then, that his killers were almost certainly Zulus. Six men arrived at Fugitives' Drift on Friday evening and asked for him by name. They held a woman employee at gunpoint outside his living quarters while another of the men went inside and confronted Nicky. She asked what he wanted, and on hearing the anxiety in her voice, David rushed into the room and pushed her to the floor, calling on the gunman not to harm her or the other woman. The man shot him once and went outside, but was sent back in and shot him twice more. Rattray died instantly.

These details, and the fact that neither of the women was hurt and nothing was stolen, have led the family to believe that David Rattray was the victim of a targeted assassination rather than a robbery that went wrong. One of the gang wore a balaclava, possibly because there were people on the staff at Fugitives' Drift who might have recognised him.

David Rattray did not grow up in Zululand, nor was he a trained historian. He went to schools in Johannesburg and Pretoria before qualifying as an entomologist at the University of Natal. His fascination with the Zulus was inherited from his father, Peter, a lawyer who in his youth had met a grizzled veteran of Isandlwana, inspiring him to take his son to visit the battlefields. Peter Rattray bought a farm in the area, which David took over at the age of 30 after spells working at game reserves in South Africa and Namibia.

For the rest of his life Rattray devoted himself to the history of the events of 22 January 1879, when 20,000 Zulu warriors overwhelmed a British column at Isandlwana, and 139 soldiers, many of them sick and wounded, held off repeated assaults by a force of 3,000 Zulus at the battle of Rorke's Drift later that same evening. The soldiers won 11 VCs, the most ever awarded for a single engagement, including the first two to be given posthumously.

Rattray always argued that Isandlwana should be seen as a great Zulu victory, rather than the most humiliating defeat in British colonial history. This was despite the fact that the battle cost the life of the French Prince Imperial, who had been attached to the British force, and precipitated the resignation of Benjamin Disraeli. His passionate interest in the war between the British Empire and the Zulus was rare among white South Africans, whose school histories gave far more space to the battles between the Boers and the Zulus, and to the later fighting in the same region between the Boers and the British. But such was the eloquence of his battlefield tours that his fame spread.

The historian would sit his audience down on the slopes of Isandlwana and recount the battle for four hours, first from the British point of view, then as the Zulus experienced it, switching between the two languages, using a stick first as a rifle, then as a spear. Few were left dry-eyed by the end of one of Rattray's orations, which began to attract a growing number of British visitors. By the time of his sudden death, more than 60,000 people had passed through Fugitives' Drift, including 94 British generals and four field-marshals. Growing demands for him to speak abroad meant that he spent half the year travelling, using his time in Britain to further his research. This week his work of several years - A Soldier Artist in Zululand, based on paintings done by an officer during the Anglo-Zulu War, which were found in the UK by former visitors to Fugitives' Drift - was due to be published.

The battlefield tours will carry on: Rattray inspired a generation of guides with his storytelling methods, and in recent years his absences, and the need to save his voice, meant that his recorded commentaries were often played. But the manner of his death, and what it says about the country's recent history, has left South Africa divided and fearful.

David Rattray's widow was by no means the only one to denounce his killing as "senseless". Sibusiso Ndebele, premier of KwaZulu-Natal province, said: "David Rattray was a huge asset to our country. He helped develop cultural tourism to promote economic development and alleviate poverty. His... murder will fill all peace-loving South Africans with disgust."

But under the provocative headline, "Why the outcry over one white man's death?" the editor of South Africa's Sunday Times, Mondli Makhanya, said many would ask that question "when people are murdered every day in South Africa". (To be precise, there were 18,528 killings last year, more than 50 a day.) "That is exactly the problem," Makhanya went on. "Rattray had a name, a face and a following. He is their face today. Tomorrow there will probably be another face, a black face. " Most of the victims of this tide of murder, he said, were " poor and black - with no voice except a wailing at the graveside".

Makhanya's point was that President Thabo Mbeki's government would be unable to play down the impact of this murder, as it had done with so many before. Immediate anxieties were expressed about the damage to tourism, identified as one of three key industries with the greatest potential for job creation and economic growth, and in particular the potential threat to South Africa's hosting of the 2010 World Cup. "The problem of crime can be solved," said Michael Tatalias, head of the South African Tourism Services Association, "but until there is general agreement that there is a problem, we cannot move forward."

President Mbeki admitted a couple of weeks ago that "the scourge of crime continues to bedevil our young democracy", but a few days later argued that it was an incorrect "perception" that crime was out of control. The national police commissioner insisted that conditions were better than they were at the time of the country's first free elections in 1994, "conveniently omitting the fact," scoffed Makhanya, " that a civil war was still very much on the go in the townships then."

He added: "There's a serious problem here, and it is not just with the criminals. It is with the attitude of our rulers." Pointing out that South Africa had long failed to tackle its HIV/Aids crisis because of its President's refusal to accept the efficacy of antiretroviral drugs, he concluded: "We do not have a few years to waste debating 'perceptions' and stupid comparisons between the war being waged on us by criminals and the war that apartheid's surrogates were waging against the people."

As the argument rages, foreign investors are hesitating, and an increasing number of South African whites are emigrating, draining the country of skills. But the dentists and bankers leaving middle-class suburbs have never been as vulnerable as people of similar income and education in the countryside - people like David Rattray.


"In many ways the problem of violence in the rural areas has been exported from the cities," said Johnny Steinberg, a South African writer on crime and security matters, whose book, Midlands, recounts the murder of a white farmer in KwaZulu-Natal.

Some have claimed that rural violence is the result of frustration over land redistribution. Only 3 per cent of the land due to be returned to black ownership has been handed over, with bureaucratic inertia as well as recalcitrance by white farmers being blamed. Amid calls for land seizures, and farmers forming themselves into armed support groups, there have been fears of disorder on the scale of that experienced in Zimbabwe.

But Steinberg was sceptical of this explanation. "For at least two generations, young black men in rural areas have not wanted to farm," he said. "Instead they go to the cities, where many fail to be absorbed into the urban economy because they are poorly educated. So they return to the countryside, where people with a house and a car stand out like beacons in a sea of rural poverty.

"A black general-goods dealer living in a rural township is more likely to be a victim, in my view, than a white farmer, but all farmers are quite scared. They feel vulnerable and isolated in the post-apartheid countryside, where movement is no longer controlled and there are a lot of strangers coming through. The urban middle class lead far more sheltered lives."

A string of gruesome murders of white farmers has increased the sense of threat, and Rattray himself was said to have been concerned about crime in South Africa. The people who killed him probably neither knew, nor would have cared, about the damage their crime may wreak on South Africa's ability to tackle its problems. But there are some factors peculiar to KwaZulu-Natal that may have a bearing on his murder.

As the historian well knew, Isandlwana was both the Zulus' greatest triumph and the event that sealed their fate. King Cetshwayo was weakened by the loss of thousands of his warriors, and the British decisively crushed the Zulu nation a few months later at Ulundi. With the Boers also subdued, Natal became a "little England", where institutions like Michaelhouse and the League of Empire Loyalists thrived. When the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd, held a referendum among whites in 1960 on whether South Africa should leave the Commonwealth, Natal was the only one of the then four provinces to vote "no".

As for the Zulus, even the worst humiliations of apartheid never quite doused their pride or sense of nationhood. The white government tried to exploit this by giving them the "homeland" of KwaZulu, hoping it would divide them from other black groups. But the leader it chose, Mangosuthu Buthelezi - who, incidentally, appears in Zulu - refused to apply for "independence" and exploited his position to criticise apartheid.

When white rule began to falter, however, Buthelezi led his followers down a cul-de-sac. Encouraged both by the regime's undercover operators and romantics abroad like the late John Aspinall, who saw him as the " Christian" alternative to the godless, Communist-leaning African National Congress, Buthelezi failed to throw in his lot with the ANC. In the run-up to the first free elections in 1994, KwaZulu-Natal became a battleground between the ANC and his ethnically based Inkatha Freedom Party, with Zulus from both sides slaughtering each other in their thousands.

A bloodbath was averted and Buthelezi joined the new government, in which he remained until 2004. To this day, though, there is a sense that KwaZulu-Natal is outside the mainstream, with some seeking to foster a sense of Zulu chauvinism by claiming that the ANC is dominated by Xhosas, South Africa's second-largest ethnic group. Add to that some of the starkest rural poverty and the worst rate of HIV/Aids infection in a country vying with India for the greatest number of sufferers, and it is plain that what used to be called Zululand is not the idyll it might seem to tourists.

But David Rattray did not live in the past. He sought the help of Prince Charles to raise money to modernise a school overlooking the battlefields, created a game reserve within his family property, and was a trustee of Siyazisiza, the largest community organisation of its kind in KwaZulu-Natal, which helps the rural poor grow vegetables and produce craft items for sale. Why would anyone from the area seek to kill him? Aware of the international shock at his death, the authorities have moved fast: two men are due to appear in court today charged with his murder. It may take longer, however, to find out whether the killing was indeed random, or whether some more sinister motive was behind it.

In one of his last interviews, David Rattray called his home the "most beautiful place on earth". He said: "We would be mad to let this go, to let it become another Zimbabwe." It would have dismayed him that his violent death has not only exposed the fear and mistrust that still blights South Africa, but has heightened them.

Rorke's Drift: the battle that shaped Rattray's life

In another life, David Rattray could have been an actor, and a very great actor at that, writes Ivan Fallon. One veteran British diplomat, moved to tears by Rattray's passionate and emotional rendering of the Zulu battles, asked him: "Did you ever consider putting on your own one-man show in the West End?" In fact Rattray did just that every year, taking the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift, which were fought near his lodge on the Buffalo river nearly 130 years ago, to an audience of Zulu (and Rattray) aficianados at the Royal Geographical Society, who lapped it up.

Rattray's little lodge, Fugitives' Drift, was in the heart of it all, sited at the spot where the few British survivors fled in their desperate efforts to evade the pursuing Zulus. Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill made it across only to be butchered on the other side, and they are buried where they fell, their last resting place watched over by Rattray as if they were his own sons. From the lodge's porch, the sinister sphinx-like head of Isandlwana is just visible, and Rattray would take you to the donga where Colonel Durnford stood with his mounted forces and for a brief moment stemmed the Zulu tide; to the stony kopple where he died; to the spur where Captain Younghusband made his final stand; and to the saddle itself where Lord Chelmsford, commander-in-chief of the British forces in Southern Africa, returned that night to discover that his camp and half his forces had been wiped out.

Rattray knew not only where every man fell but often who killed them, and their complete life stories, Zulu and British fighters alike. To Rattray there were no villains on these battlefields... only heroes. Those heroes were peculiarly fortunate in the man who chose to honour them by devoting his life to their memory. In the article below, he explained how this moment in history came to be a part of his life.

'My family has had a long and soulful relationship with the Rorke's Drift area of KwaZulu-Natal. It is an area steeped in history. My father, back from the Second World War, spent much time here on Anglo-Zulu battlefields in this region at a time when there were still a few old people alive who remembered those remote days. Great rivers running through impressive gorges. Rolling plains that drop into steep ravines. Waterfalls. Villages. Mottled cattle. And a mountain that looks just like a sphinx: it's impossible to imagine a more fantastic scene for the conflict between two great nations.

It is indeed one of the great ironies of South Africa's story that one of the least economically significant areas in the country should prove to be the crucible in producing so much conflict to this day.

The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 is famous. Is there a person who has not heard of the Battle of Rorke's Drift? But who has heard of the great general Ntshingwayo ka Mahole Khosa, the general in command of the Zulu army at Isandlwana?

He sat on the bluff overlooking the awesome fields of Isandlwana, watching Britain suffer one of the most stunning military defeats in her history. He was a big-boned, handsome man: we have photographs of him sitting imperiously. He wears a head-ring, a small grey beard and a glowering disposition, but more impressive than any of that is the fact that he was 70 years of age and had run over 50 miles, barefoot, accompanying his warriors from Ulundl. One can only imagine what that must have done for the esprit de corps of the Zulu army ­ to have this 70-year-old commander loping along with his warriors, cutting great swathes through the grassland that were still visible six months later. The 22nd of January 1879 must be one of the most remarkable days in history. It opens with the catastrophic British loss at Isandlwana and closes with the restoration of British military honour and Zulu defeat at Rorke's Drift, which deserves a narrative all of its own. Eleven medals of the Victoria Cross were awarded on this day.

The story is a truly Shakespearean tragedy. The conflict should never have happened. The ultimatum that precipitated the Zulu War was issued without the sanction of the British government. Many historians agree that the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, lost his position as the most powerful man on earth because of the Anglo-Zulu War. Who would ever have thought that the Zulus would unseat a British Prime Minister? They also put an end to the Napoleonic dynasty with the death of the Prince Imperial of France. In smashing the British column at Isandlwana, the Zulus etched for themselves a unique place in history.

Images of Zulus and stories of this great and noble nation were brought into the hearths and homes of the British people by newspaper correspondents and artists who followed the British columns. Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, Wilbur Smith and others found plenty of raw material here in this saga. Sadly it is also true that in the moment of the great victory at Isandlwana, the Zulus sowed the seeds of their demise. It was a pyrrhic victory ­ thousands of warriors lost their lives, and the Zulu King Cetshwayo knew that despite the overtures he then made for peace, resolution could only come through more bloodshed. He was under no illusions: he knew that the British would reinforce and re-invade, and this is the real tragedy of the story.

On the British side, 1,329 men were killed at Isandlwana and only 55 lived to tell something of this tale. It is possible that most, if not all, of the men who escaped started to leave the scene of conflict before the final British collapse. Isandlwana is therefore a story shrouded in mystery. People will argue for the rest of time about what happened there. My contention is that it is virtually impossible to piece the story together based on British accounts, and it frustrates me to find that modern writers are still trying to explain away the British defeat at Isandlwana, blaming the collapse on such excuses as pig-headed regimental quartermasters who refused to hand over ammunition to soldiers from other units, to a lack of screwdrivers to loosen the screws on the ammunition boxes.

My belief is that we will never get near the truth until we understand Isandlwana for what it was: a great Zulu military achievement. It is high time that we acknowledge Ntshingwayo, the Zulu commander: we should doff our hats to him. On that day he used the topography brilliantly: he commanded superbly, his men were beautifully trained, their bravery was beyond dispute. There were 22,000 Zulus who survived the battle of Isandlwana, and that story lives on in villages in this area to this day. Today it is an atmospheric, unspoiled historic site. It is still possible to get a very creditable account of what happened there.

If my family has made a contribution to the story of Isandlwana, it is that we have actively pursued and collected Zulu information and we have attempted to infuse this information into the story, to give it some balance, to give it some holism, so that the passerby may be left with some material for deeper reflection.'

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